The 30 or so young performers in tonight's production of 'Fame-the-Musical' owe their current employment to the infatuation of one man with his favourite centre of learning, the New York High School for the Performing Arts. Since those days, the "Fame School" has not only gone on to a more secure future in the Lincoln Center, it has also become an inspiration to drama students and their teachers all over the world.
Eighteen years ago, David de Silva realised a long-held ambition to immortalise the distinctive stage academy in the MGM feature film Fame . Though he had no direct professional association with the place, de Silva was fascinated by everything about it, particularly the energy and the joie de vivre which it seemed to embody. A former high-school teacher, he loved the idea of imparting something more than mere facts to the pupils in his care, and as he fell in love over a number of years with the School for the Performing Arts, he came to see it as a curiously perfect, if somewhat ramshackle, expression of how an educational establishment should operate.
Thanks to de Silva, the school is now as well known in Europe as it is in New York itself. It would be impossible to say just how many budding actors, musicians, dancers and singers realised their calling as a result of watching Fame , but judging by the way the School's ideas have been taken up elsewhere, its impact has been considerable. For, as with all true fairy stories, you can bet that life, in the end, will always imitate art. A few years ago, Paul McCartney announced plans to open a drama school based on the idea of Fame , in the building where he and John Lennon had their childhood education, the former Liverpool Institute for Boys. By way of tribute to both his old school and the New York one, which inspired him, McCartney's new college, now open, is called the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts.
Traditionally, education for the stage in England has centred on classical acting skills - the exigencies of blank verse, fencing skills and the like, mixed with a good Stanislavskian approach to the business of character. That of course is a gross simplification of the range courses on offer in various excellent colleges from RADA to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and the Central School of Speech and Drama, but the main significance is that performing skills were generally taught separately and in relative isolation. Besides acting schools, there were academies of dancing, music schools of various descriptions, theatre design studies in art colleges, and courses in dramatic theory at a number of universities.
In recent years, all that has changed, as more and more schools attempt to offer an all-round training for stage skills of all kinds - physical, vocal and musical as well as characterisation. Since the theatre is now one of Britain's largest earners of foreign currency (bringing in more, it might surprise you to learn, than banking or the car industry), training for the stage is becoming an investment in the country's economic future as well as developing the talents of tomorrow's stars.
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