Birmingham’s youth theatre company, Stage2, has almost come of age. Jo Ind reports.
There are no auditions. Anyone who wants to perform can. Everyone has a responsibility to make sure nobody is left out. It was with these noble aims that Liz Light founded the youth theatre company Stage2 almost 20 years ago.
Today much has changed. Now a clutch of former members tread the boards in London’s West End.
Former Stage2 member Lauren Crace has just started to appear as the new girl, Danielle, in BBC1’s Eastenders.
The company has won awards. In this year’s Birmingham and District Theatre Guild awards it won more than half the awards for which is was eligible including best full length drama. It has also won an award for being an organisation with a mentoring culture.
Unlike 20 years ago, the company has a history of excellence under its belt. Liz now draws a salary from the work whereas before she ran it on a voluntary basis.
But despite the changes, the aims of Stage2 are exactly those written by Liz in her original business plan two decades ago.
“We’ve always had the same principles and ethos, which is that everybody can do everything,” she says, which might explain why its production of Little Shop of Horrors had a cast of 173.
“If you had looked behind the scenes of Lord of the Flies at the Crescent Theatre you would have seen a tiny dot of a 12-year-old boy on a high chair operating the sound and having to get off the chair to do other things because he could not reach everything sitting down.
“There are kids operating the lights, doing all the stage management as well as being front of house.
“They can do it. Kids have got the most fantastic resources. We support a lot of children, a lot with specific needs. People are very aware they are joining a company rather than doing a workshop. I hesitate to use the word, but it’s like a family.
“There are adults, but we very much take a back seat. The kids do everything. What’s so exciting is that they can.”
Liz was once a kid with a “can do” attitude. At the age of 16 while studying at Birmingham’s King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Girls she set up her own theatre company with a group of friends who were as keen as she was.
“We were complete novices,” she says. “We had a fabulous teacher at school, Elizabeth Mullenger, who didn’t necessarily teach drama, but did school productions and she took us to the Edinburgh Festival.
“We were all very excited in those days. We got to together and set up a company performing in the Hexagon Theatre at the MAC.
“It was lovely. It was a great place to learn our craft. We used to do one show a month, so it was very, very mad.
“We absolutely learnt on the job. Marketing? Well we were onto it, learning as we went. Those were really, really exciting years.”
Liz got some formal qualifications at what is now the Birmingham School of Acting and gained qualifications with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Her company lasted for about five years but dwindled when its members went off to university.
Her younger brother, John, who caught the acting bug when she roped him into taking part in a production of Cabaret, went on to play Brutus in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Julius Caesar.
Liz, meanwhile, decided it was not acting as such that thrilled her, but being part of a company and seeing all the different opportunities it offered.
She had done some work in schools working with children with learning difficulties and worked for the Prince’s Trust monitoring a couple of theatre projects in Birmingham.
“I could either have done a recruitment thing and kept the theatre company going or I could do something new,” she says.
“In my other work I had become very interested in children and in what they could do, so setting up a youth theatre company seemed to bring all my interests together.”
And with that Stage2, which is now funded through fees, ticket sales and grants, was founded.
Members meet every Saturday during term time at Millennium Point and have the opportunity to take part in all aspects of the company, from fund-raising to stilt-walking.
Its productions have included Equus, Road, In The Bleak Midwinter, Much Ado about Nothing, Dangerous Liaisons, Two, Cabaret, Tom and Viv, Twelfth Night, New York Short Plays, The Tempest, Bouncers, Oliver!, Adult Child/Dead Child, Cider with Rosie, Daughters of Albion and Teechers.
It has put on performances at the Crescent Theatre, the Patrick Centre at the Birmingham Hippodrome and the MAC.
“Literate, brilliantly paced, totally engrossing and perceptively revealing of the author’s true intentions,” is how The Birmingham Post reviewed its production of Amadeus.
Former member Wayne Fitzsimmons, currently playing Chicago in the West End, says: “I don’t think I would be here without Stage2. It’s such a disciplined and focused youth theatre company. The structure is so clear.
“Liz is very organised. At the start of the term you know what you are going to be doing each week and so you instantly feel at ease. You know that by week 10 you are going to have a good production.
“Before Chicago I was in Lord of the Rings, which is one of the most dangerous productions to take to the West End because it has flying and uses hydraulic platforms.
“You really need to be disciplined to do those things and Stage2 gives you that discipline.”
Matt Wycliffe who is currently playing the lead in Buddy in the West End agrees.
“It’s a lot of fun and I made some really good friends but I also learnt how to be professional about things.
“By the time I got to drama school I had the right kind of discipline,” he says. “I remember talking to other students and they were saying they had been in four or five productions.
“I joined Stage2 when I was 12 or 13 and left when I was 19. By that time I had been involved on stage and back stage in about 45 productions.”
Liz would be the first to emphasise that being a part of Stage2 is not just about the acting.
“People come for years and never act,” she says. “They might want to focus on the technical side or adminstration. They develop general transferable skills like increased confidence and pride, which is a fabulous thing.”
At the age of 16 Alex Pugh is now the company administrator and leader of the marketing committee.
He joined the company when he was nine because he was wanted to be on stage but gradually came to enjoy other roles. His ambition now is to work as an events manager within the theatre sector.
“Stage2 has opened up opportunities to me,” he says. “It’s got me interested in jobs I didn’t know existed.”
Liz is as excited by Alex’s progress as she is by Wayne’s and Matt’s.
“It’s kids of all ages and all levels of experience and all levels of talent and skill coming together,” she says.
“It’s a fantastic vehicle for all different kinds of children to find a niche. Far more important than talent is attitude.
“Lucy Bailey, who has been in the company for 12 years, is now our company manager. I’m very much hoping that when I retire Lucy will take over.
“As far as the eye can see, Stage2 is going to carry on – and it will carry on with the same ethos.”
* For more information about Stage2 go tostage2.org or call 07961 018841.