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Sage Academy teenagers ready for roaring twenties

Students at the Sage Academy know there is no shortcut to success, as David Whetstone finds out

Rehearsals for the Godspell production at the Sage Academy in Byker
Rehearsals for the Godspell production at the Sage Academy in Byker

They sing, they dance and they’ll frown if you dare to suggest they’re studying at a “fame school”.

Students at the Sage Academy, set up a dozen years ago by London stage school graduate Lucy Sage, are prepared for showbusiness careers in the traditional way – with lots of hard work.

This is evident at the former snooker hall in Byker which Lucy, from Morpeth, bought and converted.

An air of good-humoured industry pervades the place. While you can tell everyone loves what they do, you also sense there are rules that must be adhered to.

Rehearsals for Godspell are   in progress. The Gospel-based  musical by John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz is the end of year production, when the students show us what they can do.

“Godspell was originally done in the 1970s (it opened off Broadway, New York, in 1971) and was quite a hippy show,” says Lucy in the office where you sense she doesn’t spend much time.

“We’ve got a different take on it. But I’m just producing this one, so staying clear of the creative side.”

The director is Zita Frith, head of acting at the Sage Academy and also an actress and member of singing group Scarlet Street.

In a rehearsal break she tells me that she benefits from a big and hugely experienced production team. The Sage Academy strives for professionalism.

Zita says: “Godspell is set in the 1970s and it was seen as quite avant garde at the time. I was in it when I was 12.

“But I think it’s dated now. It was a fantastic piece of theatre in its time, but we’ve moved on.

“While not wishing to be disrespectful to the material, I wanted to set it at a time the students could identify with and the 1920s are very fashionable at the moment.

“With The Great Gatsby in the cinemas there was a lot of research material at the students’ fingertips. Also, the fashions of that era are very popular.” It seems ironic that updating a 70s musical means flashing back to the 20s, but culture involves a constant process of reinvention. And to the young actors and dancers who will perform Godspell in front of paying audiences this week, the decade of flower power and free love will seem as remote as that of flappers and cloche hats. The Sage Academy production of Godspell has a cast of 11, including the four students who are about to graduate with diplomas in performing arts.

Among them are Tayler McCullough,  20, from Whitley Bay, Beth Shannon, 19, from Felling, and Clare Sherliker, 19, from Heaton.

All are excited to be performing in Godspell and to be embarking on careers in showbusiness.

“I got the main part in my first school Christmas show and got the bug for performing and being  on the stage,” says Tayler.

Beth was attending dance school at the age of four. “I always loved it and knew it wasn’t just a hobby,” she recalls.

Similarly, Clare has wanted to perform since she was little and fancied herself as Michael Flatley (the Irish dance phenomenon).

“But I really love to sing. I’m a songwriter as well.”

Along with the dreams and the ambitions, the three demonstrate   a steely pragmatism. “I’d like to   get signed by an agent and get professional work as an actor, but I know how unsteady this industry is, so I’m willing to turn my hand to anything,” says Tayler.

Beth adds: “I want to work in the industry, but I would also like to do some teaching and to travel. I’d love to go on tour.”

Clare fancies travelling, too, so she can get to understand different cultures. “Mostly, though, I’d like to get signed as a singer.” Before all of this, though, comes Godspell. All members of the young cast have been chipping in with their ideas and all have been stretched during rehearsals.

“We’re not doing it the way it     was originally done,” says Beth.   “A lot of things have been changed and we’ve all had to create our  characters pretty much from scratch. Clare adds: “We’ve all worked really hard and we’re  doing it for each other as much as anything.

“It’s been good fun  and we hope people enjoy it.”

Godspell is on at the People’s theatre, Newcastle, tonight and tomorrow at 7.30pm.

For tickets call 0191 224 5604 or visit www.sage-academy.co.uk

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David Whetstone
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