Meet the AF volunteers - Zoe
One of my favourite things as a student at the Anna Fiorentini Theatre and Film School was the week-long summer school, where attendees would have the opportunity to learn routines, see a West End show and put on a performance for family and friends. I always had a fantastic time, grew in confidence and made dozens of friends. Since leaving the school and starting university, I have chosen to take an off-stage position as a volunteer. After graduating this summer, I once again arrived outside Princess May Primary School bright and early, ready to help ‘Make a Musical in a Week’.
The appropriately named summer school saw the 26 students, aged between 7 and 16, learn and perform a handful of musical theatre numbers from Oliver! and Annie. By 9.15 AM on Monday morning, the main hall had begun to fill up with kids, many shy and reserved, some venturing from their seats to say hello and a few reluctant to let go of their parent’s hand. Any initial nerves were soon relaxed, after the morning was kicked off with ice-breaking games and singing warmups. Many of the students enthusiastically shouted out words to sing in tongue twister scales as they grew more comfortable and confident.
Later, the students began work on their first number, You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two, with singing teacher Kat. The playful characterisation in the song had everybody sounding like miniature Danny Dyers as they tried their best Cockney accents; they even nailed the difficult harmonies! After loosening their vocal chords, the students stretched their muscles in a dance class with Mark, where they learnt the accompanying choreography to Pick a Pocket. I even had the opportunity to put my ten years of dance classes into practice, when I was asked to run the routine with the kids in groups.
After lunch, the kids began to integrate their singing and dance skills by performing both the song and the choreography at the same time, something wholly essential in the industry. The day was ended with a characterisation workshop, where the students worked on their sinister Fagin and their bedraggled Oliver, and some more drama games.
On Tuesday, the students were given the opportunity to audition for solo parts, including that of Oliver, in the showcase. Whilst almost everybody found the prospect of singing in front of their teachers and peers daunting, it was inspiring to see a lot of the younger or quieter kids come out of their shell and take centre stage. It was also lovely to see the students being so supportive of their friends and encouraging them to take a shot at a part.
Wednesday was an exciting day for all the students, as they looked forward to seeing the highly acclaimed production of Annie, starring Miranda Hart as Miss Hannigan, in the West End. For some of them, this was their first time seeing a production of this scale, and the inclusion of tickets as part of the week-long school made it more accessible. In anticipation of the evening’s theatre trip, however, the students worked hard with singing teacher Peter on the songs It’s a Hard Knock Life and Oom-Pah-Pah, and a second round of auditions were held for the part of Annie. By this point in the week, many of the quieter students had begun to make friends and were far more inclined to chat to others and put themselves forward for solo lines. Similarly, those naturally more confident were improving their teamwork and communication skills.
Thursday morning the students arrived inspired, albeit slightly sleepy, after seeing Annie live on stage; one student even critiqued the choreography, claiming that their routine was better! Seeing a West End show is always one of the highlights of the summer school, not only because it gives the students an opportunity to make friends outside of their classes, but also because they see, for themselves, the level of energy and enthusiasm required of them on stage. With the parts of Oliver and Annie, as well as Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Miss Hannigan announced, the students continued working on their songs and routines. As dance teacher Mark emphasised, what the teachers were looking for was not flawless dancing or pitch-perfect singing, but characterisation. With this in mind, the students began to slowly transform into impoverished but crafty street urchins and rebellious orphans.
After what had felt like just a few hours of rehearsals, Friday came around, and it was time for the showcase. Before parents and friends took their seats, the students did a collaborative choreography activity with Mark, which encouraged them to think about character, interpretation of lyrics and how they interacted with each other on stage. The teachers had such high praise for the work the students produced in the short amount of time they were given, they suggested performing it at the end of the showcase. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, it couldn’t be shown, but I made sure to record it so the students could remind themselves of what they had the potential to create by sharing ideas and working in a team.
The showcase was a massive hit, with school principal Anna Fiorentini even saying that it was her favourite so far. It was clear the parents were incredibly impressed by what a group of kids could put together in four days, and could see their children’s confidence, focus and performance skills noticeably increase.
The summer schools are always a fantastic opportunity for children to make new friends and help their performance skills to grow. Whilst it is great to see the more confident students have a platform to showcase their abilities, what is most inspiring is seeing those who began the week shy and reluctant to take part really come to life on stage, and enjoy doing it. That is the wonderful thing about the performing arts: it lets children, outgoing and introverted alike, assume a different character on stage, and express themselves without inhibition or fear. Summer schools such as these are also a way for children to discover their love for performing, and can be the first steps in a career in the industry.
Finally, volunteering at the summer school is a fantastic experience in myriad ways. Not only do you develop relationships with the individual students and feel personally involved in bringing out the best in them, but you also improve on your team-leader, communication and creative skills. After all, inventing drama games on the spot to keep a large group of 7 to 16-year-olds engaged and focused would be a demanding task for anybody! Despite these occasional challenges, which if anything, keep you on your toes, volunteering is an immensely fun, fulfilling and rewarding experience. I will certainly be returning next year!