Academy students join professionals in a new festive-season production.

Birmingham’s Old Rep Theatre was created to foster new talent - and now, more than 100 years after it opened, the historic venue is showcasing a Christmas production by local performing-arts students.

Birmingham Ormiston Academy’s (BOA) fourth festive-season show at the Old Rep is a new musical adaptation of classic children’s tale Pinocchio. Opening on 17 November and running until 30 December, the production features 24 students, five professional actors and a team of production staff.

BOA’s Christmas shows - they’ve previously produced Treasure Island, Wind In The Willows and Alice In Wonderland - are a key component of the Academy’s strategy for giving young people opportunities to be on stage and experience live theatre. And where better to present their productions than in one of the UK’s most revered theatres? 

Formerly managed by Birmingham City Council, the Old Rep was opened in 1913 by Sir Barry Jackson as the home for Birmingham Repertory Company. The venue came under BOA’s management four years ago and is providing students with the chance to tread the same boards as Peter Brook, Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft.

“When we took over the running of the Old Rep in 2014, the theatre was dark most of the year but did have a Christmas show,” says BOA’s executive principal and CEO, Gaynor Cheshire. “We really wanted to make it a vibrant space and introduce young people to the theatre, both on stage and in audiences. 
“Our four Christmas shows have given our students the opportunity to be involved in productions with 60 to 70 performances, and in a theatre which is a real gem in the city.”

Students double up on roles, with two people playing each part but in different casts. They also have opportunities to contribute to the technical elements of the show, and to gain experience in marketing and social media. 

“What’s important is that youngsters have the chance to work with professional actors, a professional director, a professional choreographer, a professional musical director and other professional roles,” says Gaynor. “This is an opportunity offered by BOA each Christmas, but it’s also about giving the wider community the opportunity to see good-quality theatre. More than 45,000 young people have come to see our Christmas shows over the past three years, so these productions are about the audience and community as well.

“We hold workshops for schools which have bought tickets, so their children get to learn at least one of the songs and some of the movements - our ‘armography’, as we call it. I remember when we did Treasure Island, so many of the schoolchildren came dressed as pirates. They will be able to get involved and dance along to Pinocchio - but I’m not sure what they’ll be wearing!”

Launched in 2011, BOA is an independent state-funded academy which specialises in creative, digital and performing arts. Sponsored by the Ormiston Trust and Birmingham City University, it runs courses for around 1,000 students from across Birmingham and the West Midlands.

“Our work with the Old Rep is a process,” explains Gaynor. “We’ve done a five-year development plan and we’re reaching the fifth year, so we will now revisit that plan. We’re definitely on a journey, and would like to look at opportunities for involving more young people in live performances at the Old Rep.”

The venue also holds a special place in the heart of Pinocchio director Alec Fellows-Bennett: “I go back 25 years, if not more, with the Old Rep, back to the days when the main Rep Theatre ran its stage school there. I attended from about the age of 11. As soon as I learned the venue was back in the hands of a producing theatre company, ie BOA, I wanted to come back. 

“The link with the Academy chimes with the ethos of the Old Rep. When Barry Jackson built the theatre, he built it as a training ground for young talent, so a large educational establishment using the Old Rep as a place where new students and performers can learn from professionals makes for a perfect match.”

Alec is determined to ensure that the students are at the heart of his production of Pinocchio: “The young people are integral to the show - they’re not simply a chorus. Every single actor has at least one character they’re following all the way through. They aren’t there just to support the professional cast; they’re part of the cast.

“There’s no other organisation I know of that does what BOA is doing in such a fully integrated way, where the students form part of the company. I know there are lots of shows where they have children or young people in the cast, but it’s not to the same level as this show.”

And the youngsters also gain valuable experience from being involved in a run of nearly eight weeks...
“It's a professional run,” says Alec. “You learn an awful lot when you put on a show in your school for a week, but you learn something very different when you’re putting on a show for weeks and weeks. That’s when you learn about stamina and commitment - and you need that if you want to work in theatre. Most of the students are in their first year, and this really sets them up for the future. This will probably be the first long run they’ll have done.”

Alec played Ratty in the BOA production of Wind In The Willows, and the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland.

“I hop between acting and directing,” he says. “If there’s a character who would be fun to play, then I act, but if there’s a story that I think I would really like to tell, I step back and direct.”                                  Pinocchio is one such story - the tale of a wooden puppet who wants to be a real child. 
“To me, Pinocchio is the perfect story for this theatre,” says Alec. “If you asked a young child to draw a theatre, they would pretty much draw the Old Rep’s auditorium. The idea of a story where toys come to life and it’s all make-believe is the perfect story for a classic theatre like this one.”
And, he adds, if audiences are coming expecting the famous Disney movie on stage, they’re in for a real surprise.

“The show treads the line between a ‘Disneyfication’ of Pinocchio and a ‘pantofication’ of the story. It’s not silly, but it’s also not had the harder bits taken out. It keeps the story and its moral. What we really wanted to do was pick out the key things that emphasise the moral journey that Pinocchio goes on in this story - ideas about free will, making your own decisions, blindly following others, being overly cynical. There are characters to represent all of these things, and they take Pinocchio off on a definite moral journey.”

While Alec is proud to be working with BOA students, he has this message for potential audiences.
“What I would say to audience members is not to think of this Pinocchio as a ‘student performance’. It’s a professional show, in the centre of the city, in a very well-respected theatre, and there’s nothing going onto that stage that says ‘school’ or ‘college’ show. As far as we’re all concerned, this is a professional show where many of the cast happen to be students. And it’s a Christmas musical which audiences will enjoy.”

Feature by Diane Parkes.