Arts1, achievements too  

Susan Elkin visits a new performing arts school in Buckinghamshire enjoying considerable success with its first cohort of graduates.

Arts1 is an unusual performing arts school. Tucked into a small industrial estate in Milton Keynes, its building is business-like and fit for purpose without being showy. And it has grown from small beginnings.

“We recognised a local need for good quality professional training” says co-founder James Grimsey. He runs the school with his wife Rebecca Carrington, co-founder and principal. Both trained at Mountview as performers which is where they met. “Yes, Rebecca looked across the jazz class one day and decided that I was the one for her” quips James.

Rebecca worked extensively in musical theatre especially on cruise ships while James developed a career as a voice coach and musical director. Then in 2006 they started a one evening a week class in Milton Keynes for musical theatre aspirants.

“We found a lot of demand so we tried replicating those classes elsewhere, but we soon realised that what these young people need is a lot more than an hour a week. We wanted to invest in sustainability so we soon started different classes in a range of things such as dance, singing and all the rest of it, rather than teaching the same class in lots of different places” says James.

Today the Arts1 part-time school works with 300 young people and about 80 adults. The adult choir is especially popular. “Our ethos is that this is for anyone who wants to do it. If someone wants a career that’s fine, but it they simply want to have fun and learn some skills then that’s fine too” James says.

Then in 2015 came a new development – a full-time Further Education BTech in performing arts, the equivalent of A level – which runs alongside the part-time school.

“We found that some of our part-timers were leaving us at 16, going off to colleges for further education and then coming back two years later floundering. Typically they still lacked the skills to audition for drama school or take the next career step. So we decided to offer a course which would serve them better” explains James.

He and Rebecca also decided that, although they are a fully independent college, they would offer their quasi sixth form BTech free by accessing government funding through a local college. “We could make more money if we charged fees of course” says Rebecca, “but doing it this way means that the course is completely open to anyone who gets through our audition process.”

The first cohort completed their course last summer. Each and every one of them was offered a place at a reputable drama school or university to continue training. “We’re absolutely delighted with what they achieved” says James showing me a photograph and telling me exactly what each student went on to do – clear evidence that when James says that Arts1 has no clones, everything is bespoke and the focus is on human development, you know he’s telling the truth.

At present the college has 48 FE students – 30 in year one (10 of these are on a new parallel dance course) and 18 in year two. “Our exact numbers depend on finding the right students” says James, “but we keep the numbers low so that there can be plenty of individual attention.” The second-year students are currently auditioning for Higher Education places in a range of institutions.

Arts1 gets around 80 applications a year and James thinks that its “USP is beginning to carry”. Many applicants are local, including some who’ve attended Arts1’s part-time schools. An increasing number come from further afield as the school gets better known. “We have a network of approved host families who will accommodate them safely” says Rebecca.

With that, Rebecca takes me into a studio in which James is teaching musical theatre songs to the whole college. It’s very vibrant and I really want to join in. Then they ask me to do a Q/A with the students and I realise I’m that week’s industry visitor. I find the young people lively, entertaining, articulate and thoughtful as we range from how I started writing, to what you should look for when you choose a drama school.

There’s a lot of good work going on at Arts1 and my visit convinces me that James, Rebecca and the staff who work with them are committed to the welfare (Arts1 is signed up to the Time4Change mental health charter) and development of students whatever their talents and ambitions.

Arts1, The Box Studios, Sunrise Parkway, Linford Wood, Milton Keynes MK14 6LS 01908 604756