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Real fame academy: Summer schools helping young hopefuls


Jayne Wisener

Jayne Wisener

Mairead Carlin

Mairead Carlin

Finely tuned: bassoonist Olivia Palmer-Baker

Finely tuned: bassoonist Olivia Palmer-Baker

Cassie McCullough

Cassie McCullough

Mollie Quinn

Mollie Quinn


Jayne Wisener

Every star of stage and screen has to start their somewhere, whether it's in a school play, a backroom gig, or even a leg-up from a well-connected friend.

For many famous names, though, the rather more agreeable route of summer schools can be the catalyst to not only finding and developing their talent, but also getting their name recognised by directors, producers and – more significantly – audiences.

And this summer has seen numerous summer schools in full flight all over Northern Ireland, providing valuable opportunities for children and young people to access the arts at an early age and receiving top quality training.

Funded by the Arts Council, these summer schemes – including projects by the Lyric Theatre, Music Theatre for Youth, Ulster Orchestra and Ulster Youth Choir, among others – are facilitated by some of the very best local and international tutors and professional artists.

For many of those who take part it will be their first real experience of the arts; for others it may plant a seed that one day they may wish to turn a fledgling hobby into a professional career.

We spoke to two now-famous summer school alumni about their experiences of taking part, as well as three young hopefuls who are currently enjoying their time in the spotlight.

Jayne Wisener

The Ballymoney-born 27-year-old got her big break with the Music Theatre for Youth summer school as a teenager when she was spotted by a talent scout, who asked her to audition for a role in the film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, starring Johnny Depp. She says:

I'll always be grateful to summer school for giving me back the confidence I lost at drama school (Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama). I don't really know what happened to me there; I was very homesick. It wasn't what I expected.

But I loved the Music Theatre For Youth weekends in Derry and Newry. I got the opportunity to do My Fair Lady and West Side Story with them. My first one was right in the middle of my A-levels but it didn't interfere with my studying. They let me off to go and read Chaucer! I ended up getting A's in English Lit, RE and Music.

You were part of a group which really wanted to be there. No one was forced there by their parents. We were all passionate about what we were doing and extremely willing to learn. We'd go in early in the mornings and do our warm-ups – physical and vocal – and then split up into different groups and work with the cast director and rehearse a scene for an hour or two. I'm not a good dancer so I had to work at that. When I look back at videos of myself I look like a chicken!

The whole thing was very well organised. We had a goal at the end of it to put on a show, so it was quite a strict schedule, but fun. We stayed in B&Bs in Newry and had a laugh at night, going for dinner and hanging out. I'm still really friendly with some of the girls like Niamh (Perry, above) who's in Mamma Mia now, and Alanna Kerr from Belfast – she's based in LA and just did the voice for a bestselling audio book, The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon.

I'd recommend summer school. Why spend your free time over the summer watching daytime TV when you could be doing something you're really passionate about?"

Mairead Carlin

The Celtic Woman singer (26) is another Northern Ireland star with a background in summer schools, since she was four-years-old. Born in Londonderry, Mairead began her career at the age of 15 when she won the title role of The Rose in an operatic production of The Little Prince, organised by the BBC Talents Young Singers competition. After finishing her studies, Mairead was signed to Decca Records. She says:

When I went to London I had these big, starry eyes after winning the BBC talent competition – it was my first time away from home in Derry and I stayed for six months. While I was there I got an email about this new project in Northern Ireland called Music Theatre For Youth. It was so exciting; there had been nothing like it before.

I went to their weekends in the Stranmillis teacher training campus – it was so nice to have something like this so close to home. I didn't want to leave Northern Ireland and I wanted to continue my education here. Stranmillis was and is such a creative hub and it was brilliant to work with people from home in such an open environment.

We started first thing on a Friday and would have a musical ready by Monday. It was so slick, completely unbelievable.

I owe so much to the amazing Vernon Mound, whose brainchild it was, along with Jenny Cooke of the National Theatre.

Vernon sadly passed away four years ago but his advice stays with me every day. He said: 'There's more to be heard in silence than words', which I found very poignan.

He was really insightful and helped me find the truth in everything.

I'm a real summer school veteran – I went to the Foyle one in Derry since I was four. It gave me an early start in my career and 20-odd years on I'm off to Brazil with Celtic Woman.

So I'd recommend summer schools 100%.

Olivia Palmer-Baker

The 16-year-old from Newtownards is a bassoonist with the Ulster Youth Orchestra, which is made up of the finest young instrumentalists aged 14-23 from across Northern Ireland. Every summer they meet for an intensive week-long residential training course, where they receive the highest level of musical training from leading professional musicians and distinguished conductors. She says:

Say the word 'bassoon' and many people are dumbfounded! 'Oh, is that one of those long trumpets?' That's the sort of thing I have been asked. On one occasion, a certain individual (who I will not name and shame) asked where a bassoon 'lived'. To silly certain individual: that is a baboon you are thinking of!

Anyway, I play bassoon, and have done so since I was nine. I was smaller than the instrument, and throughout my years I have used it as a height-measuring gauge. However, I highly doubt 'a-bassoon-and-a- quarter' will ever be a standardised unit of measurement.

For the past few years, I have played this bassoon in a few orchestras, bands and so on, such as the Symphony Orchestra, my school's ensembles (Regent House) and music groups.

Music has eaten up a lot of my spare time but I audition nonetheless for the Ulster Youth Orchestra, which is basically an orchestra with young musicians around grade eight standard or above, ranging from the ages of 14-23.

It runs a summer residential, plus other play-in days and sometimes events at Easter, too.

This year the orchestra is being conducted by the one-and-only superstar conductor Garry Walker for some amazing repertoire, such as the first Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet suite, and a wee bit of the second one too (I think it's The Apprentice theme tune), and a few other pieces as well. Our summer course runs for a week and a half, and I can't wait to work with professional musicians and be around people who enjoy music as much as I do – cue the groans from my friends, who have to endure my ranting about music-related matters – and putting on some amazing concerts too.

It's a brilliant opportunity for the orchestra members to put on some incredible live performances, and for the audience to witness the music for real, rather than listen to a recording.

Unlike most singers/dodgy girl groups/ auto tune addicts nowadays, we can actually perform live!"

Cassie McCullough

The Larne 16-year-old is a member of the Ulster Youth Training Choir. The group is made up of Northern Ireland's best young singers who come together every July for an intensive week-long residential course, training and striving to reach their full potential as artists. She says:

The atmosphere, the friends you meet and the training you receive, are second to none. have been coming to the choir for three years now and I love it!

As part of this year's residential, I have worked on sight singing, musicianship, vocal pronunciation and so on. I wanted to return to Ulster Youth Training Choir again this year to see old friends and meet new ones. I thoroughly enjoy the singing, learning new pieces and songs, as well as working with pieces from different eras. I enjoy the variety.

The thing I love most about the choir is the shared experiences I have gained with friends, as well as meeting new people who share my interest in music. Our tuition staff make the experience enjoyable also and we develop a great rapport with our teachers. As well as being in the Ulster Youth Training Choir I participate in a group called Stage Coach, which encompasses singing, dance and drama.

In the future I hope to pursue a career in pharmacy; however, I want to keep singing as a hobby. Being a part of the Ulster Youth Training Choir has greatly improved my confidence. This course is a great way of expressing myself, allowing me to grow as a person, enabling me to gain confidence in a way I never thought I could."

Mollie Quinn

The Belfast nine-year-old has landed a small role in the Lyric Theatre's production of the acclaimed Simon Stephen play Punk Rock, which opens this week, as a result of her participation in the theatre's annual summer scheme. The Lyric Theatre Summer School is open to all children aged 6-16 with an interest in learning and developing performance skills. The content of this year's courses have been inspired by the scientific Elements exhibition at the Ulster Museum. She says:

My mum booked my place at the summer school for me. She said it is a very famous place. I thought it would be fun and I'd make new friends.

This is my first year at summer school. We have been making posters and using neon face paint, as well as acting, singing and dancing. We have also been doing mirror-imaging – that's when you copy the person in front of you, which was a lot of fun. I think the part I've enjoyed most is that I got a solo performance to sing Burn by Ellie Goulding for our final performance. I've also enjoyed the Elements theme of the course and our visit to that exhibition at the Ulster Museum.

Outside of school, I have done plays like Bugsy Malone at the Crescent Arts Centre, in Belfast. I've also done some cheerleading. We did this on a stage beside the ice-rink for the Belfast Giants. The choreographer was Debbie Maguire, who is doing Sleeping Beauty this Christmas at the Lyric. In the future, I want to sing or act, and if I don't do that I would like to be an artist or storywriter."

Early beginnings for big names

  • Billie Piper – at the tender age of 15 Piper was plucked from her class at the Sylvia Young Theatre School to be transformed into pop starlet Billie. Although her first album was a success the second bombed. Piper eventually re-merged as an actress, starring as Rose Tyler in the new Doctor Who series
  • Cheryl Cole – at just nine years old Cole went to the summer school to end them all, The Royal Ballet Summer School. The course only lasted for two weeks but Cheryl confessed in later life that she didn't fit in at all
  • Amy Winehouse – the late singer attended a number of theatre schools, including four years at the Susi Earnshaw Theatre School before moving on to the famous Sylvia Young School

Belfast Telegraph