The QT

Friday 19 July 2024

Top billing for Project A team

Stars in the making? David Whetstone meets young hopefuls on the Theatre Royal’s own acting course
From left, Project A trainees Olivia Going, Francesca Lane, Oscar Ridley, Jessica Hopper and Amelie Cellini

In a month that brings in Player Kings (minus Sir Ian McKellen, sadly) and film spin-off Madagascar: The Musical to the Theatre Royal, a group of young actors from the North East will also take to the stage.

On the theatre website their production gets equal billing although its title is much, much longer and also slightly ominous.

How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found, a play by Fin Kennedy, is the end-of-year show by the current cohort of Project A, the Theatre Royal’s own actor training course.

Perhaps you didn’t know the Theatre Royal trains actors as well as presenting shows made elsewhere.

But Project A is now in its tenth year and boasts a 120-strong list of alumni, many of whom are now making their mark in the industry.

When the 2024 cohort take wing after their big showcase production in the Theatre Royal Studio, you can add a further 18 to that list.

Disappearing completely, I can tell you, is not what any of this bunch of bright sparks intends to do.

That much is clear when I sit in on a rehearsal directed by Alex Elliott, one of the many seasoned theatre practitioners who regularly come in to give Project A trainees the benefit of their experience.

There’s a bit of banter in the room but he commands respect, explaining and also demonstrating nuances of stance and vocal delivery. He stresses the importance of punctuality when the show starts for real.

Newcastle’s Theatre Royal offers young people a professional grounding in theatre skills without the need to uproot to London

Another old hand takes a seat beside me.

Phil Hoffmann, like Alex, a one-time member of the Northern Stage Ensemble, has led on the delivery of Project A since the beginning and is proud that more than 90 per cent of its students have worked professionally, gained an agent, or gone on to drama school within six months of graduating.

It was set up in the first place to give aspiring actors from the region an affordable route into the business.

London, with its trappings of glamour and opportunity, is prohibitively expensive for many in the North East while relocating to study anywhere is beyond many family budgets.

Project A, with bursaries available, offers a professional grounding in theatre skills without the need to uproot.

Phil says applications always exceed available places which begs the question: how did the young people in front of us get the nod?

Alex Elliott explaining a point to Project A students

To be honest, as the rehearsal proceeds, the question answers itself. Nobody here looks out of place — nor would they do, even in a professional cast.

Over time, says Phil, you get a sense early in the audition process of who has got the determination to match the potential.

Acting can be a richly rewarding career but fame and fortune don’t come everyone’s way. It’s as much about grit as glamour.

A break gives me the opportunity to chat to a few of them.

Oscar Ridley, from Newcastle, plays Charlie in How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found, an award-winning play first produced in 2007 which keeps its audience guessing.

Is Charlie, I ask him, the main character? “Yes, yes,” pipe up some of the others generously.

 “Well, I’d say it’s an ensemble piece,” says Oscar, returning the generosity.

“But the audience goes along with Charlie because he’s trying to figure stuff out — what’s real, what’s not.

“He’s very impulsive but he’s also a sponge that absorbs everything. I guess he’s quite a fun character to follow around.” 

Oscar, at 25, confesses to being the oldest person on this year’s course — aimed at those aged 18 to 25 — and is quick to recommend it.

“They do hold you to a high standard so it’s well worth doing. Acting was something I wanted to do but I’ve done other things and this has just made me more keen.”

Jessica and Oscar rehearse a tense encounter

Jessica Hopper, 19, from Sunderland, says: “I came here from doing a drama BTEC course at college and thought this would be quite similar but it’s a much higher standard.

“College was quite relaxed compared to this. You’re treated like a professional and I really like that.”

Also, she says, Project A students get to see shows at the Theatre Royal for free.

“A very nice bonus and it’s nice to talk about them afterwards with people who really get it — not like your parents who are just ‘yeah, yeah’.”

Amelie Cellini, also 19, from Gateshead, also appreciated the “step up” from doing A-level drama in sixth form with just two others. “After that, being in a cohort of 18 people has been crazy but so enjoyable.”

No shrinking violet because she started young in musical theatre, she says her confidence has grown during the course. “I think for most people that will have been the case.”

The Theatre Royal Studio

Olivia Going, another 19-year-old, from Newcastle, stumbled across Project A online after auditioning for drama school in sixth form and not getting in.

“I wanted to do something for a year, preferably acting-related, and my teacher said she’d heard good things about it.

“At my school, during Covid, the drama department just vanished so I didn’t get to do drama A-level.”

She was nervous about auditioning, she says. “I really wanted to get on the course because it looked so good.

“But everyone was in the same boat and it has been worth it. I think we’ve all gelled really well. We’ve been told we’re one of the closest-knit groups Project A has ever had.”

Alex Elliott tells me Olivia is a talented and versatile musician which is likely to stand her in good stead in the profession.

Not everyone on the course sees their future in acting. Francesca Lane, from Morpeth, confided early on to Phil that directing was where her ambitions lay, and perhaps more in television than theatre.

Phil was encouraging and she has been shadowing Alex in the run-up to this end-of-year production, as well as being given the chance to direct her colleagues throughout the year.

Project A actors in rehearsal

For Francesca, just turned 20, Project A offered a welcome second chance.

“I’d gone to university to do English literature but dropped out, thinking maybe I’d do this instead.”

Among the five, some plan on trying for drama college, buoyed by their Project A experience, while others state their intention to stay in the region and audition for acting work.

The odds of them doing so, according to those alumni stats, are hugely in their favour.

But before they all go their various ways, you can catch them in How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found which has a run of five performances in the Theatre Royal Studio from Tuesday, July 9 to Saturday, July 13.

You can buy tickets from the Theatre Royal website. And while applications are closed for the next intake of Project A, you can also find out everything about the course — fees, modules, student commendations here

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