Respect for the arts—and arts training

At the Birmingham Ormiston Academy, public funding shows respect for students’ passions

I just got back from England, where I went to see my 14-year-old godson, Leon, perform in his first professional acting gig. It’s with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. He’s playing Falstaff’s page, Robin, in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Yes, I am a very proud godfather. Leon starts the show with a standing backflip, which gets your attention. And, throughout, he’s physically present and listening. In other words, he’s confident enough to be responsive, which is a large part of what acting is about. He impressed the socks off me.

The other thing that impressed me is Leon’s school. This year, he started attending the Birmingham Ormiston Academy. It’s a performing arts high school and it’s full of the happiest group of teenagers I’ve ever seen. Looking around, I just knew that many of the students—including my boy Leon—had been struggling in the regular school system. I particularly remember seeing a gay boy carrying his dance bag on the way to the cafeteria. He looked completely out and completely at ease. He must have been so relieved.

And the great thing about BOA is that its very existence shows RESPECT for these young artists and their passions. BOA is a beautiful new facility smack in the middle of downtown Birmingham. The modernist architecture is warm and liberating. The facilities include a well-equipped, flexible theatre that probably seats about 400, airy rehearsal rooms, a television studio, a radio studio, and new-media classrooms. As I toured BOA’s airy hallways, I couldn’t help but think of Studio 58’s cramped facilities here in Vancouver. I thought about Kathryn Shaw a lot while I was there.

BOA is PUBLICLY FUNDED. You have to audition to get in, but it’s open to everybody who can make the cut. that public funding is, I think, a mark of respect for the arts.

Don’t get me wrong; English artists are also suffering a funding squeeze. Leon’s parents run a wildly successful, internationally touring dance company called Motionhouse, and, like many companies, Motionhouse is desperately chasing cash.

But, despite slippage, there’s still an understanding of the importance of the arts in England that no longer exists in English Canada. (French Canadians have always understood it.) While I was in England, I took my goddaughter Neave, Leon’s 16-year-old sister, to her LAMDA exam. In that exam, she had to recite several poems, which she had received extensive coaching on, and she did an aural exam on various aspects of poetry and performance. Neavie has no intention of becoming a performer; she has her sights set on a career as a historian. She’s doing the LAMDA training partly because she likes it and partly because doing it will give her points that will help her to get into a top-tier university.

Because, in England, the arts are still valued.

And, in that relatively supportive environment, Leon is finding his way as an artist. While I was there, he got an agent in London.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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