Sam Lansdale tells us how he and his intrepid band of volunteers put on a production of ‘Hairspray’ with a cast drawn from two Camden schools.
Last year at the Welcome Fair, September 2011, I approached the UCLU Musical Theatre Society with the proposal to stage a musical with two local schools in the Camden region. After a meeting with Fiona Addison, from the Volunteering Services Unit, it quickly became evident that this was one of the most ambitious student led volunteering projects that had ever been undertaken at UCL.
The mission of the project, from the outset, was to inspire young people to participate in the performing arts, provide them with a better understanding of university student life and finally to bring two schools together in one of the biggest collaborative projects that VSU or any student society has been involved in.
In order to run the project two schools in the Camden area would be required. The first school to be confirmed was UCL Academy, the new innovative school based in Swiss Cottage that UCL has sponsored, and shortly after Regent High School were confirmed as the second partner school in this exciting project
Over the summer the rest of the production team was assembled consisting of Richard Upton, Ben Whittle and Simon Young as directors, Julia Mantell and Sophie Wheale as choreographers and Luke McGarey as musical director and collectively it was decided that the project would be staging one of the most upbeat and popular musicals out today: Hairspray. Furthermore Deutsche Bank kindly sponsored the project enabling the newly formed production team to set the bar high.
After the huge success of the stage and film versions, Hairspray had cemented its place amongst the great musical theatre shows. It follows the trials and tribulations of a young girl, Tracy Turnblad, who courageously attempts to integrate her local television dance show, the Corny Collins Show. The storyline delves into one of the most significant decades of American history, the 1960’s, tackling the issue of discrimination but more specifically racial segregation.
One year on since the project’s inception, the preparations were complete and all of the partners were ready to start!
In October auditions took place at both schools with over 150 children ranging from Year 7 to Year 13 turning up to impress the production team with their singing, dancing and acting abilities. The standard was very high and it left the UCL team with the very tough task of whittling down the numbers to the required cast size of 34 with roughly equal numbers coming from each school. The principal characters were all cast from the older students but the three Dynamites, who feature heavily in one of the scenes, were cast from the Year 7’s at UCL Academy which is a true reflection of the talent the production team were working with.
The cast rehearsed weekly at both Regent High School, who are based on Charrington Street and are due to move in to a fabulous new facility this time next year, and at UCL Academy’s new facility near Swiss Cottage. The rehearsals were great fun but challenging at the same time and throughout the cast had the chance to build and strengthen friendships not just from their own school. They had energy, maturity and a genuine desire to work at all rehearsals and this allowed the whole group to establish an imaginative and creative atmosphere.
Since the turn of the year rehearsals were more frequent and included a wonderful weekend rehearsal at UCL on Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th February. This gave the entire cast the opportunity to get a glimpse into the life of a university student and the production team were able to answer some of their questions and advise them on topics including what subjects to pick for GCSE and applying to university. The family-like environment that the project tried to foster amongst everyone involved in the production shone through at this point and it set the group up nicely for the final few weeks of the process.
Despite a very busy last two weeks of rehearsals the cast entered production week in high spirits and confident that they were going to put on a brilliant show. Over the last weekend the set was constructed by UCLU Stage Crew and Dean Puzey (Performing Arts Technician at Regent High School) and the fifteen-person band joined rehearsals for the technical run and dress run. The show had truly come together: the band sounded amazing, the cast looked great and were performing brilliantly and finally the production was incredibly professional.
The cast, crew, staff and production team were brimming with anticipation on Tuesday and having sold out both the Wednesday and Thursday performances the cast would be treated to two great receptions.
The shows went excellently and all of the hard work paid off. The audiences were incredibly complimentary and all of the invited guests, including representatives from both schools, the Roundhouse and the Camden Music Service, were full of praise. The hardest part was calming the students down after the performances finished!
After the last night Geraldine Davies, Principal of UCL Academy, and Rosemary Leeke, Headteacher of Regent High School, paid tribute to everyone in the cast and those who made the production possible and especially Sam Lansdale, Ben Whittle, Richard Upton, Simon Young, Julia Mantell, Sophie Wheale and Luke McGarey from the UCLU Musical Theatre Society and Fiona Addison from the Volunteering Services Unit. After the audience had left the UCL volunteers had a chance to thank the cast for all of their hard work and enthusiasm – it all got slightly emotional!
Hairspray was an overwhelming success and, as Geraldine Davies rightly said in her speech, partnership work is difficult enough with one school but to run a project of this magnitude, widely regarded as the biggest student led society project, with two schools is a remarkable achievement. The project had a big impact on so many young people’s lives and the benefits stretched far beyond the stage. It required a monumental team effort to pull it off but the project truly united two schools with UCL and its students.
To find out more about creating your own community project, visit the VSU’s Innovations Programme pages