Pauline Quirke Academy: Training Preston's stage stars of the future
Comedy and drama. Musical theatre. Film and television. These are the three core tenets around which a performing arts education at Pauline Quirke Academy Preston is centred. And with dozens of artists from budding thespians to vocal superstars coming through, the academy is at the cutting edge of performing arts tuition.
While the Preston branch opened its doors in 2013, PQA was established by actor Pauline Quirke and her husband Steve Sheen in 2007. Having discovered acting at the age of nine, Pauline herself enjoyed a highly successful career, appearing in Birds of a Feather and winning the Royal Television Society's Award for Best Comedy Newcomer and a BAFTA nomination.
The PQA concept took like wildfire. There are now some 200 academies spread across the country teaching 13,000 children aged between four and 18. From Aylesbury to Wakefield, and even as far as Mallorca, you're never too far away from PQA.
"We try to teach kids more than one aspect of the industry; we show them lots of different routes to be successful in performing arts," explained Aimee Leigh, the Principal of PQA Preston. "We do get some kids who come to build confidence and have a go because they enjoy it, and we have others who want to make a career out of it, so we have a wide breadth of students."
Having previous taught at various schools across the North West, Hesketh Bank-born Aimee credits acting for shaping the person she is today. Having attended dance, drama, and singing lessons before studying for a BTEC in Musical Theatre at Southport College, Aimee completed a BA (Hons) in Acting at The University of Central Lancashire and now orchestrates PQA Preston with aplomb.
"It's a very safe environment," said Aimee, who has worked at the academy for six years. "We have a lot of children who might struggle in a typical school setting, so we let them be themselves and we've very accepting. Performing arts is working as a team - that's the biggest thing. It doesn't matter if you're in the ensemble, the stage manager, or if you have the main role: we're all equal.
"You can be really vulnerable when you're performing, so the more supportive we are, the more people's confidence grows," she added. "You see a huge difference in people, and that's the most rewarding part of working at PQA. It's really nice to hear the stories from outside - parents saying their children are a lot more willing to put their hands up in class."
What makes PQA Preston, which is based at Priory Academy on Crow Hills Road in Penwortham and recently launched an initiative to go completely green, stand out is the fact that the academy teaches kids a wider view of performing arts than most schools.
Their musical theatre syllabus features a combination of acting, singing, and dance, with teachers choreographing routines to reflect the capabilities and interests of the performers, who are given the chance to perform at Her Majesty's Theatre in London every three years.
Students are also encouraged to take up roles behind the camera as well as in front of it, tutored by professional filmmakers as they work in production teams to produce their own short films from storyboard to final cut, with the academy hiring out the local Vue cinema to showcase their work every 24 months.
Comedy and drama tuition focuses on the exploration of movement and physicality through clowning, mask work, mime, and movement sequences as well as improvised theatre, with the older artists encouraged to create their own performance which they can showcase at the academy's venue at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
But while a PQA education is about as thorough a performing arts education as it gets, the real passion is for seeing kids develop. "I absolutely love the job," said Aimee. "It's not easy and you have to put an awful lot into it, but it is the most rewarding job.
"I couldn't do anything else," she said simply.