Ruthie puts youngsters in the spotlight

Musical theatre and television star Ruthie Henshall is looking to provide local youngsters with a taste of what life is like in the theatre.

Andrew Clarke

Musical theatre and television star Ruthie Henshall is looking to provide local youngsters with a taste of what life is like in the theatre. As she told Arts Editor Andrew Clarke, the time has come to give something back.

East Anglian-based West End actress Ruthie Henshall says that she feels the time has come to give something back to the community in which she lives.

As result this summer the singer and actress will be hosting two week long courses for aspiring young performers to give them a taste of what life is like on stage for a real musical theatre star.

Ruthie, who lives on the Suffolk-Essex border, has teamed up with college friend Debbie Millar to create Millar-Henshall Theatre Arts which will be based at Ogilvie Hall in Lawford, near Manningtree. Helping out with the tuition will be Ruthie's husband, Tim Howar, Broadway actor and sometime rock star with Van Tramp.

Ruthie said: “I have been so fortunate in my own career that this is an opportunity to try and give something back. It will provide wonderful grounding for those thinking of pursuing a career in the profession but will also offer children the opportunity to be creative, improve their confidence and have fun at the same time.”

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This latest career departure is part of her plan to give her - and her family - some time to spend together while their daughters Lily and Dolly are growing up. Ruthie says that achieving a good work-life balance is something she works hard at. “If you are in a show, it does take you over. Maintaining a family life can be difficult - even though you are around for much of the day. I am determined to be here for my girls.

“Tim and I have always said that if one of us is working, then the other isn't, which can require some juggling of schedules because you can't control when the work comes along.

“So doing something like running a summer school is the best of both worlds because we get to be at home with the kids and can still be involved with the profession we love. Also we will be in the privileged position of being able to offer something back to talented youngsters who may one day become professional performers them-selves.”

She said that she is looking forward to working with her college friend Debbie Millar, principal of Debbie Millar School of Dance, while running the fortnight of workshops. “Debbie and I go way back and, as she lives just down the road from me, it seemed a wonderful idea to get together and set up a summer school - to share our expertise with the next generation of actors, singers and dancers.”

She said that although there are plenty of people offering performing arts summer schools very few of them had been on stage themselves let alone on stage in the West End. “I thought the time had come when I should share what I had learned over the years. Debbie had been to the same college as myself, so she knows what life is like in the profession, she knows about the pit-falls and can help raise awareness of the problems as well as nurturing young talent.”

But she stressed that the workshops were not just for those with ambitions to carve out a career on stage. She said that the workshops would be fun and creative, would encourage confidence and help young people build friend-ships and help develop skills like public speaking, which would be helpful in any walk of life.

“Also, the courses will cover all aspects of theatre life. We will be looking at the various aspects of stage manage-ment, lighting make-up, costumes, so you may find people who have no desire to actually be on stage coming along because they want to know about what happens backstage.”

Despite jealously guarding her family time, Ruthie's public profile has never been higher. The last 12 months has been an extremely busy time, which has seen Ruthie making the dramatic jump from theatre star to television per-sonality. She has completed two series of show Dancing on Ice, and in May finished a national theatre tour of the same show.

“I have always been very up front that I am not an expert skater, I know nothing about the technical skills in-volved, that's not why I am there. I am not particularly interested in their feet and their skating prowess, I am look-ing at what they look like, what they make of their performance - how they grab an audience. It's the aesthetics that concern me. The technical skills that are required of them I leave to the other judges.”

She says that she made her first trip onto the ice during the tour and it made her realise just how difficult it was to even stand up, let alone deliver a performance on skates.

“My admiration for everyone on the show was huge. They started from scratch and I know from my own brief foray out onto the ice just how difficult it is. But, I have to say that during the tour when the celebrities were skat-ing every day, they got really good. They became more relaxed, for comfortable with what they were doing. They weren't so nervous about making a mistake or simply staying upright and as a result the performances were so much better.”

She said during the tour she made a new friend of Melinda Messenger who she described as simply great fun to be around. “To be honest the camaraderie on the whole tour was lovely. There was a great sense of belonging.”

She said that the popularity of Dancing on Ice has really taken her breath away. With viewing figures of 10 million per episode, more people saw Ruthie on a single Saturday night than saw her throughout the entire run of her Olivier nominated performance in the musical Marguerite last year.

“I love television and the opportunities it provides to do things which connect with a large audience but if I am honest it doesn't feed my soul in the same way that theatre does. I have wanted to work in the theatre since I was five years old. I enjoy television but it doesn't transport me in the same way that being on stage in front of an audi-ence does. Theatre allows me to be different people, sing marvellous songs by some of the world's greatest song-writers - how fantastic is that?”

Not content with having been nominated for British theatre's leading award for her performance in a world pre-miere musical, appearing the television and regional touring version of Dancing On Ice, Ruthie has a number of big band concerts lined up for this summer and is planning a new album to be out in the shops by Christmas.

“I like to keep busy, even when I am at home. The concerts are great because I can learn the material here and just pop off, do the shows and come back home. It doesn't involve being away from home for great lengths of time.”

She said that she is also looking for other opportunities to do more television work inbetween theatre engagements - again because television work was a lot more family-friendly than long theatrical runs.

She said that curiously television has helped promote interest in theatre during recent years with programmes like Andrew Lloyd -Webber's audition shows How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, I'd Do Anything and Any Dream Will Do - along with Britain's Got Talent and X Factor.

She said that as a result many more people are looking for a career in the spotlight and she felt it was necessary to give some of those hopefuls an accurate taste of what a life in show-business had in store.

“It's great fun but it is also a lot of hard work. Our summer schools are there to nurture and support new talent but we will also be showing an accurate picture of what life on stage is like. One of the reasons I wanted to do this is that I have seen too many opportunistic courses being advertised by people who have never been anywhere near a stage.

“And, I shall be getting other first-class people along so kids will be getting first rate training. I have got Zoe Ty-ler, the vocal coach from How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? Running some singing masterclasses, Zoe Salmon from Blue Peter and Dancing On Ice will be helping out, (Tim (Howar) will be running classes and maybe one or two other West End professionals will be on-hand to make sure the youngsters get the very best advice and a great time being there.”

She said that there will be a showcase at the end of each week so the youngsters can show their parents their new skills.

But places are limited - there are only 90 places on the course which is being run in three groups during each of the two weeks. The musical theatre workshops are being run for youngsters aged: 6-10, 11-14, and 15-19. Classes are to be held at Ogilvie Hall, Lawford, on August 3-7 and August 17-21, from 9.30am to 3.30pm.

The cost for a week's tuition will �145. Application forms are available by emailing rc.millar@btinternet.com