How many drama teachers end up with so many pupils they have to take over a five-storey building to house them all? That's what happened to Emily Byron and now, 20 years on, the New London Performing Arts Centre (NLPAC) is the largest children's performing arts centre in the country.
I've always wanted to work with children and I've always loved performing and performance, so teaching performing arts was the obvious thing for me to do.
As a child, I spent a lot of time travelling around London to get the best possible dance, singing and drama training as it wasn't available locally. When I started teaching, I dreamed of having a one-stop performing arts centre in Muswell Hill, where I live, that would offer high-quality, affordable training for children locally. And that's what NLPAC is. It's not based on anyone else's performing arts centre: it's based on what I wanted as a child.
I believe that arts education should be available to everyone. When I grew up, everyone had access to a great choir and instrument lessons at school. Now, many performing arts activities are more elitist and a lot of parents can’t afford them.
I wanted to make a differenceA lot of centres offer poor-quality facilities and teaching. That's quite dangerous with dance, as poor teaching can damage knees, backs and other parts of the body. Plus, bad habits, in movement or singing, for instance, can take years to unlearn. In an industry that’s based on youth, that simply happens too late for a lot of children. My goal was to offer quality classes with qualified teachers.
After school, I did a degree in English and educational psychology, and a PGCE in English and drama. I then did a postgraduate course in drama and education.
Although I have the qualifications, I believe what I do is a vocation. You have to really believe that you can make a difference and that's not something you learn in a classroom.
In the beginningWhen I started out, I was teaching performing arts in church halls, schools and community centres, along with a small team that I'd put together. We had hundreds of children coming to classes on a weekly basis and I kept everything we needed, from registers and props to stage makeup and costumes, in the back of my car.
There came a point where I couldn't physically be everywhere that the demand was, and I was also pregnant with my first child. It was time to look for a venue, which needed to be affordable and welcoming.
We looked at all sorts of places from houses and churches to community centres, and then this incredible building popped up. It was on a quiet road in a gorgeous location with a car park. Even the acoustics were good! But it was way out of our reach: far too big, way too expensive and a ridiculous option. Even so, I couldn't stop thinking about how perfect it would be.
As luck would have it, the landlord agreed that I could rent just a couple of floors. That was 20 years ago. Since then, we've expanded upwards, outwards, downwards, round the side and filled the entire five storeys, plus the basement.
We're now a registered charity and thousands of children attend the centre. We offer every type of performing art, including drama, scriptwriting and all kinds of dance and singing. We have musical instrument lessons from classical piano to Celtic harp or ukulele, and there's a soundproof drum room, which is great for aspiring drummers.
NLPAC and family lifeFour months after my first child was born, I discovered I was pregnant again. I'd just signed a 10-year lease on the building and I certainly hadn't intended to have another child so quickly, but it all worked out fine.
In fact, we ended up moving into the house next door to the centre, which miraculously became available just when we needed it. For years I've lived in a big, ridiculous muddle of performing arts, motherhood and business, and it's great fun.
My husband is incredibly supportive. Alongside his own career, he's always pitched in with everything from prop removal to painting.
Our son is now 19 and studying music and Japanese at university. It’s so lovely to hear him play and sing. Our 18-year-old daughter hopes to be an actress. Since getting a part in Les Miserables at the age of seven, she’s had wonderful experiences performing professionally, including three years in Holby City.
I have no idea whether our three-year-old will follow their lead but she already loves ballet and tap. Whatever happens, all sorts of amazing things have come from them coming to work with me.
Life is a cabaret...If a child is keen to pursue a career in the performing arts, good, affordable classes are essential. Even if they're not intending to make it their profession, the life skills they’ll gain are just as important because what many people don't realise is that life is a performance.
It's important to have a constructive, confident attitude to everything you do and performing arts can help with this. Whether you're working in a shop or chairing a meeting, if you understand the drama and performance aspect, you'll be able to do it confidently.
Children who do performing arts gain confidence and a sense that they can do anything in life. Through acting skills, they learn not to be afraid of being who they want to be. If you can act, you can be confident or authoritative; you can be the kid in the playground who is comfortable with who you are. You can be anyone you want if you learn how to act it.
The ability to be what they want to be and the belief that they can do it is the greatest gift you can give a child. Who could possibly want more for their child than that?
If a child is enjoying performing arts, they have an aptitude for it. It's not about training up the next generation of performers: it's about enabling kids to take part in an enjoyable, confidence-building group activity.
Courtroom dramaOne of the kids who used to come here, and loved musical theatre, is now a barrister. I said to him, "I'm amazed you became a barrister: I always thought you'd work in musical theatre." And he said, "Yes, sometimes it's really hard not to burst into song as I'm doing my summaries! But I'm doing everything else you taught me on a daily basis. The way I perform, the way I talk, the way I sum everything up. I am performing. I'm a working performer." That makes me happy. I wish he would burst into song, mind you, because he has a very good voice...
Shooting starsWhile the majority of children do our classes for fun and personal development, it’s lovely to be able to nurture and develop a talented child.
The one child in a hundred who has a chance of a performing professionally can work towards developing it as a proper career option here, rather than constantly being told how hard it's going to be. We aim to provide children with a clear route, whether that is the instant TV path or the hard-working slog of the dance school.
We're lucky because we have a link with a West End casting agency and currently we've got two kids in Billy Elliot, one in Matilda and another in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Our children are in professional theatre as well as adverts, films and TV shows. Over the years we've had kids in EastEnders, Holby City, the Harry Potter films, the Golden Compass films and Nanny McPhee, among others.
Lots of our ex-students are now performing dancers. It’s amazing to see NLPAC children develop and go on to the Urdang Academy, Royal Ballet School or other performing arts schools and colleges.
As well as professional ballet dancers, we have a lot of commercial dancers, who appear on shows such as The X Factor or in pop videos.
Many of our teachers are working professionals: our drama teacher is regularly on TV, for example. Seeing their teachers working in the industry helps our children imagine where they could end up.
Taking the NLPAC show on the roadWe take performance very seriously. I believe strongly that performing arts should be performed. Without an audience, much of what we're trying to do becomes irrelevant and theoretical, so every term we do at least two or three productions and everyone at NLPAC is encouraged to take part.
Magic can occur on any stage but the whole process of preparing to go on a professional stage makes it extra special, so over the years I've hired pretty much every West End theatre and great performance venue in London for NLPAC productions. If children are from theatre-going families, they see that fully trained professionals work in the same environment and realise that this is within their reach if they want it.
When you've got 1,500 children performing over a weekend in one venue, it's not even organised chaos; it's organised precision! It's very exciting.
The performances themselves are really rewarding. We all love doing them and talk about them for ages afterwards. There’ll always be one child who does something utterly endearing and ridiculously charming.
The Charlotte Coleman scholarshipGrowing up, I had a friend called Charlotte Coleman, who was an actress in things like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Oranges are not the Only Fruit. Sadly, she died of an asthma attack when she was quite young and her parents and I set up an annual scholarship in her memory.
The Charlotte Coleman scholarship enables one child to do as many dance, music and drama classes as they want for a year. They will also be mentored for the rest of their performing lives.
What next?We'd like to offer more teacher training, in association with a London college, which will lead to qualified teacher status. This is essential as, while our teachers are qualified, there is a great deal of poor, unqualified teaching around, which is potentially very harmful to developing children. We choose to belong to the Council for Dance Education and Training and Ofsted, as well as having ongoing training and observation of our teachers, but there is currently no legal requirement to do this.
I'm also looking at ways to offer free, structured, 16-plus training, as there is very little affordable professional performing arts training available.
Over the next few years, we want to expand our scholarships to provide funding for more children. Loads of kids do more classes here than they pay for, and we hope to create an arm of the charity that actively fundraises for children who need it, rather than it just being down to my hug-the-world philosophy.
The power of NLPACI could never have done this on my own. It's been a team effort from the start. I've always had incredibly supportive staff, who believe in what we’re doing.
A couple of years ago we were lucky enough to be able to buy the building, so we now have a permanent base that is totally secure for children's performing arts activities forever.
Kids who I taught years ago often pop in to see me. It's very rewarding seeing what they're doing 20 years on. Who could ask for anything more? I'm very lucky. I often sit back and think: this is so much fun.