The acting profession has a reputation as a harsh, feast-or-famine industry, sometimes glamorous but often full of rejection, gruelling hours and catty co-stars. But the new owners of the Exeter branch of the largest part-time performing arts school in the world say that, for the younger generation, this doesn't have to be the case.
Caroline and James Rochfort believe the enjoyment and skills gained treading the boards provide the perfect start for children, whatever career path they choose to walk down.
The couple, both 38, are successful professional actors who have returned to their Westcountry roots after years of London living to take over Stagecoach Exeter. Caroline, from Honiton, has worked extensively in musical theatre, including a stint with famous choreographer Arlene Phillips and West End credits such as Fame, Saturday Night Fever and Sweeney Todd. She is currently the lead singer in the Ross Mitchell Band, playing venues all over the world including The Royal Albert Hall and a recent concert in Los Angeles.
Her husband James, from Taunton, started his career in the National Youth Music Theatre before attending acting school and hitting the stage as Ewan MacGregor's understudy in a West End play. As well as a long list of theatre credits, he has had a successful television career, including roles in EastEnders, The Bill, Doctors, Channel 4 Comedy Showcase and most recently – as his pupils remind him – an appearance as a remorseful cad in ITV's Lewis.
Three years ago the couple, who have two children, decided it was time to focus on their family's quality of life and bought a house in Axminster. Creative opportunities arose giving masterclasses at local theatre groups and directing and running workshops in schools, which also led to interactions with Stagecoach. When James and Caroline heard the Exeter franchise was up for sale, they decided to go for it, and took over the reins last month.
James explains the decision to up sticks. "We wanted to have our second child down here. We lived in a nice area of London, but even so there was a yellow witness sign at the end of the road because there had been a murder. In contrast, when we were looking for a place down here, we saw a local report about gnome thefts."
With over 600 schools nationwide and branches all over the world, Stagecoach has around 40,000 pupils aged four to 18. The formula of small classes, three-hour sessions and equal attention to drama, dance and music remains unchanged from its inception in 1988.
The Rochforts admit they hadn't heard much about the organisation before leaving London and were not sure quite what to expect. "Everybody has preconceived ideas about children in theatre, but they tend to be smashed very quickly – ours certainly were," says James.
"In a way for me it is more rewarding than directing professional actors and drama students. You get to see somebody come up with little or no self confidence and within one or two terms play lead roles. You don't get that in a professional scenario and it really motivates you."
The pair are keen to emphasise that Stagecoach is not just for children with their heart set on a career on the stage. "These are life skills that they will take with them forever," says Caroline. "They are important yet often-overlooked basics like being able to look someone in the eye and speak clearly."
James adds: "Drama is often viewed as a soft option at school, but it filters into every other subject. The ability to stand up and give a presentation is becoming more and more important, for job interviews and during careers. There are probably only two or three students who might want to go on and do it as a profession – which is brilliant – but it's more about self confidence and bringing kids out of their shells."
For those children who do want to pursue a career in the performing arts, Stagecoach has an agency for those attending the schools, which James and Caroline say is "very highly regarded" in the industry.
Their Exeter students will be helped along by visits from many of James and Caroline's friends from within the performing arts world, encompassing not only actors but experienced make-up artists, lighting technicians and writers. Caroline explains: "It's our combined experience that's going to set us apart. I wish growing up I had a drama teacher who could offer those opportunities. We are very experienced, we have had – and are still having – successful careers and we want to put that into the school.
"To be creative you've also got to have a nice atmosphere. As parents we looked at where we would want to send our children."
The couple emit a powerful sense of energy and enthusiasm for their work and have firm plans for the future. Both have performed in the past at Exeter's Northcott Theatre and hope to establish links there.
James says performing in Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona in the city's Rougemont Gardens in 2003 was one of his "favourite jobs ever" and he would love to bring outdoor productions back to the area. Meanwhile, Caroline is keen to start a choir at Stagecoach that could support the local community at events, and ultimately they would like to set up an Exeter-based professional theatre company.
They both feel the move was right. "It is nice to come back to your home area, the place that has supported and nurtured you, and pass on your own experiences and skills to the next generation," muses Caroline.
James adds: "We considered setting up on our own, but were so impressed with the set-up and the opportunities at Stagecoach. They have a good philosophy as a company – they create an environment where children are prepared to try things out, to not be self-conscious or feel like you're being laughed at."
As if the acting, directing and teaching are not enough, James is also on the brink of becoming a published author. His children's fantasy novel, The Race for Polldovia, is due out soon and he is currently working on the television adaptation. The novel was originally written for their six-year-old daughter Sophia and features her as the main character. She is already a budding young starlet and attends Stagecoach, though it is too early to say whether their other daughter, two-year-old Bryony, will also feel the lure of the spotlight.
The couple say they are not afraid to demand hard work from their students, as Caroline explains: "We do have high standards and don't think there's anything wrong with that. Children rise to your standards."
James adds: "You work with certain students and see something special in them and know you can push them, whereas others might not be ready to be pushed. Both types of students are as important as each other in the school.
"It has a reputation as being a tough industry. It is, but that doesn't stop you enjoying it when you're younger – for fitness, confidence and enjoyment. We don't want it to have the image of 'you will come here if you want to be in the West End' – it's about having fun, making friends and learning skills to take with you for the rest of your life."
Exeter Stagecoach lessons take place on Sundays at The Maynard School. For more information visit www.stagecoach.co.uk/exeter.