Playhouse manager Adam Knight turns Starmaker

12-year-old Clara Jones with Adam Knight. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
12-year-old Clara Jones with Adam Knight. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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KEITH Ramsay is sure to be a familiar face to fans of the BBC dramas New Tricks and Shetland. In the former he plays Stewie, son of ex-detective Steve McAndrew, in the latter he is Joe Blake, son of Frank and Anna, who live at the Bird Observatory.

Nine years ago, however, one of his earliest appearances was on the stage of The Playhouse, as The Artful Dodger in the venue’s Stage Experience production of Oliver!

Ramsay isn’t the only young performer to make an impact on the world of showbiz having first trod the Greenside Place boards; Ruari Cannon, who appeared in High School Musical in 2007, has since appeared in the movie World War Z and Sweet Bird of Youth, at the Old Vic Theatre.

Gemma Lawson, another graduate of the Stage Experience, is currently appearing in Mamma Mia, while Rebecca Stenhouse is now a professional dancer playing Sherrie in a production of the musical Rock of Ages.

For the 2015 Stage Experience, Playhouse general manager Adam Knight takes the reins and to mark its tenth birthday has announced big changes.

A new production team, led by West End star Peter Corry will bring Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods to life. It’s a huge coup for The Playhouse and one that obviously delights Knight.

“We have a phenomenally talented bunch of youngsters who audition for the Stage Experience every year and we felt the tenth anniversary was a great opportunity to tackle an ambitious project; to get under the skin of a Stephen Sondheim musical that is accessible because of the recent Disney film, which brought it to a wider audience.”

A modern twist on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Into The Woods tells the story of a once-beautiful witch, and a childless baker and his wife.

Three days before the rise of a blue moon, they venture into the forest to find the ingredients that will reverse the spell and restore the witch’s beauty – a milk-white cow, hair as yellow as corn, a blood-red cape, and a slipper of gold.

During their journey, they meet Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack, each one on a quest to fulfil a wish.

“Sondheim is a bit like the Shakespeare of musical theatre,” says Knight, who has seen four different productions of Into The Woods. He reflects real life through the feelings and emotions of these fairy tale characters. Sometimes in a slightly more abstract dark way, sometimes in a very light way. I like the beautiful juxtaposition of light and dark.”

With so many characters, it’s the ideal title for a young theatre company.

“We can weave in other fairy tales and characters so there’s a lot of creative freedom to enure that everyone has their moment in the show,” he says.

“The music and lyrics are so rich, there are great opportunities to bring people to the fore and show off their individual talents.”

Joining Corry to ensure each member of the cast shines are musical director Matthew Reeve (whose previous productions include Cabaret) and choreographer Louise Ferrier, who is no stranger to Stage Experience.

“Louise was our assistant choreographer last year and we are delighted she is coming back because we know the young people enjoyed working with her last year.” He continues: “We’ve had great teams over the last ten years, but this year we have a fresh team. Peter Corry is going to direct, he played Javert in Les Miserable here in 1998 and he is very excited to be able to give something back. He remembers fondly the reception he received here.”

For The Playhouse too, it’s about giving something back, says Knight.

“Stage Experience is very much the flagship of our creative learning programme and a huge chance for people to get involved.

“We certainly have a loyalty and a through-line of people who have grown up with Stage Experience but I am very keen to highlight that it is an open access project.

“We want people who have never even thought that this could be for them to audition and give it a go.”

Auditions, which will be held on Saturday 25 April, will be fun he promises, and this year they are open to a wider age group.

“It was 11 to 21, but we have raised that to 24. When we started talking about what our creative learning programme would be for the year, we realised there is already a lot of excellent work being done by other venues and organisations. We didn’t want to trample on their territory. So raising the age limit was about stepping up from being a youth theatre to focussing more on people entering the profession.”

Auditions will be held in two stages; 11 to 16-year-olds between 10am and 2pm, and 17 to 24-year-olds between 3pm and 7pm.

“We’d like people to pre-register so that we have an idea of numbers and can send them a section of script the director would like them to be familiar with in advance,” explains Knight.

Those who pass the auditions will then rehearse for two weeks in July, before appearing on The Playhouse stage for three performances. However, it’s not just about putting on a show, emphasises Knight.

“If the Edinburgh Playhouse wanted to put on a show it could put on a show and we wouldn’t have to do it with 11 to 24-year-olds,” he says. “The stage experience is about learning. It’s an opportunity to push yourself, to stretch yourself, and challenge yourself by doing something you might not be too confident about doing. It’s all about building self-belief and confidence. That is the important aim.”

Tickets for the performances on July 31 and August 1 go on sale from The Playhouse box office today, priced £19.50 (£16.50).

“So you could be seeing a hit West End musical for less than £20...” says Knight, “... a West End musical that isn’t often performed. We are really proud to have got the rights to do it.”