Starmaker celebrates 25 years of youth theatreBy Caroline Cook
February 14, 2013
Starmaker Theatre Company is 25 years old next week.
Caroline Cook takes a trip down memory lane
It was the place where Kate Winslet spoke her first lines, where X Factor’s Danyl Johnson sang his first notes and where West End stars danced their first routines.
Now Reading’s Starmaker Theatre Company is celebrating its 25th anniversary and messages of support and thanks from pupils past and present have been pouring in to mark the occasion.
Over the last 25 years thousands of youngsters have passed through the Starmaker doors, performing on stages in Reading and further afield and learning the skills that would help them to become television, West End and, in one case, Hollywood, stars.
“I said I would give it five years and 25 years later I’m still here,” laughs Starmaker chairman Dave Savage.
Starmaker was launched in February 1988 when Dave and a team of fellow thespians came up with a plan to launch a new theatre school following the closure of Reading’s Generation Theatre Company.
“We had our launch night at Reading Girls’ School in Northumberland Avenue and at 7.50pm we only had 20 people and we thought ‘oh my god, what are we doing?’.
“By 8.10pm we had 200 people and we realised it was something we wanted to do,” remembers Dave.
Starmaker’s first production, The Jungle Book, starred a young Kate Winslet as Mother Wolf, as well as Stephen McGlynn, who is now in Mamma Mia! in the West End, and Matt Whitelock, now director of Reading theatre company Berzerk Productions.
“It was an amazing experience and something none of us will ever forget,” says Dave.
“We performed at The Wilde Theatre and then we took it to the Rivermead a few months later and turned the leisure hall into a jungle.
“We all worked solidly for 36 hours, none of us went to bed. When you share those moments you cannot forget it.”
For the last 25 years Dave has lived and breathed Starmaker, overseeing more than 100 productions – everything from Bugsy Malone to High School Musical.
“I’ll always remember a production we put on called Queen Meets Starmaker,” he says.
“We had an idea and thought ‘wouldn’t it be great for our kids to work with some pros and sing duets with them?’.
“Five of the leads and the band from We Will Rock You in the West End came along and the show was a total
sell-out. Funnily enough all of the kids that did solos have gone on to do bigger things – one of them was Nathan James.”
Nathan, a contestant on ITV’s Superstar, is one of several well-known alumni who all remember their time at Starmaker with huge fondness.
“It’s just terrific,” says Dave with a smile. “Obviously Kate is our biggest alumni and probably no-one will be able to beat that but we hope someone will equal her success at some stage.
“We are incredibly proud of her and the stuff she has done behind the scenes for us which people don’t know about is amazing.
“She’s given us interviews and been back to help the kids.
“We are so proud of any of our pupils who have gone on and done something.”
When Starmaker began in 1988 Dave never dreamed it would have the success it holds today, and he says it wasn’t always easy at the beginning.
“We started Starmaker to provide something for the kids. At the time we were given a lot of stick for the name, people said ‘who the hell do you think you are?’
“But it wasn’t ever done to be big-headed. It was called Starmaker because that’s what we wanted to aim for.
“We wanted to help our kids achieve whatever they could.”
Now, 25 years on, Dave can look back proudly, with stars from the Reading theatre school sparkling in London, Hollywood and beyond.
This March the company is performing Les Misérables at The Wilde Theatre with plans for Cats and Miss Saigon later in the year.
And Dave says he hopes the legacy of Starmaker will carry on even when he is no longer at the helm.
“I’m 65 in a few weeks time and I wonder how much longer I can carry on for,” he says.
“There will be a moment when I feel I need to stop, but I think we have developed a great artistic development team with young people who came into Starmaker as kids and they have all gone on and trained professionally and come back to be part of the Starmaker team. When the time comes for me to step down there will be people who can carry on what we have tried to achieve.
“I hope that when I’m 80 I can sit in the theatre and watch a Starmaker production and be proud that it’s still going strong.”
- Starmaker will be performing Les Misérables from Tuesday, March 5, to Saturday, March 9, at The Wilde Theatre in Bracknell. To book call the box office on 01344 484123.
Starmaker alumni share their thoughts and memories to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary
Hollywood actress and Oscar winner Kate Winslet said: “Starmaker Theatre Company is an exceptional organisation.
“Not only does it produce some wonderful productions, but it provides young people with a wonderful opportunity to be a part of something unique, exciting and inspiring!
“Many young people dream of becoming an actor, dancer, or singer one day, and sometimes they want to be all three, but that dream can sometimes feel like a fantasy.
“Not only does the company give wonderful guidance and instruction to young people who want to get involved in the theatre world, but it gives them an opportunity to explore their own particular talent or skill,
and also teach them some new ones. As a company, they treat every one equally, regardless of age, sex, or race, and everyone gets a chance to go on stage and have some life-enhancing experiences.”
X Factor star Danyl Johnson said: “I joined Starmaker back in 1998. As a fresh-faced teenager, looking to show off a little bit, meet new people and keep off the streets Starmaker seemed the perfect place.
“At that time I couldn’t sing a note (some people may think that hasn’t changed, ha!). I just loved dancing and I think that’s why they let me join. Over the few years I spent at Starmaker I performed in many shows, starting out in the chorus which helped me to build my confidence.
“That’s what Starmaker does so well. It lets young people develop and gives you the tools to do anything. I want to say a very happy 25th birthday to Starmaker – you’re looking good on it!
“Thank you for all the great memories. Without you, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
Singer Nathan James, who starred in ITV's Superstar, said: "Happy birthday Starmaker. I still remember my times singing and dancing in your fantastically produced shows.
"I learnt so much and know my time there definitely contributed to me reaching my goals and dreams. Here's to another 25 years of great talent from Reading."
Musical star Stephen McGlynn, who is currently starring in Mamma Mia! in the West End, said: “Sitting here in my dressing room at The Novello Theatre in the heart of London’s glittering West End, I wish to send many happy returns to Starmaker Theatre Company for reaching their 25th anniversary.
“Wow, I can’t believe it was that long ago we started rehearsals for Jungle Book the Musical.
“Here’s to the next 25 years. Maybe you should put on Mamma Mia! I’ll come and direct. See you at The Wide Theatre in March for you production of Les Misérables. Congratulations once again.”
Dani Davies, producer of local professional theatre company Reading Between the Lines (RBL) and member of the LAMDA board of examiners, said: “Starmaker provided invaluable guidance, training and many life-long friends.
“I can still remember my first day, we were doing Annie.
“I watched with wonder as a young Kate Winslet rehearsed the role of Miss Hannigan.”
Dani still enjoys directing and teaching at Starmaker and RBL are firm supporters of the work they do with young people.
Professional actor Ben Ashton, who is artistic director of Starmaker and is currently performing as Malcolm in Macbeth for the Guildford Shakespeare Company, said: “I owe Starmaker everything.
“If I hadn’t have belonged to Starmaker, I really don’t think I would have become a professional actor. I joined the company when I was 11-years-old and didn’t stop performing with them until I was 19.
“I always looked forward to Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays as they were Starmaker days.
“When I mention Starmaker, I’m really mentioning one person – Dave Savage.
“It really is down to his expertise and guidance that the company remains strong 25 years after its birth.
“Happy Birthday Starmaker and congratulations on a successful 25 years, Dave. I am proud to have been a member of Starmaker and to now be involved as its artistic director. Here’s to the next 25 years!”
Ben Smith, lead singer of Reading band Private Jet and current Starmaker teacher, said: “I was a member of Starmaker for eight years and as a musician and performer the experience and confidence I gained during that time has helped me in every aspect of my life.
“Throughout the last 25 years the standard of the productions has always been amazingly high and it has been a pleasure to have been surrounded by so many talented people.
“Above all Starmaker has always been a family company. My sister and I, like many other siblings, attended Starmaker and our parents were also involved in helping with the productions.
“There are an enormous amount of people that have made Starmaker the success it is today but it must be said that Dave Savage is a remarkable man.
“He has created a truly inspirational place for young people to develop their performance skills in the most professional way possible and I hope it continues for many years to come.”