I was basically hijacked,’ jokes Richard Stride, thinking back to the start of the Groundlings Drama School.
‘We did a couple of professional shows here in Portsmouth, and for the second show we had a lot of people from the community auditioning for the smaller roles.
‘They told me: “look, you have to start a drama school”.
‘I thought it would be a good way of getting out of the dressing room and it snowballed from there.’
It has now been 15 years since the Groundlings Drama School started and five years since it found a permanent home.
The building in Portsea, now known as the Groundlings Theatre, is the historic home of the city’s first ‘ragged’ school.
Richard, the theatre’s 42-year-old artistic director, says more than 1,000 people have taken part in classes at the Groundlings since then.
He says stars including Open All Hours actor Stephanie Cole sometimes drop by to tutor budding actors.
Richard says: ‘That offers such a valuable experience for the students and gives us teachers a new angle on things as well.’
He says the theatre is home to a half-a-dozen drama groups ranging from musical theatre classes for children from age seven, to a ‘Company of Elders’ group for amateur actors 60-and-over.
‘It’s all about giving the students as much experience as possible doing a variety of different things,’ Richard says.
He says the school has built a reputation for producing professional actors, singers and dancers.
Among the drama school’s success stories is actor Bathsheba Piepe, who is currently reaping rave reviews in the West End comedy Hello/Goodbye.
Richard says some successful ex-students make their way back to the Groundlings.
He says: ‘Some of the students have gone on to credited drama schools in London, have now come back and are performing in Groundlings’ professional shows,’ he says.
‘There’s that nice feeling of coming home.’
The theatre’s director of music, Heather Uden, agrees.
‘It is one of the most professionally aspiring drama schools,’ Heather says.
‘It gives children and adults the opportunity to think and behave like professional actors and I think that’s one of our biggest plusses.’
Heather, 49, from Farlington, says the skills drama school teaches are not just for the stage.
‘It’s very disciplined work and young people learn a huge amount of responsibility,’ she says.
‘They have to take the initiative, not sit back and let everybody else do the work. These are things you don’t just need as an actor but as a person in life.’
At a glance
Where: The theatre is at 42 Kent Street, Portsea, PO1 3BS.
When: Musical theatre classes for seven to 11-year-olds are on Tuesdays from 5pm to 7pm and for 12 to 18-year-olds from 7pm to 9pm.
n ‘Globe group’ drama classes for ages 16 and over are Wednesdays from 8pm to 10pm.
n ‘Company of Elders’ classes for ages 60 and over are Thursdays from 10am to midday.
n The ‘Curtain group’ from seven to nine-year-olds is on Saturdays from 11.30am to 1.30pm, and the ‘Swan group’ for 10 to 16-year-olds follows from 2pm to 4pm.
n The next performance will be Hedda Gabler from March 11 to 21.
Cost: Tuition works out at about £5 an hour. Scholarships and bursaries are available.
I think everyone should try acting
While he’s relatively new to acting, 46-year-old Jonathan Abbott says the craft has a lot in common with his lifelong love of music.
Jonathan, from Waterlooville, plays guitar, bass, drums and piano.
He says: ‘When you learn a song you learn the basic chords and build upon it.
‘There are many layers and you don’t actually get to a great part of the song until you’ve been doing it for a while.
‘It’s similar to a character in a play.
‘Your image of what it should be like changes with every practice and show that you do.
‘There are always new layers and I find that so fascinating.’
Jonathan says his first show was last year’s production of Oliver! in which he played an undertaker, a drunk, a rich gent and horse manure shoveller.
He says his 10-year-old daughter, Ysabel, drew him into the theatre.
He remembers: ‘My daughter started dancing here and was in a couple of shows.
‘They were short of a character in Oliver!, so I crazily volunteered
‘Before I knew it I was playing four parts and really enjoying it.
‘Acting is a wonderful experience - I think everyone should do it.’
Jonathan says drama is more difficult than music because: ‘There’s so many things going on all at the same time.
‘You’re thinking about where you’re standing, what’s coming up, what youre doing, what lines you’ve just done and the character you’re playing.
‘It’s a bit like juggling.’
You’ve got to know your character
Kirsty Malloy, 27, says she loves the range of shows the theatre produces.
The Milton resident says: We’ve done musical theatre, modern plays, Greek dramas and Shakespeare.
‘Every show is different and it’s really nice to have that variety.
‘You get so much out of each play that you do.’
When she’s not on stage, Kirsty is a lifeguard at Eastney Swimming Pool, a swimming teacher and works front-of-house at Southsea’s Kings Theatre.
She says her debut as a leading lady for the Groundlings was in a play called Stepping Out.
‘I played Mavis the dance teacher,’ she says.
‘That was the first big role that I did and my first challenge of sustaining a role all the way through a show.
‘I was also in Pride and Prejudice, playing Charlotte Lucas.
‘That was quite a nice, sweet part and the group bonded together well.
‘That makes for the best shows, you come out feeling brilliant about it.’
Kirsty is also taking to the stage as Hedda Gabler in March.
She says one of her most valuable acting lessons came from guest tutor Stephanie Cole.
‘She said: “If you know your character well enough, you’ll never forget your lines. you’ve got to know your character inside and out.”
‘That advice has always served me well.’
A great community
In theatre, not everything goes according to plan - which 21-year-old Megan Wiseman-Davies knows all too well.
Megan, from Widley, says her most embarrassing on-stage moment happened during a performance of Ariel, a play based on The Little Mermaid.
She remembers: ‘I was playing a seagull and I went on stage without noticing that my buttons were not done up properly.
‘I’d come out squawking, realised it and I just squawked off!’
But Megan says she doesn’t regret a single moment at the Groundlings Drama School, which she joined two years ago.
‘I wish I’d come here sooner,’ she says.
‘Aside from the brilliant shows which are so much fun to do, there is such a great community at the theatre - the management , the actors, volunteers, the musicians.’
Megan says just being in such a creaky old theatre can feel dramatic at times.
‘It’s supposed to be most haunted place in Portsmouth and you do get a lot of weird things happening. Sometimes there are weird noises in the rooms out the back.
‘When you’re out there doing your costume changes it’s a bit scary sometimes, when you think somebody else is there.’
Megan is one of two actors taking the title role in the Groundlings’ production of Hedda Gabler.
‘She’s such a strong character.
‘It’s something to get my teeth into and I can’t wait.’