APO: Teaching from Experience

The late great Noël Coward wrote a song called “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington”. He should have added, “unless she’s properly trained.” The reality is that talent will only take you so far, but you need strong craft skills to sustain a career, and those skills depend on the skills of those teaching you.

The APO Arts Academy in Melbourne knows this only too well, and they choose their teachers with care. It’s not about having done a course and then becoming a teacher. It’s about being a professional who has a career in dance, theatre, television, etc., and is now passing on those skills to a whole new generation. You’re learning from people who have “been there, and done that.”

Take the Musical Theatre course. After a one year foundation course, students have the chance to commit full time to their Advanced Associate in Musical Theatre course. The course attracts interstate and New Zealand applicants, and Victorians grateful they can enter the industry without having to study interstate or overseas.

Course Co-Ordinator Derek Taylor is a firm believer in performance based tuition. “You can talk about theatre academically,” he says, “but until you set foot on a stage and are confronted by an audience who will either connect with you or reject you, you can’t possibly know what it means to be a performer.”

Taylor began as a violinist and graduated with a music degree in 1987. He had a burning desire to do Musical Theatre, but the way in for him was through Opera. After three years performing with two state opera companies, he finally auditioned for Phantom of the Opera and got the part.

It was the beginning of an illustrious career of 3500 performances in Australia and the West End. His most recent credit was directing the Victorian Opera’s 2012 version of Cinderella, and while Derek is still performing, teaching a new generation of performers is giving him the most satisfaction.

“If you do any APO advanced course, don’t expect Theatre 101,” he tells me. “The academy is committed to giving its all to each student. We want to build our students’ confidence and belief in themselves. That takes hard work, discipline and dedication from students and teachers alike.”

Students of the Musical Theatre course do acting classes with professional actors, and dance classes with top professional dance instructors. Derek says the singing lessons are “about understanding what’s behind the notes; applying  acting skills to lyrics; maintaining vocal and physical health; understanding how your voice works and the sounds you want to produce without damaging the instrument.

“We have people audition that come in and sing “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, relying on pure raw talent. That’s impressive, but they have no idea that they’re damaging their vocal chords, maybe permanently. Part of being in this industry is accepting that you might sing that song, eight performances a week, for 18 months. That’s when you need all your craft skills. That’s what we teach you.

“All facets are performance driven and all our teachers liaise and consult so that we’re all under the same umbrella. It’s a complete, integrated course.”

There’s even an accent and dialects coach who will train you in everything from American (North and South) to Scottish accents and everything in between.  

There’s a strong belief at APO that the more strings you have to your bow, the longer your career life will be in the industry, and it IS an industry, not a hobby. Performers are judged by how good they are and how strong their work ethic is – so why not learn the best from the start?

Showcases are held regularly and students are encouraged to choose their own repertoire. It’s the best way of discovering what your strengths and weaknesses are. I’m excited to be seeing their Sondheim showcase in September. One thing is certain, if I had an eligible daughter, I’d be sending her to APO before I put her on the stage. And Mr Coward would approve.

Coral Drouyn

Image: The cast of Titanic