‘Like the set of Fame’: The schools nurturing our next generation of stars

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From cartwheels to rolling out of bed, Ella Moylan has learned how to fall from a heart-stopping height in countless ways.

But the year 10 student’s favourite act, using silks hung from a high ceiling, is the corkscrew.

“It sounds a bit dramatic,” she said. “You wrap yourself up really tight and then fall out of it, twisting down and landing just above the floor.”

Acrobatic talent Ella Moylan has flourished at one of NSW’s specialist performing arts schools.Credit: James Brickwood

The corkscrew is one of the circus skills Moylan has mastered as a performing arts student at Nepean Creative and Performing Arts High School in Emu Plains, one of eight performing arts schools in NSW nurturing the next generation of actors, artists, dancers and singers.

The state’s specialist high schools in creative and performing arts offer the NSW Board of Studies core curriculum, with emphasis on a particular area of learning, specialist facilities and an application process that often involves an audition.

Former alumni of the schools include Jai Wakeford and Catherine Stratton from The X Factor, actor Tim Campbell and Yellow Wiggle Tsehay Hawkins.

When she is not flying through the air using apparatus such as the trapeze, lyra or silks, or learning other circus skills such as juggling, hand balances and hula-hooping, Moylan is a mentor and ambassador for Aboriginal culture at the high school.

“It’s nice to learn with people who are passionate about the same things as you.”

Nepean principal Tania Irons said high demands are placed on performing arts students. Some face long commutes, leaving local schools where they have strong connections and friends to pursue the elite opportunities offered by a selective performing arts school.

“Time is a significant sacrifice,” Irons said. “Many of our students train in their specific … area outside of school hours in addition to their curriculum activities.”

“Most also take part in our extracurricular ensemble program which involves before-school rehearsals, workshops, competitions and showcases outside of and during school time.”

The demands do not appear to be a deterrent, with the number of students attending the Emu Plains school increasing by 190 since 2012.

Remember my name: School principal Tania Irons says she sees the best of some students outside the traditional classroom setting.Credit: James Brickwood

Irons said there was always a buzz around the place, where about 45 per cent of the students are in the creative arts stream, especially during end-of year-performances by students.

“It is not unusual to have students sitting around either playing guitars, singing and walking through the school in full drama, dance or circus arts costume on their rehearsal breaks,” she said. “Having our playground transformed into a pop-up concert space can be quite surreal.”

Other students use technical skills in audio and lighting acquired as part of the VET Entertainment course to help stage shows.

“They are excited and energetic when they are performing,” Irons said. “For some students for whom academic rigour or sitting still in a class behind a desk is a struggle, seeing them in their performance space and on stage gives you an opportunity to see who they are when they are at their best.”

Campbelltown Performing Arts High School principal Leah McKeown also pointed to the feeling of energy around the campus as a hallmark of these specialist schools.

“If you are in the studios just before a performance, it looks exactly like the set of Fame,” she said. “Warming-up bodies and vocal cords is part of our students’ education.”

It’s given me an amazing opportunity to grow as a performer,”

The school also has a band that offers primary school students the opportunity to learn and master musical instruments to assist them in their high school auditions.

McKeown said term four is particularly busy, with the Schools Spectacular being held as the school year draws to a close.

“Our featured artists each have a mentor teacher to plan and scaffold their day so that mandatory schoolwork is completed and the stress of time and school pressures are eliminated,” she said. “This is particularly crucial to our senior students.”

For year 12 students Misti Nichols and Riley Lattuga, the school provides a rare opportunity to develop their creative skills and perform on stage in shows such as the Schools Spectacular and Pulse Alive.

Studnets Riley Lattuga and Misti Nichols at Campbelltown Performing Arts High School.Credit: Janie Barrett

“It’s given me an amazing opportunity to grow as a performer,” Lattuga said. “It’s important to stay passionate about what you want to do.”

Lattuga was just 11 years old when he auditioned to enrol at the school, which holds two audition periods throughout the year for dance, drama, music and circus.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking to stand in a big circle and sing in front of each other,” he said. “To get up in front of people you don’t know is very scary, but it taught me a lot.”

Misti Nichols was also 11 when she successfully auditioned for the school’s dance program and won a scholarship.

Nichols, now 17, travels by train and bus for more than an hour to attend the school, but she says learning with other performing arts students makes the commute worthwhile.

“It’s nice to learn with people who are passionate about the same things as you,” she said.

Both students say the school’s teaching staff are very supportive of their performing, which often requires them to miss classes to attend rehearsals and shows.

On top of her studies, Nichols has a demanding schedule of rehearsals, dancing for several hours after school and at the weekend.

Sixteen-year-old Lattuga, meanwhile, has a mentor teacher who he says “helps me stay on track at school” and catch up on missed lessons and homework, so he can attend external auditions and performances.

But while the passion underpinning these schools is evident, and enrolments across the performing arts schools have been stable for the past 10 years, the number of students enrolled in HSC performing arts subjects has fallen in the past five years.

Year 12 drama students dropped from 194 in 2017 to 127 last year, while dance fell from 122 in 2017 to 107 in 2022, and music 1 from 153 in 2017 to 115 in 2022.

Year 11 enrolments in drama, dance and music have also declined in the past five years.

There are a variety of explanations proffered for this trend, ranging from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to concerns about career prospects.

“The students who attend here are motivated to be here to develop their skills and passion … They want to be at school, among like-minded peers.”

An Education Department spokesman said the pandemic and its impact on collaborative activities could be a factor. “Anecdotal evidence suggests this had an impact on student confidence and skills”, he said.

University of NSW Associate Professor Jae Jung said declining student numbers may be due to a perception that such subjects do not lead to a high ATAR score, a belief that performing arts have limited career options, and a general push toward STEM study and careers.

NSW Secondary Principals’ Council president Craig Petersen said enrolments in subjects with fewer students, such as music and drama, tended to fluctuate year to year.

Petersen said students in these subjects were often passionate about their art form and less driven by ATAR scores or future career prospects.

But, he said, “There’s a very strong link between the ability and popularity of the teacher and student enrolment in those subjects.”

Hunter School student Josephine Spinks: “Everyone is so talented”.Credit: Peter Stoop

The Hunter School of the Performing Arts draws students from as far away as Port Stephens, Bulahdelah, Hunter Valley and the Central Coast, who audition for its music, drama or dance programs.

“The students who attend here are motivated to be here to develop their skills in, and passion for, their performing art,” said deputy principal Libby Guider. “They want to be at school, among like-minded peers.”

Year 9 student Josephine Spinks, a singer, who travels for about an hour and a half from the Central Coast to to attend, is also in the school marching band, which has performed at Newcastle Knights games, ANZAC Day ceremonies and the Newcastle Show.

The marathon commute and band commitments mean her days can be long, but Spinks said she loves it.

“There are a lot of things you can join,” she said. “Everyone is so talented. It’s kind of amazing.”

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