Budding actor Grace Dean joined the apprenticeship scheme at a Leeds theatre rather than go off to university. Julie Marshall met her.
I’ve only ever visited the City Varieties as a member of the audience when the building hums with expectation of the show to come and the crowds push their way up the narrow staircase to find their seats.
Walking through the doors into the deserted foyer of the restored Victorian building first thing in the morning is a strange experience as I dodge the cleaner’s trailing flex and apologise for walking on the newly-shampooed carpets.
I’m here during National Apprenticeship Week to meet Grace Dean, a budding young actor from Leeds who chose to go down the apprentice route to achieve her goal of West End stardom rather than heading off to university or drama school as many of her contemporaries do.
She’s waiting for me in the bar, bottle of water in hand, the picture of health and vitality on this cold winter’s day and is keen to tell me just how lucky she feels to be granted the chance to serve out her 12-month apprenticeship at the theatre.
Grace, now 23, became involved in the theatre at a young age; joining the City Varieties youth theatre at age 11 and taking singing and music lessons at school.
“When she achieved four A levels in drama, theatre studies, art and English literature (three of them grade A) the expectation was that she would go away to university.
But, says Grace: “I knew I wanted to be involved in the theatre but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do so I didn’t apply to university as I didn’t want to make a snap decision.”
Instead Grace applied to, and was accepted for, a three-month stint working as a character at Disneyland Paris. Due to her small stature (Grace is just 5ft tall) she was asked to play Micky Mouse; her job to meet and greet the visitors, sign autographs, pose for photographs an take part in parades. “The park is so large that there were around 40 of us playing Micky and our movements had to be carefully worked out by the logistics team so we didn’t come across any of the others and spoil the magic for the children.”
This three-month stint did wonders for Grace’s confidence and she says it made for a great life experience and a handy addition to her CV.
On her return to the UK she tried to get a job backstage in the theatre but this proved harder than she’d imagined. As her speculative applications fell on deaf ears she
tried her hand as a television extra in locally-filmed programmes such as Kay Mellor’s Syndicate; Emmerdale; and Monroe with James Nesbitt and worked as a runner.
The endless waiting around for shooting to be completed and the 16-hour days confirmed Grace’s conviction that it was the stage rather than the small screen where her future lay. “ There are long days in theatre but they don’t feel long as you are busy and there’s lots to do. In TV you are just waiting around then, at the end of the day, when you’ve been working for 16 hours they may only have completed a few seconds of footage.
Eventually, Grace’s dogged perseverance - and her relentless email campaign - paid off and she was taken on a dresser with Opera North, helping with the quick changes and lacing up ladies into their corsets. “The year I spent working backstage was brilliant. I worked on many of the operas and musical shows and, although I have experience of amateur dramatics, it gave me a real understanding of how professional theatre really works. The money wasn’t very good as it was seasonal but I was living at home at the time and it was a fantastic experience.”
During her stint backstage an apprenticeship came up with the Learning Team and Grace was accepted on to the programme. Her role, to learn all about the history of the theatre and share her knowledge through tours. workshops and by going out into the community speaking to schools and other local groups.
After successfully completing her 12-month tenure as an apprentice Grace was taken on as a full-time Heritage Learning Assistant and now also works with the youth theatre directing their shows and pulling costumes and props together. “I help out at rehearsals and then I deputy stage manage the show which is my favourite part,”she says.
To increase her professional knowledge Grace has shadowed some of the stage management team on West End shows Wicked, Phantom of the Opera and Oliver and feels this is where her ambition really lies. Competition is understandably very fierce and Grace is under no illusions that if she wants to take this path she will need to embark on a professional training course. She’s already taken the first step and has been recalled for a second interview with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Shaw were trained and the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts which numbers Kenn Stott and Amanda Holden among it alumini.
In her spare time, it’s no surprise that Grace, who lives in Headingly, likes to go to the theatre and is a frequent visitor to the West Yorkshire Playhouse as well as catching most of the shows at the Grand and the City Varieties where she works.
It’s clear she has no regrets about choosing the apprenticeship route. “Although I’m not 100 per cent confident I’ll be getting into drama school this year it was definitely the right thing for me to do as I had no idea what I wanted to do at 18.
I wouldn’t change this experience for anything I’ve met some amazing people and I’ve worked on some amazing shows. And when the Circus of Horors came to the City Varieties I became their ‘Girl in a bottle’ for a couple of shows which was a lot of fun. Luckily I’m quite flexible as I dance and do yoga. I was even squashed into a bottle for a couple of performances.”