In their own words, L-J and Emily Keston talk about the highs and lows of founding an inspirational London stage school…
My sister and I have loved everything about theatre for as long as we can remember. We were around three when we pointed at the TV and said, ‘We want to be in there!’
Both sets of grandparents had danced, and our mother was an actress. Our dad also did all sorts of different sketches, so we were immersed in performing from a young age.
We were able to attend a local dance school in Yorkshire and from there we worked on various ITV dramas.
Emily was in Annie on tour when she was six, and we worked on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang together.
Mum would take us on the train to London, but in terms of stage schools, there wasn’t anything outside of London for us. Even when my sister and I played the Dolly sisters in Mr Selfridge as teenagers – our last acting job – we went back and forth all the time from Yorkshire to London.
We both ended up going to uni, but decided to run a drama workshop for kids during the summer holidays while back home with mum. We put a call out for children aged 7-12, saying if they wanted the opportunity to work with people in the industry they could come along, and we got an overwhelming response.
It was a one-off workshop that covered all theatre skills and both us and the kids loved it. That got us thinking. There were stage schools that had opened up north, but we wanted to do something unique, inclusive and affordable.
We decided to try and get our idea, Stagebox, started once we’d finished university. We literally put our own money into a small studio. It was important to us that we were self-starters.
Our dad, who passed away last year, was a businessman, and he taught us to have a strong work ethic, so we were inspired to do it all ourselves. We wanted to run short, intensive courses and to create the industry experience that we knew kids got in London.
Entry into Stagebox is by audition-only as opposed to paid-for enrolment. It’s what sets us apart. That’s really just to assess their love for it. We saw 8,000 children last year, and we have 32 places per division, so it’s competitive.
This year we have some exciting celebrity guests, but at first we had local theatre show directors to help us out. We’re looking for potential. Some children have never done a class in their life, but they may have natural star quality.
I can spot it by the way some kids act in the queue. It’s just a sparkle that lights up a room. The audition day mirrors our curriculum.
If they’re offered a place, the four weeks is a mixture of musical theatre, television and film training, with some video shoots and audition preparation weeks.
A lot of people associate child stars with pushy parents, but this isn’t the case. Both the parents and children need to be resilient, and as the industry can seem quite closed, we’re conscious to make it all feel friendly and relaxed.
Our experience of being child actors obviously helps us. We definitely had nerves at auditions when we were growing up, but it’s the people in the room who put you at ease.
We always say to the kids to be their best, because their best is good enough for us. They will probably remember their first audition for the rest of their lives, so we have to make it positive. For many, it has been.
We’re so proud of our success stories and love seeing our kids do well. When we met Matthew Illesley, now 10, he had come along from Gloucester with his siblings, who were actually the ones auditioning.
But we saw him in the queue and said he had that natural star quality. Two years later he landed Rocket Man, where he played a young Elton John.
One of our girls, Isobel Khan, gave us such a proud moment with her role as Annie in the West End. She came to Stagebox with no previous experience, very young, and she had an amazing voice, but again she took many years to achieve what she did.
She ended up going to Toronto on tour with the show, and was the first mixed race Annie. To have diversity on stage is so important. At one point we had all three Annies in the West End, sharing the leading role at the same time.
One of our students, Millie Kiss, has a story that’s without doubt the saddest moment for Stagebox. She lost her mum in the Manchester bomb attacks. We all knew and loved Michelle, and I think she would be so proud of what Millie has achieved, and her resilience.
She went to France, out of that tragedy, and she’s now shooting a feature film, and she’s away, independent and hard-working. That is what makes her a true star, she hasn’t let what happened define her.
We’re so passionate about children from all backgrounds being able to access training and opportunities. We’re actually just about to launch a government-funded scheme to help with this. To add to that, we do a monthly membership plan, which means if people can’t afford it, we break down the costs.
It depends on the location, but we have an extensive scheme of scholarships and bursaries. We fund them ourselves from our savings, so where children are on scholarships from low-income backgrounds, we also pay for their travel, their lunch and uniform and other things, to make sure everyone is treated the same.
The children are all professionally chaperoned to auditions, and sometimes the parents are allowed to go with them when they film. They’re looked after very well by the production teams.
In the last five years, we’ve been doing such extensive casting processes that we were approached to cast children ourselves, which is where our second company, Keston & Keston, was formed.
We’re independent casting directors and children’s managers, and we see kids from all over the country, from hundreds of agencies. We even produced the UK premiere of A Little Princess and worked with Arlene Phillips to cast it.
Don’t be intimidated by stage schools. The kids have a lot of fun and make friends for life. Stagebox is all about talent and longevity. And hey, you may not be the next Hollywood star, but you are special. We love discovering our new little stars.
– Monthly courses at Stagebox start at £81. Entry is via audition only. To book one fill out the application at stageboxmusicaltheatre.co.uk Audition workshops are £20. For more information call 02073057457