Plays and concerts at Hurtwood House are spectacular – big casts, professional crew and talent scouts among the full-house audiences. Absolutely Education goes behind the scenes to find out more

Hurtwood House is, by anyone’s lights, serious about putting on a great show and these are productions above and beyond the typical school play. Big budgets and huge casts are involved, and with professional backstage crew. Shows are staged to a full-house audience every night – and each show runs for ten nights.

Locals lucky enough to get a ticket (there’s invariably a waiting list) describe it as like a trip to the West End right on their Dorking doorstep. There’s the frisson of knowing you might be among the first to see a future A-lister (or several). That’s also why talent spotters and agents head down for shows – they know Hurtwood has form. Harry Lawtey, Vivek Kalra, Celeste Dring, Honor Gillies, Toby Miles and, a little further back, Emily Blunt, Tom Mison and Nikki Amuka-Bird – and that’s just a few names to reckon with.

It has long been known as one of the places for GCSE and A-level students who want to pursue a career in stage or film, or wider creative fields. While not all students seek a career in the spotlight, there’s way more talent here than you might reasonably expect in a smallish (around 350 students) school. What’s also notable is how many of them are on that stage during one of the ‘spectaculars’ planned and staged throughout the year. For example, Legally Blonde, staged last December, involved a cast of 90, plus a further 15 backstage. “When you’ve suddenly got over 100 people involved in a major production, it feels like it runs through – it becomes the heartbeat of the school,” says Hurtwood House Head of Performing Arts Doug Quinn.

Show time at Hurtwood
Hurtwood House productions are large scale, and with professional crew and staging – the school relishes the challenge of giving everyone a key role

He’s been at Hurtwood House for 19 years, 12 of those years as department Head. Before that he worked as a professional director and at major London drama schools, so he’s seen some talent in his time, but this is something special. “It’s that middle ground between youth theatre and professional directing,” he says. “You are not trying to inspire them. They’re all wonderfully inspired and can’t wait to get started. But what they have got is these emerging skills that you are really helping to fine tune. You’re also opening their ideas to theatre practice, that acting is only one part of it – there are budding producers and designers, and choreographers and dance captains. And we try and give out some of those responsibilities across the shows.”

“One of the first things we say to the students when they arrive here and come for auditions is: ‘this isn’t a school play – we don’t do school plays'”

Hurtwood has a policy of never turning away students who audition. They find a role, even if it’s a small one. This means ensemble pieces on a grand scale. For instance, when the school staged Into the Woods, Sondheim’s musical reworking of classic fairytales, it grew the cast list from around 20 to 75. “So, then you think, ‘well what are we going to do with all these other people?’ says Doug Quinn.

The answer: physical theatre. For Into the Woods, they became narrators, forest folk, birds and human ‘props’, carrying the umbrellas to create a beanstalk. Necessity is the mother of invention, and this style has become a school USP – audiences love it. “The mechanics of theatre are quite often just as interesting to watch for an audience. We try and not do blackouts between scenes, for example. Because if you’ve got a cast of 90 you can do something really theatrical with the change of mood and scene and atmosphere.”

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A Hurtwood production of Grease – the school’s ensemble casts present challenges and also opportunities for all students to learn stagecraft

It’s a great way to do storytelling, but also a technical and physical challenge for cast and crew. Hurtwood spends money on staging – up to £100,000 for its Christmas show – and brings in professional backstage talent. “It’s obviously a huge joy for me as I get to work with another director; I get to work with a full technical team. I have a costume designer, a lighting designer a stage set designer a production stage manager. We have a professional DSM who comes in and runs the tech side for us.”

With really high standards in production, this is a real taste of what life on the West End or Broadway stage might be like. It raises standards across the board – but high standards are expected at Hurtwood. “We aspire to that, and one of the first things we say to the students when they arrive here and come for auditions is: ‘this isn’t a school play – we don’t do school plays’.” And, of course, with a ten-night run, this is a huge commitment for staff and students – giving students a real insight into the demands of a professional theatre role.

“Not everyone is going to go into the acting world, but it is going to give them that sense of being able to collaborate and work together”

Since most productions are musicals, there are all these other elements involved – dance, choreography, singing. Doug Quinn doesn’t buy the snobbery sometimes attached to musical theatre. “Yes, you need to be able to sing and act and dance, but your peripheral understanding in a musical – learning choreography, listening to vamp bars, working with beats, singing in close harmony, picking up a prop, multi-rolling – It’s a huge demand.” While not everyone can be a star in such huge shows, everyone plays their vital part, and this becomes a tight-knit collaborative exercise. “Not everyone is going to go into theatre, and acting is only one part of theatre, but it is going to give them that sense of being able to collaborate and work together. Whatever your background, seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes and being able to get on with people is the secret to life.”

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Legally Blonde at Hurtwood. High standards of professionalism are expected, and students rise to the challenge – balancing performing commitments with their studies

The fact that students do all this while undertaking the usual pressures of schoolwork in preparation for GCSEs and A levels (and Hurtwood achieves excellent results), makes the scale of its shows all the more remarkable. Doug Quinn has a favourite saying that students all know (and sometimes tease him about – ‘if you’re on time, you’re late”. This all feeds into the school’s culture of high standards of professionalism – of getting students ready for an unforgiving world. “They’re allowed to have egos while they’re here. They’re allowed to get it wrong, they’re allowed to make mistakes, and moan to their parents and turn up late for rehearsals and get told off,” he says. “You can learn those things here, in a safe environment, where everybody will forgive you – but there is an expectation…”

It’s an expectation that students more than rise to – and Doug Quinn says the atmosphere across the school is magical when show time dawns. “It is that energy that is difficult to quantify. If you could bottle it and open it, I think you’d be a millionaire. It’s deeply contagious, and when you’ve got 90 people all feeling that way, it’s brilliant.” If you can beg, steal or borrow a seat in the audience, the next Hurtwood show is definitely one of the hottest tickets around.

Hurtwood House

Further reading: Drama escape – Trinity Theatre’s Speech Bubbles programme