Famous415 return to Gosforth Civic Theatre on Saturday 17 October for the first time in seven months, and, after a period of trepidation, anticipation and adaptation, they can't wait to settle back in to the place they call home.
Until March 2020 Saturdays at Gosforth Civic Theatre were a hive of activity; bursting with ideas, energy and creativity from the nearly 100 strong community of children, young people and family members who attend Famous415, a theatre school ran by Founder and Principal, Katherine Monaco.
"We offer all performance arts training; singing, dancing and acting classes; to children and young people aged 3 to 18. But really we do a lot more than that, we are a family.”
Katherine's a multi-talented performer in her own right, she started the Theatre School in her native Newcastle in 2001, and continued to grow it alongside other lines of work which take her all over the world. But something keeps her committed and coming back to Famous.
"I love it, I love what it represents and how happy it makes young people to be part of it. I have built it over a long period of time with the support of a wonderful team. It’s successful, always populated and we feel like we’re now at home at Gosforth Civic Theatre - which, to be honest after having had my own studio for so long, I never thought I’d feel that way again”
"Famous started in 2001, when I was very, very, very young! My nieces were very little at the time and we started it because they went to other [theatre] schools in the area and they just weren’t getting out of it what we thought they would. I was still a student, a freshman in the music industry, had a dance background with a natural business sense, odd combination I know, and wanted my nieces to continue training and be exposed to training that I never had the luxury of when I was a child. So we started with one school, then we had two, three, four…..we had schools all over the North east! We eventually got our own Famous Studios in Jesmond and pooled everything together under one roof. We ran that facility for 7 days a week, full time and so I totally appreciate what you’re going through at the Theatre.”
"We had an amazing studio in the heart of the city. It was the second biggest studio to Dance City. It was loved and used by all sort of artists from all over the country from Strictly Come Dancing, Got to Dance, Scottish Ballet, Opera north and many other wonderful creative arts companies. The awesome guys at Northern Stage moved in every Christmas to craft their Christmas production before they took it to the Theatre. With Famous 4.15, I always wanted to give young people the opportunity to see and be part of real life industry experience, I wanted them to believe that if that’s what they wanted to do as a career and they had a dream, there was nothing stopping them and so seeing all of those wonderful artists working on exciting projects brought that vision to life”
That relationship with Gosforth Civic Theatre bloomed from the moment Katherine came over in Autumn 2016, only a couple of months after we opened our doors, to meet our Building Manager, Joseph and take a look inside a venue she didn't know existed until that point.
"Joseph showed me around the facilities, gave me an idea of the vision of the place, told me about Liberdade and their ethos - and we shared such a similar ethos. It felt like I did walking into my own studio but I had just walked in it for the first time.
"I felt really at home and I felt a real sense of synergy. I settled straight away, the team loved it, our clients loved it, and the great cafe was a bonus!
"I knew from the first meeting that I wanted to be part of it, and I was very hopeful that the relationship would work between the two companies. It’s important that the kids feel like it’s their space, that they have a connection with it; it’s a gem in the heart of the community and needs to be supported. If I can tell our clients about it and they can tell someone else, who tells someone else then hopefully it will always be supported. It’s now a vitally important part of the community."
The ethos that Famous have built and live by are very close to that of Liberdade, the charity who run Gosforth Civic Theatre and how they approach working with people with learning disabilities. At Liberdade it's not about how talented you are or what you can do, its about belonging first and then finding and developing your skills to contribute to the organisation.
"We like to support young people, to empower them to feel confident to be themselves and give them the self belief that they can achieve. Social skills and feeling confident is paramount and it’s important that they can take those skills into all other elements of society now and in their futures. Famous4.15 is about kindness, inclusivity, escapism and it’s about having a sense of belonging - which is where I think we share an ethos with Liberdade."
"Children and young people need to feel supported, nurtured and feel like they ‘can’ and it’s important for us guys who have been in the industry for a very long time to make them feel just that. Not necessarily because they want a career in the business - which we support too - they might just want to feel good at the school disco or singing in front of the mirror with their hairbrush; it doesn’t matter to us, everyone gets the same treatment."
“Equality, supportiveness, inclusivity, having a voice and all of those things that make them feel like they belong to something, that’s really important to us. I think creative arts is also an escapism for not just kids but for adults. It’s good for mental health, it’s good to support a positive attitude. A creative outlet is a really valuable thing and it needs to be valued. If we don’t all support one another throughout this very difficult time, there will be none of that to go back to. So at this time it’s crucial that we fight to have a voice and give young people a voice; even though it feels like our voices are not being heard at the present time, in time with enough support, they will be.”
The COVID-19 crisis brought the first extended break Famous have taken in 19 years, and like many other companies and businesses, it has brought a unique and unprecedented set of challenges. Breaking off a conference call for another coronavirus-hit business of hers to speak to GCT, Katherine is reflective but determined to come through the adversity.
"We were just at such a good place. More than anything, it’s just sad. It’s sad for everyone involved; it’s sad for our relationship with the Theatre, it’s sad for the kids, it’s sad for our team; there’s so many off shoots to creative arts businesses, most people are self-employed and unsupported; it’s awful.
"For about four weeks we were shellshocked, we’d never cancelled a class since 2001. I don’t have time off, it’s just not part of what I do. Initially it took a lot just to get our heads around what had happened, we felt numb and didn’t know the best way to respond.”
However a plan formulated that set Famous on a path to be able to reopen their classes this coming weekend.
"The most important thing for us was to unite as a team to make sure we were all on the same page. We were determined to fight the fight, we were determined to continue, and we were determined to still have a business at the end of it. That business may well be different and we may have to adapt and respond and change, but we were very willing to do anything it took.
"As far as our children and clients were concerned we thought transparent communication was key. We wouldn't have the business we have if it wasn’t for the loyal and supportive clientele who we’ve had for many years. So it was important to make sure we were making well rounded, well founded decisions about how we were going to approach a reopening.
"We asked clients how they felt about it all, what they would like to do, how safe they felt and what adaptations would make them feel confident if they were return to Famous415 and Gosforth Civic Theatre. We’ve made a plan of action around how they wanted to move forward.
"The whole model has changed completely and may continue to change, but we hope we have now got it to a point where everyone feels that it’s the safest environment we could possibly provide.”
Alongside formulating the plan to return, Katherine and the team came in to GCT over the summer to record a full digital and online performing arts programme that they then sent to their participants so they got to see their teachers and the faces they were familiar with.
"It was great way to bridge the gap and still offer full training. It was a lot of hard work but a great creative process and a success, the kids had a blast, as did the team! It was good for morale and awesome to be able to reach out and still provide a quality service. But if we’re honest, we can’t recreate what is so special about Famous 4.15 and Gosforth Civic Theatre and fit it all into the size of an iPhone! We’re all about being with people, connecting with people and creating a vibe, that’s what we do so we want to be back in the studio, like, yesterday doing just that!
“I have to be honest, it’s been more than difficult. But, we’re fighters, we’re positive, we’re united, we’ve adapted, changed and made it happen so everything crossed we reopen again in October!"
One of the things that makes Gosforth Civic Theatre so vibrant from week to week is the amount of people passing through the building, taking part in activities on evenings and weekends, creating and building communities through shared love of arts and creativity. Famous 415 are a massive part of that and we can't wait to have them back.
Find out more about Famous415 by visiting famous415.co.uk.