The Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts is Britain's and the world's oldest theatre arts training school. It grew out of the first production of the play that was to become a children's classic 'Where The Rainbow Ends'. Italia Conti who was then an established actress was invited by the producer Charles Hawtrey to teach the children for the first production of 'Where the Rainbow Ends' which opened at the Savoy Theatre in 1911.
After the Hawtrey engagement, during which Italia discovered her natural gift for managing children, she virtually gave up her career as an actress and devoted her time to teaching young people to dance, sing, act and speak! So the school was born in a basement studio in London's Great Portland Street.
Italia Conti became an important figure in the theatre, she was known as the British Theatre's Governess, being instrumental in changing the 1903 Employment of Children Act. The value of her work was recognised in 1918 when she was asked by the then Minister for Education to sit on the advisory committee to deal with regulations affecting children on the stage. It was largely because of Italia Conti's unimpeachable authority as a teacher that her main points were carried and the licensing of children was transferred from local magistrates to the individual child's own education authority, which remains the procedure today.
It was a devastating blow for the schools future, but ever enterprising, Italia and Bianca moved the school to their home in Bournemouth. As the war news improved so did Italia's and she relocated back to London and managed to keep the 'Rainbow' on the road. This saved the school from extinction. It did not miss a season in London despite the bombing and the loss of the Holborn Empire Theatre that had been home to 'Rainbow' for 19 years.
The war years and the continued running of the school took its toll on the 72 year old Italia Conti. She did not recover from a serious illness and died in 1946.
Italia Conti said in a news paper interview as far back as 1930: "- that her day-dream is for some nice, kind millionaire to come along and offer to 'back' her, and then she would start a real academy, a type of boarding school where everything from the three R's to stagecraft would be taught…"
The Italia Conti Academy's charitable Trust made provision for scholarships for gifted Associate school children to train at the full time Academy. This talent search, together with further scholarships from the Trust for children and students has resulted in many hundreds of talented young people being able to train full time at the Academy in London and many more benefiting from part-time training. Many of these young people are now enjoying success in television, theatre, film and the music industry.
The Academy also expanded its theatrical Agency, under the direction of Gaynor Sheward, and included a management company to help their students and graduates secure professional engagements in all media worldwide.
Samantha Newton (formally Sheward) and her family founded the Italia Conti Arts Centre in Guildford in 2004, which offers a variety of full time performing arts courses together with all the current recognised teacher training qualifications as well as a range of part-time and short courses.
The Theatre Arts secondary school also ensured children aged between 10 and 16 years not only progressed to student courses with the necessary vocational skills but also achieved highly academically, receiving excellent results and topping government league tables in the area.
A variety of new 'short' courses were introduced, from summer schools to one year foundation and intensive courses in the performing arts.
The Academy's influence was to reach out further, with the decision to expand the part time school base to encourage more participation within local communities. The Italia Conti Associate Schools were founded in 1995 and are operated at various sites around the country working to a similar vocational curriculum as the full time school. Children as young as three were now enjoying Conti's own brand of acting, song and movement without having to travel to London.
Education was changing. Grants for students aged 16+ from local Education Authority's were no longer the norm' and were replaced by funding from central government, leading to recognised qualifications in dance, drama and musical theatre via the Dance & Drama Award scheme (DaDA).
Avondale Hall, the Academy's former home, had been retained and had already become a performance facility with studios for acting workshops and plays. It soon became 'home' again to the Academy's new, successful BA Honours Acting Degree course, initiated by son, Graham, which was quickly accredited by the NCDT and produces excellent work in the classroom as well as in performance. Anne Sheward, as Principal, restructured the 16+ three year Performing Arts Diploma course to include more performance opportunities.
Students would spend a large part of each week in the final (third) year operating as 'repertory style' companies performing in Shakespeare tours, dance and musicals projects. She added more contextual studies to the curriculum and devised the highly regarded and innovative Personal and Professional Development (PPD) provision into the curriculum, allowing the students to devise, develop, create and show their own work. This was recognised as an invaluable learning experience for students which has been adopted by many other schools and applauded by the Education inspectors.
In 1984, and following a hugely successful TV documentary, the school moved again to its current home in the Barbican which provided much needed additional dance, drama and acting studios as well as the introduction of modern video and recording technology. Eve and Don Sheward felt that the time was coming to hand over the running of the School to their children, who had enjoyed successful careers in acting, dance and singing. A new generation that would cater for different vocational demands and the ever-increasing use of technology. Their three daughters, Anne, Samantha & Gaynor and son, Graham would lead the school into the 21st Century and although their son decided to take up 'pastures new', the girls continue to bring new initiatives to the school while retaining the Conti traditions.
This led to an enormous conundrum, with original suggestions bordering on the absurd when it was initially suggested that to satisfy both 'councils' criteria students would have to undertake 3 years of independent training in each discipline – (3 years following an acting course and 3 years following a dance course), if the school was to obtain duel 'accreditation'. The suggested change was an anathema to an institution that had produced so many renowned multi-skilled entertainers. It went against the whole 'Conti' tradition of providing simultaneous training in three art forms.
Eve Sheward took her fight to the highest political and educational levels. Her argument that any student wanting to excel in both dance and drama would have to train for 6 year, and a possible further 3 if singing was to be included, would result in 9 years of training, enormous expense and most students not entering the profession until mid or late 20's at the earliest! Her pressure led to a proposal that both Councils should conduct a joint accreditation assessment of the Italia Conti Academy. The NCDT declined, stating that it did not feel competent to assess the school's dance and singing components.
This left the CDET to finally recognise the value of a proper and necessary multi-skilled Performing Arts / Musical Theatre training, and after a long and tough struggle the school received its accreditation to carry on as it had always done thus paving the way for other institutions to follow.
The new owners of the Italia Conti Stage School not only carried on the schools tradition but also raised its academic standard. The school applied for and gained recognition from the Department of Education and Science. A first for a stage school! This meant the school was now eligible for grants in the form of local education authority discretionary awards which allowed Eve Sheward to offer places to talented young people from diverse social backgrounds. Many of today's established performers would not have been able to train without this financial support.
The school became affluent and influential, new courses were introduced to cater for the changing demand of the profession. The school formed its own dance troupes who enjoyed success in cabaret, theatre and television.
As a result of its new reputation and with ever changing trends, the Italia Conti Stage School officially became known as The Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. Shortly after the name change it became apparent that Italia Conti's distinctive format of 'all-round – triple threat' training in acting, singing and dance was under threat. It quickly became obvious that with the introduction of two new independent training assessment 'councils' – The Council for Dance Education & Training (CDET) and The National Council for Drama Training (NCDT) to look at performance based training standards, neither were qualified to assess the Italia Conti School's multi skilled courses.
Where the Rainbow Ends was performed for the last time in 1959. After 48 years of continuous Christmas holiday time showing and countless charitable funds raised for hospital cots through the Rainbow League, the Children's play that inspired Italia Conti disappeared into theatre history.
Exactly one year later the school moved again, this time to Avondale Hall, where it stayed until 1984.
In 1968 Ruth Conti passed the school to trusted friends and colleagues, Eve & Don Sheward, although she remained teaching part time and acted as an invaluable educational consultant - she was also a fundraiser for the Royal Academy of Dance. She finally retired in 1977 and returned to her native land, Australia.
A part of Ruth Conti's inheritance was the running of the school. Her first responsibility was to find new premises, a difficult task in bomb ravaged London. After a long search she found the perfect building in the heart of London's theatre land. Although the studios were eagerly prepared for class the roof was missing! A major problem! With very little money and a huge bill for repairs and no planning permission - Ruth looked for help. Her friends and ex-pupils rallied around her, a 'fund raising' party was planned. All the local Counsellors were invited to see the changes she had already made and to welcome the school back to London. The actor Charles Hawtrey organised all the music and volunteered to play the piano while the Conti Students acted as hosts to the distinguished guests and used all their best persuasive acting skills! Not only was planning permission given but also the school secured a grant to cover all the building works!
The school was soon re-opened and the re-building of 12 Archer Street provided the impetus for a number of changes. A general education component of up to four hours a day was added to the school curriculum.
Annual assessments for students were put on a more formal and rigorous basis and students were challenged to prove themselves worthy candidates before progressing to the next year of training.
This progressive process has been adopted by most full time theatre schools, performing arts colleges
and acting institutions and it is now a recognised part of student life and professional development.
Despite the enormous loss of its founder, the devastating war and her personal sacrifice, Ruth Conti maintained the standards and dreams of her aunt and led the Italia Conti Stage School pupils to even more success in a dramatically changing Britain. Her reputation and the school's continued to be much sought after and she was often consulted by the Home Office regarding working conditions for children in the Theatre. In 1949 she wrote:
"The 'professional' child's life is different from the 'normal' child. Their days are full and work is a pleasure, and intense disappointment and even real unhappiness would result if they were unable to continue. Unlike the average child, at quite an early age they discover what they want to do when they grow up and the specialised training and performing enables them to fulfill their desire whilst still carrying on with ordinary education. Stage children are quicker, more individual and livelier than the average child, they are self reliant, well balanced, courteous and understanding. Their faces are eager and alert their bodies graceful. They develop charm, they cultivate good-manners, and those who do not continue on the stage find that their training and theatrical performance have given them poise, quiet assurance and confidence, which is invaluable to them whatever career they eventually follow. My precept is always; Work hard children, learn your job, and aim to become a credit to the great profession of which you aspire to be members."
In 1931 Italia's young niece Ruth Conti arrived from Australia. Ruth, who was a gifted singer, thought it was an excellent opportunity to spend time with her famous aunt and further her interest in the performing arts. In between her singing lessons with the celebrated Farini she studied with both her aunts, Italia Conti & Bianca Murray. Their unbreakable bond was to continue for many years. Ruth Conti was soon taking charge of 'Where the Rainbow Ends' rehearsal tours and deputising for Italia and Bianca in classes. The school continued to produce stars of the theatre and British film industry even as war was declared in 1939. Ruth joined the ATS and rose to officer rank. She worked tirelessly as an officer and volunteered for, and was put in charge of troupe entertainment. However, on the night of 10th May 1941 German bombs blasted the Italia Conti Stage School building out of existence. 14 Lambs Conduit Street was destroyed. Although all documents and records were lost, luckily the cast and children were absent as 'Rainbow' was on tour in the provinces.
Italia Conti, founder of the Italia Conti Academy
A poster and badge from 'Where The Rainbow Ends'
A newspaper article from March 1939 showing Italia Conti with her students
Images from the original play pictorial of 'Where The Rainbow Ends'
Golden Jubilee celebrations
12 Archer Street, Westminster; the home of Italia Conti from around the end of the war until 1960
'Avondale Hall'; home of Italia Conti from 1960 - 1984 and current home of Italia Conti's Acting courses
Class photo from 1979
Italia Conti students meeting the queen
Don & Eve Steward with a Conti celebration cake
TV documentary, including Lena Zavaroni, Amanda Mealing & Bonnie Langford
Anne Sheward, principle of the London Academy
A selection of photos from an Italia Conti show in the early 90's
Italia Conti's pioneering policy and belief that children and young people would have more opportunity
to work if trained in all 3 disciplines proved innovative and is still current today.
No one should underestimate the scale of Italia Conti's achievements and influence. Her innovative school has given the performing arts in Britain and throughout the world some of its brightest stars and provided work for thousands of others. It is internationally known and attracts young people from all walks of life. As the school celebrates its 100th Anniversary we marvel at the fact that throughout its history the Academy has only had 4 principals. The founder, Italia Conti, her niece, Ruth Conti, Eve Sheward and her daughter the current principal, Anne Sheward. These remarkable women have altered the lives of so many young gifted people and their contribution to the performing arts world is beyond repute.
To quote the founder; "Face life's adventure without fear, till safely home where the rainbow ends". Italia Conti (1911)
Goswell Road, Barbican; the current home of the London Academy
Italia Conti Arts Centre, Guildford; home of the Performing Arts & Teacher Training Courses
A selection of photos from the Italia Conti centenary show 2011, celebrating 100 years of Italia Conti
Children dancing & playing at Italia Conti