If it wasn’t for the influence of one university professor, Daniel Stoddart might well have been writing this article instead of being its subject. Now an award-winning actor, director, producer and the founder of Hunter Drama, Stoddart had somewhat reluctantly embarked down the path towards a Communications degree when the Head of the Drama Department at the University of Newcastle, Professor Victor Emeljanow, wrote what was to be a career-changing letter.
“Drama has always been a part of my life in one way or another… but it wasn’t until I got to university that I really took it seriously,” Stoddart said.
“I failed drama in the HSC, so it’s kind of ironic that I’m doing all this stuff now. It just goes to show how unimportant the HSC is, I guess.
“Mum was like, ‘You’re a bit of a performer. You could be a newsreader or something,’… so I went and started doing Communications (at university).
“As part of that, you could do ten credit points of an introduction to drama. The Head of Drama wrote me a letter at the end of first-year drama and said, ‘You’ve got such a flair for drama. Why don’t you do some more drama subjects – this (can be) a career path’.
“And I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do that,’ so I dropped Communications totally and did just all drama subjects, much to my parents’ fear and worry, I guess.”
At the same time that he was learning the finer details of the craft at university, Stoddart was passing on his knowledge to the next generation, hosting drama masterclasses at various public schools across the region.
Part-time work with place activation organisation Newcastle Live Sites also saw Stoddart gain arts administration skills while putting on and singing in the acclaimed Ultra Swing Lounge musical show offered a practical insight into the world of performing arts production.
Fast forward a few years and Stoddart was at a crossroads in his career. After graduating from university he had auditioned for and been accepted into Australia’s most prestigious drama school, National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) – before almost inexplicably turning it down.
Instead, he decided to combine all the skills and experience he had so far accumulated to focus on the development of his own fledgeling drama school – Hunter Drama.
Originally known as the Hunter Region Drama School, it began its life in a small hall at Glendale in April 2007 following repeated requests from the students in his masterclasses who wanted to learn more.
Beginning with just six students, the concept quickly gained momentum and by its second week around 26 eager thespians had joined in.
By the end of its first year, the drama school had welcomed more than 126 students into its ranks, and it was not long before that number doubled again to hover around the 300 mark.
“Hunter Drama came along when I was really at a crossroads,” Stoddart said.
“I started it, and I said to myself, ‘I’ll do this for three years, I’ll just give it a go, and then I’ll move on and do something else, I’ll go on and do my acting for myself.’ But here we are 12 years later, and I love it.
“Over the years, we’ve just continued to grow. We’ve got about 450 students that come every week now, and it’s grown from not just classes in Newcastle, but we also run classes in Cessnock, Singleton, and East Maitland as well.
“We’ve got that big pool that we're drawing from now, into the Upper Hunter as well, which is really exciting.”
Aside from a name change, Hunter Drama has also had several venue changes over the years, with their most recent move seeing them set up a dedicated office and rehearsal space in Broadmeadow.
Moving into the two-storey building in 2016 represented a major milestone in the development of Hunter Drama, which over the years has firmly established itself as the region’s premier independent training facility for young people in the dramatic arts.
“I can count on one hand the significant business growth milestones (of Hunter Drama), in terms of where we are now,” Stoddart said.
“One of them would be moving the office out of our garage at home, into a real office. That was nice.
“And one of them is definitely moving in here. Our enrollments jumped up by about 50, just by being here on Brunker Road with a sign out front.
“All the challenges of renting school halls and things like that, people forgetting keys and schools double booking, all of those stressful things just don’t happen anymore.
“Moving here was a turning point. It allowed us to have space at our disposal. It means that the office staff can communicate directly with the tutors, and vice versa. If a tutor is away, one of us just jumps in and teaches the class.
“The space also gets used by other companies as well, so there's a really nice synergy between other companies and Hunter Drama, both working out of the same building simultaneously. It’s just nice networking across different companies.
“Nice creative opportunities have come up that would not have ordinarily come up if we didn’t have this space. We’re just about to start to run A Musical in a Week Program, where kids come and rehearse and stage and costume the whole thing in one week.
“We were not able to do those sorts of things before, but now, having the space, we can put whatever we want in it.”
Hunter Drama caters for young people between the ages of 3 and 21, with dynamic learning opportunities in stage acting, screen acting, musical theatre, design, directing and writing. They offer a range of experiences, including term classes, short courses, masterclasses, productions and more.
Among the most popular offerings is the Young Actors Program, which exposes kids to the fundamental concepts of being on a stage.
Stoddard said the program features a world-class drama syllabus designed to cater specifically to each age group and their skill level.
Industry professional tutors facilitate supportive, inclusive, energetic and fun drama classes that aim to build confidence and creativity in each and every student.
“We treat the five-year-olds just as we would treat professional actors, tailored to their age groups,” he said.
“And you come here to learn not just the craft of acting and the discipline of it but also the industry etiquette as well. If you go to a rehearsal, or you go to an audition, what you need to prepare. What you need to wear, how you need to look, how you need to engage with the people on the audition panel. All of that kind of professional realm, we look at as well.
“We do this for two reasons; for kids that do want to take it really seriously, but also just helping them for when they go for job interviews and things like that, all of those transferable skills.”
Hunter Drama’s Musical Theatre Program is also incredibly popular, incorporating dance, movement and vocals as well as acting.
“Kids that take both those courses can audition for our musicals and our plays so they can actually put into practice the skills that they’re learning in the classes,” Stoddart said.
“If anybody ever shows particular promise, or approaches us about wanting to take it seriously, we mentor them and guide them in a direction that could set up a career path for them.
“We help them audition for some of the big drama schools in Australia, help them find an agent, help them find somebody to take headshots, all those sorts of things as well.
“We’ve had people that have gone on to NIDA, we've got people who have gone on to WAAPA, which is the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts, where Hugh Jackman went.
“There are others that have just pursued careers straight out of here, getting an agent and going on to auditions. We’ve got people who now have an agent in Los Angeles, some that have an agent based here in Australia and at the moment we’ve got two students that are in the production of Hair that’s on down at the Sydney Opera House.
“One of the best examples of how Hunter Drama can change a person and where it can take them is a kid called Will Parker. Will started when he was seven or eight, and he was the shyest kid I ever met. He clung onto his mum’s leg; he wouldn't get up and be involved in the games, he’d sit over to the side.
“And that kid is now studying at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, where Robin Williams went. He just started last week.
“To go from that to that, is the most warming thing, knowing that we’ve impacted that kid so heavily.
“I still remember the first time he performed a lead role in one of our shows. It was a janitor in Bugsy Malone. He had a solo song. I remember when he walked out to do his solo the very first time and eyeballed the audience, he just went white as a sheet.
“But by the end of that week, after he’d done it multiple times, he was a different person. It was miraculous; it was like being touched by the hand of God. There was no stopping him after that, he just grew and grew and grew, and now he’s off studying in one of the biggest acting schools in the world.”
But the benefits of attending this remarkable drama school go far beyond just training the next generation of actors and actresses to industry level – Hunter Drama also has a far more simple and holistic aim.
“Although our primary focus is offering drama and acting opportunities for kids in the forms of courses, workshops and production opportunities where they can audition to perform on stage, we also use drama and acting as a vehicle basically to develop young people into the best versions of themselves possible,” Stoddart said.
“We try to inspire them to find out what’s possible for themselves in their own life, to get them to think outside the box, to nurture them and encourage them to get them to take risks in their performance.
“We’re really passionate about developing young people because we know that they’re the future and we’d like to change the future by inspiring them to be the best versions of themselves possible.
“The two kind of go hand-in-hand, the professional industry level training and the holistic approach because to be really good at anything we believe you need to be good at being yourself first.
“Having that kind of confidence and positivity about yourself as a person is particularly important for young people in this day and age. The world just knocks it out of you so quickly.
“But, being able to feel confident in your own skin reflects then on everything else you do in your life.
“There have been many studies that show when someone has that sense of belonging and that sense of comfort in themselves; then their academic records go up as well at the same time.
‘So it’s immeasurable, the ways drama can affect you as a person.”
Stoddart believes being exposed to creative and performing arts offers so many benefits for children, regardless of whether they’re up on stage themselves or just enjoying the show from the audience.
“There are so many benefits of exposing kids to drama, even if it’s just going along and buying a ticket and watching a piece of live theatre,” he said.
“It’s such a foreign concept to some kids, but when they sit there, and they watch this game of make-believe going on in front of them, it just blows their mind.
“It gets quite addictive as well because you want to see more. You kind of go, ‘What is this strange stuff, people getting up and pretending to be something else in front of me?’ They watch movies and things like that, but that's so far removed. When you’re in a room with people dressed up in front of you, pretending to be something else, it’s a really interesting dynamic that happens there.
“So whether it's just watching a piece of drama or pursuing a drama interest on stage, everybody takes something different from it.
“You get what you need from it, which is what I think makes it really special.”
Visit www.hunterdrama.com.au for more details about all Hunter Drama’s upcoming productions and the various training courses on offer.
PETER PAN JR.
For parents who have never taken their children to a live performance before, Hunter Drama’s upcoming production of Peter Pan JR offers a taste of theatre in a perfect, bite-sized 60-minute package.
One of the most beloved family musicals of all time, the magical tale of Peter Pan will be brought to life on the majestic Civic Theatre stage during October under the expert guidance of acclaimed director James Tolhurst.
“It’s pretty special to go to the Civic Theatre, to look up just before the show starts at the architecture in there, and to be in a room with 1400 other people watching something, is an amazing experience,” Stoddart said.
“The good thing about Peter Pan is that it’s a junior show, which means it’s an adaption of the full-length show down to a 60-minute version.
“There’s no interval, no intermission, it’s just one hour, and that’s it, you’re in and out, so parents with really young kids don’t have to worry about attention spans and things like that. It’s a real bite-size introduction, which is great.”
Fifty of the Hunter’s brightest young musical theatre performers from Hunter Drama will present a lavish, large-scale production of this high-flying, Tony Award-winning musical, which has been delighting audiences around the world for more than 60 years.
The cast has been preparing for the show for the past three months, while those performers in the lead roles recently stepped up their training by undertaking “flying lessons” with world-leading production company Showtech in Melbourne.
Stoddart said the quality of the show was so high that Hunter Drama was also going to take the show over to London in May next year to perform at the Junior Theatre Festival in Birmingham.
Before then however, Hunter audiences can check Peter Pan JR out for themselves when it takes to the stage at the Civic Theatre for six magical performances across October 10, 11 and 12.
Tickets are on sale now through Ticketek, with adults at children’s prices – a fitting arrangement when it comes to a show depicting the land where no-one ever grows up!