This lovely article featured on OxMag.co.uk in June. It’s all about how I started Open Stage Arts, and how it has developed. 

As you watch Claire Waite Brown leap around a stage, laughing and dancing, it’s hard to believe that three years ago she was suffering with panic attacks and anxiety.

With her father suffering with Dementia with Lewy Bodies, and the pressures of work and home responsibilities, she realised that her life needed an injection of fun. Claire, now aged 47, decided to add some ‘me time’ into her schedule and, inspired by her children’s performing arts classes, decided to set up something similar for adults who needed some time and space to focus on themselves. She dusted off her previously unused degree in dance and related arts and Open Stage Arts was born!

Her informal classes are aimed at people who have limited, little or even no experience in acting and singing technique, and who don’t want the stress and hassle of learning lines and auditioning.

A loyal group of regulars plus new joiners attend the weekly sessions at Rose Hill Community Centre, Oxford, enjoying the talent of a pool of actors, singers, directors, musical directors and vocal coaches who teach different disciplines including anything from improvisation, devising, physical theatre, accents, and comedy to acting for screen or deciphering Shakespeare.

A typical class includes an hour of singing and an hour of drama. A singing class will start with a warm up and vocal exercises, leading on to a song or two, and classes can cover any musical genre, from folk to pop, classical to musical theatre.

Claire said: “As we’re not working towards a performance, we don’t need to learn pages of script. There are no auditions, no expectations of experience and never any pressure to do something you are not comfortable with.”

Many attendees find the classes help boost confidence and to communicate better in real life. Having suffered with anxiety herself, Claire is proud that the classes help others who find that their stress and tension is lessened.

She said: “There’s a lot of laughing in our classes and we’ve noticed that when people come to our sessions they let go of tension. As well as being enjoyable, acting exercises can help you to understand why you react in certain ways to certain stimuli, and encourage you to be at peace with yourself. Also, research shows that singing releases endorphins, our feel-good brain chemicals, while simultaneously drawing more oxygen into the blood, which reduces feelings of stress and anxiety – it’s very hard to worry and sing at the same time! These benefits increase when people sing together, due to the sense of community, belonging and shared endeavour.”

In an increasingly judgemental world, Claire also finds that participants enjoy the two hours that they can take out just for themselves, without worrying about real life, and note that the confines of an acting class provide a safe place to make mistakes without worrying. Claire adds: “Taking part in acting classes can help change your threshold for nervousness in everyday life. Once you have got used to doing ridiculous things in class on purpose, you’ll find yourself more relaxed before important meetings or other usually nerve-racking activities. Situations that once you would have found stressful can become comfortable and manageable.”

The groups provide a supportive environment in which it is easy to make friends, and many participants take the opportunity to watch local performances together.

One of the participants, Gita, said: “I wanted to meet other people in a relaxed and fun environment. The Open Stage Arts classes have enabled me to do just that. All the teachers bring their own specialism and pass on their knowledge with great enthusiasm. For me, the sessions are all about having a good time and discovering a creativity within us that can be unleashed if we give it the opportunity to do so.”

Claire adds: “Performing arts classes are not reserved for aspiring television actors or musical-theatre stars. We’re always happy to see new faces and want the world to know what we’re up to so no-one need miss out!”

all pictures in this article
©Josh Tomalin