We speak to Epsom’s very own, lady of the dance, Betty Laine OBE, founder and principal of the world famous performing arts school, Laine Theatre Arts. Whilst our West End theatres remain closed for now, she lets us know why it will always be the beating heart for her and so many…
On a personal level Miss Laine, how has lockdown been for you?
I’m fed up with it now. I feel like I’ve been under a pebble; being allowed to come out, bit by bit. I can’t wait to go back to being able to do what we did before. Even just to go shopping. I find that when I go into Waitrose or wherever – with my mask – my brain stops working! I can’t seem to remember what I came in for? Thank God, we had sunshine. I would sit in the garden and loved watching the birds; how they lived their lives. They were so much freer without planes, smog and cars; I loved watching how so very family orientated they are.
Did you manage to embrace technology and talking through a laptop?Oh yes, it was a way of keeping in contact with everybody, I use Facebook and Zoom. Although I hate Zoom because I don’t like talking to a picture.
“I do miss contact with people but little did I think I would become a… ZOOMER!”
Like many of us (myself included) did you get into gardening?
Oh no! I can’t stand gardening. I love being in the garden and reading – which I did a lot of too – but I was mainly checking up on where everybody was and what they’ve been doing. So, I kept myself certainly occupied but it’s not been good.
You do pride yourself on having such a strong bond with your students, how are they all doing?
It’s been a terrible shock and a great sadness. Everyone we’ve nurtured, from training through to staring in the West End; theatre is in their blood and it’s so, so sad that many are struggling, having to make ends meet. If they’ve been on tour they don’t have anywhere permanent to live, so they’re having to find any job to pay their rent and until theatre opens, it still is a big sadness.
The industry has been hit so hard. How’s the gradual re-opening going so far at Laine?
We are slowly coming back now but it’s meant that we’ve had to cut down on how many people we can have in class. We’re just hanging on and hanging on to see whether the government can give us some more space. It has been an absolute nightmare, nobody would have ever, ever expected this to happen. One day we were in here and the next day, everybody had gone. Instead of the studios being crowded with lots of sweaty bodies and all that energy, it went to isolated. Just gone. We had to totally close everything down. But now, we’re doing a rolling/alternating thing with half classes online and half very small classes in studio. I’ve had to employ 35 more teachers because with so few allowed in each class, we’ve had longer days and my poor faculty can only do so many hours, so you can see, it’s hit everybody.
“I have missed the students terribly! Genuinely missed all of them. They give you everything. It’s been a big, big void in my life.”
And I guess it’s still affecting so many people and their careers…
The theatre itself covers so many areas from the technicians to the cameraman, to lighting experts to backstage to the people who make the sets. It covers hundreds and thousands of people – it’s not just the performers. It’s everybody.
How and when did you discover this world of performing arts?
I had dance lessons from the age of four. Then, when I was 13, I went away to a college, very similar to this one – that’s sadly no longer running – and from that I began a career in theatre, musicals, television…
Do you have a particular career highlight?
No. It’s all a highlight. Everything is a highlight. You hear that band and the curtains go back and you’re off! It’s just truly wonderful and I did that until I got married.
So, when did Laine come about? Was it always the dream to have a dance school?
No, I had my three children pretty quickly after I got married. I always say I gave birth to three children, I have two beautiful daughters (and grandchildren too and I’m going to soon be a great-grandmother too) but I also had a wonderful son, who sadly died at 15.
So, as mothers do, at a coffee morning – they all knew of my background – they asked me, ‘Why don’t you start a little class?’ So, I did. I set up one baby class, hired a church hall in a village outside Stratford-upon-Avon where we lived, took my music in and did a half an hour baby class.
They all really enjoyed it so I kept it going. It was lovely and I was enjoying teaching them but I hadn’t planned anything at that point. Then that one class became two and then became three and then a full Saturday of classes and it really all started from there.
Then we moved to be near London, so my school by that point had grown but I had to leave that and came up here and started again with 12 students and now we’ve got 240 full time. Up until we moved here, classes had all been children up to 16 but then I got into the professional sphere – with three years training – and it has just grown ever since.
“However, we started from nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Do you get a pinch-me moment when you see what you have achieved here, in Epsom?
Not really, no because I am just so involved with loving those kids. All of them. The children -the boys, the girls – when they come in, like they are now, getting into their digs again and their flats and as they settle in this week, I will welcome them all personally. I guess the only time I sit back and reflect like that, is when I go and see them in shows which is great but as soon as I walk in that door *pointing to the main entrance of Laine they are my food, my drink, my everything. I adore them! It’s the truth. And I certainly never intended for any of this to happen.
What about your OBE that you were awarded in 2002?
Of course, yes, the honour is HUGE but again it’s for everybody. It’s not a ‘look what I’ve done’ it’s a look at what we’ve done as a team. The big thing is being able to open doors to people. This type of thing opens-up the playing field to the arts, to music, to theatre, to opera to living a completely different type of life, so that is what I consider a big achievement; saying here you are and we can give you a life that you perhaps would never have had.
But yes, it was such an honour. I mean I didn’t open the letter for a while, I didn’t realise it was from HRH and when I eventually opened it, I thought I’d be too late because it came during a time where I was really busy and you know what it’s like when you put letters down, but when I did open it, I didn’t just double-take, I quadruple-took!
And what about the alumni that have graduated from here?
Well yes, a long time ago now, a young girl called Victoria Beckham (Adams back then) came here as did Kerry Ellis and award-winning Ruthie Henshall. You also have Charlie Stemp who’s climbed the ladder very quickly, top of the tree really. Then there’s Chris Overton, the Oscar Winning Director of the film, The Silent Child. Let’s see, there’s also Matt Flint who does wonderful choreography for TV, theatre and film, including Strictly… I keep in touch, they all come back, it’s like one big family here.
What do you think of Strictly 2020? Excited?
OH! I really love Strictly. I’ve not really seen the line-up but I just love the show. I love seeing the progress; either people have been blessed with a natural instinct to dance or sometimes they don’t and that shows-up, very much so in that programme…
Who’s been your favourite contestant to date?
There’s been some great people that have come through but I think the girl who really had a natural ability was Stacey Dooley. She was very, very good.
Is it all about natural ability? How do you know if you’ve got it?
The alumni here go on to do all sorts of things, they direct, choreograph, they teach, it’s a huge thing and a broad spectrum and they understand it’s not a question of training them in this is how to do this and that; you say, this is your life and it’s about being able to recognize, like in Sarah Hadland’s case for one who plays ‘Stevie’ in ‘Miranda’ – she didn’t have any idea that she could do comedy but you know, you spot it and so you nurture it and then there are others who as they’re training you think, they can choreograph because they have plenty of opportunities to try it themselves and then you see others who are natural leaders, who if we give them something to do, they will be the director. They all somehow find their niche. Very few go into teaching to begin with, they all do theatre to start but a lot come back into teaching because it’s in their blood so, they all want to see other people through it all too.
And finally, during lockdown, lots of conversations started around diversity and representation. How is that being approached at Laine?I’m so glad you brought this up because you see, I’ve never even seen colour. All I see is a body and talent. I am proud to say that we have had a lot of people from different ethnicities who’ve made huge successes. There’s the lovely, lovely Lucy St Louis who is playing Diana Ross in Motown in the West End or Liam Tamne in Prince of Egypt but it’s never been an issue and I can’t imagine how or why it should.
Do you think it’s made some people nervous?
No, I think it’s made people sensibly aware and I use the word sensibly and underline it.
It all being brought to light, made us aware that there are people, that have had issues and it gave us a chance to talk to some of our students who are non-white and I think that has been a very good step going forward for us.
“Nobody would dare do it in here though because they know I would have their guts for garters – to me that’s bullying!”
Students here will learn that very quickly but these conversations have made us realise and rightly so, that there is a great sensitivity there, which I don’t think I personally realised because it’s never ever been an issue. It’s talent what I’m interested in.
Portrait Photography by Jayne Saunderson