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27th August 2004 | Herman Grech

Actor Alan Montanaro has clearly carved out a niche for himself. His impeccable roles as

dame in the Christmas pantomime have promoted him as a popular entertainer with both grown-ups and children.

The way he has managed to communicate with the audience as he donned the most ludicrous costumes on stage has been widely applauded by critics.

It therefore seems perfectly logical for the actor from Siggiewi to embark on the next project - a children's drama school.

But what is more important for Mr Montanaro is that he has managed to strike up a relationship with Helen O'Grady Children's Academy, one of the best known children's drama schools in the world.

"The Helen O' Grady philosophy is not to turn children into stars but to teach them non-academic life skills - to turn them into individuals that communicate well," Mr Montanaro said.

As from October, children aged five to 12 will have the opportunity to take part in classes at the school. The curriculum is mapped out in a certain way to encourage children to be creative. A typical lesson will involve warm-up techniques, speech work, music, movement and so on.

The school will follow the scholastic year formula - three terms of 12 weeks each - but no exams will be held to ensure that no undue pressure is put on the children. An agreement has been made with various schools to use their premises.

Unlike other schools, there will not be a large theatrical production at the end of the year but rather there will be productions in individual studios where parents will be invited.

"There can be only one Snow White, one Peter Pan, so what's the point of putting more pressure on the students," Mr Montanaro said.

As of next year, the school would be introducing the youth classes, taking in students up to 17 years old. There are about 120 branches of the Helen O'Grady Children's Drama Academy operating throughout eight countries. Over 13,000 children attend classes in the UK alone.

In 1979, Miss O'Grady, a drama teacher and actress, hired a hall in a suburb in Perth, Australia, and organised after school drama classes for children.

When she was a teacher she realised that a lot of children could not communicate in whole sentences and would not look a person in the eye. Her aims were to provide self-development through drama programmes for children to encourage enthusiasm and a positive approach to life.

"Despite obtaining their qualifications, it's essential for children to obtain communication skills," the Helen O' Grady Children's Academy national director Nigel Le Page explained. He said the school was aimed at encouraging confidence, self-esteem and effective social interaction.

"In the UK we've had shy, reserved and introvert children attending our classes and by the end of the course they were transformed into outgoing and extrovert people. They projected their energy in the right way."

Mr Le Page said the fact that English was a second language to Malta was an added benefit since all HOG lessons are delivered in English.

He underlined that HOG only employed teachers that are in the business and the fact that the Maltese school was being set up by one of the theatrical stalwarts was a major benefit. Apart from taking on major roles on stage, Mr Montanaro has a background in public relations and has also written the Christmas pantomime, including the upcoming Snow White.

Mr Montanaro intends to host between 150 - 200 students this season, possibly growing to 500 eventually.

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