Since September 2022, Italia Conti has been based in state of the arts facilities in Woking, which include specialised recording, television and theatre spaces, dance and aerial studios, as well as offering opportunities for growth. Designed by architects Benoy as part of the new mixed-use development, this site is adjacent to the New Victoria, Rhoda McGraw and Buzz Theatres. The site is part of a brand new, purpose-built campus in central Woking and provides over 48,000 square feet of space.
Italia Conti is one of the UK’s oldest theatre arts training schools. Initially a stage school whose main aim was to train aspiring young actors, Italia Conti grew and developed to meet the needs of the industry. Provision in all areas was expanded and extended to older age groups and became distinctive within the sector as one of the few UK institutions to embrace secondary, further and higher education at an outstanding level.
The Italia Conti school grew from the actress Italia Conti’s success in providing the first recorded formal training to a group of children cast in the West End show Where the Rainbow Ends produced at the Savoy Theatre in 1911 by Charles Hawtrey.
The school was initially located in a basement studio in London’s Great Portland Street. Italia Conti gave up her career as an actress and devoted her time to teaching young people to dance, sing and act.
Italia Emily Stella Conti became an important figure in theatre. She was instrumental in changing the 1903 Employment of Children Act. In 1918 when she was asked by the Minister for Education to sit on the advisory committee to address regulations affecting children on the stage. Her influence contributed to the licensing of children being transferred from local magistrates to the individual child’s own Local Education Authority, which remains the procedure today.
In 1931, Italia Conti’s niece Ruth, herself a gifted singer, joined her aunt Italia Conti in overseeing rehearsal tours and teaching classes which were now based in Lambs Conduit Street, London.
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 was put in charge of troupe entertainment. However, on 10th May 1941, the Italia Conti stage school building was destroyed by German bombs. Luckily the cast and children were absent as ‘Rainbow’ was on tour in the provinces.
The school was then moved temporarily to Bournemouth and relocated back to London as war news improved. The Italia Conti Stage School 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 nineteen years.
After the war, Ruth Conti was responsible for finding new premises, and she secured a building at 12 Archer Street in the heart of London’s theatre land, albeit it was missing a roof and had no planning permission! Ruth undertook some major fundraising and secured planning permission and a grant to cover all the new building works.
The reopening of the school provided the impetus for a number of changes including a general education component of up to four hours a day which was added to the school curriculum. Annual assessments for students were implemented 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 process was then 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.
Ruth Conti’s reputation and that of the school continued to be much sought after and she was consulted by the Home Office regarding working conditions for children in the Theatre and in 1949, wrote “Stage children are quicker, more individual and livelier, they are self-reliant, well balanced, courteous and understanding……My precept is always; work hard, learn your job, and aim to become a credit to the great profession of which you aspire to be members.” he Theatre.
The show ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ was performed for the last time in 1959 after running for forty-eight years. During this time, it had raised funds for countless charitable organisations through the Rainbow League.
In 1960, the school moved to Avondale, in Clapham, where the Acting Faculty remained until July 2022. In 1968, Ruth Conti passed the management of the school to trusted friends and colleagues Eve & Don Sheward, although she continued teaching until she retired in 1977.
Under its new management, the school gained recognition from the Department of Education and Science. This was a first for a stage school and meant the school was now eligible for Local Education Authority discretionary awards and was in a position 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. New courses were introduced to cater for the changing demand of the profession and the school officially became known as The Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts.
Shortly after this, Italia Conti’s distinctive format of ‘all-round triple threat’ training in acting, singing and dance came under threat. Following the introduction of two new independent training assessment ‘councils’, it became apparent that neither the CDET nor the NCDT were fully qualified at this point to assess the range of Italia Conti School’s multi-skilled courses.
The suggested proposals that students would have to undertake 3 years of independent training in each discipline went against the whole Conti tradition and ethos of providing simultaneous training in three art forms. Eve Sherwood was instrumental in taking the fight to the highest political and educational levels. This eventually led to the CDET finally recognising the value of a multi-skilled Performing Arts training. The school received its accreditation to continue its triple threat training, thus paving the way for other institutions to follow.
There followed a hugely successful TV documentary, ‘School for Stars’, and Italia Conti moved into a new home in the Barbican. The school management was then handed to Eve and Don’s three daughters, Anne, Samantha and Gaynor, who continued to develop the school. The Italia Conti Theatre Arts secondary school continued to ensure children aged between 11 and 16 years achieved academically as well as progressing to further vocational training.
Italia Conti’s successful BA (Hons) Acting Programme was established at Avondale in 1994 and gained accreditation from the NCDT. Principal, Anne Sherward restructured
the 16+ three – year Performing Arts Diploma to include more performance opportunities and the addition of more contextual studies to the curriculum. A key addition was devising the highly regarded and innovative Personal and Professional Development (PPD) provision, which was recognised as an invaluable learning experience for students, and which has been adopted by many other schools and commended by the Education inspectors. The introduction of the Dance & Drama Award scheme (DaDA) meant that students were able to access means-tested funding for recognised qualifications.
The Academy expanded the part-time school base to encourage participation within local communities. A variety of new ‘short’ courses were introduced including summer schools. In 1995, the Italia Conti Associate Schools were founded. These operated at various sites around the country working to a similar vocational curriculum as the full-time school, where children between the ages of 3 – 18 years could enjoy Conti’s own brand of acting, song and movement.
The Italia Conti Academy’s Charitable Trust was established to provide scholarships for gifted Associates school children to train at the 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. Under the direction of Gaynor Sheward, a management agency was established to help students and graduates secure professional engagements.
In 2004, Italia Conti Arts Centre in Guildford was established by Samantha Newton (formerly Sheward) providing full-time Performing Arts courses, together with recognised dance teacher training qualifications and a range of part-time and short courses. In 2016, Samantha Newton became Principal of both the Arts Centre and the Academy of Theatre Arts, and her daughter Hayley Newton Jarvis later joined as CEO.
In 2021, the decision was made to focus provision on Higher Education and post-16 provision to further develop students’ training opportunities and meet stakeholder expectations in the 21st century. The full-time Junior school was closed, and provision for this age group focused on further developing the part-time Associate schools. Italia Conti recognised the need to upscale their facilities, resources, and equipment which led to commissioning a state-of-the-art building specific to the requirements of a modern training facility.
Italia Conti moved into its new state of the art building in September2022, relocating its three campuses from the Barbican, Clapham and Guildford and bringing its operations together on one site.
No one should underestimate the scale of Italia Emily Stella 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. Italia Conti has an international reputation and attracts young people from all walks of life. Throughout the history the Italia Conti school, there have only been six, female, principals, Italia Emily Stella Conti, Ruth Conti, Anne Sheward, Eve Sheward, Samantha Newton, and Hayley Newton- Jarvis.
In a newspaper article in 1930, Italia Conti spoke of her dream that she would like “to start a real academy, where everything from the three Rs to stagecraft would be taught…” Her pioneering policy and belief that children and young people would have more opportunity work if trained in all three disciplines proved innovative and is still current today. Her ethos of multi-faceted training continues today with Italia Conti continuing to provide excellent training to produce versatile and well-rounded professional performers for the performing arts industry.
It’s fantastic. Showcases, shows, summer shows, carol concerts. It’s very full on but I don’t wake up regretting coming here. It is the best thing ever!
“The college provides you with a disciplined, yet family atmosphere that trains you to become the best of the best moving forwards into the performing arts industry.”
“Italia Conti has helped me in terms of my acting development, but also as a person and how I engage and view the world, which aids me as an actor.”
“The building and staff inside welcome you with open arms, guide you through your training and proudly push you, prepped with the best tools for the job.”
“Italia Conti allowed me to do my favorite thing, every day in a safe space amongst talented, supportive people. Being taught by skillful tutors was invaluable. The small classes ensured my voice was always heard and helped me hone my skills.”
“My training at Italia Conti has challenged, fulfilled, and broadened me as an actor and as a person. The buffet of techniques on offer will allow me to meet all challenges in any avenue.”
“The influx of inspiring people flowing through the building creates an atmosphere for greatness and I am honoured to be a part of that.”
“I couldn’t have asked for a more understanding place to spend these crucial moments. The door is always open for us to come back ‘home’ for advice, or even for a cup of tea!”
“Having the most supportive faculty (many of which are working professionals), who are always pushing you to be the best version of yourself has made my transition into the industry a seamless one.”