“One of the kids wrote me a letter saying, 'I wouldn't be alive now if it wasn't for Kidz,' ” says Phil Barnett, founder of St Ives-based Kidz R Us, one of the leading youth theatre groups in the country. And in today's fame obsessed culture, these children learn vital life skills. “These days it's all computers and things you do on your own, whereas here they make friends, they work in a group and learn discipline. They also learn that if they work hard they can achieve something really extraordinary.”
Phil, 49, fizzes with enthusiasm, which is just as well considering he works on six productions at a time and has so far directed 59 of them. His day job is his hairdressing business in Hayle which seems apt given his surname. “I've been here over 25 years and built up quite a good business,” he says cheerfully. “I'm able to just do a few mornings a week and then I come here 60 or 70 hours a week volunteering.”
Phil's great love of the theatre stemmed from seeing his first pantomime aged 9. “I was totally spellbound by it!” So at the age of 10, unknown to his parents, he went alone to the next auditions. “They gave me the part of a henchman,” he says. “Ten years later, someone dropped out of a show so I learnt the principal part over the weekend. That gave me the bug again!”
From then on there was no stopping him, and in January 1994, he and Margaret Banfield, from the local operatic society, assembled a group of children to stage a concert to raise money for Save the Children Fund. This was such a resounding success that Kidz R Us was born and now caters for up to 100 children from the age of 6 upwards.
But it's not just about talent. “I was a trouble maker at school and I understand those kids best because I have an affinity with them,” he says. Other children, who might have been abused or self-harm, are referred by Social Services.
“I believe in education and I send the kids on lots of courses,” he continues at high speed. “Every 3 months we have a professional choreographer, physical theatre classes, or one of the top vocal coaches in the country. I believe you can increase your skill level in whatever you do, so I try to get the kids working on their weaknesses. If they have the confidence and self belief to stand up here on stage then I tell them a job interview's a doddle.”
In January 2009, Kidz created the Amateur World Premiere production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Likes of Us, to an enraptured audience. "Tim Rice gave them a standing ovation and said the production was actually better than the show!” says Phil, beaming. As a result, Tim Rice is now their patron.
Choosing each show is a collaborative effort. “I make a shortlist of six and talk to the kids,” he says. “Last year our turnover was over £300,000 so we have to find that amount of money. They have to be box office shows otherwise you don't get bums on seats.”
Throughout the year, Kidz produce 5 or 6 productions, with most shows in the summer holidays. This hard work is made possible by 130 dedicated volunteers including the superbly talented wardrobe mistress, Jane, who has worked for the Royal Ballet and Norman Hartnell. “We've won awards but I believe it's also the determination of the help here to reach the high standards,” says Phil, who desperately needs more volunteers. “There are grants out there but we haven't got time to apply as we're working on so many productions. We really need a Grants Officer.”
Kidz R Us now has a manager and administrators, which means that Phil can start to scale down his contribution, but his primary concern is to keep the company going. “I don't want it to have done all this work and when I finish, it finishes.”
Phil's enthusiasm is a huge inspiration to everyone. “When I was younger I wanted my name on this and that, but now what I'm doing satisfies me,” he says. “I give people a chance.” He pauses and his face lights up. “Sometimes when I'm in the audience and there are 300 people laughing their heads off, it's a wonderful feeling to bring joy to so many people and to think 'we started all this'.”
Kidz R Us has won endless awards including the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service
They have performed at the Royal Albert Hall, The London Palladium and the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus.
Kidz R Us has a younger group of ages 6-13; the older group is for age 14+. There is also an adults group.
A variety of theatre courses for children and adults are run every 3 months
Adults and children's choirs
Over 60s Club
Kidz Club on Saturday mornings (stage school)
Crafty Sew and Sew teaching sewing classes
NVQ qualifications can be obtained in Youth Work
Costume hire is available
The next production will be the amateur premiere of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, at the Minack Theatre in the Easter holidays.
For all enquiries telephone box office 01736 797007 or more information have a look at the website www.kidzrus.net.