The Big One: UCL student's award-winning musical theatre project

16 April 2014

An innovative student-led volunteering project, involving a partnership between UCLU Musical Theatre Society, the Volunteering Services Unit (VSU) and two local London schools (UCL Academy and Regent High School), recently staged the biggest musical theatre production they have ever attempted: High School Musical.

High School Musical rehearsals

A 32-strong cast of school students aged 11 to 18 took to the stage of the Shaw Theatre in Bloomsbury, delivering three high-energy performances to over a thousand audience members over three nights.

Sam Lansdale (BSc Natural Sciences) founded The Big One project in his first week at UCL, after approaching the UCLU Musical Theatre Society and the VSU.

He was originally inspired by the singer and television presenter Gareth Malone's community choir projects, with outreach being an important part of the project's philosophy.

The Big One aims to give something back to the community and give opportunities in the arts to those who might not otherwise have them. This year they held a free matinee performance inviting school students and young people from local community projects to watch the show.

Sam and Natalie rehearsals

As part of the Innovations Programme, the VSU nurtured the process of learning and helped with funding through the project's early stages before handing the reins over to Sam to run the project in its second and third years. This year, the project had a budget of £17,000 part-funded by UCL's Social Enterprise Grant Scheme and UCLU.

The recent performance of High School Musical followed a successful run of Hairspray! in 2013, for which the project received the UCLU Arts Project of the Year and UCLU Arts Volunteering Society of the Year awards. Sam was also shortlisted for National Student Volunteer of the Year and received the Santander 1-UCL Excellence and Endeavour award.

We have witnessed the students involved grow in confidence, become more inquisitive and form close friendships whilst developing as performers and I sincerely hope that they take away great memories.

Sam Lansdale

The project is not just about a successful performance, according to Sam, but the unique relationship that develops between the university students and the school students during the process. He said: "People think that the project is just the show at the end, but really it is the whole process and the social impact on the children."

Highlights from the rehearsal process included the cast of the UCLU Musical Theatre Society production of Hair coming together with the High School Musical cast to perform songs for each other and Roger Wright, star of the West End's Lion King, running a workshop for the school students.

Positive effects of the project are still being felt now, as the cast recently returned to UCL to watch their filmed production.

Sam has already been testing the water for enthusiasm from students for future productions and has had a strong response. Next year, he hopes to set the project up as an independent charity and produce similar shows working with students from across the country.

He added: "We have witnessed the students involved grow in confidence, become more inquisitive and form close friendships whilst developing as performers and I sincerely hope that they take away great memories. My thanks go to everyone who made it possible and especially my production team who approached the project with unyielding enthusiasm and dedicated hours of their time voluntarily."

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  • (Top) Rehearsals for High School Musical (Bottom) Sam Lansdale and Natalie Smith at rehearsals