Actor's determination pays off as drama academy reopens to students after lockdown
- Credit: Limitless Academy of Performing Arts
A Stevenage actor who runs a performing arts academy in Royston has spoken of the difficulties the pandemic has brought his industry - and of his delight at being able to welcome students back again.
Peter Heppelthwaite runs the Limitless Academy of Performing Arts with fellow professional actors Peter McNally and Ruth Burton - and has appeared in 150 different productions including West End Shows and on TV - he's most recognised as Jed from Only Fools and Horses spin-off The Green Green Grass.
Limitless started in Stevenage four years ago, before moving to Royston two years ago. Last year they had to close when the COVID pandemic hit and the industry was shut down.
Peter told this newspaper: "Peter, Ruth and I have had to deal with not having any acting work or directing work due to film and theatres closing down.
"All of our students were very loyal and we've been lucky enough to get council grants, and an arts council grant. Applying for these takes so much work, but it helped saved us.
"We also have a props firm called Not Just Props - and we went through a 3,500-square foot area of props selling many as antiques to keep the school going.
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"We didn't take any time off, we just kept going. There were times when we wondered if all this was going to be worth it."
Limitless previously held classes at Nobel School in Stevenage, where Peter is the chair of governors. He lives in the town with Ruth, who is also his wife - they met on the set of One Foot in the Grave where they played a married couple and tied the knot in real life 25 years ago.
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The two Peters met in a show for John Godber 28 years ago, performing in Hornchurch and transferring to the Liverpool Playhouse.
Peter Heppelthwaite continued: "We became instant friends and have pretty much lived in each others' pockets for the last 28 or 29 years. Many family members are involved in Limitless one way or another alongside their own careers!"
The trio bought their current site in Melbourn Street and renovated the building, which previously stood derelict for the best part of a decade.
Having gone through so much difficulty in the last year, Peter spoke of his dismay at how the arts sector has been treated by government.
He said: "It made me so angry when the government told people in the arts to retrain. I was a bricklayer when I was younger and could hardly read and write. And then I went to drama school and trained there there for three years, I got my first television job after two weeks. And it's gone on and on since then.
"We're known as a big family at Limitless, we are all passionate about what we do. We've had a lot of success in our field. Our oldest student is 80 years old and our youngest is eight.
"It's not about the money, we are working actors. But a lot of our kids would not go anywhere else, and we are very unique as a school and we would let 85 students down if we closed and 'did something else'. We promised them we would reopen.
"We took no money during that period so we could keep the company afloat."
Peter, Ruth and Peter's work has paid off, as they are now able to welcome students back to the school.
"We are at present casting for the Madness musical, Our House and start rehearsals very soon," he said. "This is being performed at the Rayne Theatre in North London.
"We also own a film company called Panda Hat Studios and - over the next year - will be filming two series for Amazon Prime, an independent movie and several music videos."
Classes are held at weekends, and are doubled up so students benefit from a in-depth experience.
In September a cohort of students went to drama school, and as they were closed they couldn't fill the spaces. There are three age categories for children and young people eight to 11, 12 to 15 and 16 to 25. They also run adult courses.
Peter said in his experience of holding auditions, it's about whether the potential student would be a good fit for the school
He said: "There's not a person who comes here for an audition or taster day who doesn't want to join.
"It's not about how well you can dance, sing or act, it's about how well we can teach you to do those things. If you've got the right attitude, we want you!"
To find out more about Limitless including information on the academy's free taster days - go to www.limitlessacademyarts.com.