Nichola West is Director of the new Norfolk Institute of Performing Arts. And the former World Offshore Powerboat Champion’s passion for the arts all began when she bought an old school building in Dereham at the age of 18 and transformed it into a stage school
My career has been diverse, fascinating, enjoyable and a path of ongoing learning. After college in London, Italia Conti and RAD, also during this time I raced offshore powerboats all over the world. This taught me team management, business and international communication understanding, alongside an amazing experience of being in a 38-foot powerboat racing against 150-plus other boats in big seas. I was World Offshore Powerboat Champion in 1985 which created another path. I attended the Sports Personality of the Year Awards (three years in a row) and was invited to the Woman of the Year, also, for three years. I am an Alumna of the WOY, attending inspirational and high profile talks and meetings in London and Cambridge University, all enhancing my knowledge. Whilst racing I learnt to fly aeroplanes and have enjoyed private flying for many decades.
At the same time, I opened my stage school in Dereham, my passion for the arts never left and I wanted to share my knowledge. I opened in Dereham because I have very strong values and ethics about not poaching other teachers’ students. At the time there were no stage schools in Dereham, but Norwich and Kings Lynn had many.
I opened the school in 1985 with five pupils. I was 18 years old when I purchased the school building. It was derelict but had great potential, I worked all day and night to earn money to renovate it. My team management and business skills were developed further – and I even tiled the studio roof myself.
I retired from powerboat racing after achieving two world speed records, European titles alongside the World title.
This focused my life into the school, building to 250 pupils and over the years students have graduated on to elite London colleges, West End shows, cruises, international companies, teachers and other areas of the industry. I feel so proud of them all.
Busybodies Stage School teaches our youngest pupils (Little Learners – walking age to four years) up to our Advanced students (16-18 years). Providing performing arts classes in drama, dance and musical theatre and other options such as Commercial dance. Whereas the Norfolk Institute of Performing Arts (NIPA) is a full-time college for students 16 years and over.
The pandemic has had a massive impact on the school but, with our 35-year history, we have a positive thinking team – and we used the lockdown time as an opportunity to innovate. During lockdown one we offered free online classes and built a support team for the parents and pupils. Examinations were postponed to the summer term. We recognised it may be several years before lessons numbers would be full again, the new social distancing, one way system, Covid protocols and more were going to be with us for a long time. I had sleepless nights thinking about how we could keep all the students in class when allowed but with very reduced class sizes and bubbles of pupils. We opened end of the summer and we were thrilled to hold our summer school. This was a perfect physical and mental health regeneration with children and parents telling us how happy they felt to be doing what they love and feeling normal.
Lockdown two was difficult for everyone as Christmas panto, charity events and many examinations were cancelled. The students not being in the building felt so wrong, but we continued with online lessons. The decision was made to take out loans and invest heavily in renovating/improving and modernising the facilities to meet current and future needs. Planning permission was applied for in October and this gave the students an exciting goal ahead alongside their Zoom lessons.
We were granted planning permission on December 22. The school was on a high and buzzing with excitement. We were looking forward to opening for lessons in January and having the students involved in the redevelopment but on January 3 we began the third lockdown and the classes returned to online. The builders and I gathered in the school car park on January 4 in the cold and, crazy as it was, we decided to start digging the foundations, knocking down sheds, replacing fences etc from that day. I had intended to do the work over the Easter holidays but with no site manager, no cost break down etc I took on all the roles and we started work. I arrived at the school 6.30am every day and left at 5pm to go home and teach on Zoom or do more admin. It was so important for the children to know we were not giving up and the lockdown was a small bump in their journey, the school would be wonderful and ready for them when we were allowed to return. This gave myself, the builders and everyone connected to the big renovation, an important goal and date to work to. We predicted April 12 after the Easter break would be our opening day way back on January 4.
We posted building photos to the children, kept everyone in the loop and many took to walking their dogs past the school to have a look at their new studio. It was a positive atmosphere for everyone as we connected with our local community who shared their enthusiasm for the school. It was eye opening at the large percentage of people that had a child, cousin, friend who attended Busybodies. People who work in care homes who have seen the pupils dance at their charity events or come and perform over Christmas wrote to us saying how they were thrilled the school was redeveloping during these difficult times. The community came together around us, all the trades people and builders were locals, we used local delivery supplies and the site was buzzing with theatrical energy.
Opening on April 12 was the most exciting feeling, the atmosphere was electric. The pupils mental health appears to have improved every week since being open, with the smiles beaming and anxiety lowered.
We have adapted other areas of the school, such as moving the school shop online. Arriving 15 minutes prior to a lesson giving time for hand sanitise, a one way route, etc. Pupils are now collected from the car park with assistants using iPads to register everyone in and out. No adults are permitted in the buildings so all communication is online. The children seem to like the independence and it being their personal space.
NIPA has evolved through our passion to support students into the industry and offer teaching and performance Trinity College London level 4 and level 6 diplomas at an affordable cost. The unpredictable world has shown us how our industry needs to have teachers and creative artists that can diversify to broaden their employability. NIPA’s extensive and innovative timetable builds unique skills that will offer opportunities throughout the performance industry.
Vocational status from Trinity College London, the Royal Academy of Dance and the International Dance Teachers Association demonstrates the high quality of teaching and achievement of both Busybodies and NIPA.