A desire for a different lifestyle led to the creation of a unique performing arts summer school in south-west France. Rachel Scott meets the British couple who are hitting the right note in Lot-et-Garonne
Every summer the sleepy village of Beauville in south-west France is transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing showcase for some of the best young musical talents in Europe and beyond.
For it’s in this pretty backwater, about 20 minutes from Agen, that British couple Claire and Jonathan Mallalieu decided to set up a performing arts summer school more than 10 years ago. Their first courses in 2002 ran for just two weeks and attracted 44 youngsters, aged between eight and 18.
But things have changed. Last summer the school in Lot-et-Garonne ran 16 week-long courses for 400 students ranging from musical theatre and rock academy through to songwriting and hip hop. There is now a second base at the Centre International de Valbonne on the Côte d’Azur and Beauville Arts is moving into China and Hong Kong in 2013.
Not bad for the couple who came to France with just a dream in 1998.
Chartered surveyor Claire fell for France in her early twenties when she studied French in Toulouse. Music teacher husband Jonathan was working in Jordan and London.
“We wanted to get out of the rat race a bit and we both loved France,” Claire remembers.
“When we first started looking, we quite liked the idea of coming over to France and setting up a music school because I play piano and violin. And we just had this dream.”
The pair were gazumped on the first house they tried to buy but, undaunted, travelled over on a weekend trip to see another house, only to find the estate agents knew nothing about it.
“We said: ‘Well we’re here now. We’ll just have a look at whatever else there is.’ And they showed us this house in Beauville which we completely fell in love with. We offered for it on the spot. All we wanted was a village with a school and a shop and Beauville was a beautiful village with a school and a shop. We snapped it up, not knowing at the time what other facilities there were in the village, which have enabled us to create our business. We were quite naive in a way. We didn’t do much investigating, and we have just been very fortunate that it is very well serviced.”
The house they were smitten with is a beautiful 18th-century presbytery with a garden, across the village square from the historic church in the heart of the village. It had been empty for a few years and needed complete refurbishment, but the couple planned to stay in London for five years while carrying out the work when they could.
Fate intervened, however, when a few months later a job came up as head of music at the newly opening International School of Toulouse.
“Jonathan applied and got the job and in the same week we discovered I was pregnant with our first child,” Claire says with a laugh. “So all our plans were completely changed and we came out here to the house which needed everything doing to it.”
The couple converted one bedroom into a habitable space and started their new life in France in 1999. Two children and 12 years on, Claire ruefully admits the renovation of the house is just about complete.
“For the first two years, Jonathan was teaching in Toulouse and I had our first child. I did an awful lot of painting and started teaching piano to local children around here. But after a year or two, we decided the commute to Toulouse wasn’t what we’d come here for and we’d also spotted a gap in the provision of performing arts for anglophone children in France, so we decided to do our own thing.”
Musical theatre is not an option in most French schools and if children want to learn an instrument, they have to travel to the local conservatoire for lessons. It seemed like an ideal gap in the market for Claire and Jonathan, but it took about a year to get it up and running thanks to French bureaucracy.
“We didn’t realise how difficult it would be and we got a lot of conflicting advice,” Claire recalls.
“In the end we found the Boutique de Gestion which gives help on setting up companies. We are regulated by the Départementale de la Cohésion Sociale et de la Protection des Populations; everything we do is declared. Jonathan and I both had to get French qualifications, and we have to have French qualified staff as well. That was quite a hurdle at the beginning. The law changes quite often and we have to go and do another qualification.”
But she says all the work is worth it. “It takes a long time to get into the system but we have a very good relationship with the department. They come and inspect us and they’re delighted with what we do because we have a very clear educational purpose and they see all the kids loving it and we’re very unusual. So we’ve had nothing really but support from all quarters.”
Along with the summer schools that are open to all, Beauville Arts also provides courses for school groups from the International Schools of Nice and Toulouse, the British Section of the Collège et Lycée International de St Germain-en-Laye, as well as going into French private schools. Plus there’s a wind chamber music course for interested adults.
The youngsters who attend the summer schools tend to be English-speaking and very often live in France, although there are students from as far afield as America, South Africa, Japan and Bahrain.
“A lot of them might have been brought across from the UK and put into French schools and a lot of them might not speak very good French and suddenly they come here and meet a whole load of other kids who came here and have exactly the same experience; this shared experience of relocating to France.
“They all seem to love it and I think it’s essentially the friendships,” continues Claire, who says a great deal of business is generated by word of mouth.
“Obviously we also put on very high-quality performances and we have some very talented children who come here, but I think the main thing is the friendship they make from it.”
Beauville Arts has helped to transform the fortunes of this quiet rural spot so far off the beaten track and the local people have been very welcoming says Claire, who teaches piano, conducts the school choir and even sits on the local council.
“The villagers have been hugely supportive. The children stay on a campsite in the village in 12-berth dormitory tents. The professional staff we put up here in the house. It is quite an income generator for the campsite and for the local bus company, which transports people around for us. All the parents come and see the shows, so we have a lot of B&Bs and gîtes rented out by them as well. It’s had a snowball effect on the local economy.”
There is free admission to all the shows so this summer, villagers will be enjoying Les Misérables, Shrek The Musical and Bugsy Malone alongside the proud parents.
“There’s a night market after our show every Friday evening in the main square so we get the two or three hundred people who’ve been to our show going on down to the night market,” says Claire.
The couple have recently taken on part-time help in the office but every summer employ another 20 staff, both professional choreographers and musical directors, alongside animateurs, who tend to be BAFA qualified former students who look after the youngsters.
And Claire says it is very hard work: “We do work all the time; that’s the thing we weren’t expecting. We hadn’t run our own business in the UK and as soon as you do that you just work 24/7!”
She also says that living in a rural setting can mean missing out on cultural attractions found in the city.
“We used to both play in an orchestra in the UK. Here there’s no local orchestra to play in and that’s the thing we miss, but you can’t have everything. We have the countryside and it’s a beautiful landscape.”
Eldest son Alexander is now 12 and started boarding school in the UK last September, while younger brother Harvey J (aged 10) is at the local school. The family have a flat in Redhill and rent out a room there, ensuring they always have a base in the UK, but say they have no plans to leave beautiful Beauville, even though next year the school will be running programmes in the Far East.
“For the last four years, we’ve been doing shows in China for a charity,” says Claire, “and everyone in China wants to learn English and there’s not a lot of performing arts there. We thought: ‘Yes let’s go for it.’ But we don’t want to live in China ourselves. We’re working with partners in Hong Kong.
“We’ll always have this house and Beauville Arts will always be based here,” she says. “We love the house and the village is wonderful, and we’re very pleased with how the company is going. A lot of people say we have made something out of nothing and we’re delighted that we have lots of fantastic kids who return every year.”
And what about the future? “We’ve got half an eye on Germany, Brussels and Spain,” Claire admits.
“However, we’ll take one thing at a time…” LF