Twin sisters Emily and LJ Keston are celebrating five years of Stagebox, an accessible training and opportunities platform for budding child actors. They aim to find and nurture talent from outside the M25 corridor, giving equal opportunities to all children with talent.
The pair also run child casting company Keston and Keston, and here, Emily explains the ethos behind Stagebox, and why diversity and representation is so important in the entertainment industry.
Emily, 25, said: “We wanted to provide access and opportunity for children who did not live within the M25 though we now have a centre in London too after parents reached out to ask us to open there.”
The idea was to discover, mentor and train children who demonstrate talent and potential in the performing arts, regardless of background or income.
“We’re passionate about changing the industry,” Emily said.
How Stagebox was born
Stagebox is different from other training models in that it has an affordable monthly membership scheme with an internal scholarship programme funding children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“We wanted to change the landscape and give children the opportunity as well as access to training,” Emily explained.
It all started with a workshop in Leeds when the sisters were just 20.
“We were inundated with children straight away,” Emily said. “It resonated with people who felt their children had talent.
“We are different from traditional stage schools in that most of our programmes during the school holidays and they are in accessible locations.”
Stagebox now has bases in Leeds and Manchester, plus an international base in London offering opportunities for children all over the world.
But where did the idea come from?
“We were child actors ourselves, but at the time we were living in the South East of England,” Emily said. “When we moved to the North it gave us the idea, and we saw that there was a gap in the market.”
The sisters started their careers in television, film and the theatre with roles in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ in the West End and later appearing in ‘Mr Selfridge’ on ITV and the film ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason’.
They wanted other children to benefit from the career they had in their early years, but they could see there was a need to make the industry more accessible.
“Representation is really important,” Emily said. “If children can’t see themselves on stage or onscreen then they do not see that as an option for them. Diversity is really important in children’s casting. And it’s not just about diversity in the way we know, it is also about children with disabilities. It is so important that all children have access and that they are represented on screen and on stage.”
The sisters have already helped hundreds of children realise their dreams, but here are just a few of the big success so far.
Matthew Illesley, 10, who from village Churchdown in Gloucestershire, landed the lead role of Young Reggie in Hollywood feature film Paramount Pictures, Rocketman.
Olivia Brooks, 9 from Worcester landed a role in the feature film of Tom Hooper’s CATS and joined the UK Tour of Nativity! The Musical.
Mandy Ridings, 12 from Manchester is currently in pop group Kidzbop after being scouted at Stagebox.
And Isobel Khan, 13, from Wakefield was the first mixed-race Annie in British theatre history.
A passion for changing children’s lives
“The thing I love best about my job is seeing children’s lives change, sometimes very quickly, sometimes it takes time,” Emily said. “It’s seeing them grow in confidence and finding their voices.
“For us, to see the management and training of these children is quite humbling; to see a child from Birmingham flown over to Broadway or a child on the red carpet in Hollywood or the West End.”
The twins run two businesses side by side; Stagebox and Keston and Keston.
Emily explained: “Stagebox is the training platform. We have an amazing team that runs that, giving mentoring and nurturing. Keston and Keston is a children’s casting company. It is all about accessibility, diversity and inclusion.”
What’s next and some words of advice
The pair plan to continue to expand Stagebox, opening in Birmingham and Edinburgh next.
“Our Stagebox Youtube is going from strength to strength so we’ll be producing more content for that, and we have various projects in the pipeline for children’s casting in TV and film,” Emily said.
Emily and LJ will continue to grow their networks and offerings, and said in particular, the support they’ve received from other women has been invaluable.
Emily said: “I would say we have found an amazing community of women in business and the entertainment industry. It’s so important to be inspired by other women and learn from those who know more than you do.”
And on what she’d tell her younger self, Emily said: “Don’t talk about it, do it. In the beginning, you spend so much time worrying about what’s right but you have just got to listen to your gut instinct and just do it.
“LJ did law and I did journalism at university, and it’s so easy to think your degree is what you’ll end up doing. But do whatever you do, do for the joy of it, that will bring you to the path that is right for you. Do whatever you’re passionate about.”
Find out more about Stagebox at: https://www.stagebox.uk/