Thursday, 28 January 2016

Oh to have a grant to cut

So according to The Stage today 4 of the more established drama college Principals have taken a public viewpoint on the government's plans to scrap student maintenance grants:

At the risk of being controversial (which I know is very unlike me), this Chicken Licken response to the news is, IMHO likely to do more harm than the scrapping of the grants in the first place.  Mountview, LAMDA, Rose Bruford and RADA Principals are now all on record practically telling the poorer students that it's now impossible.  Yet speaking as the Principal of a college that receives nothing by way of grants etc (our students are only eligible for a PCDL), I know that it is possible. Rose Bruford's Principal rightly comments on the hours that a drama student has to do, and mentions the difficulties of getting part time work around that.  Interestingly they mention the Drama UK 'standard' of 30 hours/week, yet our students do 40 hours a week and several of them have had to manage a full time job around the demands of the course.

Is that ideal, is it fair? Absolutely not.  However is it what they needed to do to survive and qualify...yes.  Have they gone on to have successful careers, we're on about 50/50 odds with that one, with one of them dangerously close to 'pushing' through the system to get quite a big break sooner rather than later. However regardless of their success right now (and I'll state really quickly that all have worked, my reticence on the subject is financially has it been worth it for them..yet), they are all determined to succeed.  That tenacity along with their talent will ensure that they're OK eventually.

Just to be clear I'm definitely NOT backing the government on this, however what I am saying is that every time they cut some arts funding or support, and we bleat about it, and point out to the world that the impossible has suddenly become harder, someone, somewhere will give up on their dream. So the government win.

I appreciate that we're in a very different position - we don't have anything that they can cut, but over the past 7 years I have written so many letters to so many organisations asking for just a little help so that we can help fund those students that are financially independent. Every time a letter comes back saying no.  The only difference in 7 years is that the letters of rejection have become nicer, acknowledging our success, but, for whatever reason, they have chosen not to support us.  Every time I receive one of those letters I get angry, because I think about the student who is working stupid hours to stay with us, and I get cross because we can't give them as much help as I want to, because not one person would help us.  I moan on FB (although I've been told off about that now), I moan at work and at home...but this year I finally realised that me moaning achieved nothing...except that I probably wasn't giving the best of myself to the college on that day, because I was cross with a faceless potential benefactor, who decided to give £££'s to one of the colleges moaning in The Stage today over giving a little bit everywhere else.  So I didn't take a wage for a bit longer, or we scraped through somehow together...and every one of those students graduated.

Today the colleges will moan, tomorrow a celeb will tell us that the working class actor and the working class theatre died a bit yesterday because of this news.  Yet isn't it time that we got real too? We don't get a 'get out of jail free' card because we're studying the arts.  How many other courses does this ruling have an impact on? The difference being of course that nobody cares about the lawyers/solicitors/surveyors etc who equally have to face the impact of less funding.  Yes they might work less hours so they can choose to work extra shifts after college - but then to be honest, why aren't those students bemoaning the ridiculous hours that they're at college studying? £27,000 to have 10 - 12 contact hours a week is surely something to protest about? Yet we hear nothing?

So to be clear...I marched in protest when Student Loans were about to be introduced, I took part in the college occupations of the late 80's (admittedly back then, not necessarily understanding the full impact of what was happening, but definitely understanding enough to camp down for a night or two), I willingly got frog marched out of a classroom a few years later when the next wave of cuts were coming in and the occupations started again (hell I even told the students who frogmarched me outside my studio, where the other staff would I was practically a spy for the revolution).  I only got through college because I had a grant. Although even that annoyed me - seeing other students whose parents easily had a load of money, enjoying their termly jackpot, because their parents knew how to fill in that form, they knew how to 'present a truth', whereas my parents went for absolute honesty, resulting in me have around a tenth of some of my much wealthier contemporaries. I have said time and time again that I could not have been able to have afforded to go to my own college, had it existed then.  So politically don't be telling me that I haven't got a clue, or quoting Churchill and his infamous 'arts' speech to me.  I've been there and worn the T shirt.

However, having lived through that time, and seeing that it made no difference at all.  Everything that I protested against happened.  If I could rewind the clocks I'd protest again, but make the calling more vehement...but even then I know that we would have lost the case.  However we have NOT yet lost the young performer that can't afford to come to us.  Somehow we always will make it work.  Surely our job is to inspire the next generation and fight for them, not go on the record and tell their family and friends that they just as well give up now.

Please stop saying that it's tough for the working classes. It's tough for everyone that chooses to go into HE today. The arts are not the only ones that are impacted by this ruling.  So how about the headlines for the next wave of cuts (and goodness knows...there will be more to come) just a international sign that states quite succinctly that we won't be beaten....regardless of what ever tactic they use. Slightly Brechtian I know...but a much more powerful message than rolling around the ground saying that the fight is over. Yes they would probably prefer less people to study the even more reason for us to make is possible for them.  Therein lies the power of the artist I think.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

2 birds with one stone AKA the blog that couldn't wait

So I appreciate that I usually only blog once a fortnight, however for the few of you that have followed my blogs over the past few years, you will know that I've had two rather loud bees in my tight fitting bonnet since opening The MTA back in 2009.  The first one is the lack of Mental Health provision in drama colleges - which we're now doing something (hopefully proactive) about, in the form of running a sort of conference on March 16th in a bid to get Mental Health higher up on the agenda of EVERY college.  So the first bee has been swatted  - and it's a huge congratulations to Actress Laura Darrall for her #itaffectsme campaign in a bid to raise awareness of mental illness and to raise some money at the same time for MIND.   What's interesting is Laura's story (or at least what's known in the public domain)...and that is that she had a history of Mental illness (panic attacks, anxiety, OCD)..which sadly for Laura culminated in a breakdown last year.  Now our campaign is. . . what if Laura's symptoms had been spotted and treated at college, would her story have been different? Now for all I know maybe they were, and the breakdown was heading towards her anyway as she had a susceptibility, that's for Laura to know actually not us, but somewhere in every drama college right now, there will be a Laura (or in our experience around 30% of Laura's). Suffering from an invisible but ever present illness at the more 'manageable' end of the scale, which our consultant is able to hit off at the pass before it builds up and up and heads towards a complete meltdown.  In her blog Laura talks about the 'troop' that are now helping her fight the demons inside her head...but what if that troop had been on standby earlier, and had been able to diffuse the situation before it became a crises?  What if there had been a class at college which had named some of the battles that were going on inside her head - maybe this would have allowed her to 'out' herself much quicker? So many what ifs, and all pointless because I don't know Laura - but here's a great what if...what if every college had Mental Health Awareness as a major topic throughout the course, one which was revisited after Freshers week, after you're told that 'we're here to listen to you', and 'what if' a Mental Health professional was so 'the norm' around the place, you instantly knew where to turn to when the battle was being fought?  We are fighting for that 'what if'. With that in mind The MTA's approach is a little different. I won't bore you with it again...but here's a link that discusses what our take on it all is:
Our industry is slightly chicken and egg on this one.  There's research that supports both the fact that the industry can hit on your susceptibility, and there's research that supports the fact that our industry particularly attracts the susceptible (as we have the elusive allure of escapism).  Whichever it is, it doesn't matter - we need to raise awareness of Mental Health in education, so watch this: get yourself a post it note, write #itaffectsme on it, upload it, and knock yourself out and donate £3 to MIND.  Then pop along to our discussion in March and lend your voice/support/argument...whatever it is, let's get the conversation started.

Then my other bee has forever been the organisation known as Drama UK.  I first wrote this which simply explained why The MTA was going to remain independent.  I then wrote this: as I had been reading things that were beginning to make me question the organisation as a whole.  However nothing could have prepared me for this: 18 months after I'd first blogged about it's value.  Turns out some 6 months later they are down in their membership by just over 38%? What's even worse than that...they've lost their star players. RADA, LAMDA, Bristol Old Vic...and so it continues.  Then it gets even more confusing, some players had left e.g. the RCS and RWCMD but they're no long accredited...but sort of on the side lines incase they're needed? I love how Drama UK always sends me into football analogies, yet the only thing that I know about the great sport is that it involves a round object and 2 nets (and be careful which pubs you go into on the Holloway Road on a match day).

Seemingly the problem is money? People aren't prepared to pay the joining fee and then the 'please keep me affiliated' fee.  Well what a turn up? I've been talking about this for years? My favorite part of the article though (and keep in mind I've already made my opinion known about their U.S. showcases) seemingly now Drama UK is working hard to develop the brand in China? Now I am all about the 'one world' philosophy so maybe they should call themselves World Drama and be done with it?

So colleges are paying £6500 to stay in a club that barely has a local ground anymore - but instead you can watch them play in China??  I completely get the excitement of the Eastern market opening up for all aspects of the arts....but China? So those colleges still part of this organisation are what? Funding trips to China, or just the odd phone call? I have students working their finger's to the bone to be able to afford  to train with me, I couldn't spend even one pence of their hard earned cash to support an organisation that wasn't working to support them directly (and efficiently). That said I wonder if Drama UK picked up the tab for the I see my students coming in with their packed lunches, in a bid to save money, so once again I'd be uncomfortable asking them to fund my working lunch with a journalist...which seemingly culminates in a 'give us the answer' session (so maybe I'm being harsh, but then pay the journalist a consultancy fee on  top of the lunch).

To tie all of this up nicely, I have been shouting rather loudly on social media for Drama UK to support out call for better mental health provisions in drama colleges.  They told me that it was out of their remit to demand such a thing BUT they are supposed to be coming to the conference, along with Equity and Spotlight.  So this year they might do something really positive for the UK drama student, then maybe they should also look to lower their fees, so that the colleges that are still affiliated to the organisation can put the 'saved money' towards the level of Mental Health provision we think is necessary in a contemporary drama college.  Because Drama UK #itaffectsme/us not the 'brand' in China, which has got nothing to do with my students' training.

Now...go take a selfie. Mr Kellgren and Ms Tisdall....I shall be looking out for yours ;-)

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Audition time - advice to parents

Some of you might remember this blog: a reflective blog looking at the annual audition 'problems'. If you didn't read it at the time, please do nip across now and have a little look.

As part of my job, and in an attempt to keep up with what's going on in the 'real world', (as us theatricals don't really nip out there enough really do we?) I've been researching drama school auditions and trying to find out what information there is out there for parents.
I know (for example), that when I went to college, my parents, having nothing to do with theatre, were really anxious about me making the 'right choice'.  Like most parents their idea of the 'right choice' proved to be very different from mine.  I found out not that long ago actually, that my father had been holding out for me to go down the Conservatoire route, even though that hadn't been on my radar for one second.  Back then there was a clear choice between a university and a thing called a Polytechnic. Now we don't have those two options anymore, as eventually all the Polys (as we used to call them), morphed into universities.  I think that back then, most people felt like the Poly was the poor man's university.  The thing that you got into if you couldn't get high grades(as they seemed to base their grade requirements on whether they wanted you or not. So I was getting offers of a couple of Es all because they thought that I'd fit in, whereas the universities were asking for Cs and Bs). Well certainly that was my family's take on the whole thing anyway.  So you can imagine the joy when a) having done the rounds of both universities and polys I way preferred the poly approach to teaching and b) I dared to say the immortal words of 'I want to go to this one' Middlesex....Polytechnic.  At that time their Performing Arts course was considered to be one of the best in the UK. To be called a BAPA (BA in Performing Arts) was actually quite an honour.  In fact to this day I consider it a major achievement that I was invited to be on that course.

As it turned out being a BAPA was perfect for me, the course suited me so well (all practical training with literally about one essay a term....if that).  They assessed me on doing shows.  I mean what more could I have asked for? Even their final exam paper was a 'seen question'..perfect for the practical musician who didn't really see the point of picking up a pen, when she could have been sat at the piano.

Even more interestingly I returned to the BAPA course just 3 months after graduating, this time as 'lecturer' (before you say it....I don't think that that was right either, but at the time, it certainly fed my ego to be invited back to teach on this amazing course, even though I had gained literally no experience since graduating with the exception of teaching on one children's Summer school project). Fast forward 4 years and I was teaching (lecturing) at a 'university' as Middlesex Polytechnic ceased to exist, and Middlesex University was born.  Not a thing had changed, I was still teaching the same things (I did have more experience by this point, and I had started to write modules for the course)....suddenly I was teaching in a place that my parents had wanted me to study.  In other words, it truly was all about 'a name'. Nothing about the reality of the situation.

It's the same with drama colleges really isn't it?  One day they were all offering diplomas, then seemingly overnight they were offering degrees.  All of a sudden 'informed parents' wanted their children to have a degree whilst studying to be a performer, as that seemed better than the old diploma.  I wonder how much the courses changed to accommodate that qualification? A few more essays? Definitely a whole load more paperwork for the teachers I bet, and why did it change? Well it's simple...funding.  A college offering a degree got more core funding than a college offering a diploma.  It was never about the was all about the ££'s.  Just like when the polys became a university.  Nothing really changed, but the bank accounts looked healthier, and the staff looked a bit more stressed with the additional task of working their way through lots of red tape.

From what I can see the information for parents out there is as confusing as it always was.  They are forced onto various forums asking questions from the people that haven't actually any real knowledge, just a sense of camaraderie  from other parents (and students) that have already 'gone through the system'.  Sadly, from what I can see though, it's a bit like googling an get told a whole lot of things that you really don't need/want to hear.

There's a whole issue here about why aren't some 6th form drama/dance teachers more informed.  I've certainly heard from a few in my time asking for information on our course, and our entry requirements etc, but compared to how many people are doing A Level Theatre studies/dance or BTEC it's really negligible.  So who the hell is actually informing people of the realities?

So here's some unbiased information for parents currently trying their best to work their way through the maze of the forums.  a) you really do not need a degree to be  a's the training that the course provides not the piece of paper at the end of it that will enable your child to have a career as a performer(they'd actually succeed with nothing....but seemingly nobody offers that). b) If you go down the degree route your child will receive more funding options e.g. Student Loans, etc. c) In a specialist subject e.g. dance, your child could still become a teacher later on in life without getting a degree now.  There are courses that they can go on later which will enable them to get onto a PG programme in teaching. Let your child work out what route suits them - be it a uni route or a vocational drama/dance school route. They are so different, and only your child will know what fits for them.  Check the contact hours of the uni/college. I think that that's the key to good training. Drama UK (which used to be the parent's Holy Grail of good drama school training with their 'accreditation' programme has slightly disintegrated, as major colleges e.g. RADA, LAMDA have stopped paying their extortionate fees), however they still represent what they consider to be the 'elite' insist that their colleges have a minimum of 30 hours contact time/week.  Check out what industry links the college/staff have? Ask to see their latest statistics - who cares if Sir Imanan Actor trained there 50 years ago....what are the stats for today? Be wary of soundbites. "6 students in the West End straight from college" sounds amazing, until you find out that their course trains 75 in a year? Find out what happened to the other 69 people that they didn't mention. Now it could very well be that all of them found representation, and all of them went straight into employment too...but ask the question. If the college is shouting about the fact that all of their students had found agent representation on graduating, just double check whether the college has an agency of their own...and how many of the 'all' are currently represented by them!

Our industry is notorious for a high drop out rate post graduating.  Find out what their percentages are? If you take the degree route you're going to have to pay £27,000+ for that piece of paper that you believe is so important.  That becomes a very expensive ornament if 6 months down the line your child decides that working in retail is more their thing (before you say it, the money or course wasn't completely wasted because your child 'found themselves' and the experiences offered to them over the 3 years will enhance their lives forever....but admit it, you'd be a little aggrieved).

It's all to do with gut has to be.  If you're the parent pushing your child in one direction it's not going to work out.  Had my dad had his way, there is no doubt that I just would have failed, as I had no interest in the route that he considered to be the best for me.

The reality is that if your child wants to be a performer, nobody cares what qualification they've got. We all just care about what they can do.  As I always say, what's the difference between a diploma pirouette and a degree pirouette? When you go into that open dance call and they ask to see "the triple", do you think that they ask to see the piece of paper first to see where you studied? Then does it matter what class degree you got? Are you more likely to secure that film role because you got a first than the person behind you that got a third....but who is better suited to the role. . . . because they're shorter?

Insist on a degree because you think that they have more options later on in life, only to discover that they've been having 10 contact hours a week and have made no industry links at'll soon find yourself looking at spending in excess of a further £15,000 as your child slowly realises that they need to do some sort of post grad course in order to actually get some industry links (let alone more consistent training).  Every year I'm horrified at the number of students that audition for The MTA's course, in their third year of college, or a year out after training at a uni.  Those poor parents are being forced to pay double whammy because they didn't know what questions to ask the first time around.

So I hope that this has helped you a bit. If you have a question....why not call me at The MTA, or any of the other colleges and ask us the questions? Hell call Drama UK (it might actually give them a purpose). Call Equity or Spotlight? Call any professional organisation!  After all it's in our interest to give you the facts, not the fiction of what you think our industry is currently demanding. Be wary of the internet oracle - find out who they are and what they're basing their knowledge on.  Being anonymous can afford some people more status than they perhaps deserve.

Don't forget at the end of the day you're not just another day older . . . you are also potentially £27,000 poorer.

Disclaimer: This of course is just all IMHO...but I really hope that it helps you out a little bit ;-)