Saturday, 27 February 2016

Déjà vu

Do you sometimes feel like you're living in a world of déjà vu? Or like you've been banging the same drum for so long that it's just become a noise that people can blot out...yet you KNOW that it's still relevant?


My friend and esteemed colleague Chris Grady has just written a great blog about the need to create 'celebrities' from Musical Theatre performers.  Here have a read: http://www.chrisgrady.org/blog/whos-in-it-a-challenge-and-maybe-a-solution/. I took the opportunity to remind him of a blog that I'd written way back in Jan 2015 http://www.thereviewshub.com/blog-annemarie-lewis-thomas-new-year-same-problems/ In part covering the same topic that I'd touched on then...and indeed making reference to the fact that I had been speaking about this very subject some 9 years earlier (or was it 8?)!  In fact (as stated in my 2015 blog), the thinking behind The MTA covering acting for camera in a 50/50 split with acting for stage was predominantly for this very reason.  I'm still staggered by the fact that some 2 years on we are still the only Musical Theatre course to genuinely split the focus of our acting course.  In fact next term will see (we hope) the birth of the third MTA short film.  Oh how I wish that I could share the links with you of the first two, as they're genuinely inspired, and indeed, when you think that they were written and shot in just one week, they're truly remarkable too.  Now we can only do this because a) our Head of Acting is Tilly Vosburgh who is in fact a national treasure (except that the nation doesn't quite realise it yet) and b) we have an up and coming award winning director called Alex Warren who has an amazing eye, great vision, and a very generous spirit to edit the film for us.

How many times since I first spoke out about this in 2007 (or was it 2008...I still don't remember) have I seen 'Musical Theatre' performers cross over into the medium of film, blatantly, and wisely IMHO, raising their profile, so that they can cross back into the world of theatre, suddenly being seen for roles, and demanding a much higher salary  (which also means that they can indulge in the occasional off-West End profit share type show too).  It's the perfect win/win.  The world of TV is gaining some great 'names' and the world of theatre can reclaim them, and surprise a whole new audience.  If Celebrity "X" is putting new bums on seats AND being brilliant what's not to like about the arrangement? Right now John Partridge is shocking Eastenders' audiences up and down the UK by staring in Chicago. I'd love to know what percentage of the Chicago audiences are newcomers to the theatre just to see a popular soap actor 'take on' a musical theatre role.  Of course the fact that he trained at both the Royal Ballet Lower School and then Birds just might have passed them by. Just like the fact that for the 20 years before he was the 'newcomer' in Eastenders, he had predominantly worked in Musical Theatre.  However I love that!  Rewind to 1991 and I vividly remember paying my 2nd visit to Into the Woods down at the Phoenix...but this time I had my mum and dad with me. I'd been out of college for a couple of years, and I'd saved up enough money to take them to the theatre for a change.  In retrospect why I thought that my dad would like Sondheim, when he didn't really 'get' musicals at all is beyond me.  Anyway the show starts and my father sits up, all excited to see 'that woman from Fresh Fields' on stage...all shocked (he explained in the interval) that she could sing alright couldn't she?  Of course 'that woman from Fresh Fields' was the amazing Julia McKenzie, half the reason that I had opted to pay a 2nd visit in the first place (the half being Imelda Staunton, who was playing the Baker's Wife, and I hadn't seen her in anything before, but thought that she was really something quite special and wanted to watch her performance again).

So even as I write this blog, the penny drops that psychodynamically maybe I had made the connection way back then that 'celebrity' could actually be a good thing for Musicals, as opposed to the force for evil that it suddenly became in the noughties? Now before anybody shouts about all the stunt casting...well that's a different thing altogether isn't it?? All of the above is clever casting, and clever career progression.  Having a Big Brother contestant playing Billy Flynn is ludicrous, having them playing a pantomime villain is insulting to all those people who trained to do it properly, yet sadly, good business, and last time I checked, the secret to commercial theatre producing was the first word, not the second two(and yes, yes, yes...in the ideal world commercial, good business and integrity all combines, but the world has never been perfect).  Also look at the social change that took place in the noughties - the television landscape suddenly changed overnight.  Big Brother, American Idol, The X Factor, Masterchef, Location, Location, Location, Wife Swap....the list is never ending.  Hours of broadcast time with TV companies spewing out 'the everyman', who let's face it, were much cheaper to populate our screens with, than the 'every actor'!  Ironically we then attempted to turn them into the latter via pantos and 'an audience with..' theatre tours.  The trouble is, as I stated up in Edinburgh however many years ago it was. . . you either moan about it, or beat them at their own game. In the Noughties, everyone was still in the Thatcher glow of you could have anything if you wanted it.  The daughter of a humble grocery store owner could become Prime Minister. We could all become that illusive thing called 'a celebrity'.  This was a different thing to 'celebrities' of old (who we actually called stars not celebs....because they shone a bit brighter than the rest of us, or at least that's my favorite definition of the word).

I think that theatre lost it's way a bit during this time. We were so busy moaning about this new era, we forgot to keep up.  Shows became 'stars' not performers, and our 'stars' faded into the background.
Fastforward 10 years and we're all writing blogs about it!

Then my 2nd déjà vu is the constant 'noise' at the moment around the fact that we have a Mental Health crises in this country.  I've lost count of how many times in the last week alone friends and colleagues who are aware of my fight around this topic (specifically within the drama school sector), have sent me links to articles stating that the Mental Health provision in this country is in trouble. The service is crumbling under the demand.  Well pardon my French but 'no shit Sherlock'? MIND have long stated that 1 in 4 people will experience some sort of Mental Health crises in their lifetime. As my PA corrected my maths just the other day, meaning that in The MTA, which currently has a roll call of 41 students, I should have 10 students either struggling with a Mental Health issue, or who are ticking time bombs waiting to go off later on in life. Now these time bombs could be an almighty explosion or a tiny whiff of smoke, who's to say...but that's a lot of 'tiny bangs' going off in society at any one time isn't it?  I'm currently collecting stories (both good and bad) from people that have gone through a drama school education with a Mental Health issue, plus from staff at the colleges, just finding out what support is really being offered (as opposed to tick box exercises where an administrator says in theory what's going on).  I'm not exactly letting a cat out of the bag when I say that early findings support the Australian findings on this topic (http://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2015/09/14/demands-of-acting-hurting-performers--mental-health.html), The Californian findings (http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/jul/18/actors-struggle-resolve-emotional-problems) The Icelandic findings (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3115620/Creative-people-prone-suffering-mental-illness-Actors-dancers-musicians-likely-genes-causing-schizophrenia-bipolar-disorder.html) ....I won't go on but you get the picture.  A little bit like my thoughts around 'celebrity' I hate to say 'I told you so' (although as my students know those are my 4 favorite words)...but I've been banging on about this for years.  Way before The MTA in fact.  Well clearly, otherwise I wouldn't have thought of opening a college with Mental Health Wellbeing at the heart of it.  I mean if I could timetable  the subject in I really would (instead my students have to 'study it' in their own time as and when they find it necessary). That said it's great to see all the various # campaigns designed to raise awareness of this important issue.  Do check out  https://www.facebook.com/events/911328365625354/ if you get the chance, contribute if you can find the time or the inclination...and most importantly of all, if I ever randomly come up with 6 numbers between 1 and 49 write them down and play them in the lottery around 10 years later...as seemingly I'm quite good at predicting the future ;-)

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