Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Theory of Diversity

This evening I'm going to attempt to hold an online Q&A with teachers concentrating on what to look for in their HE options for their more talented students.

Having been a member of a teacher's FB group for a while, I've been struck by a) How passionate the majority of the teaching staff are around the performing arts subjects. Without a doubt putting in more hours than the other humanities/sciences etc.  All those after school rehearsals start to add up you know. b) How much they are relying on outside information to inform their recommendations to their students specifically looking to go into performing. However c) that outside information isn't actually available.

What we have instead is hearsay and history.  eg Teachers are still talking about accredited courses..but there are no Drama UK accredited courses anymore.  This is just one of a number of examples...but how on earth do teachers find out these basic facts, when they are already snowed under with additional work?

Anyway you get the idea - I felt really sorry for those teachers desperately trying to do the right thing by their students, but a lack of basic information was not easily available.

Then I was walking my son to school the other day, and as always I'm struck by the diversity of ethnicity in his playground...and as ever, how lovely it is, that at primary school level anyway, the innocence of childhood means that everyone is equal.  Society hasn't yet taught them how to be racist. Parents of different nationalities mix. . . and the children see for themselves that 'we are all equal'...we don't automatically become ghettoised.  They are all taught to have the same dreams and aspirations.

So this thought popped into my head that I'd like to share with you. I'm assuming that most schools these days have a great cultural mix (unless you're a small village school out in the country somewhere). The ethnic diversity is acknowledged and celebrated.  So why aren't we seeing this diversity come through to drama school level?

I would hazard a guess that the largest percentage of ethnic minorities that end up in vocational HE come through youth group links, be that at National or Local level.  Drama has long been the saviour of disenfranchised teens, whatever their cultural background.

My suspicion is that bad career advice might be coming into play, and therefore has an impact on the diversity in vocational training.

We need to educate parents and teachers that a course that offers 16hrs contact time/week should not be considered if that student is truly talented.  We need to start shouting from the rooftops that you don't need a degree to become an actor.  Students who might be struggling academically to get the 'grades' for a degree course might be the most talented students...and there are courses dead right for them.

As an industry we need to be shouting about the courses that are not getting students ready for the industry.  Courses taking 30+ students a year under the pretense of getting them industry ready, are no doubt teaching their students valuable lessons...but they ain't getting them ready for a career in performing.

I did some work with a group of 3rd year students not so long ago at one of these courses.  They could not even warm up their voices properly!! It wasn't their fault....they had barely received any teacher contact time.  Their final performance was not at the level of a year one, term one piece at a vocational college.  This was of no fault of the students or the lecturers actually...it was the fault of a money making course, selling false promises, and parents and secondary school teachers falling for these promises under the pretense of 'it was a degree course therefore it must be good'.

So let's 'inform' parents and secondary school teachers of what's really important. The universities need to rename these Mickey Mouse, Money-Making courses, as a life skill degree (for which it would be good value for money actually, as drama truly does provide you with those skills), and let's start looking at the courses that truly deliver and offer true value for money.

Let's not forget, that all of this nonsense of 'let them get a qualification behind them' is actually costing parents £27k.  So let's scrap those courses, get the student finance being ploughed into them redirected over to the vocational sector, and maybe we'd start seeing a true representative of the modern day Britain in our auditions?

Sunday, 26 February 2017


So today it feels like the world has finally caught up with what I've been shouting about for years:
This article advocates for the 2 year accelerated model - time to point out that we've been doing this at The MTA since 2009. It also shouts out asking for transparency...again something that I've been shouting about since opening the college.
So let's reflect shall we?
I said years ago that Mental Health was a huge factor in the arts, and we in the training sector had a responsibility to face it head on.  Fast forward to July 2016 and the launch of #time4change and we're finally getting somewhere. We need dance colleges to embrace this and the 'straight' acting courses. We need the the CDD to lower themselves to join us in a united fight...BUT we're getting there.
A big shout out in this blog to Backstage, the US Casting Directory launching over here, taking on Spotlight. Unlike Spotlight who refuse to get into a conversation about #time4change, Backstage have already signed up.  So I say use them - and stop Spotlight monopolising our industry. Let's have some healthy competition at long last.

I always named Drama UK as a drain on resources, providing nothing other than a launch website for 'the club'.  I called them out when they started taking jollies to NY and China. . . under the guise of 'brand awareness'. Fast forward to 2016 - Drama UK is no more.  There is no organisation really governing drama training in the UK anymore. I'm pleased that we didn't pay the thousands of pounds they were asking for to be 'tested' by them, or indeed the £6k/year they wanted if you qualified to join 'their club'.

I've always said that the drama colleges moved to degree courses to get additional funding, creating this ludicrous situation where parents now believe that a degree is better for their child than a diploma. Whereas in reality it makes no difference.  What that move did do though was put true vocational colleges into the same arena as the traditional uni drama course. Courses that are saying that they're getting their students industry ready, but with as little as 16 hours contact time/week that's impossible.

I visited a course a while ago where 3rd year students couldn't even do their own vocal warm up - such was the inadequacies of their training. Yet when I asked them what they were going on to do after graduating, they all confidently told me that they intended to be professional performers.  In reality they did not have a clue - their course and their college had completely let them down.  £27,000 in tuition fees for what? Life experience? Wouldn't their parents have been better off giving them the cash and telling them to go travel the world? Ironically it would have made them better performers too!

I've been on websites discussing this degree issue with parents - but they just don't get it, and in fairness to the 'Joe Public' parent, I understand it.  Surely degree = quality training = career. However those of us in the industry know that this isn't the case. It's training + connections + business acumen = the possibility of a career. That piece of paper that says degree means nothing.  Yes it's useful if they end up needing a 'fall back' career - but aren't we setting our children up for failure if we're providing them with the full back before they've tried the real deal? Let's not forget that the safety net that you're giving them will cost you in excess of £27k.  Once that's in place you're looking for the same again (or more) for the actual career that they want.

The 2 year model is bloody hard work - I know, I've been on that carousel now for 8 years. It's relentless. There's no long breaks where staff can just regroup and do a nice bit of admin for a few weeks. We're continuously needing to look into the next term in order to keep the thing moving.
I read someone on twitter just this morning extolling the virtue of the long Summer break - their students can earn money they cry.  Oh let's face it - they can't earn that much, and they'd be better off ploughing through and saving a year's tuition and living costs.

I hope that the colleges are forced to become transparent, as our industry will have some serious questions to answer I believe.  The audition scam, the additional courses that don't really do anything other than provide an income, the faculty members paid to do very little....let's get it out there and see what's really going on shall we?

We've always had open book accounting. Most of my staff are freelance in order to get the best value for money for my students, and because every subject is so 'specific' - I can't just hire generic teachers to do a bit of everything.

I get that The MTA is different, as it was 'my baby', therefore it's my responsibility to do the 19 hour days that I've been doing for the past few years, in order to get us up and running.  We worked out my hourly rate the other day - £1.75/hr max.  I'm not advocating that (in fact I'm really strict with my staff to only work their allocated hours)...however I am saying that if you're being paid X amount of money to do full day's work, that's what you should do. I'm also saying that if you're a uni literally filling your courses with a bunch of naive wannabes who are there because parent's preferred them to get a degree...shame on you.  Similarly though, if you're a drama college who moved across to the degree system to get more finance, use the financial gain to give the students more contact time, not to get in more admin staff. Better still - buy in some more mental health support, as we all know that we need it.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Silver Spoon

It's the BAFTA evening, and already the broadsheets are carrying stories of woe about how theatre/performing is becoming an exclusively middle/upper class occupation.
The fees are extortionate, they cry, how can a young person afford them, they persist.  Then once they've graduated how do they support themselves without a lucrative bank of mum and dad to support them?

Well I hate to be controversial, but I think that it's always been like this. There's no difference to when I studied 30 years ago.  More than that why aren't all the people shouting about it and commenting about it on social media giving back to STOP it being like that?

I've written about this before however to reiterate:
a) ALL students these days going into HE can expect to hit debt city unless their parents are in a position to help them out. Lawyers, doctors...you name it, the debt is real.  Of course the difference is that you'd expect them to land a well paid job really quickly and to start paying it back, but actually in this day and age that is not always the case.
b) If some actors were more savvy with their acting careers, they too could get rid of some of the debt by not waiting around for an elusive, well paid film role, or theatre role.  Use your skillset and get some money behind you.  Some of my lot are currently working all over the world, earning a blooming fortune, paying their CDL's off early, getting money behind them ready to return to the UK and have some saving's in anticipation of the struggles that they're about to face.  
c) You don't have to sit tight in London for the first two years because that's the only time that a CD is interested in you. We know that because every CD that's come into college for a Q&A has named it.  In fact - they've all said...get some performance experience behind you.
d) The difficulty and reality is, to survive in our industry you need to find your perfect 'crap job'. The job that you can tolerate doing more that your real job. Personal trainer is a popular one at the moment, freedom to book and schedule clients around auditions, whilst taking control of your own life (and earning considerably more than the minimum wage). I have one student currently training to become a book keeper as they know that they can do this remotely wherever they end up working. As you'd expect lots of teachers.  Basically you're looking for the job that pays more than the minimum wage (as that is not a livable wage in London), and one that gives you flexibility.  If it's attached to the industry all the better, as you still get to live in 'our world'.

We negate the brilliance of a lot of our actors and writers as we still beat the 'angry young men' drum of the 60's. They 'rich kids' are not winning awards, gaining roles because they're from privileged backgrounds, they're getting them because either their good, or they put bums on seats.

This whole issue is so much more complex than 'the poor can't afford to train'. This is an educational matter that needs addressing. For as long as I can remember, schools have not considered a career in the performing arts a viable, sustainable career.
When I went to my career's officer as a teenager, I was told to join the army, as they'd encourage my musicianship and I'd get to play a lot of music. Seriously. That was the only advice that I received.
I'm from solid, Welsh, working class roots. My parents didn't have a clue about theatre, let alone the endless possibilities of having a career in theatre. I played the piano therefore I must become a music teacher.  Back then, even that just felt like a pipe dream.
After leaving college and I started to make my own career path, my parent's despaired as I did bigger and bigger shows, whilst continuing to earn no money.  It was hardly a good 'sell' to reassure them that I was OK. They didn't understand a creative hunger or need.  For them it was simple. Get a job that pays you regularly and life is sweet.  They had heard all the stories of theatrical unrealiability from us never getting a mortgage to never getting car insurance.  Nobody could tell them an alternative.

I was lucky, my parent's just went along with it (although I had my dad for 20 years practically begging me to get 'a proper job'). They didn't understand it, but they could see that I was happy.
Eventually a pay cheque landed and life looked a bit 'safer'. I found the perfect 'crap' job in teaching, so had found a way to be viable.

They didn't really have the money to help me out, nor did I want them to. They worked long enough hours as it was.

Am I a better performer because of my struggles? I don't know. Am I more resiliant and realistic because of them? Yes. Do I have a hunger for work because of my upbringing? Yes. Disclaimer: This is also true of some people who are from more privileged backgrounds too. I'm talking in hyperbole because that is how the media are approaching this topic.

I once offended around half of one of my year groups at The MTA, when I dared to name that the reason that they were being so awful, was because that they were spoilt brats, never knowing what it was to work for something.  So their general work ethic was appalling.  Whereas their classmates who were holding down up to 3 jobs in order to survive at the college were soaring - because they understood hard work.

There will always be a clique (hell Drama UK held onto that idea for as long as possible and now the CDD have stepped it up a notch). You are always more likely to be seen if you were trained at RADA than if you went to Drama Studio...there's the privilege right there. Yet in fairness RADA, and a lot of the colleges give over a large percentage of their places to the 'working class' straggler. Whether that be social conscience or clever PR who cares? It happens.

So what's the answer?
Schools (yup...including your bog standard Comprehensive) need to understand what careers are open to people in the arts.  They need to stop putting people off, instead support them to dare to dream. Harsh reality is killing more careers than your demographic.
Parents need to learn about the realities of the industry - maybe drama colleges could do more to support this?
We need to stop writing that the working class voice isn't being heard.  As I believe that as soon as that's published we muffle the voice that is attempting to break through.  Instead let's read the articles about all the great things that are being done in the UK to develop break through artists.
We need to understand that this is a societal problem, not an industry problem.
The 'working class' kids that want to do this need to talk to the colleges that they're interested in going to and find out what's on offer for them. If they're giving up at the first hurdle, they're probably not right for our industry anyway.
Finally why doesn't Equity use some of it's subs from the successful actors to 'give back'? If you're mega successful (and let's face it, we are in a career where you can literally go from stone broke to millionaire in one step)...give back. Chose a college (and please don't all chose RADA, they are really well supported)...and give yourself the tax break of giving some money to an up and coming street urchin as opposed to the Inland Revenue.

My next mission statement for The MTA is to have 50% of my places as sponsored places.  I could achieve this by just 260 people donating £10/week to the college. Donate your daily Starbucks coffee to the college and that's it...dream complete. It's not going to happen though is it, because those of you bleating about this cannot see that paying forward might need a donation, as opposed to a demonstration. I get it - it's your hard earned money, why should somebody else get it? Of course that's exactly what the parents of the privileged children that you're now being angry at thought too.

Here's the harder question. Aren't we just hacked off that some people have it easier than us? Aren't we resentful that they don't have to work to 'survive'? We dress it up as a social conscience, but in reality we're all OK...we're doing it. Or for those people fighting to get in and blaming their social standing....could it be that you're just not good enough yet?

Whatever the answer is - the debate is tedious and getting us nowhere.  Donate your 'anger' and resentment to The MTA, rather than hypothesising the situation over your Starbucks.  I have students in dire need of that money...maybe you could actually help them?

Friday, 3 February 2017

The Audition Issue

Seeing as WestEndProducer has raised the important question of audition fees one more time, and given that this was one of my blog areas the other day....here's the deal with drama college/uni auditions...as I see it.

When you go to the doctors, 9 out of 10 people don't feel 'better' unless they give you a tablet. We feel short changed when they say the word virus, and say that antibiotics won't help us out.  We would feel ripped off if on top of that they had charged us between £30-£75 for the privilege of hearing this information even though the facts were correct. 

The question is (unless I'm very much mistaken) - is the audition process a cash cow for colleges? Everybody gets cross at the question, all standing their ground that their audition process is not only fair, but very often it's a loss maker. We could probably 'chose' our students in half a day if we crammed things in, but you'd definitely feel that you hadn't been seen or heard - so we've always opted for a whole day audition process with no cuts. I can tell if you can sing by hearing 16 bars. . . but you feel like you need to sing your entire rep. . . so we compromise on one time limited song.

Now I run a teeny, tiny college.  Here are my facts:

We audition up to 15 people in a session.  We only do whole day auditions. Throughout the day they will have my senior faculty with them at all times, plus one of my dance staff for an hour and a half. Clearly we need a studio to facilitate this day.  Part of our revenue relies on the hire of our one free studio space in the day - just a quick google check and you'll see that our one day studio hire is £140/day (for our audition studio...although we do sometimes vary it, depending on the needs of the course)
So we've potentially lost that revenue for that day...and therefore have to count it as a 'cost'.  It usually costs us around £40 to have one member of my dance staff with us for a dance workshop...so we're already 'down' £180.  Whilst the staff that are in the room are my salaried staff, that does 'lose' me a day of their contract elsewhere, so budget wise I have to factor it in.  All the staff are on different salaries and on different point scales, however roughly speaking that would mean that each member of staff costs me around £120....and there are 4 of us in the room.  So our audition day costs us £570...to do the paperwork around each audition is probably around 2 hours per audition day, in addition we send all applicants written feedback which takes a further 2 hours at the end of the day. If we say that each hour of admin is £15 - we're on £60 admin charge/day.

So we have 15 people paying £45 - giving us a total of £675/audition day.
So it's room hire £140 (or more accurately, loss of earnings for that room)
Staff costs at £520
Admin costs at £60
Total cost to us - £720
So as I've always maintained...we run all of our audition days at a loss.

In reality we lose a bit more than that though, as our classes all have to be covered by our freelance teachers - so as a business we have an additional £330(minimum) to 'cover' too. However it's imperative to me that the audition panel consists of the very people who are going to have to get you industry ready in 2 years, I don't buy into the 'guest' system of auditioning. I need my staff to see if they can solve your bad habits.

In other words. . . I can justify the cost of my audition day without any difficulty.  It's for you to do the sums everywhere else...or even better for every college to break it down to show complete transparency over costs.

This does not make your audition day any cheaper BUT we're on our 9th year of auditioning now, and at the end of every session we have asked every applicant to anonymously fill out a questionnaire to ensure that they feel like they've had value for money from their day with us.  100% of applicants have not only felt like they've received the value of their audition fee, but every year around 30% say that they feel like we're under selling our day! 100% of them would recommend our audition day to their friends.

We cap our audition numbers, as we are simply looking for the 22 people to fill our course, and we fill as we go along. Our applicants find out that evening if they've been accepted or not.

However we're equally unhappy about 'the system'. We advise people to apply early to us due to the fact that we fill as we go along. . . and yet every year a percentage of students will come to an early audition, we'll offer them a place and of course, they want to go and see everywhere else before committing to us.  So to us they've wasted one of our valuable audition spaces, but also it's really disappointing when we invest so much into people on our audition days when they then turn around and say that they can't decide yet (even though we make it blatantly obvious everywhere that you will only have a 2 week period to decide on accepting that place or not. . .AND explain the reasons for that), so they end up turning down the place.  This is very different, I'll add, to the people that are clear that it's just the wrong course for them (which of course they wouldn't have found out unless they had done our audition day. . . so I'd say for them and us, that was still a day well spent). FYI there is only a short 2 week deciding time as we need to know how many places we have to offer by the next audition day, and as the applications keep coming in, as we would stop our audition process early. We also deliberately put a large deposit request in, as we don't like the game of 'holding security places'. We only want you to pay a deposit if you're coming to train with us...if  you're sure that we're the right place for you.

Interestingly as we're one of the few drama colleges that give feedback, I have a surprisingly large number of people that thank us for the feedback and inform us that they used it, and it facilitated them getting into another college! Again if we were seriously being considered as a training option but it wasn't right for them(or us)...that's bloody brilliant...and they definitely did receive value for money. however disappointing it might be for 'us'.

As nearly every applicant says on their feedback form, they like the fact that we get to know our applicants as people, with names, not commodities with numbers.  However that means (as our testimonials will vouch for us actually) that we clearly invest from day one. . . probably a bit too much if I'm honest.

I get that applying to loads of colleges is the advice that we all give...just applying to 10 would cost you around £450 these days(& I know that you have to add travel and accommodation on top of that...which is why we decide in a day, and refuse to do any recalls, which would cost you more money again)...and that's a big investment, for very little return. So I guess my advice would be chose your 10 carefully. . .  Find out exactly what you're getting for that money. It's only if you start deciding to give your money elsewhere will the colleges who are suspected of running cash cow auditions will change.

Should we audition around the country to lower your audition costs? I don't think that we can. We're a unique course, with a unique atmosphere. That atmosphere will instantly click with you, or instantly repel you I guess. . .but you'll only find that out by submerging yourself in our culture/habitat for the day.

And the bit about the doctor? Well sometimes you're just not right for a course, it doesn't matter what you do, you're not the right 'fit' for the college of your dreams. If they're honest with you and tell you that you will always feel ripped off. . . even if you come away empty handed because they want to actually save you money.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

School of the Year

I still can't quite believe that I'm writing this - but a huge thanks to all at The Stage, for once again voting The MTA its School of the Year.  We first won this award back in 2012. Back then our citation stated that we were one to watch as we were 'a new force for training' in the UK.  Fast forward to now and our citation acknowledges our growing influence within the training sector.  Clearly the deciding factor this year though was the #time4change campaign. We're still plugging away at it and currently have 118 great organisations/companies/agencies/colleges committed to better mental health practice. However with only 2 full time members of staff (one of those being me), we need to put our head's down for a bit and focus on the class of 2017, ensuring that they're ready to leave, and of course start thinking about the 2017 newbies too.  In other words. . . lots to do and we need to prioritise 'us' for a few months. That said, if you are interested drop us a line as 'we need you!'

If The MTA has any influence at all within this sector. . . and I am rather dubious as to whether we do or not, I'd like us to think about how we could all work together a bit more.  Drama UK is dead and gone (I won't be a hypocrite and hope that it RIP's . . . instead I celebrate the financial saving that each of its old members will now make), so how do we regulate our industry?

Personally I think that it needs a huge shake up.  So if we could influence anything it would be the following:

1) Foundation courses need to run something like Feb - Feb not September - August. I strongly suspect why they all currently run the same as regular academic year, but don't they need their students ready to audition by December at the earliest? If they started earlier in the normal academic year their students would be biting at the bit to get out there by December (which seems to be one of the earlier audition dates you could be given by a major drama college?).  I don't know about the other colleges but I really feel for the students who are on these courses who have to ask you for a later audition date as they're not quite ready yet. At The MTA that could mean that they miss out on a place.
UPDATE: Some foundation courses need to really look at the advice that they're giving their students about application dates.  We've had one course that advised people to apply early....for nearly all of them to give the same stock response of why they then couldn't accept their places.  Valid reasons...but a later application would have meant that people who were ready to commit to our course got the chance to audition earlier.  Check whether your foundation course really is open to you auditioning everywhere...and seeing a value in every course.  There's a few out there purely training you for one course? What is that about? It also makes a mockery of all the brilliant foundation courses working hard for their students.

2) Transparency....transparency....transparency.  From websites to statistics, I feel like things need to be clearer for parents making their way through this maze seemingly called 'the audition season'.  We should all be compelled to put up our latest stats, and not just promote a course on historical facts, or contemporary soundbites.  I think that we should all have to clearly state our prices. . . none of this headline figure with 'plus VAT' added in a smaller font next door to it.  What is your price? What additional extras will your students have to pay for if any? How many places are you offering? What class sizes does that equate to? What percentage of your students are working/are still in the industry after X amount of years? Where does the money go? Be prepared to explain it to parents. At The MTA we do open book accounting, which makes life so easy, as everybody knows everything, and if they don't, they can just nip into my office and see for themselves. I appreciate in a larger college that might not work, but students can still learn ball park figures for tuition/rooms/production.  What's the breakdown of the contact hours/week per term. Exactly how many weeks of tuition does a student have? Transparent facts e.g. if you're saying that 100% of your students have gained agent representation but that's because you have an in house agency that can facilitate that fact. . . state it!

3) This comes under No 2) really but what is the pastoral provision? Have they signed up for #time4change or are they actively affiliated with another campaign that actively promotes well being, and indeed do they acknowledge that Mental Health is an issue in our industry . . . and if so how are they attempting to help?

I think that Nos 2) and 3) are the 'least' that should be shared. . . however I'd also want to know who was going to be teaching me, the structure of the course, policy on casting (to ensure that the primary objective in their shows was promoting ALL their students. . . not just the one that they consider to be the best).

4) Let's sort out the mess that must impact on all of us at this time of year around students often paying hundreds of pounds for auditions, but then all of us needing to know within a ridiculous time frame - complete with a hefty deposit.  I say this as we are as culpable in this as the next college maybe even more so - however realistically, the business side of any college can't exist on uncertainties and maybes. We all need to know how many places we have to offer, how many people we're still looking for. We stop auditioning people once we're full, but then could get potentially stung badly if all of our 'chosen year' pulled out at the last minute because to them a 'better place' had been offered(by that I mean a place at their preferred college, etc) , or a funded place had suddenly appeared, as we refuse to have a substantial reserve list.  We have a financial penalty to try and discourage this (as do many others I know). . . but it happens, and the impact on the college could be huge.
I have no idea how to answer the above. . . but I think that we need to ask the questions, to see if we can stop students forking out for a load of auditions that they're not going to need. I think from our point of view too we need a better system. I know that every year we get frustrated during the earlier auditions as we get all excited about the potential to train someone, only to be told that they want to explore all their other options. Now this of course makes complete sense and is completely right and proper from the students' point of view, they don't want to take the financial hit on all the other auditions that they've already paid for but now have to forfeit - but then they did just waste the £45 audition fee that they'd spent on us, plus, very often, travel and accomodation on top. Plus as we cap our auditions, they had also prevented somebody taking their place. . . somebody who might have had The MTA down as one of their preferred choices? In other words whichever way you look at it the students are being financially penalised and that shouldn't happen.

5) Transparency over audition fees - and exactly what does your audition day/PM/10 mins look like? Justify your price? Even with over 100 students in the room at any one time?

6) Better education in schools for parents and potential students.  Does your safety net degree at X college really warrant you paying out twice for your child's training? Were those extra 3 years really worth it? Maybe they were - let's find out!  I feel so sorry for people that come to us having recently finished a degree course, and discovering that they actually know nothing about the industry at all. . . yet were sold a course that pertained to prepare them for it? Rename those courses 'life skills within the performing arts' or something, but don't sell them as the pathway to fame and fortune, which is a practice that definitely happens out there. So let's get the facts out to parents and let them make informed choices.

6) Some colleges already do this I know...but let's make it common practise - if they're holding a large reserve list, let the potential students know exactly where they are on that list. If you're 'caller No 200 on hold' then surely the chances are that you're not going to get in that year. Again. . . transparency.

7) Please make this be the year that someone explains to me why the majority of colleges charge overseas students so much more money.  We charge them exactly the same, as it costs me the same to train an oversea's student as it does a UK based one.

So there's my starting point, no doubt I'll think of other things throughout the year.  However all of the above aside. . . thank you. We're so thrilled - this is what happened after the award ceremony when I took the award back to the students: https://www.periscope.tv/w/1LyGBwqMeAbJN Enjoy the dullness of my walking around the college looking for them!

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Bigger Picture

Yesterday 'actor' Ewan McGregor refused to do a TV interview promoting his latest film, because one of the interviewers had been so dismissive of the spate of 'women's marches' over the previous weekend, Ewan couldn't stomach being close to the egotistical presenter.  The presenter then in 'Trumpton' style, fired off a series of tweets slagging off the actor for having integrity.  The presenter had commented during the programme that Ewan was after all just an 'actor' there to promote his film.  Previous tweets by this presenter had made it really clear that he felt that actors should simply be unopinionated puppets, who could entertain the masses, but who had no place to politicise as part of their art.

Well he has a point hasn't he? I mean it's just a shame that nobody had mentioned that to EVERY great maker of theatre down the ages. From Brecht to Mozart, from Stoppard to Gilbert and Sullivan hasn't art always been a mixture of entertainment, escapism, but also opinion?

I work in the twirly world of Musical Theatre, yet every show that I've done has somehow educated and honed my political opinion.  I've also learned (sadly) that the one thing that you can be sure about in this crazy world, is that history will repeat itself.  There never was 'a war to end all wars'. . . nor I suspect will there ever be (more's the pity).

I've also lived long enough to see history repeating itself. On a simplistic level, we see it with each new 'vintage' fashion revival.  I am now seeing my students coming into college, on trend, with me being devastated that I emptied my wardrobe of the identical items some 30 years ago (clearly deluded that I could ever fit into the aforementioned items again). Think how trendy I could be (in my head at least).

In other words . . . as an intelligent woman (and I guess in this particular blog, my gender is an issue), and as an artist, surely I have the right to make some decisions about how I promote myself and my art? I'm all for healthy debate - but should I, in clear consciousness, set myself to be used to feed someone's overinflated ego? I mean let's face it, this presenter has no more right than I to their opinion, so both are valid. However my 'ego' is fed by my work I guess, whereas people with clear narcassistic tendencies don't seem to know when they're 'full'. So like parasites on society they keep spewing out soundbites in a bid to promote . . . that's right. . . themselves.

I'm bored of hearing what a nice person so and so is, and that their public persona is so different. Why do we have a current breed of people determined to gain notoriety by projectile vomiting their pig headed opinions at us? Now the thing is (as you might have noticed), I categorically refuse to name the presenter, just like I refused to name the people that I was speaking about in this blog a while back, as these societal parasites feed off google counts.  Everybody played into this idiot's hands yesterday RT'ing' his comments or quoting him directly from his twitter account.

Like his hero (and let's give credit where credit is due here...it is no mean feat even noticing that someone is snubbing you when your head is so firmly placed up the derriere of a certain President. . .you would think that the only thing that they'd notice is the smell of BS), and like another certain presenter, who also clambers for notoriety at any cost, they clearly care about the snub, that they're so quick to keep telling us that they care nothing about....or else why tweet about it at all?

Do we, as performers, have a right to use whatever platform we're given to make political statements? Er...yes! That's why I blog. It's to give myself a moveable stage, in which I can state my own opinions like a contemporary speaker's corner.  So why the hell wouldn't I use a real 'stage' in the same manner.

We are living in dangerous times. The right are marching at a terrifying pace. In the US we have a President who seems to be determined to get those Executive Orders out there ASAP. Now admittedly he's probably more about the photo op than the intention of the Order, but nevertheless, things are being overturned at a radical pace.  As someone who identifies as gay....that really concerns me. What's the next 'Christian' thing that this man (who appears to now identify himself as someone with a hotline to 'god' judging by his weather comments the other day) is going to do? As the mother of a toddler - this concerns me. What world is my son going to grow up in? I want to be able to turn to him in a few years time and say that I did everything that I could to stop this idiot nation....not sit on my hands and keep my head down.

In Europe the 'right' are gaining popularity, as disenfranchised people huddle together in groups looking for 'an answer...and believing the rhetoric that some of the leaders are shouting. Hell we saw it here.....we're about to experience the fall out from an identical situation.

The world is being forced into a state of 'frightened'. . . bullies are beginning to win. If we don't use our platforms then who the hell is going to? I'm uncensored by a government so I'm going to use that freedom to keep saying that artists not only have the right to be political, but I believe if they so wish (as it is not my right to compel), they also have an obligation.

At the college we always end up talking about politics (as much because I'm always shocked how uneducated my students are around the subject). We invariably end up with a healthy difference of opinion, but that's OK...that's called real life.  I have no interest in working or indeed running 'Stepford college'...where freewill and 'fight' has been removed, or the right denied them because the place is 'mine....all mine' (cue evil laugh). I want to work in an environment where we all have opinions, all of our opinions are challenged (to ensure that we haven't just inherited an opinion), and then all of us have a right to shout them from the rafters.

Dangerous Daughters will be revived in September, my first years will get to learn all about the Suffragette movement.  I will not be 'wiping' their memories of what they've learnt after the production.  I will be hoping that the show will educate them to understand and value the importance of 'the vote'.   Following through that logic, I would also hope that should they feel like their 'vote' no longer matters, they will feel compelled to 'shout out' and use every platform available to them, in a bid to give their voice value again.

So here's to integrity and here's to the greater good.  May we all as artists, always chose to put both before a contractual obligation to sit down and feed another man's ego. The bigger picture is the one that we ALL star in.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Whatever happened to class?

Now as we all know, I am not one to rant and rave <ahem>  I patiently sit on the fence, pulling out the splinters waiting (and hoping) for the world to change around me.

Oh OK...I'm a ranter.  I admit it.  I get infuriated by things and either bore my other half with my latest bugbear or I come here to blog..and go on (and on)....(and on)...about it.  So this time I thought that I'd save my other half (as she hears the same moan year after year)...and bring it officially out into the open.

Yesterday The MTA started it's audition 'season'. We joined the multitude of colleges, filtering through the same group of people, looking to find the ones that 'fitted us'.  We have always done it a bit differently

  • We do the whole thing in a day, audition and decision by midnight
  • We automatically give every applicant written feedback. Feedback which has the subjective opinion of my entire senior faculty on it (so not just a general 'be better'. . . but good, constructive things that we've noticed, with the disclaimer that it's just our opinion)
  • We audition in really small groups - usually a max of around 15 these days, so that we can really get a sense of who the people are that we're auditioning.  
  • My entire senior faculty are there, so that we can decide collectively if we believe that we can get that person industry-ready within our unique 2 year structure.
I believe that I can confidently say, given that 100% of my students have graduated having secured independent agent representation, that our audition process works.  Generally speaking we choose the right people.  Of 144 students that have passed through our doors, only 5 people have ever just left the course. Of those 5, only 1 of them has no contact with us....the other 4 have stayed in touch to one degree or another, we know what they're up to, and are still around to gently support them, should they ever need us.

In other words, the evidence would suggest that our audition process is effective. 
My fear is taking the wrong applicant. This year we are asking applicants to pay £32k for the course. That is a huge amount of money for them, or their parents to find, so I want to do my best to ensure that our training means that they can at the very least, earn that money back within a reasonable timeframe.  With an increasing number of our graduates being in the fortunate position of paying back their loans early after graduating due to sensible job decisions (as opposed to sitting around waiting for ALW to knock on their door and instantly offer them a well paid West End lead), it does feel that we've got this bit right.  That said, I'll quickly add, that we're ALWAYS looking at ways to improve things. So there ain't no laurels that we're sitting on down at the college. I'll also put the disclaimer that we still do open book accounting so every staff member/student/parent is welcome to check exactly where that money is going (& our students often do. . . until they get bored of looking at the numbers)

We write to the applicants offering them their audition date, usually on the same day as they apply. We also put in capital letters in the subject PLEASE RESPOND TO THIS EMAIL, as over the years it's shocked me that people just didn't respond, so it was hard for us to be sure how many people were going to turn up.

I learnt in the first year that no shows, and in particular 'non informed' no shows was part of the 'gig'. People who had paid their audition fee, just don't show up.  We regularly have about 3 or 4 every session. I wrote a blog about how this was particularly annoying for us, as we cap the number of people that we audition, therefore you have literally 'taken' somebody else's chance of a MTA audition if you do this. Give us lots of notice and we can usually fill the space.  So the initial email has a link to that blog and asks the auditionees to read it (as much for them to understand that things like a no show have a massive impact at The MTA). 

So the stats improved, the no shows or late cancellations still happened, but not with as much frequency. We send applicants an email the week before to remind them that we're expecting them - but again we seldom get a response, and we rarely get told by reply that they're no longer coming. Nope. They wait a few days, then throw it into an email, with a pointless 'I'm sorry if this is inconvenient' line. It's not inconvenient to us - we get to go home quicker. It is however inconvenient to the people that are sat on waiting lists attempting to audition for us.

In the past two years there's been an increase in applicants wanting a later audition date because they're on a foundation course, and want to be 'as ready as they can be' prior to auditioning. Now on one hand I completely get that - what I don't get though is why are the colleges running their foundation courses to the same school year as the drama colleges? Shouldn't a foundation course run something like April - April? By that point people will have a good idea of whether they've been accepted into their 'dream' college or not, and it would mean that come Dec when the audition season appears to generally start, they are 6 months further ahead in their studies than they are right now? Food for thought there maybe? I mean it also means that you could go around the colleges en masse watching their final shows, getting a feel for places. . . months before deciding where your audition fee is going to be spent.

Anyway none of this is my real rant. . . here it comes.

I remember waiting and waiting for the letter to arrive from my 1st choice college, and that fear of dread every morning wondering if it was going to be pushed through the letterbox...as what if they had rejected me?? What was to become of my life? So when I opened the college I promised myself that I would ensure that all applicants found out that day. I wasn't going to do recalls, I would make the one day count as much as possible, and regardless of how long it took me (and in the early days when we all used to hand write our notes, only to have me typing them up every night) I wanted people to find out straight away. So that everybody knew where they stood.

So that's what we've done since opening in 2009.  Since 2009 I've been staggered by how few applicants take the time to acknowledge the feedback. We're not after a thank you for it (after all it might really annoy you, especially if the news isn't what you wanted). . . but just a simple 'got it' email would be great. However it's mostly . . . nothing.  Every so often on the day I rant about this and literally beg them to let me know whether they've received it or not, and on those days I can expect about a 70% return. Generally speaking though, it's only about 20% - 30% bother to acknowledge that email.  So all those drama college applicants banging on about 'why don't they get feedback when they're spending all that money'....think on. You have an obligation in that arrangement too.

They only have a fortnight to decide whether they're going to take their place, so if that email hasn't arrived, and we don't know their decision, they will lose their place. .  . because demand is such, that we don't 'need you'. We'll be seeing another group of people quite soon, and in that group will be people as good, if not better than you - so we'll simply offer them the opportunity to train with us instead. 

Is it cultural? Is it a generational thing that we don't bother being polite anymore? Do manners matter online? Are parents and colleges reminding these students to communicate? I know that some colleges are because they keep telling me. . . but do you need to nag them more?

We have a rule at our place that all emails and texts have to be acknowledged within a certain timeframe, and if they're not the student is issued a verbal warning.  Simply because I HATE rudeness.  It takes me considerably longer to sort out the feedback than it takes the applicant to write 'thanks and press send. 

I run a college practically single handedly (aided by a PA) and I'm always working on shows at the same time, yet I manage to acknowledge every single email that comes into one of my accounts. I work a minimum of a 19 hour day most days. . . yet still I manage to say thanks or no thanks to emails that are sent to me.  Honestly -  I do not believe that an 18 yr old college student is as busy as I am. I don't believe that my students are as busy as I am (my annoying mantra to them at moments of desperation over this subject).  I'm not moaning about my working life - I'm just stating facts, and contextualising why I believe that I'm able to sit in my ivory tower and say to students both future and present.....ANSWER YOUR EMAILS BECAUSE IT'S JUST RUDE WHEN YOU DON'T

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Working Together

When you write a semi regular blog you almost feel obliged to write a New Year feature.

I've been very torn about what to write, as in 2016 the world appeared to go crazy, in a year that I was instrumental in a campaign which was attempting to empower people to stop going crazy.

The #time4change initiative came out of a blog that I wrote in 2014 http://www.thereviewshub.com/blog-annemarie-lewis-thomas-support-each-other-in-2015/
10 months later and nothing had changed: http://www.thereviewshub.com/opinion-annemarie-lewis-thomas-taming-the-black-dog/ except that I was finding myself more and more on the periphery of our industry. All of my own doing I should add - nobody likes being called out, least of all me. However Equity, Spotlight, BAPAM, Drama UK. . . the list goes on, were seemingly doing nothing to address the mental health epidemic in our industry. Now in fairness to all these organisations they might have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make changes, but when lives are at stake I don't think that you wait 20 months to reveal your grand plan (which in the end is what happened).

In March, The MTA hosted a Mental Health Conference, and the indifference that I encountered was staggering. At the conference Equity reassured us that things WERE being planned, and we just had to be patient. Sadly that is not my best feature. I'm not a sitter. Be patient as people became patients? I don't think so. I had this plan, which in itself was madness.  I tried to 'sell' the idea to someone involved in one of the aforementioned organisations. I wanted the organisation's backing, as I knew that if they got behind it we could roll it out in a week! The vitriol that followed has spurred me on throughout 2016. Yes, I'm antagonistic. Yes, I'm persistent. Yes, I tend to think in bigger pictures. Yes, I'm Welsh and my mother's daughter, and if you think that shooting down my idea with a load of personal insults will stop me, then you have no idea about Welsh heritage at all, especially Welsh women! You say no - we say, "I'll bloody show you"!

Angie Peake donated her time, the #time4change Mental Health charter was written, and off I tweeted. I tweeted constantly for months. I emailed colleagues that I had once said hello to at various shows, conferences etc. . . any link to get me through the door to colleges, theatres, production companies and agencies.  I made sure that I had a few big hitters on board before announcing the charter, as I knew that by their very presence some would naturally follow.  Fast forward 6 months and 115 organisations have signed the Charter.

I never had a desire to run a mental health campaign, I just found myself compelled to DO something. Empirical evidence was growing which supported my long standing personal belief (as documented here) and yet nobody was 'acting' on it (ironic for our industry don't you think?).
That said, I also never had a desire to open a drama college - and look where that got me?

The campaign has exasperated me - I just don't understand why people won't join. Why can't they make a commitment to send out an email? Why are people reluctant to see that there's an issue here that we're not addressing? The bullshit that I've heard this year;  Smaller colleges who could enforce the charter in a heartbeat, claiming that they have no money to implement it? Strange that - as the most that it would cost them would be for a mental health consultant to train their staff, and to speak to their students. So the cost of a consultant for a day? If your margins are that tight maybe you should rethink your business plan!  Production companies and agencies that will 'think about it'? What is there to think about? I'm asking you so send out a PDF.  That's it? Other than BAPAM none of the major organisations mentioned in the 2nd paragraph have entertained endorsing or joining the initiative. Hurrah for BAPAM I say who, as we all know, put health (mental or physical) first. Were Spotlight or Equity to join us - we could flood the industry in one go. How disappointing that both organisations have been too busy to discuss the possibility with us. As for Drama UK. . . well I had always said that they were a waste of space. Their demise in 2016 will, I believe, spur our sector on to be world class, in both our training AND our pastoral care.

However the campaign has also exhilarated me. It's enabled me to meet like minded people. People that like me, don't give up at the first hurdle. People like Pat O'Toole from Rose Bruford, who was not only 'in' from the get go, but was out to get everybody else to sign up too.  Mountview and Arts Ed - surely 2 of the most established drama colleges in the UK signed up to the charter. Honest and frank discussions with Stephen from Mountview and Chris from Arts Ed, email chats with Nick from PPA, have all restored my faith in the industry. All four are people that want to make a difference. There is no competition just differences that make us all unique BUT with a unified fight against mental health that will make us all stronger. I can't wait to work closer with all the colleges that have signed up, as we all begin to learn from each other and to give each other support as we work our way through the maze of mental health issues that we are confronted with on a daily basis. The journalist Susan Elkin who has consistently backed the initiative, writing several blogs/features on it when others didn't want to know. Mark Shenton for kindly giving the campaign 'a soft launch' in one of his blogs. Just people restoring my faith in humanity actually, in a world that was appearing to stop caring about anything other than 'self'.

The campaign is ongoing - but given that I have a college to run, shows to write, and a young family to spend time with, it will now run in the background, ready to be sent out to anybody that's interested. The colleges have all agreed to meet early this year (2017) to work out how our peer supervision is going to work.

A couple of weeks ago I was humbled to learn that The MTA has been short listed for The Stage School of the Year Award, an award that we'd already won once, back in 2012. How brilliant that the citation acknowledged #time4change as something important.

I won't name the person that insulted and patronised me way back at the start of the year, as their name isn't important. However I would like to thank them - as they know who they are. If they hadn't been so bloody rude to me I probably wouldn't have been so dogmatic about making this thing work. I'd like to think that they knew that all the time. A paradoxical intervention if you like.

Here's hoping that #time4change continues to grow in 2017. I'm looking forward to meeting with BAPAM to ensure that we keep joining up the dots - as we are only ever stronger together, and whilst that slogan didn't work for Brexit, I still believe that it works in theatre, which after all, has always been about collaboration, and working together.

Happy New Year