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 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 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
10 months later and nothing had changed: 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