Thursday, 22 August 2019

Losing your voice

If you're reading this it's because the Charity Commission have now completed their process of raising enquiries with The MTA ( a process which was incorrectly described by others as an 'investigation' - accuracy is everything, people!)

We have always been 99.9% sure that the complaint was a vexatious grievance, and whilst we still don't know the source of the complaint (confidentiality is key to the commission, and rightly so), we have a really good idea.  We are always open to being told we could do things better, especially by our Regulator, but I mean, when you've been shown evidence from several sources that a couple of people have a vendetta out against you, you sort of lessen the odds really don't you?

We knew about the complaint about 4 weeks before The Stage ran with a fair article, but alarming headline of 'Musical Theatre Academy investigated over safeguarding concerns' - it was only actually if you got through The Stage's paywall to read the article that you discovered that we weren't being 'investigated' at all, but rather the Charity Commission had raised certain questions with our Trustees as a result of having received a single complaint. My sadness about the article being ran prior to the Charity Commission's conclusion was that it a) meant that we had to inform our students about the ongoing situation and they were all having a lovely old time of it in Deadwood (rehearsing Calamity Jane) and b) I was aware that several people online were going to have a field day.

Initially I thought that the Charity Commission must have a policy that required them to contact the Press whenever they sent out letters from their compliance team; only weeks later I learned that they have no such policy, meaning that the press had been contacted by the complainant(s).

Having spoken up about Mental Health in the Arts for the past 10 years it seems that you make a lot of people very cross. So I was bracing myself for the salacious comments based on . . . well nothing! What I had to work very hard at though was not commenting on the various posts. For those people that know me. . . that was really hard.

To put this all into context the 'vendetta' had already been running for several months so I was aware that a lot more people might have heard some of the 'stories' that were gathering momentum, and in fairness to everyone - if you just took 'those' stories on face value, there would have indeed been a serious issue that needed addressing. However the stories were (& indeed remain) a complete fabrication, literally no part of them were true. So how do you fight an alternative reality?  Well I guess you don't. You wait for the truth to out.

Annoyingly The Stage broke the story on the day of a college performance - annoying because the show was great and didn't deserve to be overshadowed by anything.  To add to the bizarre nature of this whole thing, that same morning, the director of that show had written a long twitter thread about how The MTA was clearly run through mutual respect between staff and students, and how our whole school approach to mental health really worked.

Watching the resulting conversations on line were fascinating though - especially as for the first time I couldn't comment. Two discussions particularly caught my eye. My favorite was probably the person who claimed that I had threatened to sue them for once making a disparaging remark about the college. A picture was painted of a poor, defenceless 'single person operating stage school' commentator simply giving their opinion, when I, as the 'big boss' of a drama college waded in all legal guns a blazing to stop them speaking? The reality was somewhat different to this. This was a person that is now on their 4th year constantly making disparaging remarks about the college on any forum that mentions drama schools. As for the 'small time performing arts school operator' they were or indeed still are the owner of a franchise operation, so not exactly the 'lone operator', even more ironic given The MTA's independent status.  That said, I categorically knew that I'd never threatened anybody with legal action over a FB post. However recent events had knocked my confidence for sure, so I suddenly found myself checking in with a couple of colleagues who had been part of that online debate to check that I hadn't lost my mind.  The relief when they confirmed my recollection of the discussion was palpable. The 'lone operator' had (probably unwittingly in fairness) merged a truth. Another commentator on the original thread had mentioned that I 'should' sue them for their 'damaging remarks', however this poster had clearly recollected it as me actually threatening legal action against them. And so their version of the truth lives on. Attention to detail is everything.

Then on twitter it was even more interesting, as a blogger went out of their way with an outrageous allegation, and accused The MTA of 'unhelpfully fetishising mental health issues'.  They'd heard stories apparently - well see above for those I'm sure. They clearly thought that they were onto something when the Chair of the Board actually started to engage with them. The blogger who made the claim had twice been booked into the college to see for themselves the whole school approach to mental health working. They had contacted me asking to observe an audition day, and requesting a separate meeting with me. We have an open door policy so it's a no brainer.  However I've been around a bit, and suspected that all was not what it seemed.

I named to my team that I suspected that this person was digging for dirt, that due to the timing of the request they might have heard some of these false rumours being put out there, but when you don't have any to hide, you just welcome people in and offer them a shovel don't you? The first time they cancelled the night before, the second time they just didn't turn up. Not the best investigative reporting it has to be said.  Our offer to visit the school is still wide open to them, so maybe they'd actually like to come and see for themselves what it is we're actually doing.

What amazed me though was quite how many people went out on a limb to name The MTA as safe, even before contacting me in private to find out what was going on. As one of them said to me - 'you'll find out who's got your back now', and my goodness they were right. Emails, phone calls, texts just checking that I was OK and if the college was OK. Some of those people even went public with their support. Equally interesting to note though was quite how many did the quiet nod of approval to me, but edged their bets in public. I mean I don't blame them - but it's interesting isn't it? We work in a small industry so you wouldn't want to back the wrong horse. We are all at the mercy of our reputations, so best not to tarnish it by association (even if you're happy to do so in private). I will add the disclaimer here though how some people named that they weren't going to publically comment on it all, because they simply didn't want to stoke the fire.

As the rumours flew around (and my goodness I heard a fair few), it was actually the students that were batting them out of the ball park. You see transparency is really useful. With nothing to hide you can tell everybody everything. So whilst I wasn't allowed my voice - the facts were being stated, as everybody knew them. We had already read out the Charity Commission's letter to our current students in its entirety, so that they would feel safe, and 'in the loop' so to speak.

The hardest day was a week after The Stage published its article. I googled The Musical Theatre Academy only to see that 4th on the google listing was The Stage's article - headline a blazing out for all to see. 10 years of working ethically, 10 years of building up a multi-award winning college, all wiped away by some lies. That was harsh. That was the day that I started to write this - as I needed to find my voice again, if only for myself.

It's really interesting in this day and age how things can become 'fact' because somebody's told you, or somebody's written it down in a social media post. This wasn't the first time that I'd had experience of this phenomenon, but it was the first time that it had hit so hard on target.  It's like the Hunger Games version of 'They Said, You Said'. If you take the time to bore down to the truth those facts aren't facts at all, but in reality who does that?  After all, who would lie just for kicks, or because they're ill, or because they're on the defensive? By default we work off an assumption that people are telling us the truth. Fake News is a great term isn't it? Created for these very scenarios.

We worked openly and swiftly with the Charity Commission.  Our Chair of the Board was rigorous and thorough in his own fact finding. Again a strange position for me to be on the outside of something that only existed because I had created it. At all times we kept our students up to speed with how things were progressing.

A few months after the initial letter had landed we found ourselves in a meeting with the Charity Commission as there were some final points to discuss and clarify.  It was felt that a face to face meeting would bring the compliance case to a swifter conclusion than email ping pong. The meeting was robust and fair. We knew (and literally everybody involved in charity work had told me) that some suggestions for improvement would be made, but all things that would make The MTA stronger and even more accountable, so all points of learning that we welcomed and will be implementing straight away - but it should be noted that all of these points were about clearly recording the good practice that we were already doing.

Which brings us to today - where the Charity Commission has officially informed us that they have no concerns about what we're doing. They've given us helpful advice about how to develop our policies and will not be conducting any further "investigation" into The MTA, even though for a few months now, a misleading headline suggested that an "investigation" was already taking place

Throughout it all I noted with interest two specific things that were said online:
1) Somebody mentioned that any "investigation" would be a white wash - meaning that even before the compliance case had even started a group of people had decided that regardless of the outcome we must be in the wrong. Whereas in reality the compliance case was really thorough, and had there been any irregularities or wrong doing - they would have been 'discovered' and it would have led to a statutory investigation. As an independent college the Charity Commission held us accountable, and I believe that to be a good thing
2) The blogger questioned whether we were 'sin free' and concluded that we weren't but with what evidence? Firstly he made the point that we're a business not a 'community outreach programme', well you know sometimes in this world businesses do exist that are trying to simply achieve their objectives. Our aim has always been to send people out into the 'real world' industry-ready with access to free ongoing support. That is our objective, and that is exactly what we do. Then secondly the old favorite of 'no smoke without fire'.  I too have probably always believed that adage - however this is what I've learned, and in truth I can't believe that it's taken me so long to get it. We work in a profession that excels in distraction, where directors can almost force an audience to look at one part of the stage as the 'illusion' is executed on the other. So next time you get sucked into a 'no smoke without fire' thought, remain curious. As the smoke that you're aware of might just be the distraction from the real fire that's been started by somebody else. After all theatre is all smoke and mirrors isn't it? Maybe some of us would be better to look in the mirror, as opposed to simply look at the smoke?

To conclude I'd like to give a heartfelt thanks to the people that really did support the college throughout this time, and indeed to my friends and colleagues that would check in with me periodically to ensure that I was OK.

In September we celebrate both the graduation of the class of 2019 and 10 years of training The MTA way - there is much to celebrate, and we will do so having been held accountable to the principles that I founded the college with back in 2009. The principles that said that the students and their health would be at the forefront of all training, and the principles that promised our students that all of their fees would be spent on premises, productions and staff, and the principles that stated that our college would be there to support them beyond their training.



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