Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Actions speak louder than words

Let's just spare a moment shall we and think of all the editors, researchers putting together those end of year 'who we've lost lists'? Just when they sit back down to spend time with their families, another 'national treasure' or 'icon' appears to die - so back they go to the editing suite, no doubt to make everyone else's moment a little shorter in order to fit in one more well lived life.

Being Welsh I tend to have a very matter of fact way about looking at death. You're either here or you're not - simple. If you go, I'm grateful for having known you, and grateful for all that you added to my life.  Of course with close loved ones the pain is immeasurable for months, even years - but like all of life's scars, they heal over, making you a bit tougher in the process.

When Diana died in 1997, for the first time in my memory, we saw a collective, public outpouring of grief never before seen in this country.  For the Royalists, my generation had never experienced another Royal death, and I suspect that nobody had experienced a death so 'complicated' as Diana's . . . ever. From the People's Princess, to establishment outcast - her level of celebrity hit a new high.

Even further back in the 80's we witnessed far too many deaths for those too young to die. AIDS robbed the world of so many talents, we had almost become immune to death altogether.  Of course the fans cried, the fans laid flowers - but there was also a section of society who (wrongly) believed that these deaths were of their own doing.  Had they been 'straight' they would have been alive (of course these ignorant statements can be debunked in a second when you look at the evidence) So when half the world grieved, another half seemed to hold back with a religious fervour, refusing to mourn these 'self fulfilling prophesies'.

Diana though bridged that gap. The irony can't be lost that she was one of the first people to publicly break the taboo and misplaced shame of AIDS, when she simply 'touched' an AIDS victim - she had sent out a clear message to everyone that AIDS was just that, the name of a ravishing, cruel illness  - not some sort of plague of leprosy sent down to  wipe out the sinners!

Back then there was no reliable social media, or at least, no reliable way to get onto it if there was.  By the time you finished hearing that dial up tone, you felt like you had died, or your 'grief' had certainly subsided a bit. So we were all glued to the screens, as the main channels (and don't forget there that were only 5 then . . . 5 didn't count as no-one really watched it, and 4 was out simply because you watched major events on BBC1 or ITV.  A few people had their Sky subscriptions but it wasn't really 'a thing').

So what's changed? Are we losing too many too soon? Well yes and no really, but there are so many social and economic factors to keep in mind. Let's look at the 'easy' ones first. The young ones 'taken too early' by cancer or some other hideous disease. There's long been a conspiracy theory that cancer could be cured, but the pharmaceutical companies couldn't afford for that to happen. Whilst the theory can be picked apart I'm sure, it feels to me a little like the 'why don't all the main car manufacturers make a reliable electric car?' Well our economy is driven by gold and oil . . . you can see where I'm heading?

So for me this is where my Welshness kicks in. Yes it's sad, yes it's unfair, yes I know a whole load of other people that I would have preferred to have suffered in this way. . . however the circle of life must be concluded.

Maybe that's why all these deaths are really hitting us so hard in 2016? We appear to have supported the rise of some of the most ridiculous, dangerous and narcissistic  political figures in decades. Many of whom we feel like we woudn't miss, but all of whom appear to be missing the grim reaper, who instead goes somewhere that that takes a bit more 'joy' out of our lives. . . or at least seems to.

Many (not all) of the young ones that are dying have lived lives of great excesses, sometimes through addiction/mental illness.  We've forgotten many of the stories now (although the media are desperately attempting to remind us) - but I suspect in 'real years' they were actually much older than we realise.  You can't spend decades with drug and alcohol addictions and then be surprised when your vital organs have been worn out a bit quicker than you were expecting.  However if you look at the list you are kind of left thinking 'but when you were alive you really lived'

Finally there are the elderly who have lived to amazing ages. So can we really scream in defiance when an octogenarian dies? Hell they've had it all and seen it all.  In most professions people retired at 65 and go and 'graze in a field'. In our profession actors celebrate making that age, knowing that they've just hit a new casting bracket, so the work never dries up.  We remain in the public conscience as the elder statesman, still honing their craft.

However social media and rolling news channels mean that every death is amplified within our own echo chamber. The deaths somehow feel more catastrophic. There are the people who report every death like some contemporary town crier. There are those who are desperate to be 'close to the death' - so relate stories about how they once went shopping in the same supermarket as those people, therefore giving them an 'unique' position to vent their grief.  Suddenly 'a nation' mourns, whilst the news regurgitates the same old clippings of them, or plays on a loop the words of grief of our nation's other treasures. Whilst speculating widely on the cause of death, in order to give us an understanding, and give us a closure maybe?

The other night  I was incensed watching the news of George Michael breaking through. Firstly because once you've made the statement that someone has died, there's a full stop really. Where else is there to go with that (I appreciate that this is the Welsh in me though. . . and that they have to keep repeating it for 'those people just joining them')? However on this particular 'event' the reporting was appalling. The endless passive words of blatant homophobia being reported on, the utter lack of understanding of mental illness, self medication and addiction.  I felt like the world had taken a few steps back.  For any of you that follow my tweets (either my personal account @ALThomasMT or my 'work' account @theMTAonline) you would have sensed my annoyance and anger as several times I felt compelled to pick up my phone and ask them what the hell they were doing?

However there you have it don't you? Suddenly the death of someone not known to me, but someone that I can admire, has prompted me to 'tell the world' how incensed I am about a channel's reporting of the death. I can spew my viewpoint out to all that can be bothered to hear it.  I have entered the echo chamber.

Last night I was incensed by all those people celebrating the advocacy work that Carrie Fisher had undertaken to remove the stigma around mental health.  The tweets were eloquent, many hoping that they'd 'caught' the wave, and might even get a bit of a viral RT going.  Yet those same people who were loudly shouting about removing the stigma of mental health last night, were the same people that I had approached to join #time4change - and who had rebuffed the idea with various retorts. That stigma was too real to actually DO something. . . but it was OK to poke it with a far reaching stick to make sure that their followers thought that they actually cared about it!

Then in amongst all of this 'noise' is a family. A family that we don't know, who are the real mourners in the tale. I wonder what it must feel like to share your personal grief with millions? Are you touched that your loved one was revered and indeed appreciated by so many, do you just not notice it as you look inwards for strength from your loved ones - or do you wish that the rest of us would just go away and leave you to come to terms with your very real, very personal loss?

This phenomenon is only going to get worse, as we all cross lines that were put down for a reason. Personal space is ever harder to find - but find it you must.  The end of the world is not nigh if we all stick together and look after each other - but that includes actions not just words.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Mystic Meg

So this time last year I wrote: all about my Christmas wish, that we, as an industry, could learn to look after ourselves.  I asked that we would acknowledge that Mental Health was a major issue in the performing arts sector.  We launched the #time4change conference, giving people 3 months to get that date in their diary.

I guess the rest has become history. . . a somewhat chequered history but history nevertheless. The conference didn't get the support that we would have hoped for, in spite of various conversations which led us to believe that it would. However it did prompt us into launching the #time4change Mental Health Charter. An initiative that over 100 organisations are currently signed up to. A charter that we categorically know has made an impact throughout the performing arts industry.

We still need more people to sign up, but for a while I need to concentrate on running a college.  In the meantime, the writer of the Charter, Angie Peake, is giving ongoing (free) support to those people that have signed up, needing additional support to implement it.

I think a rather sad by product of the Charter is how jaded it's made me of certain organisations and of people in general. Organisations who decide to put petty politics before the greater good. Petty politics I should add that are entirely one sided. Suddenly Mental Health became competitive? What the hell is that about? Colleges refusing to sign up to the charter as they perceive it to be an initiative from another college. Somehow they missed the lesson that clearly stated that every 'movement' has to start somewhere - but then the momentum of change comes from the proactive masses. Or what about the ones 'already doing it'? If you're doing it . . . sign up and let's get some consistency throughout the sector then. Add your voice and experience to the 'movement'. Pop down from your ivory tower and teach us all what your experience has taught you so that we can all put that into practice.

It was only the other week that a basic thing dawned on me. I keep speaking about the 1 in 3 of our industry being susceptible to mental health issues - forgetting of course that this INCLUDES the very people that I'm trying to engage with.  I have to say that that realisation made me slightly less resentful about some of the vitriol I've been subjected to this year!

In fairness though I'm not just talking about the Charter. This year has seen such political upheaval across the world, and yet we have social media activists who believe that writing a constant flow of vitriol will solve the problem? I'm sorry but get off your backsides and DO something. Don't just plan to stand in Trafalgar Square with a load of other 'activists' thinking that shouting about the problem will make things better - it won't.  We need solution focussed thinking - not idealistic Utopian dreams (yes, I am saying that Corbyn will never get into power)

Every Tom, Dick and bloody Harry appear to be making a 'statement' about drama training being so expensive and becoming elitist - but what are they DOING about it.  On your twitter feeds and timelines you all agree, you bemoan the latest government, but are you donating some of your money to help out? Are you donating your time to help out? Why not make a statement about how we solve this mess instead of just nodding loudly (an interesting phrase. . . but social media somehow allows us to do this)

ALW shouts that we need more diversity in the arts, we ALL agree (or at least should do).  However this is a complex subject, and the answer lies right back at primary school level, as this is when a load of us decided to do this for a living. Then the next solution comes in secondary school when potential BAME performers AND their families need to know that this career is an option.  It's no good bleating about it on the West End stage - the problem is endemic in society and in certain cultures BUT we could change that with education. I would suggest though that everybody making a statement about how elitist the arts is ain't helping any struggling wannabes persuade their parents that this could provide them with a sustainable career!

Then there are amazing people who pull me back from the brink of exasperation. People who are running marathons, donating time, donating money, donating 'ideas' all for the greater good. Yet we don't listen to their understated voices so much do we - as they're not shouting about themselves.

We have people that are literally donating the price of a coffee to The MTA every month.  Those smaller donations for a college like ours become a life line. We're not LAMDA, able to raise £300k to ensure that 'everybody' gets a chance to train. However just 20 people donating £20/month would support 1 student a year who's already in receipt of a CDL.

I've met tutors from other colleges who are busting a gut trying to get the mental health package right. I've met with Principals, brave enough to say that they are sinking under the deluge of struggling students, which enables us to think with them about what 'we' can do to make a difference.  I've spoken with counsellors swimming against the tide of ever expanding colleges, where the management have given no consideration to student welfare.  Again though #time4change has enabled us to throw out life rafts to each other, so as one goes under, the rest can help pull them out. . . for now.  This is indeed an ongoing issue, but there are people prepared to stay open minded, give the initiative a go, and together we CAN and indeed WILL make a difference.

Finally, and this is my biggest revelation of the year - I've realised that I've officially become Mystic Meg! No really. . . look at the evidence.  For around 3 years I've been saying that Drama UK was a drain on resources to those 'in the club' providing nothing more than a name for people to bandy around. A name that was meaning less and less. Then Eureka this year it folds.  Hopefully it folded returning the £6k that the remaining colleges had paid into its coffers over the past year.  Hopefully soon it will finally do the decent thing and take down its website, which interestingly fails to mention that the organisation no longer exists.

I've said forever that Mental Health is an issue in our industry, and now finally, empirical evidence is being presented around the world categorically proving my hypothesis.

I've been speaking for years about the need for the training industry to become transparent. The Stage cottoned onto this a few years back, and just this week another blog was written about it. We're currently an industry relying on a reputation that's based on history and soundbites. Surely it's time for facts - especially now that people can't wave their Drama UK certificate in the air?

Procrastinate at will through the blogs of the year and then cross reference them to 'events' of the year - I am nailing these predications though.

Of course in reality we all know all of these things - but we don't chose to name them.  I opted rather consciously when I opened the college to pop my head over that parapet (as I did it in private often enough). The simple joy of being self employed is that you don't have to answer to anyone. You haven't got anyone telling you to wind your neck in.  We've just got to hope and pray that common sense prevails and an edit button is used every so often (a lesson that I'm still attempting to learn)

Merry Christmas - here's to a happy, healthy and PROACTIVE New Year - and thanks for reading my constant streams of consciousness.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Life's a piece of sh*t

Following on from my last blog when I was discussing the merits of lying, I ended up touching upon the farce known as the IICSA.

However at the same time another child sex abuse scandal was brewing when footballer Andy Woodward waived his right to anonymity to reveal that he, and to his knowledge, some other professional footballers had been sexually abused by football coach Barry Bennell.  Bennell is a convicted paedophile, originally sentenced to nine years in 1998 after admitting sexual offences against six boys.  Since then he's been jailed a further twice.  In his own words he's described himself as a monster.

The scandal is slowly unravelling as more and more brave men are going public with their stories. Of course, with the unravelling comes more accusations, more coaches are being accused.  A helpline set up to deal with the situation said that they had received 860 calls in the first week. In the first three days alone they had 60 calls.

We live in remarkable times, in times that I for one, never thought I'd see.  I feel like the world is going backwards. As the far right march forward, and with the left literally just popping up their hands every so often as if to say excuse me, it feels like civilisation as we know it could go absolutely anywhere right now.

However there has also been, and sadly there will probably always be a constant - and that is child sex abuse. It's gone on forever....and will not doubt continue to go on, as it's just part of the depraved bit of human nature.  We can only hope that with each passing year, more and more survivors, and indeed the perpetrators, get the help that they need.

What really hacks me off though about all of this is twofold:
1) When it was all the revelations of women being abused, the media (both 'social' and real) all really questioned the validity of the women stepping forward.  Why now? Were they money grabbing? Fame hungry? The questions were relentless. One false witness out of hundred truthful ones and the 'I told you sos' were flying through the air.  Easier to focus on it not happening that it really going on obviously? I mean if I said that there was a 99% chance of you being OK after an operation, you'd probably go for it wouldn't you? You wouldn't ponder the 1% for too long. Yet when the percentage of allegations proved to be truthful, everyone jumped on the tiny percentage of deluded liars, trying to jump on a band wagon.   It's not even child sex abuse that this happens with. What about the rapist in the states that got an easier sentence because he was good at sports? Donald Trump has allegations coming out of his slimy ears - but it's easier to dismiss all the women as liars and opportunistic isn't it?   Why is that? As each professional footballer has stepped forward he's been instantly believed? Maybe one of them is trying it on? Jumping on the band wagon? Of course that can't be right. . . yet the only difference is gender.
2) When oh when are people going to stop being surprised that it takes survivors years (if ever) to talk about it. Every time this topic comes up I read some comment or another about 'why didn't they say sooner'? I mean what the hell is wrong with people?  On one hand I'm delighted that their life has been so rosy, and they are surrounded by people skipping and dancing through the daisy patch of life without a care in the world. Maybe I'm jealous, because in my world, as a teacher I've heard the same old story for decades.  I've heard my friends' stories.  I've seen how painful it is for somebody to say those words.  I've seen the emotional turmoil, low self esteem that child sex abuse leaves them with. I've sat as a student's had a flashback and seen the pain etched on their face.
Why didn't they say sooner. . . because they couldn't. Because people like you, the people that don't want to leave the Daisy field, have missed the fact that the flowers are blooming because they've been covered with manure.  Any whiff of that nonsense and you're out of there. You just want to believe that life can't be that bad.

Experts believe that we're only hitting the tip of the iceberg with child sex abuse. They also believe that we don't have the resources available to us right now to deal with the fall out.

Maybe they should simply move to another Daisy patch, and forget about what actually makes life real.

We should be celebrating ALL the brave survivors who chose to speak out. We should attempt to understand WHY people take so long....and then just celebrate the fact that they did it at all.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Liar, Liar, pants on fire

Do you remember the film Liar, Liar? It starred Jim Carrey as a man whose son's birthday wish was that his dad would stop lying.

It's an interesting concept isn't it lying? I mean we all do it. To other people ("no I didn't notice that the bin was full otherwise I would have emptied it!"), to ourselves ("I'm not drunk, I've barely had anything to drink"), to the stranger on the street ("no I'm sorry I don't have any change") In fact lying is a part of life.  When does a lie become more sinister though? When do we cross the line?

Recently I've been in receipt of a couple of lies, and to be clear I'm not talking about the regular student lies ("my alarm didn't go off", "TFL is a nightmare", "of course I've learnt my lines"), but much more considered lies.  Now as I wrote in an earlier blog I believe that the concept of truth is complicated. We can all have our own interpretation of an event. We can all believe that we're saying our truth - so then what constitutes a lie?

I think that a wilful misrepresentation of someone would constitute a lie. Blaming others for your own shortcomings; but then here's the rub - how do you defend yourself against a lie? It invariably comes down to your word against somebody else's? Who's to say which person is telling the truth? How do you protect your reputation without sounding pathetic?

When I first opened the college I got into lots of internet forum discussions about my plans for this new concept in drama training, and even though I was sure that I knew what I was talking about - I got randomly called a liar.  Just a few months ago, a similar thing happened, and it didn't matter how many facts I presented to substantiate my 'case' (in this instance I was saying how Drama UK would be folding any day, and I was attempting to reassure someone that I had never attempted to apply for membership. However this other person was adamant that I must have applied....not only that but also that I therefore must have taken an anti-Drama UK stance because we had been unsuccessful in our (non existent) application) the person that I was discussing it with was 100% sure that they were right??

We're currently in the middle of the mother of all 'he said, she said' lies at the moment with the ongoing saga of the IICSA. The infamous inquiry which was supposed to be the government finally truly investigating all the allegations of institutional child sex abuse in the UK. Well at this moment in time it's reading like a workshop for a new Ray Cooney farce. I mean they can't even find someone to chair the damn thing effectively. Evidence is being dismissed or in many cases lost, before things can be investigated. Then worse of all, slowly one by one, the support groups are leaving the inquiry - and they're leaving because they just know - that once again their word is not going to be heard. They are going to be called out as liars.

I've seen a National organisation be embroiled in a scandal, and I've seen how effectively they managed to sweep it under the carpet.  Accusations weren't even investigated. Evidence was lost.  The media wouldn't touch it, and injunctions were being issued left, right and centre. The establishment (whoever 'they' might be) looked after their own.  What they definitely didn't do, was to look after the interest of the 'child(ren)'.

This isn't lying though is it? This is denial? Or is it something much more sinister that's rippling under the fabric of our society? Is this a reality - but one that nobody wants to face?

What society needs is a big old BS detector.  Someone needs to go onto Dragon's Den with a contraption that's more compact than a regular metal detector, but is as accurate as one of the really expensive ones. The polygraph can be beaten (. . . I mean someone should really tell those people on the Jeremy Kyle show about some tricks/drugs that could help them to beat that little 'ole machine) - so a BS detector is the answer.

With that in mind, we could all stick with the rubbish everyday lies. The ones that we shouldn't say - but we do ("sorry I was late, the bus didn't turn up" aka "I just wanted to finish watching a really good programme" or "just checking that you got my email, it's just that my server's been playing up" aka "I emailed you days ago, why the hell aren't you answering me?"), but when it came to the important things like protecting a person's reputation . . . or the other side of that coin exposing the case of the paedophile rings that are being given a tacet permission to continue in our society. . . . the ability to truly trash a person's reputation. . . we simply turn on the BS detector, project the findings on a huge display, and all move on with our lives, with lessons learnt, and the appropriate punishment given.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016


Wow....everything gets 'a day' now doesn't it? Every illness has 'a day', practically every job has 'a day'? What is that about? Is it a hashtag thing? Does 'a day' work? Today is #lovetheatreday will somebody see that hashtag today that has never been to the theatre and think 'I know...I'll give it a go. . . after all they all seem to love enough to give it a hashtag?'

Then who am I to talk about hashtags? I based the entire Mental Health Charter around the hashtag #time4change (I mean I even used 4 instead of for. . . cos that's how things rock in the 140 character world called Twitter)

Originally this blog was going to be about so many thoughts - how it scares me that people are advertising courses just as a 'West End thing' theatre stops and starts within a few postcodes? How sad that is, when some of the most creative, exciting stuff happens way outside London. How I didn't think that that was healthy for young professionals - as if that's the only goal, then the majority will fail...and what does that mean to them?

Then I was going to write this about how interesting I'm finding it at the moment, seeing phrases that I categorically know were 'created' by the incredible advertising gentleman called Toby Richards who had donated his time to The MTA back in the day because he believed in our being in common usage throughout the industry. How back then I disagreed with Toby over so many of them, as I just didn't think that they 'worked'...but then I remembered that he was a marketing guru for a reason, and I wouldn't allow him to come in and change some of my music. In other words, we all have strengths, and the strongest people are the ones that recognise their weaknesses and work with them.

Then I was going to write a blog about boundaries, and about how important I consider it to be that staff and students don't confuse socialising with networking and vice versa. How strict boundaries should be in place to protect staff AND students from mixed messages that can confuse studio dynamics.

However, one thing just kept coming into my's Christmas. Christmas is definitely coming. On Monday I started rehearsing this year's panto. . . so I KNOW that it's Christmas very soon.
However, Christmas could maybe even should be hashtagged #crises. Christmas is one of those times when you can be surrounded by people - yet feel so alone. The worse feeling of all.

Actors, musicians, techies up and down the UK will be in 'strange' cities this Christmas, cooking the turkey or nut roast with their panto families, as it seems easier than attempting the Christmas commute, and all the dangers that that entails e.g. will 'work on the line', mean that you're sat on a replacement bus, when you should be on stage for the Boxing Day matinee?

There is no sadder time than seeing everyone so happy, so optimistic for their future, when you are personally struggling.

UK Productions, one of the countries more prolific panto companies has signed the #time4change charter - hopefully, their staff have already received the charter, so people that are already experiencing some mental health difficulties have had warning flags raised.
Some regional theatres e.g. The Nuffield, Wakefield Theatre Royal - have already signed the charter. Meaning that their 'guests' this Christmas, will have easy access to information on mental health crises centres in that area. These things over time WILL make a difference. They are the start of a much bigger conversation.

Then all those thoughts led me to this. . . the crux of this blog...where are all the other colleges? Why is there a resistance to signing up for #time4change? Are people really just so politically driven to think that because another college came up with the initiative they couldn't join up? Or are people thinking that they've got this sussed already? Are your 'policies' really working? The evidence would honestly suggest otherwise.

More and more evidence is being sent or delivered to me about how there already is a mental health crisis in our colleges. We know that you're inundated with people needing your services. We know (as one person told me) that it's like a Tsunami.  Let's face it, we know that the colleges expanded without a thought to pastoral provision, and now everyone is talking about Mental Health, students are using the opportunity of breaking away from home to start to explore their own, deep seated concerns.  Please let's work together and create the most supportive, safe environment for ALL drama and technical study students in the UK. Let's not make this about politics...let's just accept and act on the fact that it's #time4change.

I want to sit in a room with ALL the other colleges and thrash out a plan that could help everyone make the most of their resources, whilst supporting students and staff.

You have to be in it to win it. Rubbish phrase....I know....but our strength here could be in our numbers. Now what was that about recognises weaknesses and working with them?

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Whole Truth...and nothing but the Truth

The truth seems like such a simple concept doesn’t it? It’s what actually, physically happened surely? Simple. Yet for every event, ever occasion we will all have our own truth of what’s actually happened. We can all witness the same event, but by seeing it from slightly different angles, with slightly different agendas, we can create a truth that isn’t actually truthful at all.

  1. the quality or state of being true.
    "he had to accept the truth of her accusation"

    • that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.
      noun: the truth
      "tell me the truth"

    • a fact or belief that is accepted as true.
      plural noun: truths
      "the emergence of scientific truths"

So this is what google has just told me as the definition of truth. It’s the latter definition that is really the most confusing one though…we ‘accept it to be true’. Why is that? Why do we just ‘accept’ at all? Isn’t our job as intelligent beings to actually question the truth to go out and discover a collective truth?

Now I’m not trying to get all philosophical here - in simple terms I’ve read a few things online recently which I personally don’t believe to be true…they have not been my experience of the truth.  I’m not calling the writers liars, as I believe that they own every word that they’ve written, however they’ve been so one sided - where is the other truth, and shouldn’t all truths be told for readers to make informed decisions?

Infamously most of us ‘get this’ with the Daily Mail don’t we? They write ‘a truth’ that thousands of reads believe, then the Guardian gives another truth which sheds more light on the Mail article.

For example:
People have been appalled that ‘so called’ refugees have been coming over to this country ‘with their mobiles’ so we’ll negate the fact that their homes were bombed, and they fled with whatever they could carry, fearing for their lives, we’ll forget entirely the fact that they were leaving a developed country, they weren’t your ‘mud hut’ refugees that you understand a bit more, we’ll brush over the perilous journey that they had undertaken to get ‘this far’…and we’ll focus on their mobiles shall we? ‘These people’ are ‘us’. I’m sorry but to everyone that knows me, they know that if I had to flee my home, after ensuring that my family were safe, the first thing that I’d take would be my mobile, my communication to other friends and relatives, an opportunity on a contemporary smartphone to find out what was really happening in my country. Surely a mobile makes the most sense? Oh yes…and ‘these people’? They are doctors, and lawyers and students and shop workers..and….they are ‘us’.

Two truths….in that very paragraph above…you chose which ‘truth’ suits your agenda….your deep seated belief will actually decide for you, without you actually realising.

‘THEY’RE NOT CHILDREN…THEY’RE ADULTS’ they cried….next day ‘NOBODY SAID THAT THEY’D BE TODDLERS’ (I’m paraphrasing both headlines) tomorrow it will be the ‘TODDLERS ARE BEING TRAINED TO KILL headline again. All are true…yet all have the bias of the author or the publication attached to them.

How do ‘these people’ fight back? Do they have a platform to write ‘their truth’? If they don’t we’re left with very one sided discussions aren’t we, with the rest of us basing deep rooted decisions based on one person’s interpretation of that word ‘truth’.

Over the years in this profession, indeed in my life (says old granny Thomas) I’ve had various run ins with people saying that the college couldn’t work, I didn’t know what I was doing, calling me a liar (which is a fascinating one to try and disprove because of all the above)…and back in the day I used to get really worked up about it. I would be adamant that ‘my truth’ be heard…as I didn’t want the last word to be my ‘untruth’. Social media took off and I began to realise that you couldn’t police it all. FB and Twitter allows anybody to write anything about you - and you can’t really stop it. You’ve given up the will to live by the time their ‘authorities’ look into it. Our own personal FB pages gives us the freedom to vent….and if we don’t like what the other people say…we delete their words….and eventually we delete them.  I’ve done it myself on numerous occasions - life is just too short to be arguing all the time.

So maybe it’s good for us all at times to stay curious about that word truth, as it’s actually not an absolute. It’s a transient word based on one person’s experience, and one person’s agenda…and might…just might, not bear witness to a collective truth.  

My head goes above the parapet so often I just as well buy a stool (I’m too short to actually just stand), so I am bound to come under fire again at some point…so I would say, the next time you hear a ‘truth’ about me…ask me about it….as we should all have the opportunity to collect THE ’truth’

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Audition Time

From 20th October potential students can apply to be part of #theMTAway.

Personally the 'start date' always feels like it should be heralded with a fanfare or something, as the next round of the carousel takes off. 

It's always an interesting few months auditioning people. Every year is always so different, which of course in turn leads to every year group being so different.  As we are student led, as opposed to 'course led' - and by that, I mean that our entire course is essentially written around the year group that we have, as opposed to having the 'model course' which the year group need to fit into. This approach keeps us on our toes, and as teachers makes us have to work even harder.

This is the reason that I will only employ people that are actively working in the industry, as our course also needs to adapt each year to what the industry is asking of performers. So for example, last year for the first time we had to add a self tape component as that is the 'audition preference' of the moment. Who knows what it'll be be this year.  However I know that I have a great team within my faculty who will shout out (loud) if we're getting wrong, and more importantly shout loudly if we've suddenly become dated.

I don't know how students are going to chose their courses this year. I mean it's appalling that the Drama UK site is still live, when the organisation itself closed a few weeks ago?  It still implies that there is group of colleges that have been approved under a strict criteria. Now if you've followed any of my blogs you'll know that I've always had an issue with this, as it's clearly been an 'stamp of approval' peer led, by the same group of people for years.  I mean it's worth stating again that all the colleges on that list were not re-tested to get accredited back in 2013 or whenever it was it reformed - so they are NOT an elite list. They are a list of convenience.

That said there are some brilliant colleges on that list that are truly doing the business...but there are also some colleges that aren't delivering the goods at the moment.

It's hard...we're about to audition our 9th year group, which still makes us a baby in real terms. 
Even since I started the college in 2009 there's been such a change in the industry. So many more courses, the existing courses suddenly doubling their intake (and yes, this is a dig...doubling their intake without doubling their pastoral support systems).  So what advice to give to the incoming class of 2017?

It's the usual actually - audition in as many places as you can afford and go with your gut instinct BUT start asking for facts too. As there are some pretty big, well established colleges, actually doing rubbish out there....and there are some smaller colleges doing exceptionally well. So get the facts and ensure that you stand a good chance of recouping your fees at least by working.

I would add one thing to parents. . . get advice from 'real people' - not the online experts. Phone colleges up and ask them what the 'real deal' is? If you were buying a car for £30k you'd want to know cold, hard facts - you wouldn't be satisfied with hearing a mate telling you that they had bought one and it was'd want to invest your money wisely surely? 

Finally...and we're a long way off this. I wish that people would include what pastoral care their students were really getting into the equation. Don't fall for the 'we've got this and that' and 'we've got a policy on this and that' - go to the shows, and speak to the students and ask them what care they are getting in real terms.

NB: Blatant Advertising:
Auditioning #theMTAway involves spending the day with us. You'll be auditioned by the people that are going to train we see no point in getting in 'experts' as they won't know what the course is able to do for you. You'll do a few workshops, you'll sing a solo, say a monologue, you'll have time to look around, chat to the current students/staff, very often time to chat to graduates as they're always around. That evening you'll get written feedback and our decision. No faffing about with recalls etc as your audition day will only have between 15 - 20 applicants in it. So we will really be able to 'see' you.  We then ask all auditionees for feedback to ensure that we're giving value for money etc. In 8 years of auditioning 100% of applicants have felt like they've received value for money, a large majority of them have actually thought that we've delivered more than required. Most applicants like the fact that we know your name by the end of the morning. Most applicants wish that they could sing more than one song too....but there you go ;-)

Sunday, 9 October 2016

#worldmentalhealthday #time4change

105 Organisations have now signed up to the #time4change Mental Health Charter. In reality that 105 individuals that have gone to their partners, Boards, associates and said that Mental Illness is real and that we ALL have a moral obligation to do something about it.  More than that it's 105 people that weren't afraid of saying those 2 words....'Mental Health'

Today is World Mental Health Day, as ever their message is to talk.  This year their hashtag is #Iamwhole with a campaign for "Tea and Talk"
Mental Health is such a taboo in the UK we have to be persuaded to 'talk' about it. Man when I get ill I want everyone to know,  so that I can garner at least one version of 'poor you', 'are you OK?' 'can I help?'. Yet when people are ill, but not in a physical way, there is often no conversation. Even with themselves, the conversation can simply be 'it'll pass'.

I used to suffer from migraines. I wanted everyone to know about it. I'd walk around with the face of someone begging 'recognise that I'm ill'. People were thoughtful, asked me if light was bothering me (did I need to sit in a dark room for a bit)? Was noise an issue? As maybe discussions could happen somewhere elsewhere.

What if you're depressed though? What do you do then?

The general population think that the depressed person should either 'pull themselves together' and just 'get on with it', they think that it's 'a phase'. I mean. . . if they were really  depressed they'd be crying,wouldn't they? They'd be the person huddled up in the corner of the room, with everyone else feeling awkward about it?

So here's the thing. . . very often the most severely depressed person is the person sitting next to you smiling. Asking you  if you're OK? They're probably listening to your  problems. The depressed person is seldom the one that you think.

What about the 'anxious' person - well they all need to just 'take a deep breath' because it'll be 'OK'. You encourage them to go and do the activity that's making them anxious, as 'they'll feel better when they're there'. Anxiety is surely just nerves, butterflies in your tummy?

Here's the thing though. . . those bits of advice, however well meaning they might have been, might have just been wasted air.  Did you ask them what they needed to help them in that moment? Does your 'anxious' mate prefer to be alone or with company during an anxiety attack? Have you asked them? Have you found out what their anxiety attack looks like? It might not be the panic attack that you've heard people talk about. I mean what exactly is a panic attack anyway? Then you see one - it scares you because you've never seen one before;  someone gasping for air, scared that they just can't take air in, scared that they might even die, the sensations are so bad? Everyone is so different.

Eating Disorders are easy to spot though, aren't they? I mean people just suddenly look thin, and you ask them if they're OK...and then you tell them they need to eat more. Sorted!
What about Bulimia though - they tend not to lose the weight? How do you spot them?

We need to talk EVERY day about Mental Health, just like we do EVERY day about our physical health. If you have a cold...don't you tell people when they ask you if you're OK? That's a viral thing, a thing that couldn't be helped, a thing that took over your body that you had no say in. My migraines were physical, I had no say in them, they just arrived and I had to deal with them. Mental Health is a thing that takes over your brain that you have no say in. What's the difference?

When you're physically ill don't you look for treatment to help you get better? Why is it so different for Mental Health?

This week I was thrilled when the owner of the website 'Not A Pushy Mum' got in contact with me to find out how they could get involved in #time4change. They have a unique 'in' with the parents of children going into the arts.  As we're hearing in nearly every government review at the moment Mental Health in the young is on the increase. If all those parents that are so desperate for their children to do well in life read the charter, they might, just might read something that starts to ring some bells for them.  Then if they're very brave. . . they'll address what they've just discovered. They'll do this because they'll want the best possible start for their child's life (even though they might be scared of what they've discovered/realised)

The majority of colleges have now had their Fresher's week - I'm already hearing the figures of people that have presented at counselling services looking for support. The figures are staggering. The person that once mentioned a Tsunami is not wrong.

Many students arrive at college wanting to be different, wanting to reinvent themselves. It is BRILLIANT when part of that reinvention is dealing with a mental health issue. It's sometimes easier to address this when away from your parents.

How sad then that I'm also hearing about long waiting lists, about counsellors not even returning calls as a 'holding' strategy.

We need more colleges on the #time4change charter. We then need to sit down and look at how we talk together, in a way that promotes best practice, and in a way that maybe manages to support each other too.

These are the stats released today:
Latest suicide statistics* highlight young suicide in the UK at its highest for the past 10 years. In 2015 1,659 young people under 35 years took their own lives; an increase of 103 more than in 2014 and 58 above the previous highest recorded figure (1,631 in 2011).
“Suicide is the biggest killer of young people in the UK. It is a national crisis that can no longer be ignored,” said Ged Flynn, chief executive of national charity PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide.

These well-meaning campaigns should not be happening, because Mental Health is real, it's happening, and we should be discussing those illnesses like we discuss a migraine or a cold.

#time4change is ongoing. Are YOU an individual that could make a difference today?

Saturday, 1 October 2016

100 thanks

The #time4change #mentalhealthcharter has now been 'signed' by 100 organisations. 100! 63 agencies have agreed to send out the fact sheet to all their clients, present and future, 7 colleges/training organisations have signed up to promote good mental health provision within their faculties. People within those organisations have worked hard to ensure that their institution can commit to all the points that the Charter asks of them. 4 theatres, have agreed to 'source' and clearly 'signpost' mental health resources to all of their visiting companies. Finally 26 organisations from Accountancy firms to Vocal training groups...including nearly all of the 'new breed' of production company currently producing the goods off West End and in some instances around the World. Importantly this section includes technical theatre too with White Light and the Stage Managers Association agreeing to distribute the fact sheet.

This blog is just a huge thanks to these 100 companies who are trying to make a difference.  Thank you for allowing me to bombard you with emails and tweets. Thank you for making a commitment to do things differently.  Thank you in lots of instances for sharing your stories of why your organisation felt like it had no choice but to sign up to the charter.

The biggest thanks of all goes to Angie Peake who actually wrote the charter.  Donating time to the cause to both write up the charter, and in some instances supporting organisations/people to implement it.

These last 3 months have been such a rollercoaster ride. The excitement as the numbers started to grow, quickly followed by the lows of constantly having to bang on about a subject that just seems so obvious and evident in our industry, but yet wasn't really being addressed.  The highs of working closely with organisations to support them to be able to sign up to the charter, followed by the lows of other people's agendas hindering progress on a larger scale.  The highs of actually connecting with a lot of new people, followed by the lows of being perplexed by long term work colleagues, and even friends, coming up with silly excuses as to why they were unable to commit 'at this moment in time'.

The highs of hearing about shows starting with all the cast/crew being presented with the charter just as a matter of course, followed by the lows of finding out that someone had signed the charter but hadn't actually sent it out to their cast/clients.

The best highs of all - the emails from people that the charter had resonated with, and indeed had helped.  I said at the beginning that even if we were doing all of this for one person, then it would be worth it, but we already know that it's helped more than one.

The campaign goes on, colleges have to sit down and discuss how we can ensure that the Charter's practises are working? How peer supervision will work to keep the charter alive?

More colleges need to sign up! We need to work together to solve this problem. We need more theatres outside of London to sign the chances are that people could find help in their home city. . . but they wouldn't have a clue where to start should they be working away from home.

The charter will be an ever evolving piece of work - however having committed the last 3 months to promoting it, plus a few months before that prepping it, hosting the #time4change conference etc, it's time for me to return to my 'crap' job, as The MTA gets ready to welcome our 8th year group and begins to hunt down a 9th.  It's also time for me to really focus on my 'real' job, as I need to write a panto, and produce some backing tweak an older show...and start work on a brand new show.

Now that we've started the conversation - let's all try not to block it.  Let's keep talking about #time4change and encourage people to commit to it - as therein lies the secret. A simple, free charter, low maintenance to implement. . . but potentially a game changer for a lot of people.

The moral of this story though - never tell a short Welsh person that something can't be done - it's a little bit like a red rag to a bull.  Don't dismiss an idea before you've tried it. Just because you can't visualise it. . . remain curious, and give it a go.

In impro we teach not to block and to be accepting of new ideas.  Not a bad motto in life I reckon.

So. . . . who's next?

Monday, 26 September 2016

Is there a drama UK?

The news today that Drama UK have finally disbanded is clearly no surprise to anybody in the industry. The writing was on the wall the moment RADA, LAMDA and all jumped ship a few months ago. Or if you were to believe me...the writing was on the wall even further back.

For the three of you that follow my blogs you'll know that I have never been a fan of this organisation. I've been appalled with their lack of guidance and indeed interest over the ever increasing Mental Health difficulties facing our colleges (which eventually grew into our #time4change initiative).  I regularly put hand to keyboard to type my disgust at their latest initiatives e.g. going over to China to raise brand awareness for Drama UK? I mean what the hell was that about? Colleges paying a minimum of £6K a year for students to get a showcase in NY? That's right...because it's really easy for a UK resident to just break into the NY acting scene isn't it? Green card anyone?

In my blog the other day I noted how the drama colleges were taking in nearly three times the number of students than they had originally, yet the counselling provision in those colleges had remained the same. Where were Drama UK then? Why weren't they questioning the fact that a college could one day train 40 students, but the next day feel like they had the resources to train 120 students? Why weren't they limiting the number of courses colleges were running? Resources were getting diluted and Drama UK did NOTHING to stop it.  Instead they took their 'subs' and ran....seemingly to China and New York to 'make connections'.

There's another part to this story though that maybe not everyone is getting. Yes, all of 'us' knew that the writing was on the wall for Drama UK (literally everyone would mention it to me whenever accreditation came up)...but actually Joe Public and their parents, those same people who felt like getting their child into an accredited college was the Holy Grail of training, didn't have a clue.  Just last year I was challenged on a popular forum over the fact that we weren't accredited, and when I pointed out that we were vehemently against it, I was literally called a liar, and a 'parent' hypothesised that we must have tried but had been rejected.  It was beyond the realms of their thinking that we wouldn't be aspiring to join this disjointed organisation.

So what happens now? Has it levelled the playing field for a new college such as ours? Well of course it hasn't as we don't have a track record on our side. We don't have decades of training to 'prove' the quality of our graduates. Here's the rub though - do we really know what's going on in all of these well established colleges? We know that Lord whoever trained at the Royal Wherever in the Year whatever but do we know what happened to last year's graduates. . . and I mean ALL of them?

We all hear the sound bites of X, Y and Z who all left 'established college' to walk straight into a Broadway lead (no Green card problem in this fantasy world), but do we know what happened to the other 95% of the students that graduated that year?

The only available stats that we've ever been given by Drama UK was a survey based on the graduates of 2012, but even that was diluted as it lumped together their 5 'best colleges' (which at the time would have really given me the goat if I was the Principal of one of the 'lesser' accredited colleges not mentioned in the survey. A hierarchy amongst the hierarchy it would seem). That survey might have been really unfair to college 'A' which had outstanding percentages, as their stats were watered down by college 'D' that had had a difficult year. Of course, good news for college 'D' though who suddenly weren't doing that bad at all.

Has a college's success been diluted since increasing its numbers? How would we know without regular stats?

Our industry needs to be regulated, I don't know what that should look like. I would like mental health to be part of the regulation e.g. if you're not offering the appropriate pastoral support you're excluded from  'the club' until you do.
I'd like it to cap numbers of students training - because there are too many colleges, offering too many students a false dream. That false dream has a hefty price tag attached to it. Our industry is saturated as it is.  Controversial I know....but when have I ever said anything that wasn't ;-)

I would propose that we all start with transparency. Every year since we've had a graduating year group I've published our stats. That includes our industry 'drop out' rates. These stats are on our website for everyone to see.  Imagine if we all did this, so that we could finally get a true picture of what's going on out there?

I know that this won't happen - it's too costly to be that accountable to the industry, and indeed to their 'business'. However we all want to see rogue colleges closed down. . . and complete transparency as the norm would do this quicker than you could say "Drama UK".

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Come out for #time4change

Twitter was all of a flutter this morning, full of praise for the actress Beverley Callard, for opening up about her 'depression' on the popular ITV programme This Morning. However it was the wording of the praise that struck me. How brave she had been to speak out? Now of course I get it, and I sadly get the wording. However when someone speaks out about epilepsy for example - are they brave?
The Daily Mirror (don't shoot the messenger) headlined it as the actress ADMITTED that she might have Bipolar? Admitted? Throw me into the confessional booth as I admit to having asthma....quickly. Do we have to 'admit' to an illness these days?
Then there was the issue that most of the reporting kept talking about her depression...but she was talking about recently having been investigated for having Bipolar II. What a great opportunity to discuss OTHER mental health issues, but as usual they focussed on the 'D' word.

Then there was the shock that she'd considered taking her own life? Depression can do that folks. . . that's why it's a killer (literally). That's why we're attempting to help people BEFORE it gets to that stage. THAT'S why when people are busy telling you where to physically and geographically go for help they need to realise that you can't move in that moment. You're not thinking rationally. THAT'S why we want people to recognise symptoms earlier, be that in themselves, or in those around them.

Finally she said those all too familiar words (and I'm paraphrasing)...'people assume that I'm a confident person because I'm an actress'. How many more times do we, as an industry, have to hear this without acting on it? (no pun intended)
Very few performers are confident. . . FACT. Loads of performers can act confident. . . FACT
1 in 3 performers are known to have mental health issues.

We could debate all day the chicken/egg question of does the industry create the problem, or was the problem already there, and the industry was supposed to aid the problem? Everybody will take a view point on this. Personally I've always said that our industry attracts people that are susceptible to mental health issues because it's can be somebody else. You can get 'out of' your head.
Our industry embraces 'different'. So if you have some quirks - we love it. So of course we become an attractive career for people struggling and learning to cope.

A few days ago I blogged about the Evening Standard's reporting on the brilliant ArtsMind initiative and how I felt that it had been unhelpful when it was suggesting that it was lifestyle that was creating the issues. So many people these days work freelance and therefore have the same job insecurities as us. Hell in the current climate, you could even argue (a tiny bit), that people are being scrutinised all the time too, as companies adhere to the laws of the survival of the fittest.

Earlier I'd blogged about the ridiculous fuss that #Stageschool had created within the industry: how hypocritical we were all beginning to sound, acting out our annoyance for the world to see and hear.

Just the other morning I was tweeting my annoyance at the twitter coverage of the Emmy awards, and how all this public scrutiny of what people were wearing, what they were saying, is just crazy making. Who the hell wants to wake up and read that about themselves?

Over the past month you would have seen me retweeting several brave tweets by performers stating unequivocably that their drama college was the same as every other drama college, and not dealing with this issue adequately.  There is no doubt that drama colleges WANT to get this right, however they are still failing to see that they have to shift their position on it if they want to make a difference early on in a career.  I urge the other college Principals to question WHY so many production companies and agencies have signed the charter? If we were giving them 'healthy' performers would they be fighting now for things to change?

We should not have celebrities on TV 'admitting' to being ill, or 'speaking out' to help other sufferers, when as an industry we are not yet helping ourselves. Put the oxygen mask on yourself before trying to save everyone else (I believe that I'm quoting Oprah...but not sure)

It is brilliant and brave for anybody to say that they're dealing with mental health issues...but that does not make the statement correct.

Not that long ago LGBT performers were 'coming out', 'admitting' to being gay. Something so genetic, and yet still they had to 'admit' to it. Their stories designed to help others 'suffering the same fate'.  Sadly to some extent,  this is still the case BUT 'it's' becoming mainstream.  The gays are blending in. We're all just people, regardless of who we're sleeping with.
Well we're all just people, regardless of our mental health status too.
We need to stop the stigma.
We need to recognise that it's #time4change

Friday, 16 September 2016

Reactive not Proactive #time4change

Yup, another post about #time4change. . . but that's because it's REALLY important.

This week The Evening Standard wrote a great piece in support of the brilliant ArtsMind initiative set up by Equity, Spotlight, The Stage and BAPAM However the article seems to focus on the fact that the conditions of our self employed lifestyle and all the insecurities that that brings can almost 'create' a Mental illness.

The anonymous actress who bravely discusses her struggles with depression during drama school, might....just might, have had an underlying depression for years - but the expectations and pressures of drama school training exacerbated it, leading to a crises.

The article touches on the subject of self medicating, in this instance through alcohol, but what about the drug use, the sleeping around NOT because you're enjoying it (that's a whole different ball game(pun intended), and should be celebrated if that's your thing), but because you're looking for personal approval?

The article takes a rather back footed approach to the whole thing. Now let's be clear - any 'footed' approach is good. However there are so many other things going on. Is your depression reactive or chemical...or is it both? Why did you enter the arts in the first place? Do you already have symptoms that you just consider to be quirks of 'you'? What's your genetic loading regarding Mental Health?

What about if we took a front footed approach? What if we accept that Mental Health is a thing, and that we should be on our guard about it? What IF we could make our performers strong BEFORE they go out into the real world? What IF we could diagnose and treat Mental Illnesses BEFORE they became 'a thing'?
Actually all these things are possible.

I was in a meeting the other day, attempting, as ever to promote the #time4change Mental Health Charter. The debate started as to whether this was real, or whether people were simply jumping on the latest 'band wagon'?  Now admittedly some of the PD lot might be doing that. . . but even if they are. . . it's because that there's a bigger issue going on surely? Then I heard the most devastating and apt quote of all.  This person told me that at the moment it was "like a Tsunami of people coming through with mental health difficulties".  A Tsunami of people!

I have yet to speak to a college that hasn't confessed to being overwhelmed by the number of 'issues' that they are currently attempting to deal with. College counsellors are swamped by people needing to see them.  Why is this?

Well when you've upped your intake up from 40 to 120 a year, did you employ triple the number of counsellors? We have one counsellor for a max of 44 students, and she is booked up every week. Admittedly our Mental Health provision is rather more robust than the #time4change charter insists upon. Check it out here, however I'm constantly having to monitor it and check that it's doable. Especially with our college for life policy, which means that our ambassadors check in with her too. We have another mental health specialist on 'stand by' just incase we ever get that 'Tsunami'. Fortunately the way that it works at The MTA, the Tsunami is definitely there, but we manage to break it down throughout the year, making it just a strong torrent at the front.

I was asked again this week why other colleges aren't jumping on this initiative - and to tell the truth I'm not really sure. I think that some believe that they're doing everything that they can already, and therefore won't enter a discussion with us to see how they might be able to be more effective. When your students and graduates are literally begging you on social media to sign up, maybe you're not being as effective as you could be?

Some aren't joining because they believe it to be an initiative from The MTA - yet the charter is clearly an entity in itself now.  As I explained on twitter this week - someone has to start an initiative and in this instance it was us. Get past the politics (with a small 'p') and start thinking of your students.

One college told me that they don't have the funds to sign up? A college would need to buy in the services of a mental health specialist for a day to speak to the students, and to speak to the staff. Our consultant said that she'd donate her services to get this college signed up. The twitter conversation stopped. . . that college has still not signed up?

For those colleges that have directed me to the website of various organisations, which state their collective protocols etc. . . the question remains, are these intentions actually filtering down to the students? I would suggest that with so many agencies joining the initiative, the answer is no!

Signing the charter will pay you dividends in the long run - a happy company on tour, college statistics will improve, agents won't get called in the middle of the night due to some 'crises' or another. If you can't think of the short term gains for the individual, think of the long term gains for you.

The Tsunami is real - the question is now, where do we start dealing with it?
Please read #time4change then please email me at to find out how YOU can make a difference.

Monday, 5 September 2016

#time4change wk 8 Spread a little humiliation

Blimey week 8 in the battle to get our industry to recognise and accept really that 1 in 3 of 'us' are susceptible to Mental Health issues. It can't be any coincedence that everytime I speak to someone about the campaign they have a story to share about a performer or technician with mental health issues.  I am regularly fielding emails and telephone calls about some crises or another, with people wanting to check how to deal with certain situations, or people have come across someone that needs help and they don't know what to do.

Let's be clear - I'm  a musician not a mental health expert, so that's all I can do is signpost people to the real help, but it does go to show that there are many conversations to be had which people just don't know how to start.

I came up with the charter idea because I'm always amazed at how small our industry is. Befriend a cast member on FB and you instantly have 50 or more mutual friends.  We're not 6 degrees from people, we're practically next door!  However using that to our advantage, we could distribute the charter quickly, and people could hopefully start the conversations sooner rather than later.

I believe that we're a supportive industry.  I believe that we love an underdog and celebrate their success.  This year has been the year of the Understudy hasn't it? They've all suddenly blossomed in the wings and gone centre stage. As an industry we have loved these stories.

However there is the other side of 'us', the side that ironically can't wait to spread bad news too.  I blogged about this last year when Idina Menzel hit 'that' note during 'those' celebrations. Why were 'we' so quick to share, laugh, and judge? Have 'we' never made a mistake? Surely we were just lucky that our bum notes weren't filmed/recorded and shared around social media?

Which brings me to the 'share' of the moment....some You Tube clips that don't flatter the performer at all.  Cue performers all jumping on the 'how dare they cast them' band wagon, pointing out that someone else should have had 'that' job.  But why? Why do we take a pleasure in sharing something that's not good? Do we comment on the musicians playing so well behind the singer? Of course not. Yet they have to tolerate this clip being shared. People are popping up JPGs of the sheet music of that particular song as if that's going to make a difference.  Basically I'm asking why we feel the need to put somebody in the social media 'stocks'? Especially when we have substantial evidence that tells us that the performer in question is vulnerable?

We could discuss until the cows come home whose fault it is that the songs are being performed in this way? Is it the producer, the casting director, the director, the performer...the list goes on....but why are we so keen to spread humiliation? What are we getting out of it?

We're all entitled to an opinion, look at me blogging away spouting out my rubbish in a bid to make you think about mental health and encouraging systemic thinking as opposed to linear.

Next time you share 'that clip' haven't you just turned into the school ground bully?

My rule of thumb is only tweet or comment on a thing if you'd be prepared to sit down and discuss the issue with the person involved, using the exact same words as I've just written.  Would you sit with this performer and tell them how poor you think that they are, and tell them that you consider them worthless? Or would you sit with the producer and ask them what they were doing?

It's #time4change Mental Health matters. Remember we can all read your tweets. By 6 degrees of separation (and with a poor FB security setting ) we can also read your comments.  It's #time4change. Let's not be that industry eh? Please...

The Campaign:

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Thicko's Done OK

I'm watching my twitter feed slowly fill with congratulations to all the 6th formers celebrating their well deserved A Level results this morning.  Very few are just 'lucky',  most have worked hard and indeed made some lifestyle sacrifices to achieve the results that the envelope presented them with today.

Then you go onto other forums and read the devastation of those people that equally might have put in the work, but for one reason or another, just didn't get the grades that they need. Parents talking about consoling their children, as they're seemingly left, at 18, branded a disaster.

Next week it'll be the same scenario but two years earlier. Exam results effectively dictating how people feel about themselves and their ability.

What a load of B******ks!!

Exams are such an archaic way of saying whether somebody is clever or not. What a bizarre way of deciding fate. "Here's 2 hours....prove that you've managed to cram everything that you've been taught for the last 16/18 years, then like some fairground memory test, reproduce it in a language that we can judge (so not your vernacular), within the next 120 mins". Then over the course of a couple of weeks, repeat for various subjects.

What is it proving? That you can memorise facts? Why? Where's the applied section? Where's the useful stuff that we need to learn in life? Why do we still have teenagers leaving school that can't read or write to a high enough standard? Why do we have teenagers leaving school that can't do basic maths (and I'm definitely not talking about all those strange 1a X 2b + ?c equations that we used to do all the time...which 30 years on I've still not found a use for)?

I've somehow always known that I was going to be a musician. I didn't know how that was going to happen - but it was! I understand that I was extremely lucky to have such a clear target in mind moving forward. Some people 5 years on having left HE still don't know what they're going to do with their lives. It's hard when you don't have 'a thing'.

Somehow I was in the 'top stream' at school, but interestingly have always branded myself as 'thick'. So much so in fact that my very much better half, tells me off rather regularly for using such a derogatory term to describe myself.  So why 'thick'? I guess because I never saw the value in 'classes' in school or indeed college, I always just saw the opportunities there.  So I saw school as an amazing resource where I could easily find a space, a band, and a cast - and I put on shows.  Similarly at college, of course I sat through all the various lectures, but most of my time was spent volunteering to be in everybody else's shows.  I learnt, through applying resources I guess.  None of my real learning was structured.

However I also grasped the 'system' quickly. So I knew for example, that to get to 6th form, I had to do OK in my O Levels (Yes, I'm that for younger readers, basically my GCSE's). So I attempted to learn just enough.  Enough to scrape me through.  I mean, I couldn't spend hours learning everything - I had shows to play for, performances to do. And that's what I did...scraped through. The lowest pass grade possible was a C, and I got myself a load of them.

By the time I got to the next level, I had already found the perfect route for me, via what was then called a Polytechnic (or as someone actually told me...'the college for those people not clever enough to get into university'). Middlesex was a rarity. It accepted people on their ability via an audition, and then asked you for the most basic of passes to try and help scram you over the cargo net of exams.  My offer came back - two E's. That was it. I needed just 2 E's to get me to the next step.

I wanted to be a musician, but to be a musician did I really need to know dates? What difference does it make to me or indeed the world of music today, what date Beethoven wrote his last symphony? Surely what matters is that he wrote it, and what it sounded like, what was the harmonic structure of that work, how did the orchestration help...the questions are infinite...however the nature of exams meant, at that time, that I needed to know the dull stuff, as well as the interesting, useful stuff.  What's more....I needed to learn that 'stuff' about a whole load of people.  Sure the teachers tried to work out which questions would come up that year, but it was a gamble, and one that I wasn't prepared to take, so I walked out of the exam casino. I decided that the remit was so large, there was no point in dipping my toe in it.  So instead I....did shows! In my defence the shows were getting better, but they didn't facilitate me doing well in my exams.  I scraped through - I got my two E's, and off I trotted to the lesser university...the polytechnic.

Middlesex had a no exam policy (which was one of the attractions for me), and all their assessments were practical.  I mean, we literally did one exam right at the end of the course, and even that was a seen paper. Happy days.  Suddenly I was doing shows...which counted towards my degree.  I don't believe that there is a course like the old BAPA course anymore - but I was literally doing around 8 to 10 shows a term. I had never worked so hard in my life...but I was loving it.

I left college with a healthy 2:1 BA(Hons), however I still felt 'thick'

I became a professional musician, the crap jobs that I've done to facilitate that profession have ranged from cleaner right through to opening a drama college. This year I've been in the business 27 years (29 years if you count the 2 years prior to college training to be a ballet accompanist and working as an organist about the clubs and churches of Swansea).

Being a musician has literally taken me around the world, and has facilitated me having the most amazing life, providing me with a fairly good geographical knowledge of the UK thanks to touring, and more importantly a lifetime of anecdotes to facilitate small talk in awkward situations. I've managed to meet or work with with nearly every single one of the people that inspired me along the way.

Had I spent my earlier years just having my head stuck in a book, revising for the memory test of O and A Levels, I don't think that I would have made it.

For a 'thicko' I've done OK. I've realised my IQ is really high where it matters - emotional intelligence. Ironically the one area that they don't really cover in school.

Our industry will never be based on results. You will not be the next Broadway star because you got an A*....however your parents are more likely to let you give this industry a shot if you have those A*'s tucked away for a rainy day ;-)

The MTA spends a day getting to know you, working with you, in situ, to find out what you can do. Talent and hard work should be the thing that gets you into this industry not a grade.  Long may our radical approach to education empower the 'thickos' ;-)

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Make a Difference

How on earth can we be on week 5 of the #time4change #mentalhealthcharter?

So we're up to 76 companies signed, sealed and delivered. Between Pat O'Toole and myself we also have several companies/organisations considering implementing the charter.  I know that Pat has been massively busy behind the scenes supporting the larger companies to think about how they can easily introduce the charter to their organisations. Meanwhile I'm chatting to a couple of theatres, and attempting to support them to introduce #time4change.

It's so hard though - 76 companies is amazing, and so many more than I initially thought would get involved, however you get greedy don't you? I don't know how many organisations we'd need to get involved to get the industry completely covered, but I do know that it's more than we have right now. I'm aware that we need more colleges, so that young professionals entering the business are mentally prepared from the outset. Obviously the holidays have fallen at a very unfortunate time for the charter.

Similarly I'm aware how London centric our 'members' are right now, yet there are vibrant communities right across the UK that could benefit from implementing this simple PDF.

So the tweets and emails continue.

I still believe that it's the stigma of Mental Health that is preventing people either signing up or indeed just sharing the message of the charter.  I'm still receiving emails with snide comments on them, which I've now decided to just share as dinner party stories. We've come so far, there ain't no way that I'm giving up now.

The distressing thing about the campaign is just when you think you'll leave it for a bit,  a story or event reaches you that pushes you through the apathy. Mental Health 'episodes' are happening every day. You might only be noticing the obvious ones....but the point of the charter is to begin to be aware of the little things.

You can help though...please share the #time4change hashtag, if your agent hasn't signed up yet, please ask them, if the theatre that you're working for haven't signed...ask them, if your college hasn't signed...ask them. People will sign if they can see and understand the need.  Right now Mental Health is so camouflaged by people afraid to 'out' themselves we're close to finding ourselves in a catch 22 situation.  All of us....people suffering from known mental health conditions and people with no known conditions (yet) need to be pushing this charter through our industry.

Today, we could all make a difference.
Email make the subject #time4change Let's do it!!
Full details of the charter can be found here:

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Why Wouldn't You? #time4change

We are now on the 4th week of the #time4change #mentalhealthcharter as launched by Mark Shenton in The Stage in July. If this initiative is news to you, please check out an earlier post which sets out how it came about:

I remember from last year's fundraising at The MTA for our 'Big Move', as the week's go on, it gets harder and harder to campaign in an innovative way.  I feel like I've said it in as many ways as I can now...I'm even boring myself BUT what makes this so different is that when I get that desire to call it a day, I'm reminded of the contents of the emails I was sent prior to the #time4change conference back in March.  Emails listing some of the appalling ways that people with clear mental health difficulties, were treated as part of their 'training'.  Remembering how one uneducated faculty member can actually, inadvertently do so much damage.  Remembering that if Mental Health Education isn't at the core of a college, and therefore supported by the ruling establishment, students in crises can literally be tipped over the edge.

Just this week I was sent an email by somebody that had approached us for help quite some time ago now, someone who had gone through one of the 'top' accredited colleges, one of the colleges that has already told me that 'they're OK'....'their systems work', and yet this person (who of course could have been the exception) literally slipped through the pastoral net, and had found themselves for years out in the mental health wilderness, not knowing where to look for support.  They contacted us because I 'go on' about the subject, so they thought that I could have signposted where they should go next.  Thankfully in this case we did (signpost), the person was in a place ready to hear, and they're now being successfully treated and their life has changed.

Similarly lots of tweets getting RT'ed' this past week by students (past and present) of 'top' accredited colleges, asking their Principals to consider signing up to the #time4change #mentalhealthcharter. Several of them telling me that this initiative was overdue.  Surely this implies that current Mental Health Policies, however well meaning, need improving?

So here's my big question of the week. . .WHY wouldn't you sign the charter? What have you got to lose? For agents and producers it costs them absolutely nothing. That's all they have to do is a file merge and add the Charter to their standard contracts or welcome packs.  I mean that is literally 5 mins work (unless you're on my office computer which admittedly means that it would take 30 is most definitely coming up to a much needed trip to a Genius store). The cost to a theatre is minimal. You just have to locate, in your area, the nearest Mental Health crises intervention team, locate a Buddhist centre providing mindfulness and a couple more things, just to add to your welcome pack. So what's that? Getting an employee to spend 30 mins googling that information (hell...we've even offered to help them out locating these places if they really don't know where to start).  The cost to a college? 1 - 2 full days of having a Mental Health Practitioner with you to deliver a speech to your students, explaining WellBeing and giving a Mental Health overview, and to give a training session(s) to your staff.   That is it.  Other than that it's the same as for everyone else - a file merge to add the #time4change #mentalhealthcharter Fact Sheet to the welcome packs.

Simple isn't it?

Inexpensive isn't it?

So WHY are we having such difficulty selling this simple concept?

This week saw the launch of The Stage, Spotlight UK, BAPAM and Equity initiative ArtsMind, prompted by a survey they did back in 2015 launched by The Stage 5 days ago: Equity's Louise Granger had mentioned that this web portal would be launching this year back in March at our conference, and it's just brilliant that they've created a one stop 'hub' for performers to access as part of their mental health/well being tool kit. However when I was hashtag checking all things #time4change just a day after the launch of this website (a daily occurrence to ensure that I haven't missed anything important), I decided to hashtag check #artsmind and the amount or rather the lack of hashtags was shocking.  This major initiative that had taken months to build, with 4 of our major industry heavy weights behind it, yet it could barely manage a presence for longer than a few days.

Again my question is WHY? WHY wasn't everyone taking care of 'everyone else' and pointing all creatives in that direction, so that webpage could be bookmarked 'in case of emergency'?

Then I was having a conversation with someone the other night who was asking me WHY I thought that people were reluctant to get involved...and it came to me.  The stigma/fear is so great surrounding Mental Health, people are reluctant to engage in a process that might make them hold the mirror up to themselves.  To engage in our initiative you would need to educate yourself, which might mean reflecting on old behaviours, or indeed there may be an acknowledgement of having a difficulty yourself that has never been addressed.  The current consensus appears to be - if you're talking about it, you have it, and if you have it, I don't want to know. The stigma is alive and well.  Heads are well and truly buried in the ground on this one.

I have consciously never divulged my own Mental Health status whilst campaigning - yet I received a positively vitriolic attack, presuming that I had started this campaign off due to 'my own issues'. Like I was attempting to create a problem in our industry for the hell of it?

So my big question of week 4 is WHY?

If you already have a robust Mental Health Policy in place you would naturally be fulfilling the terms of the Charter = RESULT. Sign up, and let's add your name and status to the campaign.

If you're concerned that it'll take too much time - see above. We're talking a maximum of 30 mins out of your life to fulfil the terms of the charter = RESULT. Sign up, and let's add your name and status to the campaign.

If you're worried about the costs - see above.  Colleges would suffer the only financial penalty, but these are clearly costs that can be absorbed by the organisations in a bid to help and educated the young of our industry, and that after all is our job = RESULT. Sign up, and let's add your name and status to the campaign.

Finally my question is a bit more personal - to those people that I've contacted to attempt to get them interested in the initiative WHY have you ignored the email/tweet (or often both)? WHY wouldn't you just show a basic level of manners and say that for personal reasons you're not interested in this, or you think that it's nonsense or just a simple 'thanks but no thanks'? Every single time you've emailed/tweeted me, I've shown you the courtesy of an answer - WHY aren't you able to do the same.  Trust me. . . I'm very busy too, but I always find time for manners.

So.....WHY wouldn't you sign the charter, and spread the word about ArtsMind while you're at it?

If this has made you interested in Charter - putting #time4change as the subject.

PS...if you signed I could stop going on about it. Now WHY wouldn't you want that?

Sunday, 31 July 2016

#time4change If Just One Person

#time4change the #mentalhealthcharter is now 3 weeks old. To date 46 companies have signed the Charter. In the wings are 3 colleges seriously looking at it (none of them Drama UK colleges I should add), and a few production companies and a couple of agencies.  

Being in charge of a small organisation it never ceases to amaze me how much discussion has to go on in other companies to make things happen.  EG in our recent Senior Faculty meeting it was suggested by our Health and Welfare consultant that we should offer our students a quiet space during the lunch hour for those people that wanted it.  Within the hour that suggestion was implemented, because I could unilaterally make a decision to take a studio and designate it to be that time.  Now I'm not saying that this is good...if I suddenly became power crazed I could equally have opted to make that studio something far less helpful to the students' welfare.  Fortunately though I'm reined in by a very opinionated faculty, and an extremely interested Board of Trustees who watch my every move.

Having worked in larger organisations, I know that big decisions like opting into the #time4change Charter can take a lot of work. For example Rose Bruford signed the Charter this week. A massive decision by a major and prolific UK college.  Behind the scenes I'm aware that Pat O'Toole worked patiently within her role there until the college were comfortable enough with the Charter to sign. Here's my point really - are YOU in an organisation that needs to sign the Charter? If so....please get that bit between your teeth and stay with it. Don't take no for an answer. Come back to us if there are bits that you disagree with, and let's find a way together that will enable your organisation to sign up.  
The world will only change if each and every one of us takes  a stand for what we believe in.

Should your college sign the charter? Let them know your feelings about it. Ask them to read it. Send it to them. Explain to them how it works.  Take a collective responsibility to get this discussion up and running.

If you do one tweet in support of the charter, as amazing as that is, it is lost within seconds. Social media dictates that we live in a 'rolling news' world, everything lives for around 1 minute(if that really)....after which more news comes in, and the original post is already forgotten.  Those people that follow me on twitter must dread those couple of hours that I've spent every day trying to get this message across, as there's suddenly a deluge of posts talking about Mental Health.  Yes, there are better ways of spreading the word, but we have no budget, and that's all I can spend is time. . . time to keep talking, because I know that I just have the hit the right people on their TimeLines once.  It's a bit like the roulette wheel. I have to keep rolling that ball.

I said today in a tweet that if Equity, Spotlight, the ITC and Drama UK got behind this initiative it would be job done for me.  Imagine a world where with your annual Equity diary you got a copy of the #time4change Charter and a Mental Health MOT sheet (Angie Peake's idea again....not mine).  Check in with yourself how you were doing, and have an annual check that things are ticking along nicely. Any niggles that raise the red flat on the MOT sheet, get yourself along to the Doctors for a check up. Simple.  Go safe in the knowledge that our industry understands mental health issues as well as we understand physical health issues.  

We almost need a mental health equivalent to 'Physio Ed's' don't we? A one stop place where people can get affordable therapy without feeling any shame or embarrasment for being there.  

So...the campaign wades on.  Suddenly organisations that have forgotten about my emails are suddenly responding with me, and arranging meetings...which is just brilliant.  Here's hoping that for each of these organisations there is a Pat O'Toole amongst them, that won't give up until the company/college/organisation is signed up. To be continued ;-)