Saturday, 28 May 2016

Let's start at the very beginning...

Once again there is a flurry of activity around the fact that the 'working man' is getting lost in our industry. Times are changing and not for the better (they cry). Bring back rep (they cry). However isn't the current noise coming from the people that are the elite or at least have become the elite? The ones that have made it in our industry? Isn't it something like 2% of performers actually make a living out of being a performer? I mean great that they're shouting, and using their position to make some noise, but is that all it is? Noise?

What happened to the drama college that was going to be funded by actors, where all the fees were going to be covered by the professionals? That was 'launched' with panache and then fell by the wayside (unless I've missed something?)

Shall we start at the beginning of the cycle as opposed to jumping to the middle. The 'working man' can't even afford to go to the theatre to get inspired to even think of it as a career at the moment. So is this just the elite shouting to the elite anyway?

Since 2010 The MTA has run a scheme whereby any local children can come and watch our panto on a pay what you can arrangement.  When we were at the Drill Hall, you won't be surprised to hear that the two schools that took us up on the deal, could pay a fair rate.  In subsequent years we've been in less affluent areas so the pay what you can rate has gotten considerably lower.  Then in 2014 we did our first panto in what was then going to be our 'new home' down at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham.

Thanks to the combined efforts of local schools, us and indeed BGAC, in the first year alone we played to over 1000 children.  A lot of whom had NEVER been to the theatre before.  It was the most humbling thing ever to watch their amazement at the 'magic' of a simple mirror ball.  They didn't mind that we didn't have a fancy all singing, all dancing set...they loved just being entertained by the simple magic of theatre.

Last year we extended the scheme and played to over 1500 children.  Again their faces were a joy to watch (in fact I had to work hard to remember that I was supposed to be watching the show, not watching the joy on the children's faces).  After each show we arranged a meet and greet with the cast, and the children were ecstatic. Even the older 'cool kids' visually got excited by 'meeting the stars'.  Let's keep it real here - the stars were just our 2nd years. . . having the time of their lives being idolised by all the kids, and learning themselves the importance that panto has not just for our industry, but also in our society.

The trouble is though, that shows and hiring theatres cost money.  In a 2 week run we don't stand a chance of recouping our losses. However part of our students' fees go towards funding 4 shows a year for them, so in a way each show is subsidised.  In a bid to extend the scheme even further this year we've started to fund raise. Obviously we're looking for commercial sponsors(so if you're a Tottenham based firm and fancy helping out this Christmas, please do get in touch). So we're trying a 'buy a child a seat' crowdfunding scheme

I'm aware that something similar was tried recently for Dougal Irvine's The Busker's Opera down at The Park theatre, although I missed if they managed to raise the money or not. I hope so as it was a great idea.

I'd love to take the credit for the fund raiser, however it was our Health and Welfare Consultant, Angie Peake who thought of it and decided to give it a go.  She did the usual sum of 'if all of my friends on FB sponsored just one seat we'd raise X amount of money' Of course in reality this just doesn't happen for a multitude of reasons I suspect. That said we've already funded 30 places, which is nearly a class coming to see the panto this year, that maybe wouldn't normally afford to even contemplate a theatre visit.

We're aiming to get 2000 children in this the race is on to find the extra money that this will cost us.  We'll do it though...because it's important.

Then what if one child loves what they see and decides to 'give it a go' themselves? What then? Well I hate to say it, but we're back in the realms of the haves and haves not. How do they afford to go to classes? What schemes are there in the local community to fund children slowly building aspirations?

The thing is though, we're not just talking about theatre, which let's face it has always been elite? Why are we pretending that this is new? When I was training it was elite...but the 'working classes' will always find a way to help their children out of their rut. That's just what we do!   If your child wants to study ANYTHING in HE the working classes are priced out of the market. So who's going to build the social housing of the future? Will it be some upper class architect with a social conscience, trying to make amends for their own family's wealth? Shouldn't it be designed by the people who understand the needs of the community, the people that were brought up in that environment?

Of course architects don't generally 'have a public voice', so we don't keep reading in the papers what they're saying about the future of their industry.  So we're back to so called celebrities, using their platform to voice their concerns and rattle a few cages.

My TL is engulfed with people Sharing or RT'ing' these worthy statements - but what do YOU do to change things? It's easy to click and 'share'. It's easy to write a rousing comment to go with the 'share', but what do you actually DO to make a difference?

The reality is, probably nothing. You want the answer to come from the government. It's THEIR fault that we're in this situation, so THEY should do something about it.

The trouble is....they won't.

Whichever government it is...they won't.

If socialism is ever to work as anything more than just some rabble rousing rhetoric, then each of us will have to make different choices. Don't have your Starbucks tomorrow and donate that money to a more worthy cause. Don't have that pint after the show, and donate the money to a worthy cause.  The thing is, we could ALL do our bit but our apathy or introverted thinking means that we won't(and I'm not exempt from this argument. I could make different choices too).

So next time you click 'Share' or RT an amazing speech, hold up a mirror and ask yourself if you could do something different...just once? If you're not sure what to do...then do remember that this appeal will be running for months:

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Self's worth more than a blue tick

I'm always being asked about when The MTA is going to expand and my answer is always the same - it's hard enough getting one course right for 22 people, I just couldn't contemplate for a moment adding anything more into the mix.

Already the course has changed so much since I opened the college in 2009.  In 2013 we added a screen component to our acting course. Hell today we're now having to add a 'self tape audition' workshop into the mix, as this new phenomenon has swept through the industry.  If you'd told me 8 years ago that we'd be doing a workshop on how to audition via your mobile/computer, I would have felt like I was in some surreal scene in the new 'Back to the Future' film.  

One thing that we've always taught though is how to manage your social networking life.  Back in 2009 it was a simple lesson of how to protect your Facebook profile.  Even that seemed complicated as FB constantly changed their security settings. Then Twitter took over, and that became a game changer. Very quickly we were hearing that in the US people were getting cast based on how many followers they had.  Knowing that the UK would invariably end up following this example, we started to promote the use of Twitter amongst our students. In fact we insisted on it.  I became the nagging Principal, reminding them to Tweet, but also checking their tweets to ensure that they weren't saying anything that could come back and bite them on the backside later on.  The world of the screenshot meant that you had to act really quickly if a 'bad tweet' had gone out (with the knowledge that somebody might already have saved your error).

These days 'Managing your Social Network' is a minefield. You can Tweet, Facebook, Instagram, You Tube...the list is endless, but they all have one thing in common -  manage them wisely as they can make or break careers.

Back in ye olden times, we'd meet audiences at the stage door, they might write to our agents for an autographed picture. Of course there were always the Stage Door regulars who seemed to appear more times than you felt comfortable with, but you'd say hello, sign another piece of memorabilia then go home, safe in the knowledge that your job was done.

Now though, the savvy actor will be tweeting snippets of their life in a bid to attract the Stage Door regulars. Of course you have to be careful exactly what you are saying on these public forums.  Suddenly strangers appear to be your 'friends', as you can converse with them over the 140 character limit, they feel like they know you a bit more than they probably should; they come to see you in your shows, taking selfies with you.  To some of them (and of course this is the minority) they are friends with you.

These people don't know you - but they most definitely know the public persona that you've put out to the cyber world. For those of you not wishing to be 'friends' with the famous (or indeed the not so famous...but they're in your favorite show, so they've suddenly become famous to you) start Twitter's like people watching, but at a faster pace.  Watch the performers who slowly start to believe their own press (always a danger with performers)...see them grow into PR hungry professionals.  Some are subtle and discrete, answering their followers in a genuinely grateful way, others are practically screaming for you to follow them.  They start mentioning the bigger stars that they know in a bid for their followers to follow them. They start dropping hints about what they'd like to eat/wear before a show, in a bid for some firm or another to 'surprise them' with a load of cupcakes with their faces on (or whatever the latest craze it).

However there are also the performers who start to need those followers.  It's like some sort of real life SIMS. They build an online rapport with them, and you almost sense their fragility as they post (quite genuinely) about how shit they feel about some performance or another, and watch their hoards of followers bolster them and tell them how wonderful they are.  Some troll attacks them and a hundred minions attack the troll, in defence of the person, because that 'persona' is their friend....their famous friend whose picture is probably their phone's wallpaper.

The only thing that I can compare it to, is that years ago I watched a Broadway/Hollywood legend on the stage.  This person was showbiz personafied, and I was desperate to watch them perform live.  Half the show was amazing, my absolute dream come true. Then the other half was tragic. Missed notes, hell...missed keys.  Still giving the showbiz razzle, but they were truly awful. Yet we applauded for the performer that they used to be, not the performer that had turned up that day.  At the end watching them soaking in an ovation, which in truth, they didn't deserve...but which was given because we all wanted them to be brilliant.  Then I watched as their need for applause, became like some addiction for the adulation.  It was tangible that we were 'feeding' them in that moment. However it felt like an Audrey II moment. We were simply being sucked into their memory bank, for them to relive in moments of lonely desperation.

Twitter is littered with these fragile stars. They are the fodder of the social networking world. They are 'fed' by the minions telling them that they're wonderful...because in spite of having the infamous blue tick to prove that they've been verified...they failed in life to verify themselves.

Today's performer has to be marketing guru, selling 'brand X' to everyone. Brand X has to deliver the goods and keep up the persona 24/7...but only in the SIM world of social networking.  Behind Brand X is the performer...the human being. Invariably suffering from ...well! 1 in 3 performers suffer from Mental Illness, they mask this by self medicating in ways that you wouldn't think e.g. drink, drugs, sex.  So you see 'a party animal'...and I sometimes see the person screaming for help.

The 'followers' love it - it's part of being brilliant isn't it...the fragile star?  Well actually no! It doesn't have to be.  Friends and family need to see the warning signs much earlier. We need better Mental Health information out there. The party animal is as likely to be your severely depressed friend. If a person is looking for validation so blatantly on social need to talk to them.  You need to check how they're really doing.  You need to tell them that the only person that can validate them is them.

Twitter, Facebook...all of it, feeds the brand not the person.

Your agent, PR company tell you to tweet, build up your fan base, it'll help your career.  That'll be the career that they're taking a commission on right? Your friends need to tell you when to stop, as their investment is much bigger - it's in you!

So we teach our students 'how to tweet', but we also tell them that it's not real.  After shows I'm RT'ing' like a person possessed, but I'm only going to be RT'ing' the good stuff aren't I? It's not real, it's a fantasy world that we all buy into and accept.

However, like in life, read what isn't being said (especially with the 'over sharer)? Then suggest that they get some help quickly.

How quickly a story spreads these days, and how thoughtlessly we can all fan the flames. Everyone 'sharing' a headline because 'it's interesting'? Well to someone it's not interesting at all. It's their life. Surely everyone deserves to have some privacy, especially when it's clear that they're struggling? Why share it? Why RT it? I guess you'll pick up a few followers yourself won't you....and so you too get 'validated' by the 'minions'.

Isn't it our responsibility as a college to teach our students about the potential perils of social networking? Isn't learning how to tweet responsibly as important a lesson to the contemporary performer as learning how to self tape? Then there's that elephant in the room, the one that looks like mental illness, but we can't name it can we? Easier to be part of the problem rather than helping to find the solution? But then we teach our students all about that when the day comes that one of them is in trouble. We can but hope that the others run to help.

That's why The MTA could never get any bigger.  We need to evolve with the industry whilst taking care of our past.  We wouldn't have it any other way