New Works vs Established Works

There continues to be this controversy around producers putting on well-known productions instead of using new works and new writers, the excuse always seems to be that ‘the risks are too high with new works’.

The Mousetrap, Les Miserable and even The Lion King all started as new works before becoming iconic shows in London’s West End and around the world. Other shows regularly produced are the likes of the Sound of Music, Grease and Mary Poppins which are all best known for their big screen versions more than the stage productions. But when these shows are revived or adapted is it because there’s really a call for them or is it an attempt at franchising because producers really can’t make anything else work?

Like with many other jobs people can be doing it for so long that they begin to believe the way they do things is the only way things will work. This however only reaches out to the same kind of audience is reached and even when it comes to the revivals they don’t necessarily bring in a new kind of people, just the same in a new generation.

Show business has always been a complete gamble it involves more risk taking than any other industry because every time a new show is produced, a new work or revival, it always starts with a blank canvas. By contrast when you introduce a new product to stock in a shop the customers can still buy the old stock, when an electrician fixes the wiring he must reach a standard to issue a certificate.

But theatre, like authors it’s about the reputation, publishing and reviews of the event that makes the audience come in. It’s about how creative, original and inspiring an idea can be to grab the punters imagination. If a concept can be sold to just half a dozen people then it will be carried and interpreted so others will buy the idea to fill the house. It’s almost like starting a new business every time.

If we are not willing to tap into the imagination of those people who don’t cross the threshold into the living room of a theatre with what is already out there on offer, maybe it could be the new and fresh idea that will fill that extra seat. Why should anyone give anyone funding to produce the same titles over again, over time even the ordinary person could probably work out how much it cost to put on the show for the several hundredth time. Why should we invest time in schools when we already know how shows are supposed to be performed? Is it possible that an attitude of ‘anyone can do that’ is stronger than ever today? The world is always looking for something new, for something more exciting and it is this that makes the arts industry hard, it is why drama schools work the students hard.

I am not saying we should not revive the golden oldies, but we need to do it in proportion where by new works get a good look in, where the public can make the decision if a writer is worth the ticket money or not and it so good we have fringe festivals where performances can be tried out, but the fringe isn’t the only place this should happen.

Is it possible that by not taking as many risks of producing more new works that the arts is living a self-prophecy of self-destruction by failing to inspire more people?

Is Panto Evolving or Is It Outdated?

As the pantomime season comes to a close for another year I began to wonder if this traditional family show is still relevant or is it a desperately attempt to try and hold onto a tradition that should have been put to bed a long time ago?

For those who don’t know, pantomime originates from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition mixed with the British ‘Music Hall’, which later became ‘Variety Theatre’. But over the years, while it has retained a certain format there seems to be a constant change for it to suit current style and fashion of music and theatre. Most pantos are loosely based around a well-known fairy tales, with plenty of dancing, audience participation and the traditional slapstick comedy thrown in, but does it really ever tell the titled story?

When a musical is reprised or revived it will always stick to the original score and the same with plays, the director will always stick to what is written and not completely changed just to suit the time of day or current styles and fashions of theatre. Yes the set and costume may be modernised this is done so much with Shakespeare today. It helps people understand the language and that it is relevant for the modern audience, but the scripts are always the same.

Whilst with pantomime the plot on which it based on seems to get lost more and more year on year. Granted the key characters are there, the dame, hero, princess and the clown, but the actual story of moving towards the wedding at the end seems to be more and more diluted each year.

In the professional productions the emphasis seems to be on the celebrities and their talents along with the latest technology of special effects, for the amateurs it seems to be more about the singing and the dancing for no other reason than to make a ‘fairy tale’ interesting and last 2 hours.

For me growing up pantomime was a comedy version of musical that had a high level of audience interaction and comedy. I would go away singing the traditional songs for days after seeing the production, but the music today from the amateur shows seems to be from the hit parade gone and the professionals seem to write songs just for that single show, never to be heard again.

Now people may argue that if the material is not updated then we will lose a whole generation to this unique family outing. Whist I get the basic need of the jokes to be updated, the music and script should surely remain? The songs and scripts of the best known musicals that have graced the West End of more than 30 years playing to the best part of full houses every night can be an example of that. So why can’t the same go for pantomime?

If the basic plot of the fairy tale continues to be diluted surely this performance will just become a variety show with a bigger than life set and actors dressed in stupid outfits. We have to remember that the youngest of our generations get smarter each year they are going to have heard the fairy tale long before they see the pantomime and when things don’t add up, what are they going to do when it comes to pantomime and their children in the future? They won’t take them because to them because was a lie.

As an industry we already have trouble keeping the interest of the younger generation, regional theatres are constantly battling to get children and teenagers through the door. The point is that what we show youngsters today will affect what the future generations come and see. So while this unique genre of entertainment that is rooted in our heritage and tradition we must always remain true to what we use as our baseline.

Shyness and the Arts

I recently watched a documentary on the BBC about Shyness and what it does to people. I mean did you know that at least 50% of the UK population admits to being shy? This got me thinking about actors, singers and artists who get up night after night entertaining crowds from a few in a small room to hundreds and thousands in an international stadium and yet claim to be introverted or shy.

I think sometimes there’s this misconception that all actors must be extrovert just because of what they do for a living. But often what they do is just a way of dealing with shyness and being an introvert in a controlled manner where the attention is given on their terms. This doesn’t mean to say that every actor feels socially awkward away from the stage or camera.

But I think it’s so important that there should be more of an awareness and consideration of this especially audience members when they head to stage door hoping for an autograph or photo with their idol.

But I think we have to remember that while a lot of people are naturally introvert, on rare occasions that shyness or quietness could very well be related to other issues here like bullying, abuse and mental health. So while we should never assume we should always be aware of these issues.

There people who are shy that go on to do great things, some of those who have even become household names all started with a push. Take for example Rod Gilbert, well known for his work on the comedy circuit, but away from the stage he finds it hard just to have coffee on his own in a café. He admits that is was an ex-girlfriend that had pushed him into the training to be comedian that got his foot on the ladder.

Or Emma Watson, she made her name as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies and is now the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador for Women’s Rights. She once said about herself, ‘I’m generally a shy, socially awkward, introverted person.’ I am sure it would have been her parents encouragement to audition for Harry Potter that has been the catalyst that puts her where she is today on the international platform.

But why would I pick up on this documentary in a blog that is related to the arts industry? Simple. A recent survey found that up to 40% of people working in the art industry have been bullied and 30% have been subject to sexual harassment, with a further 8% having experienced sexual assault, including rape. This is outrageous for an industry that is supposed to be teaching the world to be a better place. The figures don’t look any better for students in drama schools 35% claim to have been bullied and an outstanding 20% have been sexually harassment, however schools do seem to deal with it better.

But what these figures also show is that people will speak out against Bullying. So in essence someone who bullies may choose someone quiet or shy, but just because they are that way it doesn’t mean they will keep your secret. So what is this industry coming to? Apparently these figures are all up since the report ‘Bullying in the Arts’ was compiled in 2011, but I wonder if this is actually the case or it’s just that with all the increased press and media surround abuse and bullying that more people feel comfortable talking about it.

Bullying has no place in this amazing industry, while we need to keep the figure showing the problem real and honest we need to drive bullying out by giving those who are being bullied the confidence and encouragement they need to speak out about their ordeals. It is what we all deserve, to be looked after by each other.

~ Just Be Kind, Always ~

Quality of Teaching = Quality Future of the Arts

Over the last few years the teaching of drama in schools has been dramatically reduced due to lack of funding and the eventual down grading of the subject through EBacc (English Baccalaureate) with the effect to the future of the Arts in England and Wales being damaged.

For those of you who are not familiar with EBacc it is basically a UK school performance measure which was introduced in 2010. It allows people to see how many pupils get a grade C or above in the core academic subjects at key stage 4 (11-16 year olds) in any government-funded school. Drama is no longer considered a core subject by this system. I am sure you can imagine the affect this has had on youngsters who find other academics difficult at the best of times.

There are specific attributes that can only be enhanced through drama which can contribute to a person’s adulthood in a way that no other subject can. The subject gives confidence, it acts as a way to ‘simulate’ different situations individuals may encounter in life, it can provide support for people to deal with emotions and help enhance social skills.

The subject of English will teach a person reading and writing and sure the manuscripts can be read out to help gain the feel of the context, but it won’t give a person confidence or social skills for the everyday real experience the way drama and theatre can. As far as writing goes, Theatre needs more than writers, and the writers need more tools than knowledge of grammar and spelling. They need the social skills, which will enhance the skill of developing their characters as they navigate through different situations in the plot. They need to learn to deal with confidence to show their writing to publishers or producers or the whole process of writing is hard enough without these obstacles

But whilst the subject itself is no longer a core subject it is still being taught in schools however there is a growing lack of specialised teachers for the subject due to retirement and lack funding for the training of new drama teachers. For training most teachers will receive somewhere between £20,000 to £30,000 of government funding, however those training to be drama teachers often receive nothing. This leads to so many drama teachers dropping out of their training simply because they are not able to afford it.

Over the last few years there has been a lot of media attention about the lack of diversity in the arts, which comes with lack of emerging talent as there are not enough opportunities for young people in at key ages to engage with the subject in the normal academic life. It continually feels as though the arts are being picked on by the government as they look for ways to save money as it is often not consider a ‘real’ job.

I think some forget that theatre is one of the key educational tools which help individuals into any line of work and career whether an entrepreneur or a cleaner it is about giving youngester the opportunity to learn the appreciation of the arts not just an other career choice, and not everyone can engage in learning through sitting in rows looking at a board or listening to someone speak or reading text books. Sometime they have to get involved and try it out themselves in a controlled, simulated environment to really understand what’s going on.

Growing up in the 80s I spent most of my childhood outside make up games, building castles and fighting ‘baddies’. There were no smart phones, few computer games, daytime tv was pretty boring and I was no good being confined to the indoors anyway, in fact the latter is still very much true. But as kids we used have a bedtime story that would set the imagination off, then as we slept our brains would burst with ideas, that we would then go live out the next day as we played outside. And it is this part of my growing up which has lead me not only to continue my love for theatre but has brought out a real love for writing but this enjoyment of writing for writing didn’t come from my English classes at school and my exam results will tell you that, it was because of the story’s we told, and being encouraged to exercise our imagination through role play, along with being blessed to have amazing drama teachers in school and out that have over the years be able to direct that imagination into something useful.

Anyone can teach drama from a curriculum, but it takes a certain kind of person who knows it’s real power to teach it in a way that penetrates the soul and really ignites the imagination flame. That statement is not intended as disrespect to any teacher, I am fully aware that UK schools are understaffed and underfunded and so the teaching teams are doing the best they possibly can. But teachers know that if you are not fully passionate about the subject or craft you teach then it is very much perceived as ‘textbook’ teaching, creating a ‘tick box’ subject just for the students to pass another exam but has no real impact on their future.

There has been a dip in the number in students taking up the subject which naturally this would be a perfectly good justification to reduce funding, but when you understand that this has been caused by a lack of quality in the teaching of the subject it becomes a whole different ball game. The only people who lose out are the student as it has long term effect for them. The arts industry itself continues to suffer as there are less people entering the arts, which gives the government more reason to cut even more funding from the arts, it just a vicious circle.