Making the Grades

Recently there has been a report published where the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman has claimed that ‘Arts courses promote unrealistic prospects for young people’.

When I first read this, like many people I was up in arms but when as you look deeper into the claim, based on how hard the industry is to get into maybe there is some truth to it.

Sure the subject give inter transferable life skills like confidence, social skills and tools for exploring ideas which can all be used regardless of what industry you end up in, but what about if youngsters want to get into the arts industry? Are the education standards high enough?

The more I think about this and read more articles online about the subject being removed from Bacc the more I begin the question how anyone could take the arts so seriously when the early education standards are so low.

On top of that, it has recently been claimed that artists are turning down work in the regionals in the hope of making their big break in to the West End.

But here’s the reality of it all. Education is something that is needed to put us on the first rug of any industry that we wish to pursue. But education must be fit for purpose, it must keep up with the standards that are required for its industry. It should be able to give you further opportunities to better your game and put you in competition with others.

But most of the education outside of the classroom experience can only be found in the taking of opportunities. We all desire to be worth a lot more than we actually are, but the only way we can reach that worth is by practising by taking every opportunity that is presented.

With all this done there is still something far more important to be done, as we know everything happens in circles and to complete the art industry’s circle like any other industry the lessons learn must be shared, not just with peers but with the next generation.

So the education of the arts may not be up to scratch, but whose fault is that? How can the standards be raised, but above all who us responsible for ensure the next generation get to the top?

The Royal Variety Performance

The Royal Variety Performance is an annual command performance usually held in one of the theatres on Shaftsbury Avenue in London; it is usually recorded in November and then televised to the nation in December. 2018’s command performance was performed on the 19th November and at the time of writing the date for the production to be televised is yet to be announced.

The performance is one of a kind with its life spanning more than 104 years with a total of 88 performances with hundreds of performers and artists taking part and attracting more than 100 million TV viewers each year. It’s about the best of the best of British talent, which is what A Ticket 2 Ride Entertainment’s project The New Greatest Show is about, finding world class talent in working class community then take that talent right through to the international stage. More information on that project can be found on the front page of this blog on the right hand menu.

It was by request of the head of state that the Royal Variety Performance was first brought to life in 1912 in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary at the Palace Theatre in London. This was just a year after the original planned performance that was meant to take place in the year of the king’s coronation to be staged at the Empire Theatre, Edinburgh. However the building caught fire months before the show was scheduled to be staged. The King would declare that all profits would go to the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, which is what the charity was known as back then.

It was some years later before the next production would be staged, as the events of Great War unfolding and taking many people into service including entertainers and artists. 1919 was to see the second command performance, this time at The Coliseum Theatre in London with the music director Edward Elgar.

It wasn’t until 1921 that the King suggested that the Royal Variety Performance would become an annual event, and was held at the Hippodrome in November and in 1923 returned to Coliseum Theatre. After a year break in 1924, The Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square would become the home of the command performance until 1926, with the Alhambra being demolished in 1936 to make way for what is now The Odeon Cinema on Leicester Square.

In 1927 the command performance was to take to take up residence at the Victoria Palace Theatre and in 1928 it would return to Coliseum before enjoying seven successful years at the London Palladium. It would be first broadcast nationally by the BBC in 1930.

The final performance that King George V attended was in 1935 which was his and Queen Mary’s Silver Jubilee. The king died 3 months later in January 1936 and the final performance at the London Palladium for the time being would be in the presence of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937.

The command performance never has found a full time home with its increasing popularity; the next 7 years found the command performance bouncing between the The Coliseum and The London Palladium. 1951 the back and forth between the same venues was broken with a stint at the Victoria Palace Theatre, the first performance that was not in front of the head of the Monarch. It would also be the last opportunity that King George VI would have to enjoy this production, however he was too ill attend, so Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret took his place.

1952 would be the first command performance in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II in her position as head of state accompanied by Prince Philip. Over the next few years it would enjoy its success at many homes across the country, including Blackpool Opera House and Manchester’s Palace Theatre.  Most recently the command performance has taken residency at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It was 1955 that this annual event begun to be televised on regular bases.

The Royal Variety Charity was it is known today is based in Twickenham, Middlesex. It is dedicated to giving support to those who have professionally served the entertainment industry and find themselves sick, impoverished or elderly.

The charity is believed to be one of the few charities in the UK that has an unbroken line of patronage from the reigning monarch since George V in the early twentieth century. Queen Elizabeth II is the current sole life-patron of the charity.

Established in 1908, the charity was originally called the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, and then in 1971 the Entertainment Artistes’ Benevolent Fund and then in June 2015, was officially awarded the title and name of the Royal Variety Charity.

The charity provides residential and nursing care for eldely entertainers at its own care home, Brinsworth House in Twickenham and also provides a nationwide grant scheme for those living in their own homes, of any age, living anywhere in the UK.

So for the entertainment industry is it an important annual event on ITV in December.

Rejuvenating Local Theatre

What do you do when it feels as though the support and enthusiasm for local theatre or Arts Centre begins dry up?

Firstly look at those who are at the helm of the organisation, those on the board, staff, anyone who has any influence. Their experience may well be credible; their past work to forward the organisation may be extensive, and above all they could be a decent human being.

But how long have they been there? How long have they have been doing what they are doing? It may not be their experience that’s the problem it may just be that things have gone stale. Maybe they have done so much that the ideas have dried up or their own enthusiasm away from the public eye may have gone. This is ok, it’s a perfectly normal thing to happen as human beings as long as you know that is the time to move on and do something about it, rather than just stay because nobody else will do the job.

Next look at the program you are offering the community, as well as the methods of advertising. If you are a volunteer run theatre then ideas should be coming from volunteers, the advertising and marketing should be supported by the volunteers. If this is not happening then you need ask why the volunteers don’t support the programme, maybe a review on the program is needed. Whatever you put in your program should be fully supported by the volunteers.

Next is to look at is the volunteers, now let be careful here, this isn’t about getting them all together and giving them an ear full because they are not pulling their weight. Remember that dealing with volunteers is very different from dealing with employees. If you upset volunteers it will have a far bigger shock wave effect then if you upset a paid member of staff and volunteers have no obligation to tell you what they really think.

So when it comes to volunteers it very much a self-assessment into what the organisation is doing in how they treat the volunteers, is change happening too quickly or are you expecting too much of them to do. I have written a whole blog on this which you can read by clicking here.

Finally looking at the source of funding, are you only getting funding from one source? Do they have any influence on what happens and how things are done? Could it be time to find a new source of primary funding?

There are a whole number of things that could be issue, but whatever the issue it needs to be dealt with at source, rather than beating round the bush.

Health and Safety in the Arts

Here is another episode from the series of ‘How to in the Arts…’. This post we are looking at the Health and Safety in theatre and the arts. This is obviously one of, if not the, most important part of running theatre as it can be the most costly if things go wrong.

For the purpose of this post theatre is defined as anything where a live performance is created, whether the audience is paying or not, from street theatre right up the stadium and big arena productions.

I have been involved in the Health and Safety for many years for several businesses ranging from completing checklist as a worker to creating the companies Health and Safety strategies. I recently completed an official IOSH Creative Industry Passport course with BECTU and Creative Skillset which refreshed and reestablished what I already knew.

So here are my top 5 bits of advice for theatre or any creative professional on Health and Safety when surviving in the arts industry:

1. Ensure it is written down

So often management try and get rid of staff for breaching Health and Safety as the individual is seen as a liability to the company, but in fact the liability is often on the company simply because they had not got the procedure in writing in the first place. The aim of Health and Safety is remove assumption and grey areas from the line of work, so one of the best way to do this is to simply write it down and make sure staff, crew and freelance are all aware of it and know where to find information if they are not sure. Even better get them to sign to say they have read and understood.

2. Training is never too expensive

While most theatres and industry personnel may feel confident to train their own staff in house, never be afraid to invest in some professional training by sending individuals on external courses. This does two things, firstly it will raise the morale of the individual as they feel appreciated because you value them enough to invest in their learning. Secondly the training will pay for itself as it will mean less accidents, less injuries, less time off as things are being done not just efficiently but safely too. There are far more courses and expertise available external to your business then what you can offer. To help decide what people need to be trained on look at their job role, CV and your business risk assessments. A great example of some training the arts fail to complete although it is stated in almost all risk assessments is that of Manual Handling. Something that most industry professional look for when taking on freelance and contractors and even staff is the IOSH Creative Industry Passport training provided by BECTU.

3. Don’t be afraid to say NO

This is really important, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure everyone who works for them, including contractors and freelances are safe in doing their required job. So if you see something that you feel is not safe then say. If you are required to go up a bit scaffold and you don’t think it looks safe then you have a right to ask to inspect risk assessments and other appropriate paperwork that declares the structures safety. Also be clear beforehand what exactly it is that you are required to do, this relates to the first point, don’t assume. The last thing you want to do is turn up to a theatre assuming that the rig is on electric motors only to find you have to climb up and lower bars by hand or worse still they don’t move at all and you have to hand ball lights up and down ladders. Ask for risk assessments and any other relevant paperwork before you sign the contract.

4. Be Prepared

The Scout motto is Be Prepared. This leads on from point 3 as a freelance ask the right questions before you take on a job, you are entitled to see paperwork relating to Health and Safety. Find out exactly what you are being required to do, the more information you get before the day the better prepared you will be, theatre is by far the most dangerous place of work. Most of the crew are freelance or work with touring companies that go from one venue to the next, safety should never be compromised and anything can happen so you need to know what is what, who you are working with. Better still write your own risk assessments for your line of work, then you can align them with those of the company and venue’s assessments as part of the negotiations.

5. Take Ownership

Whether you are management, staff, volunteer, contractor or freelance, make every task you do your own, take the responsibility to make the area safe. Communicate your thoughts and ideas about safety in the area you are working, because safety is everyone’s job regardless of grade or role. If something goes wrong or looks like it may go wrong tell someone, don’t just assume someone else has said something. When I was overseeing the health and safety strategy for a business I always said that I would rather be told about the same problem by every person on site, and that may well be 50 or more times, but that is better than nobody say anything and an accident happens. Things can only be sorted and changed if people speak up. The human condition means we are always looking to put blame on someone else, but sometime a fault in the first instance may not be anyone’s fault, it only becomes someone’s fault when they do notice and fail to report it. We often fail to see our own mistakes which could simply be not saying anything when something looks wrong.

So there you have it, Health and Safety in a nutshell. Remember if things do go wrong and you end up in court on the grounds of neglect of Health and Safety in the workplace, whether a company or an individual you are guilty until proven innocent, the reverse of criminal law. Judges will often use the view of an everyday passer-by to determine fault, then set the penalty and sentence on what could have been the worst possible outcome, and that is not going to be pretty if it could have been fatality.

Health and Safety is everyone’s responsibility and only a team can produce a production worth paying to see.

NEW AWARDS: Unsung Heroes

Theatre website WhatsOnStage has launched new awards to celebrate the offstage work of venues and staff to improve the theatregoing experience.

The WhatsOffStage Awards include prizes for a front-of-house team, food and drink, and accessibility, as well as for theatres that are child-friendly or community-driven.

As with the existing WhatsOnStage Awards, winners for the offstage awards will be voted for by the public. Voting is already open, and nominations can be submitted until October 5.

Sita McIntosh, chief operating officer of WhatsOnStage, said the awards would be “a huge round of applause for all those unsung heroes who make the theatregoing experience the best it can possibly be”.

She added: “We are delighted to announce the first ever WhatsOffStage Awards this year. We want to celebrate areas of the industry that don’t always receive the recognition they deserve but which are instrumental in ensuring audiences and communities are able to engage with and enjoy live theatre.”

Categories also include best box office, best stage door, best theatre website and favourite theatre.

Votes can be cast here.