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Northern Stage artistic director Natalie Ibu interview: “I want more dialogue and less monologue.”

Natalie Ibu

Northern Stage’s newish artistic director Natalie Ibu – who took up her post in the middle of the pandemic – has impressed with her inclusive strides since taking up post in November 2020; during the second national lockdown. 

It’s true that Ibu has undeniably put the work in. But for all she has already achieved in her first year, I sense she is only just getting started. It has, in this industry, been a challenging time. Is being an artistic director in a pandemic fulfilling? “I love artists, and I love being a facilitator,” she says simply.

“I enjoy being able to say ‘yes’ and making things happen. The pandemic has certainly been challenging to my confidence. You know, there’s something about going back into a room and reminding yourself you can still do your job – I am fortunate to be able to do this in such a creative and rich region.” 

Natalie Ibu photo credit Christopher Owens

She continues: “There’s something specific about joining in a historic pandemic; I don’t yet have a memory of this building; I don’t have a memory of these audiences.” 

Ibu has also announced further plans for Housewarming, the autumn season at the theatre, which includes neighbourhood events this month, a series of performances in pop-up venues in July and August and will see the building reopen on August 25 with a Northern Stage and Unfolding Theatre co-production, co-created with kids.

Natalie will direct a new production of Jim Cartwright’s Road for her first show as artistic director of Northern Stage. It is, she says, the “dream play” for her to direct as the inaugural show for Northern Stage. 

“It’s with Road that I found my vision as a director at university,” she says with a smile. “I love the fact this play will not be contained by a proscenium arch; it is sprawling, it spills out into the interval and pre-show. Road is about the stuff that matters, it’s about protest, community, living for the weekend and dreams, all things we have been reminded of that we have missed during this period.” 

It opens in October, and will be designed by Amelia Jane Hankin, with lighting by Zoe Spurr and movement by Nadia Iftkhar.

Paines Plough’s Roundabout will also pop up in Byker during August and will present the company’s touring programme alongside community and performance work from Northern Stage.

Furthermore, Northern Stage will continue digital access to work, and will programme socially distanced performances once full capacities are permitted, restoring audience confidence delicately expanding possibilities and audiences. 

Natalie Ibu photo credit: Christopher Owens

We are talking in the week of a four-week delay to the final stage of easing lockdown restrictions in England: Andrew Lloyd Webber recently backed down over his threat to reopen his theatres without social distancing after being warned his entire staff and the audience could have been fined hundreds of pounds each.

So, would she be prepared to break the law and risk arrest for theatre? “No,” she says firmly. “One: because I dislike breaking rules and two: we’re talking about people’s health here… I love theatre but it is certainly not worth people dying over.” 

The serious challenges facing arts freelancers leave a mixed picture for the future of British theatre. Looking ahead to two years from now, how does she want the industry to be different? “So much has been lost and cannot be regained,” she says with a sigh. “I want more dialogue and less monologue.”

She is also clear about what she wants to achieve: “I want to see a more front-footed approach to theatre being essential to people’s lives and I want a better understanding of our collective civic purpose, to acknowledge our role as civic players. I want us to fight for our audiences and our place on the cultural menu,” says Ibu. 

Ibu, who was previously artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi, a company dedicated to championing black British narratives, says she hopes we collectively “realise the need for new and different leaders that engage new and different workforces and artists that are able to speak to new and different audiences.” She seems like precisely the artist she wants to be, precisely making the art she wants to make, delivering it on precisely her own terms. 

The lack of diversity in the British theatre industry is an issue on which she is vocal. “The truth is, diversity just means difference,” is how Natalie puts it. “Difference is excellence and makes the pursuit of excellence richer, right?”

“Because diversity starts at the top, I am worried about how we look after those different leaders that we brought into these institutions in recent years and how they sustain their energy during this time. I am certainly worried about the unique set of challenges ahead for new artistic directors who are different, and as we rebuild and reopen,” says Ibu. 

She pauses then adds: “I am apprehensive about whether the sector will use this opportunity that it has been given decisively and properly.” 

Tickets for shows start from £10 and go on general sale from 1 July, with pre-sale tickets available to Northern Stage members and supporters from 24 June. 

For more details and full listings visit northernstage.co.uk

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Manchester International Festival 2021 programme announced

Manchester International Festival (MIF), returns from 1-18 July with a vibrant programme of original new work from across the spectrum of visual and performing arts and music by artists from over 20 countries.

The reasonably amazing lineup includes Angélique Kidjo, Akram Khan, Arlo Parks, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Boris Charmatz, Cerys Matthews, Christine Sun Kim, Cillian Murphy, Deborah Warner, Forensic Architecture, Ibrahim Mahama, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Laure Prouvost, Marta Minujín, Lemn Sissay and Patti Smith

  • Events will take place safely in indoor and outdoor locations across Greater Manchester, including the first ever work on the construction site of The Factory, the landmark cultural space that will be MIF’s future home
  • A rich online offer will provide a window into the Festival wherever audiences are, including livestreams and work created especially for the digital realm
  • With almost all the work created in the past year, MIF21 provides a unique snapshot of these unprecedented times. Artists have reflected on ideas such as love and human connections, the way we play, division and togetherness, equality and social change, and the relationship between the urban and the rural
  • For the first time, the curation of the Festival’s talks and discussions programme has been handed over to local people, building on MIF’s work involving the community as artistic collaborators and participants in work shaped by them
  • Festival Square returns in new location Cathedral Gardens with a packed programme of food, drink and free live music, DJs and more
  • As one of the first major public events in the city, MIF21 will play a key role in the safe reopening of the city’s economy and provide employment for hundreds of freelancers and artists
  • Much of the programme will be free to attend, with more work than ever in public spaces around the city

People sitting outside in the sunshine at tables in MIF's pop-up Festival Square in Manchester

Headshot of John McGrath

John McGrath, the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of MIF.

Manchester International Festival Artistic Director & Chief Executive, John McGrath says: “MIF has always been a Festival like no other – with almost all the work being created especially for us in the months and years leading up to each Festival edition.  But who would have guessed two years ago what a changed world the artists making work for our 2021 Festival would be working in?”

“I am thrilled to be revealing the projects that we will be presenting from 1-18 July this year – a truly international programme of work made in the heat of the past year and a vibrant response to our times. Created with safety and wellbeing at the heart of everything, it is flexible to ever-changing circumstances, and boldly explores both real and digital space.

“We hope MIF21 will provide a time and place to reflect on our world now, to celebrate the differing ways we can be together, and to emphasise, despite all that has happened, the importance of our creative connections – locally and globally.”

Hop along to the MIF official website from from Thurs 20 May 2021 if you’re interested

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From staplers to potatoes – it’s monster producer Scott Rudin

To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on that gut instinct of right and wrong, it is a timeless classic.

By way of a recap, Broadway producer Scott Rudin is accused of assaulting employees in a devastating new Hollywood Reporter exposé.

One of the most harrowing accounts involved Rudin, 62, smashing an Apple computer monitor on an assistant’s hand. Yup.

Scott Rudin

Scott Rudin

Meanwhile, to the audible shock of those who work in theatre, Rudin is also accused of throwing a glass bowl at someone from his HR department. It missed and shattered against the wall. Thank goodness.

For context, Rudin’s theatre projects extend into Broadway reopening, with a revival of The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman.

Along with co-producers Sonia Friedman and Barry Diller, Rudin is due to bring To Kill a Mockingbird to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End in March 2022.

Admittedly, Rudin joins the long list of high profile industry figures who believe it is their right to abuse their power.

Some revelations to the story, though, have really bothered me.

Worse was to come: one of those who has spoken out is the brother of a former assistant to Rudin who tragically committed suicide. 

Just awful.

“Every day was exhausting and horrific,” a former assistant, who worked for Rudin from 2018–2019, recalled.

“Not even the way he abused me, but watching the way he abused the people around me who started to become my very close friends. You’re spending 14 hours a day with the same people, enduring the same abuse. It became this collective bond with these people.”

Bullying is a repeated pattern of abuse of power designed to dominate those perceived as inferior, as weaker. Side affects include depression, anxiety, panic attacks – it’s a major risk factor for mental health.

Also, a former assistant claims that Rudin “relished in the cruelty” and “hundreds and hundreds of people have suffered” from his behaviour.

Other details? He fired someone for having diabetes, threw potatoes at someone’s head and reportedly assaulted staff, sending colleagues to the hospital twice.

Needless to say, leading figures are betraying their status by not making a stronger stand against these shocking revelations.

Ultimately, this is not restricted or confined to Scott. This happens everywhere.

I have been through this kind of experience myself; as a child, I was assaulted, and it is one of the things that motivated me to speak out when things are not right. Unfortunately, my own career has never been short of abusers, monsters and egomaniacs.

As for the wider implications of this scandal for Broadway and beyond, it would be easy to get carried away. On the other hand, you certainly wouldn’t rule him out making some sort of return in due course.

In 2014, Page Six ran an article about Rudin: “The Man Known as Hollywood’s Biggest A-hole,”that alleged that Rudin had pushed assistants out of moving cars and fired assistants for bringing him the wrong muffin, mispronouncing names, and, at least in one instance, having to attend a funeral.

Unfortunately, Rudin is still today boosted by enablers who looked the other way or ignored these rumours, allowing accusations to remain an “open secret” for years.

In 2018, he was making history with Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill A Mocking Bird, which shattered an 118 year record by earning more than $1.5 million in one week.

For those wondering when things will die down, I spoke to a made-up theatre scientist who calculated that moment will come at the precise second that anti-Rudin coverage stops grossing more than Rudin productions in 2022.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

Like Kevin Spacey before him, it will be hard to believe the frightful bollocks about those “not knowing” spouted by rich and powerful colleagues. 

The industry silence about this alleged physical abuse and personality faults of Rudin are unforgivable, yet easily explained. They depend on him for their income. 

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Park Theatre’s Jez Bond: “Many freelancers have tragically left our industry and there is a lot of hard work ahead.”

Park theatre artistic director Jez Bond is busy looking at revisions of his business plan. “We have some formulating to do with our smaller space, Park90, that might enable us to bring in work that we may have previously turned down,” he says. “Historically there have been a lot of shows that we missed out on because they couldn’t have necessarily afforded to rent the space,” he continues. “So, we are trying to find out if there are new models that can crack that issue.”

Jez Bond

Park Theatre not only presents off west end theatre in the heart of London’s Finsbury Park, but is a creative community hub and has been a significant part of the redevelopment of the area. As a small charity with no regular government or Arts Council funding, the pandemic led to a devastating loss of income.

Fortunately, Park Theatre was awarded £250,000 as part of the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) to help face the challenges.

I have interviewed Bond before in 2017– he is not shy. He’s funny, opinionated and happy to talk about anything.

We are talking on the telephone in the week that Chancellor Rishi Sunak outlined his latest Budget. Measures include a £300 million addition to the Culture Recovery Fund and £150 million fund to help communities take ownership of theatres, pubs and sports clubs at risk of closure.

“We’re grateful for the actions of the Chancellor but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that it’s all rosy: many freelancers have tragically left our industry and there is a lot of hard work ahead,” says Bond.

What, I ask, are his thoughts on the explosion of digital productions? He pauses. ‘I’ve been very clear and up front that I have no passion for digital,” Bond says. “It is a means to end – but it’s not something that I have a particular passion for. Broadening the reach is a good thing but let’s not pretend that there is a new exciting way – let’s not pretend that that is theatre, we want to get back to live theatre.”

What has kept him going throughout the pandemic? “We thought we’d be dead in the water at some point,” he says.

“My drive was to say that we have 40-50 staff and we cannot let these people go during the pandemic. At a time when there was and is no prospect of getting another job. It is our duty to ensure that we protect those livelihoods. When we engaged with our donors and wider community it was evident how much Park Theatre means to everybody. It meant far too much to just let it all go. Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in.”

Park Theatre

Park Theatre

How would he describe his approach through the scenario planning, shifting sands and executive decisions? “I have erred on the side of rational caution, sensibility and logic: Reading the data and following what’s going on in other countries rather than doing what people think or want you want to say. Even recently, with the Prime Minister’s roadmap: I don’t see June being a realistic date for performances to take place at full capacity.”

Every year, it seems, the debate rages on casting well-known names from TV or film to generate ticket sales. With ticket prices looking set to stay high, and severely reduced public subsidy, there is surely an increased commercial imperative to cast stars.

Bond’s ability to knock out commercial hits is extraordinary – David Haig’s Pressure, The Boys in The Band starring Mark Gatiss, for example – he’s frank about how he feels about them. “It’s a vital part of what we do – being able to take a play and give it an extended commercial life aids us both financially and reputationally. I’m very proud of the work we’ve presented.”

According to Bond commercially successful shows rely on star power. “There has to be an understanding of why those decisions are made,” he says. “Theatres do not choose celebrities because they are mates with them. They do so because they sell tickets. If we do a new play by an unknown writer and an unknown cast, it could fly and it could get great reviews. However, if you cast Damian Lewis or Miriam Margolyes you ensure that you have a selling point and you know that you can take that significant financial risk.”

“If we were subsidised to take risk, then it wouldn’t matter. Let’s put it very clearly: it is about survival.”

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Our Voice – Arts Professional


Our Voice – an autobiographical theatre project for young Traveller girls-  is the most important thing that I have have done.

Despite the restrictions that the pandemic posed, we came together to deliver this female artist-led project and look forward to when we can create live theatre from these special stories together again. 

As theatre braces itself for the challenges ahead, it is time to talk about communities that we as a sector have excluded for too long.

Bryony Kimmings

Bryony Kimmings

The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, has meaningful and long-standing relationships with local Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities. Our Voice is a programme funded by Lancaster University and is free to all who take part. It aims to engage with young GRT people and their families and highlight available learning and career opportunities for them.

Originally intended to be in-person participation activities, these lively virtual workshops have been taking place throughout the lockdowns. They utilise drama and storytelling classes to share the rich culture and distinct histories of young traveller girls, especially those with little engagement or confidence when it comes to culture….

READ MORE ON ARTS PROFESSIONAL 

 

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Look Ahead: Theatre Streaming in March

At last! A roadmap – the prime minister has announced a timeline for when theatres and other live events venues may be able to reopen.

All being well, indoor and outdoor theatres will be allowed to reopen with social distancing from May 17.

Hmmmmmmmmm.

Anyway, here are some of the best shows streaming online now or later in March.

Whatever you decide to stream this month – please check out Richard Blackwood in Soho Theatre’s breathless reimagining of the tragic final hours of Christopher Alder’s life: Typical is a terrific and powerful monologue that deserves another life when All This is over.

Richard Blackwood in Typical

Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s Olivier Award winning Emilia will be streaming for all of March on a pay what you decide basis (from £1.00). A blazing take on Emilia Bassano, a 17th century poet who struggled to get her voice heard in a patriarchal world. Now you know.

Kiln Theatre is streaming a reading of new play Girl on the Altar by Marina Carr, streams for free on 5 March.

A new folk musical, by Robin Simões da Silva and Annabel Mutale Reed, Brother will be streamed live from Southwark Playhouse – the show follows a young transgender man finding his way in the world. Streaming live 5-6 March.

Recorded at the London Palladium and hosted by Sheridan Smith, Musicals: The Greatest Show featuredMichael Ball, Nicole Scherzinger and more belting West End classics with a couple of songs from recent British hits Six and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Not awful and still available on BBC iPlayer. 

Musicals: The Greatest Show – Layton Williams

The Barn Theatre in Cirencester’s latest digital offering is a multiple-choice cabaret featuring 14 musical performers. Conceived by Ryan Carter, The Secret Society of Leading Ladies is a clever concept; there are a possible 150 combinations in which to see a five-song concert. Available until 7 March.

The Old Vic has revealed two commissioned monologues created to mark International Women’s Day on March 8: Putting A Face On by Kiri Pritchard-McLean and Regina Taylor’s Aisha (the black album). Available on YouTube for free. 

Adam Kashmiry plays himself in excellent play Adam, the story of a transgender man who sought asylum in Scotland. Now, the BBC has teamed up with National Theatre Scotland for a specially crafted recording as part of the BBC Arts Lights Up for New Culture in Quarantine season. Following its BBC Four premiere, Adam will be available on BBC iPlayer.

The Whip, Juliet Gilkes’s resonant play about 19th-century slavery-abolition legislation, has had a new audio recording commissioned by the RSC. On YouTube until 16 March.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett and director by Tamara Harvey is a starry digital adaptation of the Oscar Wilde classic with Gray depicted as an “influencer”. Streams 16-31 March.

Last year’s virtual celebration of the work of Stephen Sondheim, Take Me To the World is still available on YouTube – why not watch it again on Steve’s birthday, Tuesday  22  March. I’ll drink to that!

By the way, the original 1980 Broadway production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin –  directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse  –is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

If you have a show streaming during the month of March or suggestions for my blog get in touch – this will be updated weekly. Cheers! E: mrcarlwoodward@gmail.com

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Guest Blog – Dr Alan Duffield: ‘Performing arts BTECs remain the most readily accessible, egalitarian and flexible provision available.‘

Government proposals that could see the performing arts BTEC scrapped widen inequality in the arts and damage young people’s creative education chances.

Dr Alan Duffield, a performing arts teacher and dance researcher, argues that this move is wrong and will threaten the talent supply to the industry.

Throughout my long years directly involved in performance education, one thing has, sadly,  remained consistent: the lack of a unified, powerful voice in support of performance education as a vital, central part of state schools’ syllabuses. Individuals, and certain institutions have indeed spoken out strongly, as now, though in my opinion not often enough, and not loud enough.

Performing Arts BTECs are under threat. This qualification is the most democratic, approachable form of qualification in state schools/colleges, with developed links for entry to both the professional world of performance, at all levels from administration to professional training, and the academic world of graduate and post graduate work.

A BTEC offers varied entry levels and a very wide based curriculum from which for 16-19 year olds students can select those areas that best suit individual aspirations. Whilst GCSE and Advanced level courses are in several respects highly effective and valuable, I would argue that the BTECs remain the most readily accessible, egalitarian and flexible provision available. This is a qualification we should all fight tooth and nail to preserve.

Jeremy Eden, Head of Drama at Falmouth School, has been involved with BTEC since 1993 says: “In the last few years universities, with the exception of Oxbridge and Durham, have taken them as an equivalent to A levels. In fact, in performing arts, some universities have even given preferential treatment to Btec students because they know that those students will be more rounded in production values, and larger scale teamwork performances.”

He went on to add: “Now more than ever we need to offer creativity to young people. Btecs are a wide-ranging, highly challenging but incredibly satisfying way of learning about all kinds of performance, acting, dance, musical theatre and production styles, as well as giving students the opportunity to follow their own interests. At L3 I currently have one student writing his own stand-up show while another in the same class is directing her peers (not on the course) on Zoom in scenes from Macbeth. They instigated those ideas and we allow them to follow them.”

These views are representative many teachers/lecturers working in schools and colleges, where the BTEC has been increasingly adopted in recent years. This reflects the realisation that the flexibility, range and wider access BTEC offers is increasingly suited to the present and the variety of ways students now access and use and process information. The value of performing arts BTEC courses is undeniable.

In 1966, leaving Goldsmiths with a Teaching Certificate in Drama, I was one of a small but growing number of Drama trained teachers at the forefront of the development of Drama and Dance in state schools. Drama was then firmly tied to English and Dance to PE. Art and Music were already established subjects within the curriculum. However, this was a time of optimism, growth and change, with the establishment of comprehensive education providing an opportunity to innovate within the general curriculum. Drama teachers maximised this and effected rapid developments.

By the end of the 1980’s it was possible to have contact with drama, from school entry, through to post 16, post 18, graduate and postgraduate levels. In state schools, Drama for Key Stages 3 & 4 was increasingly provided by independent departments, whilst for stages 1 & 2 by staff with some initial drama in education training or often through support from local education authority provided in-house courses. Dance, which had a more difficult time establishing independent departments, thankfully followed suit. State examinations at 16 and 18 were pioneered and developed, including BTEC.

Kneehigh Theatre in action (Image: Steve Tanner)

By the end of the 1980’s attacks began on such provision by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and particularly during Kenneth Baker’s tenure as Education Minister. Support services – advisers, TIE teams, Arts Centres – were the first to lose financial support from within an education budget and their work ‘outsourced’. As always with Tory governmental approaches to education, it is the arts subjects that come under fire first.

Nevertheless, a strong level of provision remained the case into the 21st century, though pressure rapidly increased on that position from the time of my retirement from teaching in 2005. Draconian education funding cuts, continual, backward looking alterations to the national curriculum and frequent negative public statements by government ministers have led to Drama departments throughout the country facing reduction in size and provision, even closure and relegation back to the 1960s levels.

The extraordinary work of educators of creative subjects in all phases and at all levels is being rapidly dismantled and downgraded, with Drama and Dance removed from the core curriculum.

Opportunities for young people to engage performance education/experience are rapidly diminishing, along with the facilities, expertise, initiative and values such experiences offered. The private sector suffers no such privations, and those from that privileged sector now increasingly dominate the public face of professional performance work. The damagingly high cost of audition to, and often unfunded study at Drama Schools adds to this sad drift.

With so much being laid waste, and with the inclusive access to performance education narrowing daily, more than ever a concerted, sustained and unified opposition to current developments is an urgent necessity. I particularly include drama schools in this, which have not often thought it a necessary part of their existence to speak truth to power over attacks on the invaluable work of so many dedicated, trained, determined professional teachers in the state sector.

It is vital, despite the unique challenges of Covid-19, that initiatives are taken to provide the powerful, unified voice that is necessary. Groups already exist that could take this initiative, like FDS and SCUDD for example, adding to the work of National Drama and other professional associations.

Time to act now, it will be too late tomorrow.

Dr Alan Duffield. RTD. Performing Arts Teacher. Dance Researcher. 

Petition: Protect student choice: do not withdraw funding for BTEC qualifications

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Angels in America added to National Theatre at Home

BEHOLD!

The National Theatre has announced that Tony Kushner’s multi-award-winning Angels in America: Parts One and Two, is now available to stream worldwide as part of three new productions added to the National Theatre at Home platform.

Denise Gough & Andrew Garfield in Angels in America

The National Theatre has today announced three new filmed productions have been added to its streaming service National Theatre at Home, including Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika, Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, War Horse)’s multi-award-winning production of Tony Kushner’s two-part masterpiece, with a cast including Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), Denise Gough (Paula), Nathan Lane (American Crime Story), James McArdle (Ammonite), Susan Brown (It’s A Sin) and Russell Tovey (Years and Years).

The iconic two-part play is set in America in the mid-1980s in the midst of the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration, as New Yorkers grapple with life and death, love and sex, heaven and hell. Following a sold-out run in the Lyttelton theatre in 2017, the production transferred to Broadway for a sold-out 18 week run in 2018. The production won numerous awards including Best Revival at the Olivier and Tony Awards in 2018.

Rufus Norris, National Theatre Director, said: “Angels in America is one of those productions that stays with you always – a seminal piece of theatre that has a lasting impact. It’s a true honour to be able to bring Marianne Elliott’s remarkable, compelling production of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece to audiences around the world through National Theatre at Home. After sold-out runs at the NT and on Broadway, I’m delighted global audiences will finally get the chance to experience the astonishing performances of the original cast on the Lyttelton stage 

It isn’t Follies, but we’ll take it.

National Theatre at Home is available now at ntathome.com, with single titles available from £5.99 – £8.99, a monthly subscription for £9.99 or a yearly subscription for £99.99.  

Curtains for performing arts BTEC? That will be a tragedy for our industry

I often think the Nelson Mandela quote: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

In 2018, I organised The Big Arts & Education Debate at Birmingham Rep. The symposium brought together 300 students, industry figures, educators and teachers.

The Big Arts & Education Debate, Birmingham Rep, James Graham, Indhu Rubasingham, yours truly, Cassie Chadderton & Ammo Talwar

Anyway, during the interval, one speaker (the West Midlands Regional School Commissioner) walked out as she felt that could not be part of “an anti-Government event.”

Bonkers, right?

I walked on stage to introduce the education panel, explained her absence and said that it was all a bit shit, we continued without her.

Now, three years on and at this moment of national crisis, the government must ensure that a wide range of creative education opportunities remain accessible under its plans to overhaul further education.

The Department For Education’s consultation on plans to reform qualifications for 16-19 year olds in England, known as level 3 has now closed. This includes national qualifications such as BTECs being scrapped.

The Cultural Learning Alliance is campaigning for the continued funding of BTEC qualifications, warning that the reforms will have a “detrimental impact on the ethnic diversity of the cohorts progressing to university.”

A year after the first case of coronavirus in Britain, there are plenty of considerations that need to be paid that are widening existing attainment gaps and class inequalities faced by disadvantaged young people.

Of course, we need an education system that is relevant to the world we live in. Schools, colleges and universities have embraced remote classes in the past year and there are many benefits but others fear the impact on disadvantaged children and young people and a privatisation by stealth. This is a matter of social justice.

For this reason, the news that these creative courses are at risk should alarm us all.

Pearson, the awarding body for BTECs state that post-16 qualifications such as these “have been at the heart of the national need for many years to continue to transform lives and careers.”

Meanwhile, creative education shouldn’t simply be relegated to a position where its only value is seen as being in the service of other subjects which are viewed as core to the curriculum.

We have some of the world’s most passionate, talented and skilled drama teachers and many of them have to fight to defend their subject’s corner and protect the creativity of their students every single day. What will happen to them if BTECs disappear?

Jenny Cameron, Director of Stagedoor Learning, runs the BTEC in performing arts in partnership with Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham and VLUK, she says that the government “needs to rethink entirely.”

Stagedoor Learning and the Everyman Theatre

She says: “Within a BTEC Extended Diploma, there is space for a young performer to develop and grow, for them to focus on the skills which they will need if they are to pursue a career in the arts. Background doesn’t matter – it’s accessible to all. Drama Schools become a playground of the rich, who’ve been to private schools with money, facilities and the time to put on loads of extra-curricular arts, or they shell out for a foundation degree, with no guarantee of progressing to Higher Education.”

And yet, by diminishing the opportunity to experience the arts or to study creative subjects – literature, philosophy, history, religion, languages – we condemn future generations to a poorer and more basic life. The UKs creative sector provides many benefits to the whole of our society and will be vital for the post-Covid healing of the industry and wider society.

It goes further, of course. The arts have increasingly been labelled as soft, lesser and easy and drama has been under threat in our state schools for a decade.

So, by mooting the notion that a BTEC in performing arts is no longer purposeful (translation: not viable) we are allowing the failing of an entire generation who may struggle to realise their potential; whose strengths may lie elsewhere.

As the Head of Faculty at Nottingham’s Bilborough College Sharon MacInnes, says wearily: “For young people to participate in a course like a BTEC, it is more accessible in the way that their life skills are built up. These kids are often from inner-city areas or lower income households. They often go to schools where they are scraping through GCSE’s – it doesn’t mean they can’t develop those skills. Undertaking a BTEC often gives them another chance to shine.”

Cabaret. Bilborough College. Nottingham.

“We do have to engage as many industry professionals as possible, particularly those from working class backgrounds, to speak out about this calamity, otherwise these pathways, into the industry will close forever,” says MacInnes.

The basic point is that BTECs give young people –  those who often aren’t represented in society – experience through direct and unrestricted involvement. Many go on to roles on and off stage, some finding new confidence to pursue careers in alternative sectors.

Consider the challenges we must confront. This is about class, opportunity and the very democracy of theatre.

We cannot succumb to the performing arts BTECs being scrapped.

If we do, this calamity will far outlive the pandemic.

 

 

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Stop Charging Students For Virtual Drama School Auditions

WELL that didn’t take long, did it? Twelve days, 20 hours and a couple of minutes into the New Year and I think we already have a strong contender for the most absurd theatre related thing of the month.

It is ten months since theatres across Britain closed their doors – and most are still completely dark. Last year, final-year drama school students were unable to graduate.

Back in the dystopian present, I was disappointed to learn on Twitter that nearly all of our drama schools are still charging £35.00 for a zoom audition or self-tape, and some are charging as much as £55 in total.

A pox on everyone involved.

This puts unnecessary financial strain on young people from working-class backgrounds. In the last decade – and during this pandemic in particular – young people have been let down or forgotten. While many students acknowledge their institutions efforts to continue delivering their education, others are angry they are not getting the vocational experience they were promised.

Writer Ben Weatherill touched on this class divide in his terrific blog highlighting how these audition fees are shutting those with low-incomes out of the profession.

Like so much else in this current crisis, all UK drama schools had to migrate auditions online overnight. Reinventing entire courses that relied on physical contact was a significant challenge. Drama schools including Mountview and Guilford School of Acting responded by creating online showcases.

This week, PPA Academy’s spring term, which had been due to start on 11 January, will now run from February 15 to May 7 for BA acting and musical theatre courses,  to give their students as much face-to-face learning as possible, which is great and the right thing to do.

Now, I am not disputing that Drama Schools still have to pay for buildings, for teachers, insurance and accreditation and more.  I am also very well aware that many offer fee waivers for those from low-socio economic backgrounds.

But listen, young people have suffered enough during the COVID-19 crisis – the deepest recession in 300 years – and we are all aware that pandemic-hit businesses are scaling back graduate recruitment, leading to fears of a lost generation.

Added to this pressure are the anti-immigration messages coming from the wider debates around Brexit; the government allegedly recently dismissed an exemption for performers because it had not wanted to offer reciprocal benefits for EU artists working in the UK. Well done everyone.

Will there be jobs for drama school graduates when they graduate? Maybe. This is the same answer before the pandemic. Some will enter the industry and others will pursue other careers.

There has been a huge rise in online theatre and we have seen that theatre doesn’t have to be confined to the kind of people who can afford to go to see shows in the West End.

Now, though, UK Drama Schools must help show the way that the industry must operate in the 21st century not just for the benefit of a few but the many.

Scrap these colossal and unnecessary audition fees, or at least radically lower the cost of auditioning immediately to ensure those poorer students have an equal chance of success.

If these institutions don’t, we risk losing the next generation of talented performers and technicians and all that they contribute to our society and sector.

In fact, if performing arts schools do get rid of these financial barriers during this third lockdown, they can build a better and fairer future as we all recover from this crisis.

Update: I have set up a ‘Drama School Covid Relief Fund’ Crowdfunder for those in the sector who are able to pay it forward to those who are in need.  Every donation will help. Cheers!