Low Pay, No Way

Low Pay, No Way

I was scanning through adverts for jobs in the theatre and I came across a post for Front of House staff at a big regional theatre in the UK. Out of curiosity, I clicked on it. It took me through to a listing on the theatre’s website. The job was paid at minimum wage (£7.50 in the UK) and was on a zero hours contract. No guarantee of shifts but the possibility of two per week. I was quite shocked by this and took to Facebook to vent which led to a massive debate about pay in the industry, what level the jobs were within the organisation, the responsibilities etc and it started to get quite heated. So I thought I would write a quick blog post to share some of the views expressed and my thoughts on the whole situation.

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Access Performances: The West End Needs to Up Its Game

Harriet Wilson

I should probably start by explaining what a Relaxed / Access Performance even is because, somehow, they are still far from commonplace in the West End. Access performances include relaxed performances as well as performances that are adapted to include subtitles / sign interpretation / audio description. And relaxed performances are designed to be, well, just that – relaxed. They provide a chilled out atmosphere (for example, by the reduction of loud noises and harsh lighting) for those who may be anxious watching a regular show.

Lots of West End shows have integrated some access performances into their schedules. But it is rare that a show will have more than 1 or 2 of each type of access performance in a year. If, for example, somebody were to look for a show with audio description, they would probably be able to find one. But having reached this level, the West End on the whole seems to have adopted the attitude that enough has been done. It hasn't.

It should be an expectation, not a pleasant surprise, that somebody with an access requirement such as deafness or autism can experience a show in the West End that is tailored to their needs. And that doesn't mean looking at a convenient time period and finding just one or two suitably tailored shows in the whole of the West End.

So what is the solution? It's simple – more access performances. It isn't enough to just put on a token access performance on a sporadic basis; for theatre to be truly accessible, it should be easy to find date options (note the plural) for a suitable performance type of any West End show.

Some productions do go beyond the norm in embracing access performances. It is nice to see that shows such as An American in Paris and Disney's Aladdin are staging three or more access performances this Summer. It certainly is a start, but we still have a long way to go before somebody with an access requirement can decide to see any West End show knowing that, without having to plan a year in advance, they will be able to find a performance that suits them.

Whilst access performances are not yet regular enough to be very easily found, there are some great resources out there that can really help navigate the small world of access theatre. Official London Theatre's guide, 'Access London Theatre', is an exceptionally good resource, which I found really uplifting to read and would highly recommend as a starting place: http://www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk/access/

Tickets to access performances are usually purchased like any other ticket, but do make sure that you book through approved sellers – it is usually best to book through the theatre itself, unless a specific deal is on with a verified third party company.

How accessible do you think London's West End really is? Let me know about your experiences of access shows by tweeting @thespian_blog.

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Harriet has been immersed in the theatre life from a multitude of angles, from writing to working backstage to performing. She spends most of her spare time in the West End or regional theatres and fills the rest with talking about the wonderful world of theatre through regular blogs.

For more of my blogs and reviews, check out my website, Thespian Therapy, and follow me on Twitter, @thespian_blog

Thespian Therapy: https://harriwords.wordpress.com/

Site-Specific Theatre: Does the Best Work Happen in Traditional Theatres?

Holly Webster

If I ask you to describe a typical theatre trip is like, you’d probably imagine a stage and traditional seating. With audience members sipping beverages and marveling at an elaborate set. 3 years ago, I would have given the same answer. However, after studying site-specific work during my degree, I know that good theatre can be so much more.

Just like anything, site-specific theatre has its pros and cons.

One of the biggest joys of working on this type of art is the amount of creative freedom it allows, particularly joining disciplines together. In a typical theatre piece; acting, writing, music and movement play their individual part in telling the story. However, site specific tends to steer from linear storytelling and creates fun art that doesn’t necessarily have to be understood explained. This freedom of pieces not having to fit quite as neatly, means that there is a lot of room for experimentation. I have learnt so much about being a writer, by trying to figure out how to fit it amongst other disciplines whilst still standing on its own. In my first year, I did some work with a musician and an actor, about the bridge we use to get to University. We weren’t prescriptive about how to incorporate the bridge. This meant that we had to create some sort of flow out of completely different art. Not only did this force us to understand our own works context but consider the standing of disciplines we’re not as competent with. As an artist, albeit a challenge, this has been an experience that has helped me grow significantly as a writer because I can experiment with where my work could fit.

Secondly, site-specific work means that utilizing a space is made a lot easier. Depending on the timescale of the project (including rehearsals), artists would get a significant amount of time at their chosen location. Allowing them to familiarize themselves with the space and utilize it to full advantage. I feel that this simplifies the rehearsal process because once you have found the best space for a scene or prop, you can keep it there. This is why I prefer seeing productions that are only showing in one place, they fit and truly feel like they belong there.

Okay, so it’s clear that I see beauty in site-specific work but what are the disadvantages?

I spoke earlier about the chance for more than one discipline to come together and how this can work well. However, to flip that on its head, there is a fine line between this working and not. Although, allowing each discipline the creative freedom to use the environment as stimulus and then piece everything together later can be fun, it can also create messy work. If what you are doing is being presented as one piece and not separate, then you need to find a way to make all of the individual artwork come together somehow. This con of site specific work depends on what your intention for the work is. If you intend to put on a performance of a few separate pieces that are based in the same area, then it is fine for them to draw upon different topics and genres for inspiration. However, if your intention is to use different disciplines together to work towards the same stimulus and same environment, then there needs to be some cohesiveness.

My final point about site-specific art isn’t necessarily about the work itself, more about the nature of it. It is a lot harder to get an audience to a show that isn’t in a typical black box theatre space. This could be for a couple of reasons. A lot of theatre goers, do so for the standard experience. They go for the elaborate sets and sitting in a theatre space. So getting to shows that are outside of this norm can be difficult but of course this varies from person to person.

A lot of site-specific art happens outdoors, which brings a lot of unpredictability to the table. Will it rain? Will an audience be up for a walk through the woods? Can everybody find the area okay? Will there be unavoidable distractions? There are so many questions and occurrences that could change the course of the performance and ultimately its success, which means that often a lot more planning and consideration needs to be put into place, that would not be necessary for a controlled performance area.

That wraps up my views on site-specific work, from both artist and audience perspective. Although it has it’s down sides, I believe that there is room for more site-specific work to bend and challenge the art world. What do you think? Debate and let me know your thoughts below!

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Holly is a third year Creative Writing led Community Practises student living in the UK. She has an avid love for story-telling in all its forms, and adores watching this stories physically come to life in front of me at the theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

Can We Stop Applying Blanket Rules to Celebrity Casting?

Harriet Wilson

Celebrity casting has, historically, had its ups and downs, but it seems to me that most people are either all for it, or completely against it. Whilst I appreciate that there are some real positives and some unavoidable negatives when it comes to celebrity casting, I think it's time that we stop applying blanket rules and avoid having one opinion on such a broad topic. After all, each casting choice is different – yes, sometimes it misses the mark entirely but, equally, some celebrity casting works brilliantly.

Take, for example, Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl (West End and UK tour). I didn't hear a word of criticism for her performance; reviewers were raving about how she owned the stage and show. But Smith was cast, as a celebrity, in a role within a musical that could have been played by any number of other, talented people.

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl

Smith's performance in Funny Girl is a great example of celebrity casting working well. But it also demonstrates a huge downfall in that, when she had to take some time away from the show due to family circumstances, people who had booked to see the show were devastated and some (in a manner that can only be seen as majorly unsympathetic) demanded refunds. The debate over whether shows should be advertised with a celebrity's name as more prominent than the name of the show is an issue in itself; suffice to say that, when people book tickets to see a certain celebrity in a show, seeing that celebrity is often considered a guarantee and this can cause problems down the line.

So Sheridan Smith's performance in Funny Girl was widely applauded but, in the end, caused a lot of problems for the show. Does that mean that we can assume the same will happen with all celebrity casting choices? Absolutely not. If we compare this to the performance of Miranda Hart in Annie (West End), it is hard to draw any parallels.

Hart's performance in Annie has been met with mixed views. In my opinion, she was absolutely brilliant in the role of Miss Hannigan. It wasn't 'the Miranda Hart show' – the child actors were still the stars – but, when Hart was on stage, she was (if not a very traditional Miss Hannigan) engaging, entertaining and a pleasure to watch. Many have disagreed with this view; all in all, the response from Hart's performance is really not comparable to Smith's. How can anybody say that they love or hate celebrity casting, when each show is so different?

A casting choice should be made with a multitude of factors borne in mind. The popularity of an actor is, of course, going to be one of these factors; it is unrealistic and, in all honesty, not at all sensible to say that this should be ignored. If the popularity of an actor is considered as more important than that actor's suitability for a given role then, yes, I would agree that, in that instance, celebrity casting would be wrong. But, if the popularity of an actor is seen as a bonus when the actor clearly fits the role in question, I really can't see the problem.

So can we stop applying blanket rules to celebrity casting? Any casting decision can be considered a good or a poor choice; this is just the same when it happens to be a celebrity who is cast. All in all, I think that we need to stop applauding or criticising casting choices based on assumptions and, instead, wait to form an opinion after we've seen the show in question.

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Harriet has been immersed in the theatre life from a multitude of angles, from writing to working backstage to performing. She spends most of her spare time in the West End or regional theatres and fills the rest with talking about the wonderful world of theatre through regular blogs.

For more of my blogs and reviews, check out my website, Thespian Therapy, and follow me on Twitter, @thespian_blog

Thespian Therapy: https://harriwords.wordpress.com/

Drama School: The Journey Begins

Mia Stubbings

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

I believe the last time I wrote for OnStage, it was to talk about how impenetrable I had previously found the theatre industry, and how frustrating it can be, and how I wanted to cry with how much I wanted to do the thing that I wanted to, but I just couldn’t quite get there. Well, it just goes to show that persistence, perseverance and determination pay off, because last month I got into Drama School. 

Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

I found out about three weeks ago now, and it still feels a little surreal. I keep emailing admissions with questions, convinced that it’s actually all just been one big hoax when they don’t reply straight away. But no matter what I think, it’s not a hoax, it’s all very real and I’m moving to London in September to dive into all things theatre. And I absolutely cannot wait. 

I have had a fair amount of rubbish, scary, crappy interviews with various different Drama Schools. But this one was very different; I felt very much at home and I was happy and confident and excited to just chat about theatre with other people who love theatre. I took all of my life experiences, theatre experiences, knowledge about the world and the industry that I love and what I have learned from life so far, and turned it into the World’s Best Interview. I enjoyed answering all the questions, thrilled when I got them right and asked to know the correct answers when I knew I had got them wrong. I answered their ‘What was the last professional production you went to see?’ with an unexpected ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar and I LOVED it!’, and then proceeded to talk about how much I enjoy puppet shows and why I liked the set. 

I walked around the school feeling like I had absolutely and finally found somewhere I belonged, with tutors and teachers that could develop the knowledge I already had, and increase it tenfold. I did not stop smiling, and I knew very strongly that I had given a good interview, whatever happened next. I can’t describe the feeling very well, other than I left feeling like I was floating on a cloud. I just had lots of good vibes, I enjoyed myself, I didn’t feel intimidated, and I felt proud that I had had so much to talk about. I was absolutely, 100%, myself.

Four hours later, I was sat in a crowded coach station when I got a phone call, offering me a place. I definitely did a little cry. And my parents may have shrieked a lot down the phone, and the entire coach station may have known what was going on. So much so, that the man sat next to me quietly slipped a tissue onto my lap (it was needed).

So I’ve done it, and I am so proud of myself for achieving something that I refused to give up on. There have been so many times where I’ve felt like maybe I was pursuing the wrong thing, or I was wrong to put so much hope into something that hadn’t materialised yet. But there was always another, much stronger, feeling of determination that I would eventually get to where I wanted to be. It still feels surreal. And I am nervous about what bizarre twist my life is about to take, but I'm also excited. 

I feel like I'm standing on top of a mountain and/or cloud. Nothing has ever felt so right, and although I know it's going to be difficult and tough and stressful, I am so ready for it. Sometimes I have to pinch myself because it doesn't feel quite real. But it is. And I did it.

Where Does Shakespeare Belong within Modern Society?

Lewis Baird 

OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

As an actor, there is one playwright that I love more than any others. And that playwright is William Shakespeare, his work is simply stunning and it feels like it has been purely written for actors. 

I’m sure many of our readers have experienced an audition where they have had to perform a monologue to either get a part within a play/musical or even get a place within drama school. One of my go to monologues, which I experiment with regularly is, Launcealot Gobbo’s monologue from 'The Merchant of Venice'. I first used it back in 2014, since then I have used it time and time again. The thing is, each time I perform it, I try so many different things, this is mostly because of the dialogue and the fact that Shakespeare’s writing is perfect for you to use the techniques you have learned to perform this classical piece suitably for a more contemporary audience. 

Within Scotland, also probably within a majority of the United Kingdom plus perhaps some parts of the USA, Shakespeare’s work is being perceived as complex, boring and overused. This is mainly because within school, children/teenagers are being taught Shakespeare in a pretty boring way. Luckily in my case, my English teacher was very enthusiastic about Shakespeare and loved teaching us about Hamlet the Dane. This has obviously helped give me a positive outlook on William Shakespeare’s work. However, Shakespeare is not being appreciated because children and teenagers have previously felt forced to enjoy or dissect his work therefore if they do go on to study acting, they stay clear of this work as they had such a poor experience of Shakespeare originally. 

There are also people who genuinely just don’t have any interest in performing Shakespeare or enjoy his work. Which is fair enough. However, I feel anyone who has had a bad experience in encountering Shakespeare for the first time should give him a second chance, especially if you are an actor or a performer, as his work genuinely is brilliant for performing. As the way his scripts are written, they are open to interpretation, which really does help us as actors to be more creative and question the character’s situation.

Also the language they are written in is simply stunning. People may find it complex but honestly if you sit and read through the play you will eventually understand exactly what is happening. It is really good to have Shakespearian language still active within theatre, especially through the perspective of younger actors and directors. I really don’t want to see a future where Shakespeare is hardly used by our younger generation.

I have also noticed that people aren’t getting excited about new productions of Shakespeare’s work anymore. The Royal Shakespeare Company in the United Kingdom are still going strong and are definitely the world’s best Shakespeare producers, however, I have seen a decline in interest and enthusiasm. One of the things we do not see is a Shakespeare play having a permanent residence in Broadway or the west end (no 'The Lion King' does not count). Perhaps we need theatre companies to make productions of Shakespeare which they expect to be a more permanent production rather than just a seasonal run. If someone manages to pull off a stunning, creative production of one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, then it should deserve to last longer than 4-8 weeks.

One of the latest Shakespeare productions I am looking forward to seeing is the National Theatre’s production of 'Twelfth Night'. It is being shown in cinemas around the UK as part of National Theatre live, which is aimed at making the company’s theatre productions more accessible not only for people out with London but people who cannot afford theatre ticket prices. Tasmin Greig stars as Malvolia and Simon Godwin directs. This production seems fresh and different. I cannot wait to see if it is successful and also hope that it reaches an audience that usually wouldn’t associate themselves with theatre or Shakespeare.

For any reader who really isn’t that keen on the playwright and would like to see some productions of his work that I would recommend, then look no further than RSC’s production of ‘Hamlet’. Starring David Tennant with Patrick Stewart, also directed by Gregory Doran, this production was filmed gloriously for us to watch time and time again. It’s a contemporized take on this brilliant story about the young prince whose father has been killed, his uncle has taken Hamlet’s mother’s heart and the crown. David Tennant is stunningly suited as the young price and holds the audience in the palm of his hands for the full 3 hours. Another notably stunning film production of 'Hamlet' is directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, seriously check it out, it’s brilliant. There is so many film/TV adaptations of Shakespeare’s work to mention, however, a recent one which is also notable is BBC’s production of 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' which is adapted by Russell T. Davies, starring Matt Lucas, John Hannah, Richard Wilson, Nonso Anozie, Maxine Peake and Bernard Cribbins. This brilliant production is directed by David Kerr and is possibly one of the best films BBC have produced. All of these are brilliant adaptions of Shakespeare’s work which really are brilliant introductions to how enjoyable William Shakespeare’s work can be.

Of course the best place for you to enjoy the work of the poet, sonnet and playwright is the theatre. Just hop on the internet, search your area and see if any Shakespeare plays are being performed nearby, they are brilliant pieces of theatre.

And if you’re an actor looking for monologues or duologues which are different and open to interpretation, buy yourself the complete works of William Shakespeare (like myself) and go crazy. It’s brilliant to use his work, plus if you are going out into the industry, some of the best actors are those who seamlessly tackle Shakespeare.

Photo: Romeo and Juliet at Garrick Theatre, London

The Worth of Theatre Actors

Elizabeth Collins

OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

'Who even does that?' was the response to me talking about checking the holiday dates of a West End actor. It was loaded with judgement, but it wasn't intended to be rude; it was a genuine reaction to apparently surprising information, but it pinched a nerve in the theatre-loving section of my brain. So, allow me to don my armour and wage war on the preposterously monstrous notion that talented stage actors are somehow intrinsically inferior to talented screen actors...

At the root of the comment was most probably a failure to appreciate the true worth of stage actors (and quite likely of theatre in general). Few would consider it odd to check cinema listings for a favourite actor before selecting a film. Fewer would criticise the way we sit up straight and pay closer attention when film trailers boast a talented favourite. In the DVD section of the supermarket, don't we pick up the case which shows a recognisable face? Purely on the basis of having enjoyed a previous performance? Yet apparently, when this same selection is applied to the theatre, it becomes ridiculous; to care enough to check whether or not a favourite will make an appearance in a performance is fine for films, but not for the theatre. 

Stage actors may not be paid as much as those adorning the tabloids and gossip magazines, but they're incredibly talented, or let's face it, they wouldn't have got the gig. In fact, some stage actors that I have seen far outshine some of the most highly paid actors to be found on screen, and perhaps one day they'll find their own way onto a film set, if indeed that's their goal. Regardless, eight shows a week is a notoriously challenging job, and while it is always spoken of as greatly fulfilling work, I can imagine comments similar to the one made to me have been heard by hard-working ears, and that I find mind-boggling.

Let's be honest here, didn't most screen actors start out on the stage? Even if it was the school production followed by a lucky turn in a low key TV show and then onto films after years of graft? More importantly, when did landing hugely respected and sought after roles become anything less than incredibly impressive? And what about the actors who are happy to remain on the stage- are they instantly dismissed by those who inexplicably see stage actors as inarguably inferior? Hollywood is a popular dream, but so too is a life on West End or Broadway stages. An actor doesn't become instantly more respected for having gained screen time, and some actors never make the leap, through choice or otherwise; yet their time on stage, their influential, inspirational performances are every bit as worthy of fame (be it local, regional, national or international) and fans as those performances captured on reels of film. 

I'll also note here the undoubted value of understudies for fear of causing offence while crafting this defence; I'll never deny my disappointment when one of my favourite actors is off, but I would never condone some of the disrespectful reactions that I've seen online. If it's a show that I haven't sought out on the basis of wanting to see a particular actor, I more often than not fail to discern any difference between a brilliant understudy and a brilliant lead- as I mentioned above, if they're on a stage, they've earned their place and they've paid their dues, so they deserve respect and fans of their very own.

So let me wrap this up: this innocently off-hand comment raised some interesting questions and at the centre of this piece is the fact that I defiantly fail to see how the worth of screen actors can be so unquestionable while stage actors seem to be treated as lesser. To hear this reaction was a complete surprise- why wouldn't a person check to see if a favourite actor is due to play the role for their (probably rather costly) trip to a show? I follow the careers of screen actors and I follow the careers of stage actors; I have favourite actors, some being found on screen, and others on a stage. Finding a TV or film role is not always the pinnacle of an acting career and whichever stage of their career an actor may find themselves, talent is well deserving of a fan base. Talent is talent.

To bring this all back to the catalyst for this post, the same (very lovely) person then owned up to ironing tea towels, so I was whole heartedly able to counter that confession with 'who even does that?' while feeling deeply victorious on two counts...

Photo: Arthur Kipps

The Highs and Lows of Improv

Mia Stubbings

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

As this year is finally coming to an end, I have started to mull over the things that I have done, and, more specifically, the things that I am most proud of. I am a different person to the one who started 2016, and I'm glad to be finishing the year as someone who can look back and be proud, rather than someone who looks back and feels glum at all the opportunities that whizzed by unnoticed. 

I have done a lot of things this year that my teenage self would look at and tremble. And I know this, because I was trembling right before I did them. But I'm trembling no longer, and I shall tell you why.

One of the things that has made me tremble the most this year has been taking part in improv classes. I remember reading Amy Poehler's 'Yes Please', and feeling like she was doing all of the things that I wanted to do. I wanted to play a plethora of different characters, and make people laugh, and be ridiculously silly! I remember thinking 'I want to do this! How do I do this?'

And so my venture into improv began. It started with a bit of Googling, a bit of emailing, and I eventually found a group in Nottingham called MissImp. And along with jams and improv nights and shows of comedy madness, they also did classes. I signed up with trembling hands, and continued to tremble for many weeks after that. 

I hadn't performed in a long time. I dance on stage, but it takes a different kind of confidence to act, and so I was horrifically nervous to begin with. But that was exactly why I had signed up for these classes in the first place, so I powered through. I could remember a time when I used to act and make people laugh, and I remember it being the best feeling in the world. I wanted to feel that feeling once more, and I knew this was the way to do it. 

The class was small; only about seven or eight of us- it got smaller as the weeks went by. I glowed with a sense of pride when my teacher said to me at the last class, 'Of all the people I expected to leave and not come back, it was you'. I have always been one to defy expectations and prove people wrong, and here it was no different.

We were absolutely thrown in at the deep end. We would spend 3 hours every Tuesday night in the basement of a little pub, standing up and making fools of ourselves. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was not. I found it hard to begin with, and nerves often made it worse. As the weeks went by, I found that the more relaxed I was, the more my brain could offer suggestions for a scene, rather than freezing up and going completely blank. My brain could relax and offer the first thing that came to it, rather than analysing the idea and wondering whether it would be good enough. 'Say it!' my teacher would yell, 'I can see in your eyes you've just had an idea! Say it!'.

I could feel it when it worked, and it felt glorious. I felt the highs of making people laugh, and discovering that funny voices and characters was my way in. I also felt the lows of going blank and not getting a scene to work like I wanted it to. One week I would walk back to the bus station with a grin on my face. The next I would walk back feeling deflated, and questioning whether I was any good at improv at all. But I'm not one to give up on anything, and that is the whole point of improv. Sometimes scenes work. Great! But sometimes they don't. Still great! Learn from that, and laugh at yourself. That is important. Just keep laughing and keep saying 'Yes... and', and you'll eventually end up creating a scene that you'll still tell people about weeks later. The glory of improv is that you never have to do a bad scene again. It's gone as soon as it finishes, and you are only left with the sting of feeling like you've failed. But the more you do it, the more you learn to ignore that sting, and throw yourself into the next scene instead. 

I started these classes being the last one to volunteer to be in any scene. I finished being the one who would put her hand up and volunteer every time, and I'd throw myself into it with enthusiasm and delight. But most of all, if a scene did flop, I learned to laugh at myself rather than feeling mortified that I'd just failed at something. 

The teachers were kind and supportive, and knew improv like the back of their hand. I would often get reprimanded for approaching the scene as a director rather than a performer, and I like to think this has changed. I think I finally learned to immerse myself into each scene and embody whatever character I was presented with. 

The exercises were fun and informative. You always gained a new skill from each one, and they gave you the tools to approach an improv scene with. From pretending to be an expert and speaking without a plan, to being bold and brave with your choices, to committing emotionally to a scene and to giving your scene partner gifts, rather than brick walls. It was glorious. And I feel victorious because of it. 

My only challenge now is to start going to jams and comedy nights and really start experiencing improv outside of the classroom. Maybe this can be my first challenge for 2017. 

My only response to that is, 'Yes!... And'.

Photo: Members of the Baltimore Improv Group perform. (Theresa Keil / Baltimore Sun)