Working Class Performers are Losing Training Options in the UK

Working Class Performers are Losing Training Options in the UK

We need to address an issue within training for the performing arts in the United Kingdom. In England, Northern Ireland and Wales right now, you must pay tuition fees to go to a university, which means, any actors, directors or writers who wish to study a BA must have the money to afford this course or else look for a scholarship. In Scotland, the government funds the majority of our courses, which means that you would think that working-class students within the performing arts within Scotland would have a better chance to get the training they deserve.

Well you're wrong.

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The Reality of 'High' and 'Low' Art

The Reality of 'High' and 'Low' Art

To risk getting political straight away, although often it would be harder not to do so, many aspects of the modern world are becoming too polarised. Perhaps as a response to post-modernist ideas, or maybe just as a subconscious recognition that whether we like it or not, humans like to return to primal thoughts and emotions when we can; certain things have become disproportionately opposed. The apparently antithetical political parties (Republicans and Democrats) in America would probably be the most obvious example for this readership.

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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/