Monday, 5 June 2017

Just about right!

It's rare to say any production is 'without blemish', but that's what the Adjudicator said of our recent production of 'Just' at the Welwyn Youth Drama Festival before awarding it first prize and the Adjudicator's Prize for our chorus work. A tremendous achievement for the group, but tinged with sadness as it will be the last production at Best for most of the cast. But on further reflection there is a warm glow of satisfaction as we see them fly the Best nest.

In their time with Best, each has faced and overcome their own challenges. Each has their own individual blend of ability, hard work and commitment. And bearing in mind we have NEVER auditioned for this group, all they have achieved is down to their talent, attitude and receptiveness to input. They have each taken their own very different route to where they are now.

Some joined us in First Class as 4/5 year olds and developed through Best, Best School of Acting and TheBYTE. Others joined us later, already committed to theatre, and brought with them new energies and artistic dynamics. They come from very different family backgrounds and school experiences. But they have forged unbreakable social bonds which we hope/trust/know will last them for many, many years into their adult lives. Yes, they've enjoyed huge success with Just and at the National Theatre in 2015, but they were merely points of validation.

So as they head off to university, RADA and LAMDA they have a foundation of absolute trust, genuine respect, huge confidence, close friendship and (yes) love upon which to base their futures.

We'll miss them, but wow! what a time they've given us...

Hard on their heels comes the next super-talented bunch and we are excited to think what they might achieve too. 'The Birds' at the Roman Amphitheatre of Verulamium is their next big challenge. Come and support them - tickets available here!

And now we're recruiting the next team of young people from years 7,8 and 9 who will blaze their own exciting trail over the next few years.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Musings on a train

brief moment of calm on a train to take a deep breath in the middle of what is the busiest period we have ever had at Best - 9 full public shows and 3 private showings in the space of 4 weeks. Add on the dress rehearsals and techs for each show and the costuming, marketing and administration and you'll start to get an idea of what we've taken on. 

If we total the casts in each performance we get 364 young theses treading the boards at 6 different venues.

The house is totally chaotic, my to-do list is ludicrous and yet...

...this is what we do! 

We (Annette, Lisa and I) often discuss the realities of working in the theatre world - 99% of it is  plain hard work! Loading vans, lugging stage weights, packing costume, screwing bits of wood together, painting wobbly bits of set, sorting out non-functioning tech, sourcing bizarre props from unlikely sources, organizing casts etc. at Best most of the cast and the parents are totally removed from all of this and perhaps it's only when they get to TheBYTE that they begin to appreciate some of these aspects.  And for people like us it becomes what they love about the theatre. Getting shows on no matter what the odds. Doing the jobs that need doing. Putting in the hours. All without complaint and with a smile. All for one and one for all! 

We insist that our students show absolute aspect to any member of theatre staff they meet, whatever their role. This is why we were so thrilled with the way TheBYTE conducted themselves at The National Theatre in 2015- exemplary. And hopefully they will exercise the same courtesy whatever exalted heights they reach in their careers. 

It is this kind of grounding that makes a true professional - not someone seeking shortcuts through reality TV or the diva histrionics so beloved by gossip columns. A true professional understands just what it takes to get a show on and even if they are called to the stage from dressing room #1 or to the set from a luxurious Winnebago that grounding in reality will earn the respect and cooperation of any crew. Never forget how much hard work of so many people has given you the platform for your success!

Anyway, enough musing. This Sunday we're at the Hertford Theatre with our wonderful Hertford school for Dreamcatcher. The glitterball is arriving on a motorbike, the rest of the tuffcrates and costume rails will be piled into Lisa's van and five months hard work by the cast will have but one day to blossom. Then it all gets packed away and we move on to the next one...

Friday, 23 September 2016

Shy child? "Drop and Go!”

Almost every parent talking to us about their little one joining our First Class theatre group (ages rising 4 to 6) thinks their child is shy. Can I just begin by reassuring you all – wariness of new situations is perfectly normal and even healthy - we feel the same as adults, we just don’t have a parent’s leg to hide behind anymore!

How you deal with this, however, is often the key to how well and how quickly the child integrates into the new environment. We strongly encourage that you ‘drop and go’ as speedily as possible. Any tears are very short-lived and usually for your benefit! In fact we can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we’ve had to call a parent back over the last 18 years.

If you are feeling worried or insecure about how your child is feeling, this is perfectly normal too, but if you let your own personal feelings on the issue show, the child will pick up on them in a flash and will make sure your leaving is as traumatic as can be. 

First Class is there to help your child build confidence, sociability and concentration whilst having lots and lots of fun! Schools like ours are completely comfortable in helping new children integrate happily and quickly and you can trust us to know the difference between a show of reticence (however Oscar-worthy) and genuine distress. Drop and go (and have a nice cup of tea and a cake). Your child is in First Class hands!

Choosing the right theatre school for your child

There are so many theatre schools now it's an almost impossible task to choose. In St Albans alone there are at least sixteeen (yes, SIXTEEN!!) so how on earth can you make a comparison? In this brief blog I'll try and make the journey easier for you (and although I need to declare an interest as founder of Best Theatre Arts, I'll try and stay neutral).

There are the basics, like OFSTED membership, DBS checks on teachers, convenience of location, timings, price etc etc - but let's presume all this is equal.

The best method is word of mouth. Ask people you know and trust. At the very least this will greatly narrow down the field for you.

Then speak to the owners/managers - the people at the top. It is from them that the culture and approach of the school will permeate. Get a good feeling from them and this bodes well. Are they interested in you/your child? Can they describe a cohesive approach to development? Do they have the right energy and drive? What are their core guiding principles and values? What is their staff profile? What is their background? How do they interact with the children? This is best done by visiting the school and meeting them.

Then try the school before committing fully. There are a number of ways of doing this:-
  • Some offer a free trial, others (like us) a paid trial which is then deducted from fees. Free trials are just that - no commitment, no outlay. The upside is it's entirely risk free and you can tour lots of schools until you find the one you want. The downside is that you get one week to make a choice. 
  • We've tried free trials at Best but reverted to a paid two week trial (two weeks for the price of one with the cost deducted on continuation).  We think this gives the child and parent a much better chance to evaluate fully the school and its approach (and us) before committing. And from our viewpoint we get a more committed and interested child and parent to meet (and fewer people just not turning up). The downside is it costs you money - (£13.50 in our case for little ones) - so it's more expensive if you want to try out a number of classes.
  • There are also 'open days' where parents and children get to meet and try out classes. Again this is risk-free and is favoured by the larger franchises as an efficient and well-tried way to bring in immediate numbers. The upside is it's free and potentially quick. The downside is you know it has all been set up for that day and to a process - it's not business as usual so you won't get a real feel for the school in action as you would with a free or paid trial.
So, in a nutshell - ask friends, speak to the boss, visit the school, pick a trial.

There are fundamental differences between schools and I'll try and explain here what those are and the up and downsides of each type (with reference to school in St Albans):-

Firstly, there are the mega franchises/managed units - including Stagecoach, Theatretrain, Pauline Quirke, Perform, Jigsaw. These have centralised slick systems to manage their activities which are run by franchise holders or centre managers. The real advantages here is that their processes and syllabuses are tried out in (literally) hundreds of other schools across thousands of students so you know they work! There'll be lots of goodies too (uniform, newsletters etc), agencies and often the promise of a West End showcase. These companies could not have got where they are without doing what they do very well indeed - thousands of students and parents can't be wrong. The downside is that you are very much part of a (albeit benevolent) machine and whilst the personality of the franchisee/manager can make a difference, their flexibility to adapt to changing dynamics within their franchise parameters is somewhat limited.

Then there are the larger independent companies - TopHat, Theatrix, Act Now, Hurst Children's Theatre, Living the Dream, Excel and, of course, Best Theatre Arts. Each of these is run directly by the owners and each has its own very distinct culture. The downsides - systems might not be so slick and the variations in approach from owners mean that the schools are very much more individual in tone and culture. For example, some will be suitable for the more ambitious parent/child whilst others will focus more on the achievements of the whole group. You may find to that in some instances the owner takes a very high personal profile/brand whereas others manage more discreetly. The upsides are these are local companies which are a genuine part of the community, and if you find the school with the right culture for your child you relationship as a parent with the group will be much more close and engaging. You may also find the staff to be long-standing which helps considerably with the consistency of approach.

Finally there are the small independent companies - Fusion, Little Stars etc. These will be even more directly influenced by the owner and may not yet have built the customer base to get adequate verbal references. But all good schools start from small beginnings and in many ways size doesn't matter. The downsides are that resources may be limited and staff coverage not quite so robust.

So no school can legitimately claim to be any better than any other - it's all 'horses for courses'. But it is worth investing the time to go through a selection process - these schools are not cheap and you could be making a significant investment in your child over a number of years (14 years is our record!!!)  -  its worth taking the time!

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington! Part 1 – Why?

Last week's Best summer course cast of 'A Grimm Summer Night's Dream'
- who knows who may go on from here to a stage career?
As the co-founder of Best Theatre Arts I often get asked what advice I’d give to a parent with a child who seems keen on a career in the theatre.

The glib responses of “Don’t worry they’ll probably get over it!” or “Start saving!” don’t really cut the mustard any more. With the explosion in reality TV and the realisation of how important theatre skills are for life, more and more children are getting a taste of the stage; a taste which can turn into an addiction.

There are so many routes available to a career on stage that there’s no right or wrong answer – the right path will genuinely vary from child to child. So in a series of blogs, starting with this one, I’ll look at the various career paths open and discuss their relative merits and drawbacks.

But the first and most important question I’d ask the parent is “Why?”

A good reply would be “It’s all she’s ever talks about and all she’s ever wanted to do. She won’t contemplate any other career! She simply won’t be put off! She’s always doing something…”

What I DON’T want to hear is…

“He was in a school play and everyone said how good he was so we thought we’d see if he’s really got anything.” – a good reason to try a drama class but no basis for a career!

To be an actor requires total commitment, unwavering optimism, strength of character and a resilient determination to succeed. Stories of instant discoveries and fame might sell papers, but they are the extreme exception rather than the rule. Most actors work hard for years so that when an opportunity does come along, they have the skills and technique available to make the most of it. And even then it can take a few knockbacks before their career becomes at all robust.

The drive has to come from within. This is why so many child actors fall by the wayside – the drive has often come from aspirational parents.  And with early success, the lessons and training that need to be undergone are often bypassed so that when the child grows up, they simply don’t have the toolkit to compete any more.

So I’d expect the child in question to be doing everything he/she possibly can to gain experience. In our area or Hertfordshire, thankfully, they are spoiled for choice (DECLARATION OF INTEREST ALERT!!!) : well-resourced school plays, good amateur shows/pantomimes, quality weekly classes or holiday courses (e.g. Best Theatre Arts, Stagecoach, Act Now!), and the chance to take part in larger theatre productions with organisations like Rare, St Albans Operatic Society or the Gang Show.

As the young person turns teenager they’ll be trying to hone their talents through more focused training: GCSE/A level at school, good quality youth theatre companies run by trained professionals (e.g. TheBYTE, Company of Teens), attending more advanced weekend schools (e.g. Best School ofActing, Bodens, Italia Conti, Guildhall) or working with some of the more advanced local theatre groups (OVO, Breakaway) etc. etc.

They will be doing everything they can to improve, to learn the craft and to gain experience.
Recently a very talented young actor came back from watching Imelda Staunton in ‘Gypsy’ and said “Now I know how little effort I’ve put in so far – and I thought I was working hard. Watching her has shown me how much more I need to give in training and on stage.” This was a fascinating response to a stunning performance. I’ve had similar inspirational Damascene moments when watching Mark Rylance in ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ (well, anything he does really). Now matter how talented you are, it’s hard work!

So, in conclusion, if your child genuinely has the drive, the demonstrable commitment and the right work ethic, and you are prepared to support them in these endeavours, you have a base from which to move forward.

Next time I’ll discuss child actors and how that ephemeral industry works!

Monday, 6 July 2015

Final thoughts on the NT Connections journey

'It's all over - and what a fantastic experience it has been - personally and professionally. I still can't quite believe what has happened and it will take some time to process. From the moment the 'vision' for what this play could become to the moment the cast took the applause at the Dorfman there was excitement, challenge and achievement. Each and every one of the cast and crew grew - some to a quite astonishing level. 

So can we look back over the Connections experience with a degree of objectivity? Well, here goes...

The scheme itself is a fantastic concept and is entirely appropriate for the National Theatre as it reaches out to all geographical and cultural parts of the United Kingdom. In inviting 10 established writers to write specifically for young people it fills a yawning gap in the material available for young people.

The quality of the writing is variable IMHO- it seems that some authors take the task much more seriously. And in asking writers who may not be used to writing for young people to do just that, some are bound to be better at it than others! 

From a participant's point of view, the initial process is a total gamble. There is that bated breath time when the new plays are released (after you've paid your fees usually) when you earnestly hunt for the plays that match the size of your cast/availability of resources/ appropriateness. This has meant we've worked with some gems in the past, but also we've had to 'make do'.

We withdrew from the scheme some years ago when the original (quite relaxed) quality filters were lifted and literally hundreds more groups started taking part. This devalued the writer's weekend workshop and really made any prospect of progression (even to partner theatres) a bit of a lottery. When we found out the filters had been restored, we decide to take part again - and thank goodness we did.  

Unfortunately it looks like the NT has relaxed the policy again for 2016 and although we had already decided to take a break to get some perspective on this year, we would not have entered anyway without some reassurance over the workshops and partner theatres' status (which I now understand the NT could give). 

The process of mounting your home production is fine and relatively simple. There are a few little hurdles to get over, such as clearing your PR material and collateral, but nothing really to worry about. 

To be honest, I had a feeling right from the start that we had a very strong vision and talented cast and that our end product would be compelling - we were in with a chance.

The visit by the NT assessor we found invaluable and, although the play was in fairly good shape, his suggestions we entirely appropriate and welcome and started a process of improvement which I believe was the most exciting element of the whole project.

The trip to our partner theatre, the Royal & Derngate was very enjoyable and the cast had a brilliant time. The organisation by the theatre was superb. This alone made the project worthwhile. 

The show had moved up a couple of levels and when I was introduced to a mystery person visiting with our assessor at the end I was pretty sure we were, at the very least, on a shortlist.

The wait for a phone call from the National was awful but totally understandable. I was pleased that every company would be informed before the final list was posted, as previously the names simply appeared on the website and this was the first you knew you hadn't been successful. So when the phone call came, there was as much relief as joy. But then there was the embargo period (again understandable, again agony) before I could tell the cast and the world.

The moment I informed the cast will stay with me for the rest of my life.

So we were selected - and didn't the work REALLY start then? Forms, forms, forms. But you don't mind. It was taking the production to the level it needed to be for the Dorfman that was the biggest challenge, and the most wonderful part of the work. Our associate director was fantastic, blending I into he background when needed, pushing forward when needed. Some of the exercises he let us with will power any future shows, but his objective and practical insights made the performance increasingly polished, accurate and professional.

And then there was the huge team at the NT - always reassuring, always calm, totally professional and on our side, even when we hit a few production blips along the way. I cannot speak highly enough of all of them - without exception. Yes, you field emails from so many different people that sometimes you can lose track of who has what information, but there was always our associate director and the co-ordinators at the NT to make sense of it all and pull it all together.

So we came to the production itself. The tech was extraordinary - the resources were just immense and having people who knew how to make them work was fascinating. And how they encouraged and coached  my production team was extraordinary and inspiring.

When the days came, the NT made it seem effortless. I know from long experience just how hard it is to corral young people and point them all in the right direction at the same time. We were treated as professionals and colleagues by everyone and the task of getting the show onto the stage could not have been more relaxed and supportive. It left my young people totally at ease and able to deliver the performance all their hard work ( and that of the NT) deserved.

It was an experience they and I will never forget.

Were there any disappointments? For me, it was a shame that the social media networks set up to exchange ideas with other groups were almost totally unused. We went big on social media but felt a little bit out on a limb. There must be other ways to encourage more interaction. 

It was also a shame that the schedule at the NT meant we didn't get any time to talk to our playwright - we'd have loved to talk to her about what we'd done and what she thought of how her play had developed. 

But these were insignificant compared to the life experience offered to the cast.

We wish all the groups taking part in next year's programme the very best of luck. It's a great scheme with a goal that is unique, achievable and very, very special. 

In conclusion, the Connections programme is a crucial drip feed of adrenalin into the UK youth theatre world. It's not initially cheap, certainly, but you can defray those costs with a bit of clever marketing and good support from your home audience. 

Getting to the National (I think) requires a degree of luck, a uniqueness of vision and clarity of storytelling but you can't go into the programme with that as a (stated) goal for your cast. There is so much of the process totally outside your control. All you can do is to produce the best work you can. Far more important is taking part in a festival that unites the nation and delivers vital new energy to theatre for young people and the excitement of pioneering new works.

Thanks to Rob, Dan, Adele and everyone at the National Theatre for their hard work and unfailing support.

And thanks to my fantastic cast and crew. Lotta love for you, guys!


Thursday, 25 June 2015

The show must go on!

Well, it all happened yesterday!

We were invited by St Albans High School for Girls to run The Boy Preference in the new Jubilee Hall. We readily greed as it's a much bigger space than we've been used to and it was nice to take the show to a school where a number of the cast attend.

It's a lovely space but has its drawbacks - particularly as it looks as if the final spec was not done by a theatre person (e.g. no ground level DMX/TSR points). But the get-in went fine, the rig was easy and Rachael the theatre manager even managed to restore two of the stage lighting bars which decided to become unresponsive during the afternoon. So all was well.

We started the show at 7.30pm and about two cues in it was apparent that the lighting desk had become possessed by a demon. Rather than moving cue to cue it moved to the next while keeping the previous one going! So we were ending up with a string of cues all merged together. Jack in the lighting box worked some wonders to keep the thing going and the cast coped with some weird effects increasingly well.

In fact all was going fine until 2 minutes before the end, just as the climatic bulldozer scene was finishing, when suddenly the fire alarm went off. At first I thought Alex had done something (actually pretty cool) to the soundtrack (and something we will now try and recreate) ... but no!

So we have to call a halt and evacuate across the road to the tennis courts to see if order could be restored. After a few minutes it was apparent that there was a real issue with the system and that carrying on inside was not going to be an option.

And then the fire fighters arrived.

So in the true spirit of theatre we decided to rerun the last two scenes on the tennis courts with the audience sitting on the ground.

Of course we didn't have the bulldozer with all its noise and lights and smoke, nor did we have the joyous cacophony of the fireworks (although we tried our best vocally). But the cast were fantastic and the applause was thoroughly deserved.


These are the memories that will stick with the cast forever. This is what theatre is all about.

Bring on the Dorfman!