What’s harder: getting into Drama School or getting into Google? 

It has been far too long since I posted on here and that’s terrible of me… mainly because the first year group at Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre have kept me so busy. A few days ago one of our brilliant West End mentors, currently travelling the land in one of the most well known musicals in the UK right now, reminded me of actually how far this Academy has come in less than a year. This post isn’t to applaud our vanity or anything like that, but it is sometimes easy to forget that we are still absolutely tiny by comparison to the well known schools and, in our view, this is a strength and we’re proud of it. 

So, with so much to write and not a clue where to start, I came to log in to my old email account to reset the password to this blog… ERROR after ERROR. Going through the recovery steps to log in irritated me beyond belief because they were so rigid in their requirements. ‘This is my account’ I thought to myself, ‘why can’t they understand MY situation?’ It started to make me think about comparisons to institutions that deal with a mass of people (who inadvertently get treated like cattle); is this why there’s no margin of personality in larger drama schools’ audition days? Do they have to protect their administration staff from extra workload by only identifying auditionees as a number (I’ve never understood that, use their name!)? With tens of thousands of hopeful applicants, have they lost a meaningful way of getting to know each of them as individuals? It appears that Google and bigger drama schools have something in common: they deal with so many ‘users’ that there is no way of having personal contact. Bulk emailing, automated support processes and an inability to speak directly to someone who can help answer your questions are just some of the similarities I see. So if you’ve been rejected, don’t take it personally. Try to be objective in what went well and what you can work on for future auditions but honestly, for lots of people it would be much easier if all schools were honest and said when ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. This is just one of the reasons that every single person who walks through our doors is immediately welcomed as an individual, not a user. 👤 

Perhaps this, on a subconscious level, is why I’m so keen for Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre to be so open to prospective students and their families. In the last month alone I’ve held a number of what we’ve affectionately come to call ‘family meetings’, where prospective MAMT students bring their family along to see the venue and facilities, hear a little from myself and CiCi Howells, and ask any question any of them can think of! They’ve been hugely rewarding for the families and for us because I get to know exactly what questions keep popping up (no we don’t plan to offer a degree; a degree in musicals isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on and we are far more equipped to train the performers of the future on our own vocational syllabus with constant industry interaction) and families get to hear everything first hand and ask any questions they may have. 

West End master LUCY VAN GASSE (previously Glinda in WICKED) coached students on songs from the show.

It gives me great pride to say that in just 6 months, we have had visiting tutors from almost every West End show in to teach the students about how the industry works TODAY. Our training is current. I’m delighted that every one of our first years has appeared professionally in the UK tour of MAGIC OF THE MUSICALS alongside world-famous performers such as Danielle Hope and Julie Atherton. I’m so proud that they’ve all had headshot photoshoots, recorded voice reels and obtained stage combat qualifications…all through being a student at MAMT. Their performance ability has exceeded their own expectations, performing in ALADDIN in December (directed by Aimee Gray from the ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY) and most recently in I LOVE YOU YOU’RE PERFECT NOW CHANGE (which I was delighted to direct and receive multiple 5 star reviews for.. Okay maybe this blog has some vanity!). Mentors have been in to coach actual numbers and choreography from their respective shows: SOPHIA RAGAVELAS from Les Mis (and recently alternate to Kerry Ellis at the London Palladium in CATS), DAYLE HODGE (Frankie Valli in JERSEY BOYS), SAM LUPTON (Little Shop of Horrors and WICKED) as well as our friends LUCY VAN GASSE and MICHELLE PENTECOST who have both played Glinda and Elphaba respectively at the Apollo Victoria in London. There are too many people to mention because every week we have staff in from giant West End and Broadway productions. On top of all this, each student is given one of these incredible performers as a mentor throughout training and beyond. 

Before a well earned summer break, we have plans to workshop a brand new musical with a composer and West End creative team, plus our end of term play which will be going to London in June/July and a specialist workshop on creating an act for cruise ship and cabaret work. This is all of course in addition to regular classes (40 hours per week) and weekly West End Wednesdays where the very best continue to coach and train our budding performers of tomorrow. 

If you’d like to know more, do get in touch and read some of our other blogs:

Are you just a number?

Mingle with the Mentors

Have a very happy Wednesday. 

James Williams, Principal 

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What’s harder: getting into Drama School or getting into Google? 

Our #dreamfirstyears

As the start of term draws ever nearer, this week has been brilliant for reflecting upon the journey so far. After two years of running projects, masterclasses and workshops across the UK with guests such as Kerry Ellis, Oliver Tompsett, Julie Atherton and many others, we decided the time was right to launch a full-time, 2 year intensive drama school for the talented individuals who don’t want to live and train in London. Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre was launched in September 2015; I can remember really well the evening where we first went “live” on social media – a group of friends all sat around a table in the centre of Birmingham – wine flowing and following, retweeting, instagram-ming and blogging about the new course and opportunities in store for a small group of aspiring professionals.

This lovely write-up in The Stage was a really sentimental moment for us at MAMT; the industry famous newspaper, established in 1880, was writing about our little course!

https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2015/musical-theatre-school-to-rival-london-training-set-to-open-in-birmingham/

I don’t see “little” as patronising or belittling; the very fact that we are such a small, focused school is indeed our number one selling point. The attention that our students receive with a maximum class size of 24 is staggering in comparison to other schools who sometimes have 90 in a year group. This starts from day one as I’m sure any of our auditionees would tell you. Of course our students also benefit from having a personal mentor from a West End show (see more here).

Speaking of auditions; we’ve held numerous audition days since last Autumn. Our day is designed to get the best from prospective students; to give them time to get used to our senior faculty and control their nerves. They take part in normal classes where we observe technique, potential and attitude in acting, singing and dance. We give them time to have a whole group Q&A session with our senior faculty and whichever industry mentors have joined us on the panel that day. Then the afternoon is dedicated to the individual auditions where students can present an acting piece, solo song and a short dance section. We spend a good half an hour with most students, answering their questions and giving them a feel for how we would work with them on their journey to professional performing. Written feedback and a decision on whether we can accept them or not is sent out later that day, or at the very latest, the following morning.

It’s lovely to see our first year taking shape. We have a real mix; both in terms of individual skills and also male/female split. I’m delighted at the casting options that having a fairly equal split of genders has given us. We have a diverse age range too; reflecting exactly how most West End companies feel. Financially, some students have been fortunate enough to be able to support their training themselves with savings; others have had great support from friends, family and bank loans, some have worked tirelessly for months on end to fundraise every penny of their course fees. One thing is clear already: we have a group of individuals who are incredibly supportive of one another. I’ve seen the start of what I hope will be career-long friendships and an incredible amount of problem-solving between the students. We have a company feel and that’s really important to us. As CiCi said at our most recent auditions, “this is a drama school with a difference – we don’t want this to feel like an academic school environment. We want to treat you as professionals at the start of your career, but who are already IN the business. You are a company!” I think that mentality is absolutely key when creating performers who people LIKE working with.

Before the start of term, we have a week of rehearsals in the summer to put together our contribution for Magic of the Musicals. We are joining the UK tour, starring Julie Atherton, Sharon D Clarke and Danielle Hope. The MAMT students will be supporting the leads with backing vocals and a few of our own performance pieces too.

I can’t wait to open our doors in September. Once we’re open, do drop us an email and come on down to have a look.

As a final plug: we still have ONE final audition day left in the summer. If you want to train at a positive, forward-thinking, regional drama school with a faculty of West End professionals then do please get in touch via the website. You only regret the chances you don’t take! Who knows – you too could be joining our #dreamfirstyears and training at drama school from this September.

All the best

James Williams
Principal

Our #dreamfirstyears

Musical theatre school cuts the ribbon on new Birmingham home

blue-orange-theatre
The 114 seat Blue Orange Theatre (including dance studios, dressing rooms and cafe bar right in the heart of Birmingham’s historical Jewellery Quarter) is now home to Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre.

Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre (MAMT), which opens its doors to the first intake of students this September, has announced that it will be based at the iconic Blue Orange Theatre. Situated in the heart of the historical Jewellery Quarter, to the north of Birmingham City Centre, the professional theatre opened in 2011 and offers a great location for students and staff.

James Williams, the founder and Principal of the new school, announced the news today, saying “The Blue Orange Theatre is well known across the city for producing high quality professional work in an incredibly flexible space. I’m delighted that our students will now get to reap the benefits of being trained within this wonderful building”.

As well as the 110 seat theatre venue, The Blue Orange Theatre offers a number of rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, a purpose built dance studio and a fully licensed café bar for audiences. Williams said that he has gained strong support for the move from his team of West End mentors. “Our faculty all appreciate that being based in a venue which produces great work, tours nationally and has a strong love for new writing is a brilliant partner at the start of our exciting journey,” he explained.  

MAMT guest tutor, Dayle Hodge – who is currently starring as Frankie Valli in the West End production of Jersey Boys – echoed his support, adding “It’s great that the students will instantly get used to working in a theatre environment. It’s so important that they know how a theatre works and can understand every aspect of the industry, behind the scenes as well as on the stage”.

Mark Webster, who founded The Blue Orange Theatre five years ago, summarised the venue’s ethos and history, saying “We are committed to working with local professional actors, directors and theatre practitioners. In our first year we produced 5 shows and hosted 9 from visiting companies. We continue to produce up to 10 established plays every year and a number of new writing pieces.”

MAMT prides itself on industry-based training and offers students weekly 121 singing lessons, West End faculty and individual mentors, termly productions and a diploma in performing musical theatre, awarded by Trinity College London.

Williams said “A few places are still available to train with us from September this year so ambitious performers can apply online for our final audition days at www.mamt.org.uk

blue-orange-cafe
Cafe bar at the Blue Orange Theatre for students and audiences alike
blue-orange-rehearsal-room
Large, air-conditioned rehearsal studios before the installation of dance mirrors (work happening in July 2016)
Musical theatre school cuts the ribbon on new Birmingham home

It’s a no(t yet) from me

We’ve just had our second weekend of full on auditions for the first intake at Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre – and what a delightful weekend it was too (except perhaps that a good number of staff were ill or, at best, under the weather!)

Nonetheless, the occasional strike of tonsillitis isn’t enough to rain off our audition days because they’re too important to students who have been preparing for them, and they’re one of our most enjoyable days as a faculty. There was an interesting debate over lunch about whether sickness should default to a no show at auditions…? It came about because, unlike our first audition day, we had a couple of last minute cancellations due to sickness…last minute as in 9.25 for a 9.30 call time. Now, there are some people who say “if you’re ill, don’t go…no one wants to audition someone who spends the whole time apologising for underperforming due to sickness”. I get that and have friends who will never be seen when they’re not “feeling 100%”. One of our faculty raised the point that for us, as a small school who limits the number of people we meet each day, it would be much more preferable if you aren’t on top form, to come along anyway, take part in what you can and ask us to bear with you if you have a little blip. I’m still mulling over where I stand on this – I mean, if you have a throat infection, don’t sing on it – I don’t think anyone would advise that. If you have a cold or feel a bit sniffly though, you might as well get used to battling on through, just as you’d be expected to in the industry or indeed any other career. Neverminding where you stand on this for a moment, the very minimum that we expect, is some notice of your non-attendance…never mind the rude thing, I’m not going to harp on about basic manners, it’s just frustrating that we could have had another few people on our February auditions if we had more than 15 minutes notice. We like to meet people you see!

Anyway, our first 2 audition dates have been full of incredible potential. We’ve had great people auditioning for us and a panel even more excited about the launch in September …our gender balance is great, we’ve got a range of ages and so far, everyone who has enrolled has a unique look and castability.

We’ve been very truthful with those who we haven’t accepted; saying no is very difficult and it’s worth saying that so far we don’t feel we’ve said ‘NO’ to anyone, it’s more of a ‘not yet’. Not yet because the course we’re running is demanding, intensive and very specialist. Some people are oozing potential but need some more basic technique so that they would keep up (with CiCi and Russell’s dance calls mainly!)

We’ve been thinking, to all the people who we have said ‘not yet’ to (and given, sometimes pages and pages of, feedback and advice) – maybe we can help you. We are often saying to get your technique up, or look at where you’d fit in the industry, or go and find yourself through living more. What we really mean is – we would love to help you progress but the full time course isn’t right for you until you’ve got a bit more experience.

Therefore we might be launching a part-time course to help you over the next 12 months. You’ll know from my previous blog that I’m wary of foundations so let’s just see what we can create and then I’ll come back to you; we’ve got some good plans and I’ve had meetings with a lot of people on or from various foundation courses. I’ve heard the horror stories; we won’t make those mistakes. Now I want to hear what they do really well and how we can be even better.

So, the book is open, let’s write a better version of the ‘evening class’ or the ‘summer workshop’ or the DUN DUN DUN ‘foundation’!

In the meantime, if you need any advice from me or my wonderful faculty members, then as ever, please drop us an email.

James Williams, james@mamt.org.uk

It’s a no(t yet) from me

Are you just a number?

Just before Christmas, we started the auditions for our first intake of students; they’ll be training with us from September 2016. We decided from the beginning that we wanted to spend a full day auditioning students – this isn’t for a small job or a few gigs, this investment in us by our students, and our investment in them, is a relationship that will last for their career. We have to get it right and the schools who think they can do that in a snapshot 5 minute audition followed by a quick chat about their goals and ambitions, are wrong.

It doesn’t take much searching to find stories of dissatisfaction amongst auditionees at some other schools. The schools who are still auditioning people well after they’ve filled all their places, for example… Or the schools who say ‘you’re not quite ready for the ‘proper’ course yet but you could massively benefit from our ‘other’ full time course which we call the ‘foundation’; we’ve conveniently bolted it on the side of the school but without much thought and completely different (that means cheaper!) teachers’. I’m incredibly wary of foundation courses because I’ve seen too many people on them who have never progressed on to the school’s longer course or entered the business…it doesn’t feel like an investment in the individual’s development to me; it feels like another income stream. I’ve personally been told stories of ‘foundies’ hidden away on the top floor of a historic institution somewhere for few contact hours a week – completely separated from the main course’s students and tutors, and very much seen as second-class citizens …well not at MAMT, absolutely not. Of course, in my never-ending quest to inspire positivity as a way of life, I do always counter that with the thought that I’m sure some places are running wonderful foundations; a very close friend is on a brilliant course that she loves.

I should also add that MAMT has plans to offer a PART-TIME course to students who genuinely aren’t ready for our full time course right now but could be by working hard on their technique in particular disciplines for a solid 12 months. I feel our faculty are well-placed to offer this support and guidance, as is the way with our ongoing mentoring commitments. Any student who takes EITHER course with us will be at the centre of our Academy, working with the same facilities and tutors – and I feel, rather importantly, interacting with those students on the full time course. After all my main gripes with foundations are when those on them never actually progress; I want an atmosphere of support and encouragement which I rather fear is lacking in some other academies. 

So, why do some places take these questionable steps to train more people than anyone else? Simple: they have shareholders who care about profit – we don’t. Our faculty are paid a salary which is fair and in line with other schools and all surplus income generated, the ‘profit’ as it were, is reinvested in the Academy, its students and developing our opportunities.

Back to the auditions, there wasn’t a sticky label ‘auditionee number’ in sight! In fact, I don’t even care that I’m awful with names, we will not be handing name labels out – I think the £45 you’ve paid to spend the whole day with us gives you the right to expect to be addressed by a teacher who learns your name; I had it down to 30 minutes last week. Of course it helps to only have a maximum of 24 students on each audition day!

Our first day was a feast of taster sessions with regular and guest tutors, Q&As with our mentors, a chat with senior staff over lunch and then 15 minutes for each person to perform for us and have a decent conversation about what we had seen so far that day and how we see them progressing in the industry. At MAMT, you won’t find expressionless dragons sat behind a desk scribbling notes over watching you whilst raising eyebrows…we are a new Academy who wants to get it right. So ask us questions, take our direction, work with the panel on your pieces in the audition room without being penalised; its your time, so use it. We will do a little bit of note scribbling because every candidate, successful or not, will be given written feedback from our panel within 48 hours of auditioning. We don’t run a foundation course; we need to concentrate on providing the highest quality training that we can to our max 24 students on our 1 and only course. However, our mentors and faculty are an experienced bunch and we are more than happy to give you guidance and advice throughout the year in order to help you work on the feedback we have given you.

This time we have made some offers, had some ‘unsuccessfuls’ and also one totally unique response. The unique response is to someone who is utterly brimming with potential but needs some support with their confidence – we felt we didn’t see the best of them yet so we’re going to work with them and ask them to come back for an audition later in the year. We are a small, committed and independent Academy which means we can make the rules work for our students; something I’m very keen on. New Academy or not, we won’t take someone unless we believe that we can get them industry ready in 2 years – and I personally love that ‘YES!’ moment that I know this particular candidate will experience with our help at some point in the next few months.

So, if you are sat there thinking ‘I could make this my career with MAMT’s help’ then don’t wait until its too late – get in touch through the website to request an application form and get on our February or April auditions before the rush of January takes control. Soon we’ll be publishing what auditionees thought of our audition experience…and we’re VERY pleased with the feedback so far. Training is a two way street and we absolutely love the positivity that was in the building last weekend.

Full details are available online at http://www.MAMT.org.uk

We look forward to welcoming you to Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre.

James Williams
Principal
Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre

Are you just a number?

Mingle with the Mentors

image

Richard Branson: ‘Whenever I am asked what is the missing link between a promising businessperson and a successful one, mentoring comes to mind.’

Recently I was speaking with a local composer, (himself a champion of real, industry-focussed training too), about the role of high profile supporters. Some call these people patrons, some call them advisors, some (we) call them mentors. Whatever they are called across the board, their role is surely similar? To advise, champion, support and promote the work of the organisations for which they are associated.

Let’s be clear about our scheme (which, to my knowledge makes us the only school offering this opportunity with so much commitment at present). Every one of our students will be paired up with a mentor from London’s West End, from the day they start their journey with us. Through email, telephone and in-person meet ups, our students will all have an individual from the very top of the industry to look up to for advice and support. These mentors have been through drama school, they’ve negotiated their way through the demands of starting out and they’ve made a name for themselves at the top of the industry that our students are training for.

Our mentors are no substitute for an experienced team of tutors, nor are they an alternative to high profile masterclass sessions and workshops and all of the busy technique and skills classes that go on behind the scenes. Indeed most of our mentors are also guest teachers on our course. Instead though, in their mentor role, which we’ll be doing a lot of work on before we open our doors to our first intake, they play an important part in our pastoral care offer. There are many times, not just in performing but also in life, where we seek advice from others. The more open-minded of our beings can listen to a wide range of varying opinions in order to learn, develop and grow. In setting up MAMT, I have taken a huge amount of advice from important people in my own life; not officially ‘mentors’ but certainly people I look up to and have learnt a lot from. Our industry in fact is full of such situations; why do agents often start out as juniors in a busy booking office? Why does the role of assistant director often act as a platform to develop, under the watchful eye of a more experienced director? How better to seek personal improvement than to watch people who have followed your path, and learn the skills and attitudes that they possess? 

I believe passionately in the learning that can be taken from our mentoring scheme. It is but another tool we use to equip forward-thinking Musical Theatre students with the skills required to work professionally. They are part of our support network of regular teachers, guest tutors, pastoral partners and students (yes, a true ensemble look after their own). In our mentors, we have a team of some of the most high profile performers in the country, taking time out of their busy schedule to give back to a new breed of drama school graduate. MAMT students will not only know their own skills, they will also understand the industry as a business and know when and who to turn to for help.

This brings me back to the conversation I had last week. When we hear about patrons, presidents, or whatever else they might get called, do any of us really have an understanding of what they actually DO? I’ll be the first to throw my hand up and say ‘not a clue’. I wondered if the patrons of the very large drama school institutions take an interest in every single student as an individual? I’ve recently seen one UK school who only has 1 patron: a Broadway performer who rarely visits this country. What on earth, is that doing for any of their students?

Yes, a huge West End name above the title is a fantastic endorsement of a school’s training, or ethos, or faculty, but maybe I’m greedy because I want more than to borrow someone’s name. I want mentors, not patrons, who support our students, champion our work and help to spread the word about how we are positively different to a number of other organisations. My students have heard this from me before, but Kerry Ellis, for example, is not just one of our country’s most talented performers, she is also a genuine, ambitious, forward-thinking businesswoman. She commands respect from so many people because she truly cares; not just about her own career, but about her friends’ and the future of the industry as a whole. I have been incredibly fortunate to know Kerry since her standby Elphaba days back when Wicked had just opened (can anyone remember a West End without Wicked?!). Not only has she written words of encouragement to groups that I’ve taught, she has also given me the chance to offer many opportunities to young professionals. In the last year, I’ve worked with Kerry on three occasions; firstly on her solo UK tour, then providing a choir for when she performed with West End Women and, most recently, in an eye-opening acting-through-song masterclass in London this summer. I’m delighted that Kerry has shared such opportunities with the people I train. I believe that our mentoring process will create some more of those remarkable opportunities in the future, with each and every one of our talented team.

So personally, if I were looking to compare schools and courses, I’d be sat here wondering how having a high profile figure would actually help ME to achieve my own goals? Would I ever even meet them? Would I be able to call them up and ask for some guidance?

I fear the reality is actually far from that…I imagine a yearly group Q&A session and a handshake at graduation is probably more likely what’s on offer elsewhere. We can change that; we have found a group of wonderful performers, who see a way to help drama school students and are giving back in such a meaningful way.

To hands on Patrons, and to Presidents that are actually involved in their students’ training, but most importantly, to our MAMT industry mentors: thank you.

James Williams
Principal
Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre

Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre provides an industry based Musical Theatre diploma to students aged 18+ over two years. To find out more, please visit http://www.MAMT.org.uk as we are auditioning now for September 2016 start.

Mingle with the Mentors

West End focussed drama school launches in Birmingham

Kerry Ellis Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre
Kerry Ellis coaches student Hannah Buyers (July 2015 at Pineapple Dance Studios, London).

Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre (MAMT) is preparing to open its doors to aspiring musical theatre performers auditioning this year.

Applications are now open for their intensive two year diploma, which course director James Williams promises to be industry-based, full of professional opportunities and much more affordable than London-based rivals.

Launching in time for September 2016 entry, the academy is the only musical theatre drama school in Birmingham that will offer full time places to students aged over 17.

Williams said the course is aimed at performers who wish to pursue a career in musical theatre, offering an “exciting and cost-effective alternative to relocating to London”.

“There is an astounding array of talent in the Midlands, Wales and beyond, so we have developed an accelerated two year course that will offer those performers the drama school training they need to launch their career, guided throughout by West End performers, directors, musical directors and agents”, he said.

As a producer himself, Williams has worked with well-known performers like Kerry Ellis, Oliver Tompsett and Julie Atherton and explains that “regular, industry involvement from these incredible West End stars that we have amongst us in London is a central part of our course. We are bringing the best of London to the Midlands”.

Whatsonstage award winner Jacqueline Hughes, herself one of many guest tutors on the course, said about the academy’s mentoring programme; “this is something I would have loved to have had whilst I was training”.

The course is full-time for 2 years, provides at least 6 professional performance opportunities in Birmingham and off-West End theatres and also includes a graduation showcase in London for students to obtain agent representation. All students will also graduate with an associate diploma in Performing Musical Theatre, awarded by Trinity College London.

Williams concludes “For ambitious performers north of the Watford Gap, we know that our accelerated course, without the expensive living costs of London, will save students an absolute fortune and help to get them out into the industry and working, sooner”.

To find out more about Midlands Academy of Musical Theatre please visit http://www.mamt.org.uk or find them on twitter @MidlandsMT

West End focussed drama school launches in Birmingham