Mingle with the Mentors

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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.

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Mingle with the Mentors

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