Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Trying to buck the economic trends

There’s no hiding the fact that the theatre school market is under pressure in the current economic climate.
Parents naturally try to shield their children from the effects of lower income and so they will often continue to fund their child’s discretionary activities for perhaps longer than their own. But inevitably there comes a time when the child has to choose their favourite activity and our plan at Best was to be the last activity the child would want to stop. And to our credit I think we’ve achieved that in many cases.

We’ve done this by trying even harder to focus on proven and added value – this means things like extra shows (Robin Hood and Alice in Wonderland were much more ‘organised’ than our usual end of term showings), little treats (like using the theatre at Christmas - actually that's quite a big treat!) and a concentration on delivering an even more professional service (hence our recent survey).

But yesterday, the mighty  Stagecoach Theatre Arts announced a loss and cited falling numbers and the merger of schools in areas more affected by the economy. And there’s no getting away from it - we at Best are feeling it too.

Up until last term our numbers were relatively stable, despite many of our competitors seeing a reduction in numbers and indeed many similar businesses (dance schools for example) disappearing altogether. But the volume of enquiries has definitely dropped and we, like everyone in our market, are left wondering how next to respond.

We’ve already announced a special promotion in our Saturday afternoon school offering 50% fee reductions for a term to let new students try us out, giving us an excellent chance to prove our value.

But overall in our core businesses we have decided (as we’ve already told parents) to refocus on what made Best best to begin with –caring, inclusive and high quality training where every child has the opportunity to progress. In practice this means reverting to our traditional end-of-term showings rather than full-on shows, so that new techniques, ideas and approaches can be worked on with the children and given a short showcase rather than enveloping them in show. There will be more time to explore, coach and, perhaps most importantly, play!

But there are other things too we might be able to do. In any recession there is opportunity to move into new areas and to take market share – in fact economic theory suggests you take market share simply by surviving! Now we at Best aren’t interested in being biggest or else we’d have franchised long ago – but we definitely do want to be Best. And perhaps we now have a chance to augment our current service offerings in order to protect and enhance our core business.

To this end we are currently engaged in some intense internal and external discussions which hopefully should produce some tangible proposals in the next few weeks. So watch this space!

But in the meantime, please don’t forget to tell your friends about Best – there’s no better way for a child to spend their time than in theatre arts, and no better place to do this than Best!

And any ideas, as ever, gratefully received...

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Going backwards, standing still

There are huge numbers of books written by quasi-business gurus that adorn the shelves of airport bookstores on the subject of successful growth strategies. Cash cows, rising stars and limping dogs become the metaphors through which we are able to categorise our markets.

But one thing holds true throughout, if you stand still, you actually go backwards. You must always be asking ‘what’s next?’ and seeking ways to continue to develop and further differentiate in your market.
And so it is even at Best.  You’d think the world of theatre for children would be immune from all of this commercial savagery, but far from it, our market is fiercely competitive and increasingly more difficult to understand and (strangely enough) communicate effectively with.

In St Albans, at its peak, we had 13 other drama schools competing for students. We think we have 11 competitors at present in AL1,2,3,and 4). It’s considerably more if you include Harpenden and Radlett. In such a small city that is a real challenge. I’ll answer the inevitable question (well, skirt around it a bit probably) in a future blog. But each has its own identity and style which is why we always advise new students to have a look around, confident that the majority will choose us. But despite our reputation and our longevity ( approaching our 15th birthday) we are increasingly conscious of our need to move with the times and to augment our offerings to meet changing needs and attitudes.

The core of our offerings, First Class and Best, are tried and trusted and although we do change things from time to time (like having a panto in the theatre last term) it’s a formula that children seem to love and is well established and comfortable with us and with a number of others. We will always (we hope) have First Class and Best in their current forms.

But returning to the theme of this blog, we know we can’t stand still and that we need to introduce some new exciting and value-added services to keep Best at the forefront of theatre schools in St Albans.
Ha! That’s got you wondering, hasn’t it? Well you’ll need to wonder a little bit more as we are working out some of the fine details at the moment. But you can have a think around the following trends in society and education:-
  • Parents increasingly demand ‘proof of progress.’ We do public shows, end of term showings, annual reports, annual certificates and all kinds of other things but there may be more we could do
  • Parents and children want choice
  • Generalisation is being sidelined by specialists...
  • ...and yet, people like to have a single source for all related items/services
  • Young people are growing up much faster (again a theme for a future blog). They are more ‘self-aware’ and claim maturity earlier (whether or not based on actual maturity)
  • Our student age profile has altered radically since our launch 15 years ago

So what does all of this mean for Best? You'll have to watch this space! 

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Accusations, lies and subterfuge!

We received an e-mail yesterday from another company offering musical classes for the very young (like ‘Bestbeans’) who were warning of a person pretending to be from the local authority asking to visit classes who then turned out to be a competitor basically ‘spying’. This hadn’t happened to us, but one of our teachers knew the individual ‘accused’ and was absolutely certain that the allegations were false. There followed a series of e-mails to and from where we tried to broker some kind of peace and things seem to have been resolved.
This unfortunate episode brought a number of issues to mind:-

Firstly, the accusations were broadcast not only by email, but also through NetMums. Potentially this could have destroyed the accused person’s business for absolutely no reason at all, and with no possibility of comment prior to publication. At worst it was libellous, at the very least ill-advised but the Internet makes it so easy to fall foul. In the old days you’d rant to a friend over the phone – nowadays you go straight to a forum and pour out your unfiltered angst. TripAdvisor has recently been in the centre of a similar debate – what is there to stop ill-founded or totally fabricated opinions receiving tacit legitimacy through established websites? (I do like TripAdvisor though...)

Secondly, isn’t it sad that a business based on developing the very youngest children and supporting parents is dragged into the realms of industrial espionage? Is it really that difficult to find out about how to structure such classes without allegedly resorting to underhand tactics? It doesn’t speak well of our business.
Thirdly, how frail is a business delivering service to the very young. Your reputation is everything and a single false allegation can do lasting and irreparable damage. It’s enough to give you sleepless nights.

Anyway, I’m off to don a false moustache and beard and to try to get in to one of Top Hat’s classes posing as a 7 year old. What could possibly go wrong?

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The old agency question

"Why doesn't Best run an agency?"

Well, we do get asked this from time to time so it bears discussion.

When we started Best we wanted to create a group where all children were on a totally level playing field. From the outset we decided that forming an agency would create a two- tiered system and would be precisely what we DIDN'T want. There'd be those represented who were working, those represented who DIDN'T get the roles, those who weren't represented (er...three tiers...!) and wished they were and those who weren't represented and glad of it (four tiers - that's a lot of tiers). It just creates a divide.

We try and avoid anything which says to any child they are better (or worse) than another. Stagecoach, for example, select a couple of students from most schools to go on to their 'national' show. We don't have a problem with that, it's just not what we want at Best.

It has been strongly suggested by some parents that we reconsider the agency thing. Again it's just not our style, but we are investigating whether we might create an alliance with an agency we could at least pass our students on to if they genuinely wanted to try and find work.

What do we think about children working in the business? Well, it's not what we wanted for ours but when you have a child who clearly loves every second of it, and when you have a parent who supports them in the business through love rather than any desire for vicarious glory, then it seems to work fine.We do have students who work and that's fine and without exception they have all done a brilliant job - we just don't make too big a deal out of it.

Also many children are unaware of what kind of sacrifices and commitments need to be made - school, time, friends and so on.

So, finally, what do we think makes a child successful? That really is a tricky one. Next time you come to a Best show, look across the groups and you'll see one or two who are just 'on it' (as we thesps say). They are totally focused, concentrating and filling each moment on stage with energy. That's a huge part of it. Also it's important to be polite, to listen and to remember what you've been asked to do from one day to the next.  The mum of one of our working Best kids said to us =that she thought her daughter had been cast because wshe was precisley what Best was all about - being herself, being polite, listening and doing what she was asked with loads of energy. She wasn't 'pushy' or 'showbizzy' - just herself. That was a nice thing to hear (thanks D*****!)

But to be honest most often it's whether you look right (not nice, or big, or small, or round, or square, or blonde or brown haired, or tall, or short)... just 'right' for that role. There's nothing you can do about this but it is the main cause of rejection and is so hard for young ones to understand.

It's a hard enough business for experienced adults, let alone children!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The same children keep getting all the leading roles

‘Imagine’ will sort this one’s a total ensemble piece so there are no ‘leads’ at all!

But seriously, this is one of the most tricky balances we try and achieve and is the part of our work we find most difficult.. 

When we cast, we go to the students who have shown that they are willing to put in the work during lessons – they learn lines, take direction, don’t forget things from one week to the next and generally could keep a show moving. We know that whatever happens with them we will get from the beginning to the end of the show.  

There are others who we try and encourage and will discuss taking on increasing amounts. And there are the frustrating ones who are more than capable but who let you down when you give them a chance.

The most difficult ones though are children who we know are doing as much as they can (or want to) but the parents want something more. For example, we were heavily criticised by one parent after Robin Hood who felt their child had not had enough lines. What in fact had happened was that we had allocated him/her with more but he/she would burst into tears every time they went on stage. We discussed this gently with him/her and it was clear he/she was much more comfortable with a single line but being part of the chorus. This is often not what a parent wants to hear but happens more than you'd think. Many children respond best to very gradual increases in responsibility in shows and some are just delighted to be part of the chorus without the stress of solo lines. We have to be sensitive to all of these things and naturally, have to put the child's interests first even if this sometimes disappoints parents.We genuinely do take pains to understand where each child is and to present them with opportunities appropriate to their stage. Of course we don’t always get this right but I’m sure no other group would pay as much care and attention to this element of its work.

Finally, one respondent said we should teach the kids to stand on their own two feet by refusing to prompt them during shows. Tough love indeed! But overall we’d rather the children weren’t under any more stress than a performance already brings on. 

We aren’t like a school – we can’t force children to learn lines and all we can do is encourage them (and encourage their parents to encourage them) to learn them in good time. If they haven’t learned their lines by show time then there’s not much we can do about it and for the sake of the rest of the cast we need to be able to move things along with a helpful prompt or two. But we will remember next time we are casting...

Show content is too old/ too complicated / too long / not enough for younger ones / too much for older ones / too much for younger ones etc etc

Well, that’s me really. 

I try to find a balance between a reasonable plot that will give the older groups something to work towards whilst leaving room for us to develop scenes for the younger children so that all are properly involved. I admit certainly ‘Robin Hood’ was wordy but I was thrilled with how some of the students rose to the challenge! The real difficulty is that different groups excel at different things. 

Again using Robin Hood as an example, the schools where the cast had learned their lines properly were fantastic. Where the lines hadn’t been learned it made the whole thing drag terribly and gave the impression that the little ones didn’t have much to do. They did, it just took an age to get them back on stage! But that is something we should have picked up earlier and addressed.

As regards giving little ones more to do, we already get messages saying they are getting too stressed due to line/song/dance learning and whilst they may only have a few lines each they are involved and we always make sure they have at least one scene on their own on stage that they drive. The idea is that as children move through the school they get increasing responsibility in the shows. If we did an hour’s show and Green group had to fill 20 minutes of that to fill rehearsed in only 10 weeks it would simply be too much for them. We need to have space to do other things with them too so they are not purely rehearsing all term. So we try and strike a balance to make sure they aren’t overly stressed.

To be fair on us/me we had a very large amount of good feedback on this subject. Many of you seem to really enjoy the scripts we send out and the stories we tell and the number who are critical are in a small minority. But  we DO take these criticisms on board - we’ll remain vigilant and try and make sure we’ve pitched things right each time.

Why don’t you do a well known show like ‘Oliver’, ‘Annie’ or ‘Wicked’? Is it too expensive?

The reason we don’t is that these shows simply don’t have enough parts for enough for every child to play a full role. This is why we have to create our own shows. Even doing this (and writing extra scenes specifically for the younger ones) we still had some comments that younger groups didn’t have enough to do!

Also when you perform a script like this you have little or no flexibility whatsoever with the lines/setting. You can’t add scenes or lines nor do things radically different to the stage directions given in the script. It just doesn’t suit us at all. The only way to get everyone involved is to pour everyone on stage for the group numbers and then drag’em off again. There are other local groups who do this...

Expense?  This isn’t really a consideration except that we would have to raise ticket prices by around 25/30% to cover licensing, script and score costs and we are conscious that we don’t want to hit people any harder in the pocket.

The children are spending too long rehearsing / It’s changed over the last few years / More technique please

We started Best with the idea of doing one public show a year and then occasionally inviting parents in to see the kind of things the students had been up to during the term. More and more we found the pressure was increasing for us to ‘prove value’ and that our end of term showings were being misinterpreted as quasi-full-on shows. This is not the case but we feel that we may have blurred the boundaries somewhat recently through staging Alice, then a panto with Robin Hood, and then going into our planned public show.

The pressure to deliver this perceived value (i.e. an end result) means that we have less time to teach technique and to let the children experiment and relax. We want to bring that back. 

So we intend to revert back to our original schedule with one full production a year (at Easter) and then for the other two terms taking the focus off rehearsal and line learning and back onto technique, progress and real teaching. To be honest it would be a massive relief to all of us and we think to the students as well. We just have to be better at communicating with you, the parents, exactly what it is the children are doing each term. In this way we can have much more fun and the children will progress much faster. 

And you’ll still get to see things at the end of term – just not ‘fully rehearsed shows’ so it will be much more representative of what the children have been up to.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

What an amazing month of theatre

In the last month we have seen some of the best / most interesting productions of their kinds we’ve ever seen.

'She Stoops to Conquer' I've already described (see previous blog).

One Man, Two Guvnors’ showed that broad, simple farce is still hard to beat. James Corden is simply superb (although his understudy is taking over around now of whom good things are said) and we were even more impressed when we found out how certain bits happened –which I won’t divulge here as it would spoil the experience.  My face hurt from laughing so much – the dining scene in particular was achingly hilarious.

‘Hamlet’ at the Young Vic had Michael Sheen in sparkling, eccentric and energetic form. It was set in a mental asylum so you were never quite sure how much of the plot was only in his mind or was actually happening. To be honest the Director had used a shoehorn to make the plot fit into his conceit and to be honest I really didn’t understand why, for example, Horatio was played by a small and seemingly timid woman. But it was a challenging experience and the ‘coup de theatre’ when Fortinbras rips off his helmet at the end to reveal that he is....yes, you guessed it, seems to have divided critics somewhat (see Cowgirl's blog - quite funny! and the Guardian's summary) .

I don’t know how many Hamlets I’ve seen – probably too many now – but overall i think David Tennant’s at the RSC has edged it if only for the fact that the supporting cast was fantastic (Patrick Stewart et al) and the whole thing had a focus on entertainment rather than / as well as emotional connection.

But best of all, and perhaps the greatest performance I have ever seen, was Mark Rylance’s quite breathtaking force-of-nature performance as Johnny Byron in Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’. By the interval I tweeted (@besttheatrearts)that we were in the presence of genius, but by the end it had been taken to a whole new level. I wish all our students at Best could have seen hwat it is like when someone ‘inhabits’ a role completely. Not for a second did his focus drop. Not for a second was he not ‘on it’. His physicality was awe-inspiring, every gesture and movement nuanced, accurate and relevant. The release he achieved to ascend to the heights he reached in the closing sequence was nothing short of miraculous and all you can do, especially as a supposedly trained actor like me, is to sit back and bask in awe in this unequalled display of acting craft at its very finest.  

And then go home and begin to understand why you yourself never quite made it...

The show’s run has ended now – I hope they captured it on film – but I will never forget that performance and it is carefully filed in my most important stack of unique life experiences entitled “I was there!”

'She Stoops to Conquer' conquers!

We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate over recent weeks in seeing no fewer than 4 of the finest pieces of theatre produced in London over recent times – ‘Jerusalem’, ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ and ‘Hamlet’ and last night we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary at the National’s ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ which was a totally joyous experience.  

The mood was set by a beautiful if chilly walk in the twilight down the Thames Path from Tate Modern to the Southbank Centre lit by a huge moon. Sometimes London just looks fabulous!

Then on arrival we noticed that one of our occasional cover teachers, Zoe Rainey, was dance captain and understudy to Katherine Kelly for the show. Zoe’s a lovely person and we’ve always enjoyed having her with us so we were delighted for her.

And then the show – funny, carefree, liberated, relaxed and just plain FUN! Marvellous stuff and perfectly pitched. Go and see it!

By coincidence I think ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ may have been the first play I ever saw when my dad was in it at Workington Playgoers. I remember thinking he was pretty darned good but admittedly my critical faculties may not have been over developed or unbiased at age 7-ish.

I’ll write later about the other three shows we’ve seen as I think they point to a British theatre scene in very rude health despite of (because of?)  the economic environment.

Monday, 6 February 2012


Well, yes I do act from time to time, but this is by coincidence the mnemonic used by all the volunteers at London 2012 Olympics. It reminds us to be Inspirational, Distinctive (be yourself), Open, Alert, Consistent and Teamwork - y.

I've done loads of training in my career packed full of useless mnemonics which I have forgotten within 5 seconds of leaving the classroom. But there's something about this one that has stuck and I think it actually works - I'm actually feeling quite inspired! Old cynical me!

Yesterday I went to the first session, an Orientation event held at Wembley Arena. I was feeling quite heroic having battled through huge snow drifts of up to 4 inches to get there but this was put in perspective by a lady next to me who had taken an overnight bus from Fife and a guy who'd driven down from Runcorn.

The event was well hosted by Jonathan Edwards but dragged a bit after the propaganda got heavy. I did get to say a cheery hello to my hero Eddie Izzard and he seemed happy enough to reply too. So overall I came away Inspired and looking forward to getting my garish uniform. I look great in Poppy and Mauve!

So if you want to be shown to your seat by someone fully bought in to the London 2012 ideal, best get yourself down to the Handball Arena during the games.

Why should thick skins be required?

We've just run a major customer survey. You always have to take a deep breath when you do something like this - you ask people to be honest and you kind of peek out from behind a barrier just to check all is well.

To a great extent we needn't have worried - the vast majority of the feedback was very positive indeed and people said such lovely things about what we do and how we do it. In fact out of the 60 respondents who filled in the survey completely (of 75 who started) 51 were very happy. from the rest we had some very interesting and highly constructive comments.

Except for one...

...and this is where you need a thick skin.

The sad thing is that no matter how much is said that is encouraging, supportive and just plain lovely, it only takes one comment to alter your whole perception. Now, I'm used to all this kind of stuff in my other life as a Marketing Consultant. You know 'it's only business' and 'it's not personal'  - but even I found myself a little sad and even a bit cross about this one rogue respondent. Naturally it was anonymous. There may well have been some reasonable points in the tirade but they were so obscured by the ill-feeling that we found it hard to find them. As a consequence it has served no purpose other than to upset us all!

So I ask, why should you have to have a thick skin? We genuinely don't mind constructive comments and are happy (indeed sometimes delighted) to discuss any aspect of our work with our customers even if that initially starts with someone being cross. We're dealing with parents' most precious possessions here and sometimes inevitably their need to protect and get the best for their children might clash in some way with our priorities. We totally understand that (we've got two of our own) and would much prefer always that they tell us rather than bottle anything up.

But comments which are, well, just nasty...? Where does that get anyone? And more to the point, if they are really that angry what are they doing still with us??? Goodness knows there is enough choice...

Phew! Good old Greeks and their catharsis, eh? Having written this down I now feel I can shed that thick skin again.  It's very important to listen to customers with sensitivity and empathy and you can't do that from behind rhino hide.