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OPINION: Annemarie Lewis Thomas – Flattery won’t get you everywhere

Annemarie LewisThere’s a saying isn’t there that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? Now I can’t lie, I’ve never really bought into that. I’ve always seen it as you haven’t got a good idea of your own, so you’ve pinched somebody else’s?

Drama colleges are all fundamentally selling the same ideal (or at least they should be)…they can train you in X amount of years to go out and work as a professional performer. All of us reach that goal in a different way, but I guess fundamentally we are also all doing it in the same way e.g. I’m figuring that we all provide our students with ballet lessons or singing lessons, or voice lessons…and so the list goes on. Of course the minutiae of all the lessons is where we all differ. Who the staff are, what technique or system we subscribe to etc.

Prior to opening The MTA I was struck by how vague some colleges were in their description of their staff or indeed their teaching principles. So I made a conscious decision to pin everything down in a policy. I used to say that I wanted to be the Ronseal of drama colleges…you got exactly what it said on the tin. A good example of this is the much debated area of should the faculty be made up of performers or teachers or a mixture of both. For me this has always been a black and white issue. My staff have to be working in the industry to work at the college. Then I noticed that other colleges would say this, but they wouldn’t specify when their faculty had worked, or indeed at what level they had worked. So again, I went for the black and white approach of stating that it was a policy that all staff had to be currently working in the industry at West End (or equivalent) level. I believe (and hope) that this is crystal clear to everyone that reads our website. To prove this fact I then put the biogs of all my faculty up on our website.

Prior to opening The MTA, whenever I was asked about other colleges I always used to say to young performers to Google the staff list. If you can’t find out what they’ve done, the chances are they might not be as ‘professionally current’ as the colleges were making out. So prospective students of mine don’t need to Google – they can just check everybody out on our website.

A few years back when I met with a marketing executive and he wanted to know what our USP’s were, and I said unrivalled pastoral care, he pointed out that I couldn’t say that, as I couldn’t qualify the statement. With his advice ringing in my head I stopped mentioning our pastoral care package as I believe that all of the statements about the college must be justified. That was until last year when I wrote my blog about exactly what our pastoral care package consisted of. My inbox told me instantly that nobody else was offering the services that we offer to our students. When I tried at the beginning of the year to enlist some other colleges to come and look at our model in a bid to get Mental Health awareness into all colleges, I was rebuffed at every turn.

Just a few weeks ago a situation occurred whereby I needed to contact a counsellor/welfare person at another college over one of their students who was struggling. However I couldn’t find any contact details for such a person. I put a shout out on twitter asking if any other colleges had staff on call to students in emergencies, and shockingly none of the larger colleges had (or if they have they need to let their students know…as they all felt that you didn’t).

With our radical approach to Mental Health Awareness, with having two members of staff on call 24/6, 365 days a year to both our students AND ambassadors, I now confidently say that we have a pioneering approach to pastoral care, as I now feel that I can justify the statement.

Back in 2009 we were the UK’s first accelerated learning programme. Offering an intense learning experience over two years. To this day we are still the only college to offer such a course. I’m alarmed by the number of two-year courses that are springing up that are operating within the standard three term a year system that we know and love. There is no way that these courses are accelerated or indeed intensive (unless you could claim that they’re intensively taking your money at an accelerated rate!).

In other words I’ve started to see the language that we’ve always used, creep into some of our competitors PR. Clearly the big five Drama UK colleges don’t do this as I wouldn’t have thought that we’re even on their radar. However an increasing number of contemporary colleges to us are noticeably using a shared language with us. At first I thought that I was being a bit paranoid, but then people started to contact me to ask if I’d seen so and so’s latest advert/press release/tweet.

So here’s my thing – I’m thrilled that some people are currently trying to emulate The MTA Way – but back it up with facts. We are transparent about EVERYTHING e.g. open book accounting, pages on our website showing what EVERY ambassador (graduate) is up to. If you want to imitate us get a Mental Health specialist into your college as a key member of your faculty. Take less students so that you can concentrate on them all as individuals as opposed to herd them through en masse. If you’re calling yourself intensive, publish your contact hours/week and your weeks/year. You really can’t call yourself an accelerated course if you’re doing it in three years (that’s just silly).

So to sum up. I will only consider it flattery when you’re putting your money where your mouth is. Run your colleges for training not profit and then happily use all of our terminology as you would have imitated one of our greatest selling points, that of ‘ethical training’.


About Paul Couch

Paul Couch
The features team is under the editorship of Paul Couch. This team is responsible for producing interviews, articles, competitions, etc. The Public Reviews was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.