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Hashtags killed the TV star? @Westendproducer and the birth of a new kind of talent contest

7 May

It’s official: we live in the era of the TV talent contest. But one shadowy impresario has set the musical theatre world abuzz with a new talent search bringing together Twitter, YouTube and a live final in the West End.

@Westendproducer announced his ‘Search for a Twitter Star’ competition to his 15,000+ followers in April, inviting actors to upload video of themselves performing a musical theatre song and tweet it to him. The anonymous tweeter has won a devoted online following, largely for his catty and hilarious insights into the life of a theatrical bigwig. But he deserves credit for pioneering a new mashup of TV, theatre and social media.

More than 600 videos were submitted, and @westendproducer is set to announce a shortlist of 40 entrants (20 men, 20 women) imminently. The quarter-finalists will then have until 13 May to record another song from a specific musical theatre genre before voting is thrown open to the public.

The competition will culminate in a live performance at London’s Lyric Theatre on 9 July, accompanied by a live orchestra and judged by a panel of industry experts including leading lady Louise Dearman, casting director Anne Vosser, agent Gemma Lowy-Hamilton and musical director Mike Dixon. Unusually for a West End show, the audience will be actively encouraged to keep their phones on and tweet throughout the performance.

We spoke to Mike Dixon (below) to find out what to expect from the final. Mike has more than 30 years’ experience as an MD, arranger and music supervisor, and is currently rehearsing Street of Dreams, the Corrie extravaganza musical opening at Manchester Arena on Wednesday night, which he says has been “quite a giggle”. He is also no stranger to TV talent contests, having worked on shows from Pop Idol to Miss World. But he won’t be going for the Simon Cowell approach: “My take on it is that you don’t diss people – I try to give them some positive feedback”.

Mike said he would probably not watch the contestants’ videos before the final. “I kind of prefer to be there and see instantaneously what’s being presented rather than being over-prepped,” he says.

Can a YouTube video give an accurate idea of someone’s talent? “Actually, I think it’s probably quite difficult because people can do things to their voices on a YouTube video,” Mike says. “They can treat their voices a little bit – I don’t know whether they have – but when people are going to be with a live orchestra without any gizmos apart from a microphone in front of them, that’s going to expose them. We’ll see whether people really can do it.”

One of the entrants hoping to make the final 40 is Alexandra Da Silva (right), a third-year actingstudent at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. She says today’s performers would be “crazy” not to use Twitter for the opportunities it offers – she found out about the competition through friends’ tweets.

Alexandra submitted a performance of Jonathan Reid Gealt’s song ‘Quiet’, taken from a gig last year. “I’d completely forgotten it had been filmed,” she says, “and then I thought, oh, I’ve got that kicking about, I’m going to give it a try… It’s kind of a win-win situation, because even if you don’t get chosen for the quarter-finals or the semi-finals or whatever, you’ve got your video out there.”

@Westendproducer has been giving feedback to most entrants, and described Alexandra’s video as “a passionate, moving performance”.

Alexandra says she would be reluctant to enter a TV talent search along the lines of I’d Do Anything or ITV’s forthcoming Superstar (which will cast Jesus and Judas for an arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar): “I guess a few years ago I might have done, but I think now they’ve become a lot more about selling a sob story rather than selling the talent.” She says #searchforatwitterstar is “more about the person, because you get to choose what you upload –for the quarterfinals and semifinals as well.”

Does she worry about getting flak from the YouTube haters? “That’s the risk you’ve got to take,” she says. “You’re not going to please everybody in anything you do, and I think putting something on YouTube is just the same as going on stage. It might be on a larger scale because more people see it, but you’re always going to get criticism as a performer.”

The search is on. But will @westendproducer be unmasked in the process? Mike says he is still stumped: “None of us know who he is. I thought we might get to meet him but I don’t think we will, he’s seeming to manage to keep his identity secret. It really is extraordinary.

“At the beginning of the year I went to the opening night of Pippin at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and tweeted something about it, and then 10 minutes later he tweeted me back saying he’d been standing right next to me.”

Actors’ Guild Bursary – one week to go

7 May

If you were planning to apply for Actors’ Guild annual bursary scheme, there’s a week left until the deadline. And if you hadn’t heard anything about it: you’ve got time.

The bursary doesn’t entail any actual cash – which, on the plus side, removes the temptation to spend it on trifles (or trifle). Instead, it includes free Spotlight and Casting Call Pro membership, a subscription to The Stage, free headshots and showreel, a year’s web hosting… in other words, the boring, practical expenses that eat away at any actor’s earnings.

To apply, you must be 18 or over, and have a Spotlight account (you’ll be asked for your Spotlight PIN when you register on the Actors’ Guild site). There’s no audition involved: you can do it all on the website.

Meet, greet and tweet: reporting from the UK Actors Tweetup (VIDEO)

6 May

by Elli Donajgrodzki and Edward Randell

On Wednesday we made our way to the UK Actors Tweetup to hear – and livetweet – a panel discussion on the Cannes Film Festival. Producer Christine Hartland, director Paul Hills and Variety’s Alberto Lopez tackled burning issues including whether Cannes is the Bournemouth of France, what shoes to wear and the most effective schmoozing techniques. The general consensus among the panel was that Cannes was less useful for actors than for producers and directors, but that it could still throw up unexpected opportunities: or as Hills put it, “The beauty of Cannes is the chance meeting”.

We spoke to Hills, as well as UK Actors Tweetup founder Angela Peters and actress Moyo Akandé, about sharing tips with other thespian tweeps, and the benefits of mixing work with pleasure.

Exclusive graphic: Arts Council’s London-centric vision for England

6 May

It’s no secret that where arts funding is concerned there’s a gulf between London and the rest of England. But our exclusive infographic, mapping Arts Council England’s grants for 2010-11, still makes for sobering viewing.

The graphic shows how London dominates in the allocation of grants, receiving more than all the other regions combined.

Arts Council England’s regional grants 2010/11. Infographic by Edward Randell

Arts Council England (ACE) supports work across the arts, encompassing music, literature and visual arts as well as performance. Its funding is crucial to many of the UK’s most prestigious theatre institutions and companies, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, Opera North, Southbank Centre and Punchdrunk. Although London’s West End is renowned as the heart of commercial theatre in the UK, it is also home to a huge amount of subsidised theatre – a fact reflected in the ACE figures.

Details of the grants, and how they were divided between ACE’s regional offices, were released as part of the funding body’s annual review for 2011, published on 26 April. More than £427m of public money was awarded overall, including £58.7m on national projects (not shown in the graphic). This represents a 2% increase on 2009/10, although ACE’s overall spending decreased by 6% (from £625m to £588m)

For 2011/12, the majority of regular ACE beneficiaries face an 8.7% spending cut, with government arts funding set to continue falling over the next three years.

How are ACE’s cuts affecting you? And do you think too much is spent on London?

Yes we Cannes! Going live from the UK Actors tweetup

2 May

This evening, two of the In The Wings team will be heading down to the UK Actors tweetup at Jewel Bar in Piccadilly Circus. This month’s tweetup promises an escape from rain-drenched London to the south of France, with a Q&A on how to get ahead at the Cannes Film Festival. The speakers include producer Christine Hartland, director Paul Hills and Variety’s international director of sales and development Alberto Lopez.

We’ll be livetweeting the event as @blogforactors, so keep an eye on Twitter to hear their top tips, and look out for some video interviews from the tweetup over the next few days.

Photo of Cannes by Guy Lebègue, via Wikimedia Commons on a Creative Commons licence.

Exclusive: more on those NYT auditions…

27 Jan

Following on from yesterday’s post, we talked to the National Youth Theatre‘s public affairs director Joe Duggan for a sneak peek into their 2012 auditions, which are now underway.

In The Wings: How many people are auditioning this year?

Joe Duggan: It’s likely to be around 4,500, which will be the most ever. It continues to grow and grow. But you know, we’re the National Youth Theatre, not the London Youth Theatre or anything like that, and the audition programme is one of the ways that we really have a national presence. We’ve got people flying up to Glasgow, and heading down to Plymouth – I’m off to Cardiff.

ITW: How many of those 4,500 will get in?

JD: Last year we accepted 500 people, and I think it’s likely to be something similar this year. I think it’s really about the level of talent that’s out there and whether we can find it. We pride ourselves on excellence. The National Youth Theatre’s been around for 56 years now, and it’s got all these illustrious alumni: Daniel Craig, Helen Mirren and so on. And I think we feel a real duty to maintain that high standard. It wouldn’t mean the same if we just let anyone in.

We think young people do enjoy competition, as well. You see the people that are successful, and how much it means to them – that they have competed in this big field and they’ve been selected because there’s something unique, interesting and individual about them.

ITW: What form do the auditions take?

JD: It’s a workshop in the morning and an individual audition in the afternoon. Our feedback is that it’s a really good experience, whether you’re successful or not, if you want a bit of a taster of what the industry feels like. The more auditions you go to, the more prepared you’ll be, the more normal it’ll feel to do it, and hopefully you’ll be able to feel relaxed and showcase yourself in the best possible light.

ITW: What would be your main pointers to people who have auditions coming up?

JD: I think should use their auditions to honestly show who they are, as a performer and as a person. We look for people who are unique, people who are curious and ask questions, and enter into a dialogue with us. Not necessarily the person who’s been cast as the lead in all the school plays, or a typically drama-ey type – but someone who will really add something to our community of members. So for a young person I’d always advise them to find a speech that they really enjoy performing, that shows off who they are.

The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain has been supporting young acting talent since 1956. Their 2012 audition programme is currently underway, and successful applicants will take up a place on one of their acting courses – which this summer will be evenly split for the first time between London’s Rose Bruford College and MediaCity, Salford.

Photo by garryknight, via Flickr, on a Creative Commons licence.

There’s more to acting than celebrity impersonations. Isn’t there?

16 Nov

Margaret Thatcher sidewalk chalk portrait #artsed

Matt Trueman on the Guardian Stage blog asks an intriguing question: why is the media so obsessed with actors playing public figures?

As Meryl Streep’s Thatcher hits our screens, greeted by a florists’ worth of critical bouquets, the question is as timely as ever.

But a quick glance over past Best Actor/Actress Oscar winners reveals the store that Hollywood has always set store by “real” performances. In recent years statuettes have gone to Colin Firth as George VI, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin, Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles…

Trueman writes:

The reception of such performances frequently surpasses that of actors playing strictly fictional characters. Some critics become so awestruck you’d think the actors had literally transmogrified in front of them.

This reverence is easy enough to understand. The kid in class who can do uncanny impersonations of the teacher has always won our kudos. And, whereas in 1929 critics had no clue whether Oscar-winner George Arliss really nailed his role as Benjamin Disraeli, it’s now easy to measure how well the actor has captured the person. Trueman again:

Because there is an evident endpoint to which the actor aspires, it becomes far easier to separate actor from role… What we might call [Michael] Sheen-Hamlet is a one-off, a unique melding of actor and the role as written, where Sheen-Blair can be measured against a concrete and external thing, namely Blair himself. That division allows us to measure the performance – an actor’s technique – against something concrete. It’s easier, I think, to spot a good Blair than a good Hamlet.

Ask any of these garlanded actors about their performances and they all tend to say the same thing: I wasn’t trying to do an “impersonation”. But is there a danger that all the acclaim and media coverage gives a false impression of the actor’s craft?

Maybe you’ve played a “real person”. What steps did you take to prepare?

Picture by SpecialKRB, used via Flickr, under a Creative Commons licence.

Something old, something new… husband and wife go head-to-head for Evening Standard award

8 Nov

When the Evening Standard theatre award nominations were announced yesterday, the big story was the Frankenstein v Frankenstein bout between Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in the Best Actor category.  But there’s another rivalry afoot: half of the four nominees for the Outstanding Newcomer award are married to each other.

Husband and wife Kyle Soller and Phoebe Fox married after “a RADA romance” – both are graduates of the prestigious acting course. Fox (class of 2010) is nominated for her roles in As You Like It at The Rose, Kingston; Anya Reiss’s The Acid Test at the Royal Court and Tom Basden’s There Is A War at the National’s Paint Frame space.

Connecticut-born Soller (class of 2008) is nominated for The Glass Menagerie and Government Inspector, both at the Young Vic, and The Faith Machine at the Royal Court.

Meanwhile, Malachi Kirby is recognised for his acclaimed role as the bully Jason in Vivienne Franzmann’s school drama Mogadishu.

The award – full name the Milton Shulman Award for Outstanding Newcomer – has a history of choosing leftfield nominees who are not true ‘newcomers’ but have crossed into theatre from other performing arts: Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm was among last year’s nominees (for Blood Brothers) and Lenny Henry won in 2009 for Othello.

Perhaps the most surprising choice this year is David Wilson Barnes, a familiar face in New York theatre but new to the London stage, who gets a nod for his performance as Max in Becky Shaw at the Almeida. Barnes also played the role in the Louisville and Off-Broadway productions of Gina Gionfriddo’s play. Which begs the question often thrown up by ‘newcomer’ awards… new to whom?

The upstart crow: why is Anonymous getting Shakespeare fans so hot and bothered?

26 Oct

Shakespeare sign

The new Roland Emmerich film, Anonymous, has reopened the perennial debate about whether Shakespeare’s plays were really written by  a Warwickshire-born actor with no university education. Emmerich’s film, written by John Orloff, subscribes to the well-worn “Oxfordian” conspiracy theory in which Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), was responsible for the canon.

Temperatures run high whenever Shakespearean authorship is called into question. Pub and road signs in Warwickshire (and even as far afield as Southport) referring to Shakespeare have been covered up in protest. The campaign serves as a reminder that this is not just an academic question: the revenues from tourism of Stratford’s theatres – not to mention museums, restaurants and pubs – depend on it.

Shakespeare remains a major driver of the arts economy in Britain, and a major employer of British actors. Next year, 50 arts organisations will take part in the World Shakespeare Festival (WSF), a central plank of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. But even in an ordinary week such as this one, London alone is playing host to productions of The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s “Complete Works”.

The Oxfordian theory was first proposed by the colourfully named J Thomas Looney. High-profile supporters of the theory today include actors Mark Rylance (former Artistic Director of the Globe) and Sir Derek Jacobi (who narrates Anonymous).

The theory’s detractors say it stems from snobbery. Stanley Wells, Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, says: “They would like to feel that the author of these great works must have been a member of the aristocracy. It’s also often due to ignorance, the feeling that a man born in this town of Stratford couldn’t have had enough education to write those plays which is just not true.”

The Oxfordians doubt that these plays could have been written by a mere actor. But many who have worked closely with Shakespearean texts feel they must have been, that they show a deep knowledge of the actor’s craft.

What do you think?

Picture by Nelson Kuniyoshi, on Flickr, via a Creative Commons licence.