*£5 Ticket Offer*

Following successful performances at Oldham Coliseum Theatre Studio and The Lantern Theatre in Liverpool, The Stars are Made of Concrete will be coming to Salford Arts Theatre from Wednesday 18th – Saturday 21st May. We are giving away the first 15 tickets each night for just £5!*

BOOK HERE NOW for this ‘Gritty, witty, upbeat social drama’ **** from Remotegoat

See writer Michelle Ashton talking about the show on That’s Manchester

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*Early bird £5 ticket offer only applies to online bookings. A booking fee of £0.50 is also payable.

Casting Announcement

We are very please to announce two new additions to The Stars are Made of Concrete

leni ash

Leni Murphy (left) will be taking on the role of Sinead and Ash Baines (right) will be playing Gaz in the upcoming tour.

Leni’s credits include Harvey for ‘yer maun’ productions, Mrs Medlock in the secret Garden and ‘the last motel’ at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Ash is looking forward to returning to Salford Arts Theatre where his theatre company Inceptive Productions performed Jez Butterworth’s Mojo last year.

We can’t wait to get stuck in.

An actor on the other side of the casting process – part 2

I have lost count of the number of auditions I have had. It’s quite rare for me to be nervous now. It’s just part of the job.

For this audition, I was bricking it.

It’s only the fourth time I’ve ever held auditions for other actors with the most recent being 2012, so it’s not something I have very much experience with. I wanted the actors to feel at ease, have a positive experience, and most importantly I wanted to find someone for the part.

So my first mistakes came in the introductions. Because I knew everyone’s names and what they looked like, I initially forgot to tell people who I was.

Whoops.

There were certainly a lot of things I could have done better, so this isn’t me pretending that I’m perfect and never do anything wrong in auditions or otherwise. I’m aware that some of the women I’m about to talk about will read this, so I would like to make it clear that I am not having a go at anyone and nobody is about to be publically shamed. This is just a few observations from the other side of the table.

The vibe I got from a couple of the women was the feeling of unworthiness. I felt like they’d happily shoot their Gran as long as I’d give them the job. The most important thing that some actors haven’t seemed to realise yet, is that an audition is as much an opportunity for you to decide whether YOU like US. It’s not about you proving that you’re good enough. The fact that you have made it into an audition room is a pretty good indication that you can act, and for the record I did not see any bad performances at all. I was very impressed with the level of preparation and thought that had been given from all of the candidates.

But as I have read in many an article, the decision will be made within 10 seconds of you walking in the room. This always struck me as unfair and ridiculous. If they don’t want to cast you based on what you look like, why did they invite you to audition?

When auditioning myself I realised why. Because a headshot only tells you so much. It doesn’t tell you the way people move, the way they speak, the aura (for want of a better word) that you only get when you meet a person face to face. And most disappointingly, some actors look nothing like their headshot.

It does seem like a strange thing to say – how can a photo of you, not look like you? Maybe you’ve lost weight recently, or maybe your hair is thinner or shorter or longer than when you had the pictures taken. Sometimes it’s just the angle that makes you look older or younger, or slimmer or larger. But if you have been invited to an audition on the basis of your headshot, and that is not a true reflection of you, all you are going to be is a disappointment. This is not the way anybody wants to start an audition. There was one candidate who if she hadn’t tweeted me a strange pouting selfie that morning (tweet, fine – weird cheek-sucking selfie, not a good move) I would not have recognised her at all. She looked about 10 years younger than she does on her headshot and I think she had lost some weight. I knew in an instant I was not going to cast her and it had nothing to do with her acting.

The other part where you can easily let yourself down is the inevitable “what have you been up to recently?” question. Now, when you’ve not had any acting work recently, I understand that it can be quite a difficult question to answer, I’ve been there. But honestly, the answer is not important. Your attitude is.

Two of the women I saw had both been working backstage and front of house for major producing theatres. One of them gave off a sense of embarrassment, not in what she said, but how she said it. Ok, backstage might not be what you set out to do, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable or interesting. I learned more about how a theatre functions by spending one week as a stage manager than I did in three years at drama school. The woman who I offered the part to was the one who told me all about helping the actors to learn lines and the rehearsals that she’d seen and the actors’ reactions coming offstage.

“What have you been up to recently” isn’t a test, it’s a chance for us to get to know you a little bit. If you’ve had loads of acting work recently, great. If you’ve taken a career break to have kids, tell us about that. If you’ve been doing a horrible call centre job that you hate – don’t talk about work, talk about the stuff you do outside of work.

But the thing to remember about auditions is just do that best that you can do. The first woman we saw gave the perfect audition. She looked exactly like her photo, she was off book and gave a considered performance, she was confident and enthusiastic and I would have quite happily given her the job…

If somebody even more perfect hadn’t walked in a few hours later.

And that is just the way it goes sometimes.

So actors, whenever you walk into an audition, remember that YOU DESERVE TO BE THERE. The question you need to answer, is do the people you are auditioning for deserve you.

An actor on the other side of the casting process – part 1

As an actor, I have had more than my fair share of auditions. Some good, some bad, some thoroughly unmemorable. This week has been somewhat different, as I have spent it on the other side of the table, and it has been an eye opening experience.

Now, this audition has had to be held at very short notice, which was far from ideal. The casting went live Thursday morning and I quickly checked my phone on my lunch break from rehearsals.

Oooh! 18 applications. Excellent. I didn’t think I’d have this many at such short notice.

When I arrived home and excitedly logged into Casting Call Pro I was very disappointed.

Now, it was quite a long casting breakdown (It is still on the blog, if you are curious) but I wanted to make sure that potential applicants were very clear on what I was looking for. The short version is: Woman, late 20s, Large build, based in Manchester, northern accent.

What did I get?

Anything but. I had two submissions from an agent who was clearly just submitting girls for whatever jobs came up in their age range. The covering letter was a generic copy and paste job that listed the girls’ skills and recent credits. I’m sure it is lovely that your client has trapeze skills and conversational French, but I really don’t care. I asked for late 20s, large build, based in Manchester. Your client being a grade 8 flautist does not make up for the fact she looks 19, is a size 8 and based in Somerset!

Those who were listed as slim (which was at least 10 of the applicants) were instantly marked as unsuitable.

I had two suggestions of a fat suit and one girl that said she loves cake.

Cake girl was also based in London.

I really don’t understand it. Why waste your time like that? Now, the women who were lacking one of the five things on the list, I get it. You take a punt and in the event that I couldn’t find someone who had everything I wanted, then I might give you an audition. I’ve done the same thing myself many times. The experience from this side of the process has made me realise that it is pointless.

Because the fact is, there will always be SOMEONE who does have all of the things on the list.

I asked for a woman of large build because it is integral to the script. How often do you see big girl as the romantic lead? Hardly ever. And if she is, the story is usually centred on her size and how she can never get a man until such and such comes along and blah blah blah. Sinead is far too busy working and being a single mum to be spending the whole time obsessing about her weight. She knows she doesn’t fit conventional standards of beauty – but she’s still sexy. Adam likes her because she’s witty, honest and completely unashamed of who she is. I wrote her because I wanted to reflect the real world and in the real world people of all different shapes and sizes fall in love.

It is also an opportunity for the actor to play a type of part that she would not normally get to play. Quality roles for larger women are not very easy to come by, so suggesting that you can eat some cake is not cute,  not funny, and not going to get you an audition.

I invited all of the suitable applicants to audition today. Eight out of twenty-six. I’ll let you know how it went when we announce the decision tomorrow.

We are casting

We are looking for someone to join our existing cast of The Stars are Made of Concrete which is touring the North-West in May with a couple of extra dates in June.

The role is Sinead, a 28-year-old hairdresser. She is very savvy and knows what she wants and how to get it, but underneath her hard exterior there is a lot of vulnerability – especially when it comes to her daughter, Aisha. LARGE BUILD. Northern Accent

Candidates should be Manchester based as this is where we will be travelling from. Rehearsals are scheduled in Salford for the following times, but there may be a degree of flexibility for the right candidate:

Mon 2nd May – 11-5
Wed 4th May – 11-3
Sat 7th May – 12-6
Sun 8th May – 3-6
Mon 9th May – 11-6

It would also be helpful if you are available for a Q&A session at Oldham Coliseum Theatre on Tues 3rd May. You must be available for all of the following performance dates:

Wed 11th May: Oldham Coliseum Theatre Studio
Thurs 12th – Fri 13th May: The Lantern Theatre, Liverpool
Wed 18th – Sat 21st May: Salford Arts Theatre
Wed 8th – Thur 9th June: The Continental, Preston

This is a small scale fringe theatre company, so we are limited on budget, however the fixed fee agreement of £565 is equal to the living wage + holiday pay for hours worked. Travel expenses will also be covered, but candidates who have the ability to drive and access to their own vehicle and the will have a distinct advantage.

AUDITIONS WILL BE HELD MONDAY 11TH APRIL IN SALFORD

To apply please send your CV and covering letter to michelle@messydress.co.uk

Tax avoidance vs benefit fraud

If you have been anywhere in the vicinity of a TV, radio or computer over the last 24 hours, you will know what the Panama Papers are. If by some freak occurrence you don’t know what I’m talking about, the gist is that 11.5 million files from Mossack Fonseca (the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm) were leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, who very nicely shared them with the international media. The documents show how the rich can avoid paying tax by using offshore tax havens. One fine example being David Cameron’s daddy, whose offshore investment fund never paid any UK tax at all – which was of course perfectly legal as they submitted their tax returns to HMRC every year.

Now David Cameron had quite a lot to say when Jimmy Carr was exposed for using a tax avoidance scheme back in 2012, but as soon as the spotlight falls on his own family it’s ‘a private matter’.

I actually laughed out loud when I heard that was Downing Street’s official line.

It’s actually not that hard avoid paying tax. Actor Greg Wise recently went under cover for a Channel 4 Dispatches programme in which he found out he could eradicate his entire tax bill without breaking the law. I sometimes get confused as to which is which, so to remind myself:

  • Tax avoidance: the LEGAL use of tax loopholes to reduce the amount of tax you pay.
  • Tax evasion: ILLEGALLY hiding information from HMRC to reduce your tax bill.

In the year 2012/13 the UK lost an estimated £3.1 billion to tax avoidance and even more if you include tax evasion and criminal activity which brings the total up to £12.6 billion.

£12.6 billion in tax that should have been paid by the rich.

That’s more than 10 times the amount the treasury lost to benefit fraud the following year.

And that’s the thing that really gets to me. Now, I’m not saying that benefit fraud is fine, or that it’s not an issue. £1.2 billion is a lot of money. But when you consider that an estimated £1.5 billion was underpaid, it means the money is going to the wrong people, but the DWP is still in profit. In fact more money was overpaid as a result of clerical errors or genuine mistakes by the claimants (£2.2 billion).

As someone who has had more than one period of unemployment, I know that the people who misuse the system are a tiny minority. All in all, fraudulent claims amount to 0.7% of the total amount of money the government spends on benefits – and that was from their own figures! This is nothing new, but some messages need to be repeated over and over again in order to get through to people. I decided to write a play about unemployment, because I wanted to show the real people behind the numbers. I’m glad to say that I’m not the only theatre maker to be doing this. Last week, Take Back Theatre hosted another successful evening of short plays – this one as a response to the budget. And for me that is what theatre is about. I want to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves. The people whose lives are really affected by the government arbitrarily moving figures around. And today has just confirmed why I write theatre with a political message.

Because the most shocking thing about the Panama Papers, is that it is not shocking at all.

On hearing that their Prime Minister was embroiled in these tax avoidance schemes, the people of Iceland took to the streets to protest. I hope that this is a wakeup call for our government too and they use it as an opportunity to bring about real change. I have a suspicion that I’m going to be very disappointed.

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The Stars are Made of Concrete is touring 11th May-9th June. Find out more on our production page.

Why doing ‘everything in your power’ to find work is not as simple as it sounds

A few years ago, I applied for a job working the night shift at well-known convenience store in the centre of Manchester. 2012 had not been kind and my once very healthy savings account was gasping for its final breath. Three 12 hour overnight shifts a week didn’t seem like a bad idea. It would leave my days free for auditions so I wouldn’t ever have to pull a sickie to do an acting job again. As a 23-year-old with a university education, four years of retail experience and a glowing reference to back that up, I thought the job was as good as mine. I fired off my CV and waited for the reply. A month later, there was a rather long notice in the window. I don’t remember the exact details of a notice I read four years ago, but in my head I read it something like this:

We have had over 500 applications for this one shitty job where you will have to put up with drunk people shouting abuse at you at half four in the morning. Really weren’t expecting that many people so, we thought this rejection message in the shop window would be much nicer than an automated email response that would take us the same amount of time. Best of luck finding a job, you’re gonna need it!

Now if I, as a university graduate with four years of retail experience was not invited for an interview, what chance does someone with no work experience and no qualifications have of ever finding work?

And so I started to think back to a guy I had met while in that retail job. We were hiring for people to pick and pack orders for the online side of the business and in walked a young man I will call Adam. He was about my age, but came across as much younger. He had very little work experience and terrible GCSE results, but he was so polite and so enthusiastic about the job that the manager decided to give him a work trial.

It did not go well for him. The target for a normal working day was to pick 20 orders every hour. For the work trial, candidates were given ten very easy orders to pick, which would then be checked and corrected by yours truly. Adam tried really hard, but his reading was so poor, he could barely read the invoices. He only managed 8 of the 10 orders – all of which were wrong. As much as the manager would have liked to give him a chance, there was just no way she could’ve hired him.

Photo by Shay Rowan

And so The Stars are Made of Concrete was born. I started to rewrite my own experiences at the job centre from Adam’s perspective. The filling in of endless forms, the advisor meetings were they try to create a CV based on experience that you don’t have and the feeling of dread every two weeks that you are going to be told that you are just not trying hard enough.

Since writing the play I have been back to the Job Centre a couple of times. The Universal Credit reforms have made everything much worse.

When you claim job seekers allowance it is paid every two weeks. You can also claim other benefits such as housing benefit. Universal Credit replaces several benefits with one monthly payment. I opened my claim for Universal Credit on 23rd December last year. My first payment was scheduled for February 5th.

What makes it worse, is that under Job seekers allowance you are given a numerical target of ‘job actions’ to complete every week. This could be checking the newspaper, applying for a job, attending a job interview etc. Under Universal Credit you must agree to do ‘everything in your power’ to find work.

No-one would argue with that. Of course if you are unemployed you must do everything in your power to find work. But that statement is completely arbitrary. Who says where your power ends? Well, it’s decided by your coach.

Coach: So, you’ve only applied for one bar job. There are plenty of bars in Manchester looking for staff.

Me: Well, yes but I can’t drive. A taxi home from Manchester is over £20. If I worked an 8 hour shift at minimum wage that’s only about 50 quid so I’ve cut my wage in half before I’ve even paid any tax.

Coach: There’s a night bus.

Me:  Only on Fridays and Saturdays, but they’re really irregular.

Coach: There you go, you can work Fridays and Saturdays.

Me: Have you ever been on a night bus?

Coach: Have you not thought about learning to drive?

Me: Well, yes. I’m taking my test next week actually.

Coach: Well there you go, when you pass your test next week you can buy a car. First time?

Me: Third time.

Coach: Oh… I passed first time.

Me: Then I clearly just wasn’t trying hard enough to pass my driving test, just like I’m not trying hard enough to find work. You are right. Of course I could hang around Piccadilly gardens at 3am waiting possibly up to an hour for a bus. Never mind that women are being warned not to walk alone through the centre of Manchester after a recent spate of sexual attacks. It won’t be for long of course, because being unemployed and entitled to less than £400 a month, I have the £1500 minimum needed to buy and insure a car just waiting in my bank account. So you were right, I really wasn’t doing everything in my power to find work. Thank you for educating me. I deserve to be sanctioned!

Except for the last bit, that conversation actually happened to me. You may do what you feel is ‘everything in your power’, but if your work coach disagrees with you it means you have violated your claimant commitment, which in my case meant losing £10.40 per day of my Universal Credit until… well, until they see fit. This is not a system that helps people get into work. It is a system designed to get people off benefits.

Luckily, I wasn’t claiming long enough for them to sanction me. A few days after this conversation, I was offered work and the opportunity to bring The Stars are Made of Concrete to Oldham Coliseum Theatre Studio. So, in a way I should be thankful to this dreadful government as this play wouldn’t exist without them. I don’t know what happened to Adam. I hope he is not still caught up in this horrible system, but I have a feeling things are only going to get worse.

If you would like to help us tell Adam’s story, you can donate to our Crowdfunder campaign below:

Why are there not more women on the stage?

It’s international women’s day and a day to celebrate women who are amazing! Since I started performing at the age of six, I have been surrounded by women. My ballet class was all female, our GCSE drama group had more girls than boys, when I started after school classes our workshops and performances were full of girls playing male parts because there were just so few of them. In my year at drama school we began with 22 women and 11 men. By the time we left, the balance had shifted radically to 12 women and 10 men.

I remember at the time being glad that we had lost so many women. Hooray! More parts for me. We were all sick of having to double up and share the female roles with each other while the men got to rehearse the whole play. I don’t blame the tutors for this. They did their best with what they had and tried to make it even, but I do feel that the men got better training as a result. I’m not saying that the women who left the course did it solely for this reason, but I can’t help feeling that it might have been a factor in the decision making process.

Upon leaving drama school I noticed the difference straight away. Most of the jobs I got were working with either an even gender balance or I was outnumbered (that’s before we even start talking about the crew). In 2012 The Guardian did a report showing that women are underrepresented across the board in theatre by a ratio of 2:1

‘Male actors in theatre still outweigh the number of women. 38% of actors employed during 2011-12 were female with the Royal Court and Northern Stage performing the best with 48% each. The National Theatre had the lowest representation of female actors at 34% followed by Liverpool Everyman at 36%.’

Not great figures from some, but the Royal Court and Northern Stage had almost an even gender balance. Great. But when you bear in mind that there were so many more women than men competing for those roles, it doesn’t feel so even. A director I have worked for has recently been casting for a Shakespeare tour. She had over 200 women apply. Can you guess how many men? Just 15.

Elizabeth Freestone who conducted this study, believes that the amount of Shakespeare we revive is the root of the problem, but people are starting to be more imaginative in their casting. The Reversed Shakespeare Company will debut with a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at The Pleasance Theatre in London from the 16th – 27th March, 2016. All of the male parts will be played by women and vice versa. There has also been an all female production of Julius Caeser at the Donmar Warehouse.

Writers are also trying to redress the balance, but it is a slow process. Last year I was in a play where I was back around women again  – It’s Still Life by Sean Mason. It was set in a life drawing class led by heavily pregnant Claire who seemed to have it all, a perfect boyfriend, a good teaching job and a baby on the way. We saw her class of four very different women developing their skills – along with themselves over the course of six weekly sessions. Their model, Rob, just happens to be Claire’s boyfriend.

It was unusual to be in a play with so many women. Even more unusual that the only man in the cast spent most of his time being naked and silent. And perhaps the most unusual was that this play was written by a man. Sean said that he wanted to see if he could write for women.

To me, this seems absurd. They were well rounded characters with fantastically funny dialogue. I don’t blame Sean for being worried about it, I think like a lot of male writers, he worried that the characters might not be realistic because he’s not writing from his own experience. But as I female writer, I don’t worry about not being able to write men. I worry about not being able to write!

So I’d like to celebrate these three wonderful women here, who will be bringing to life Sinead, Bev and Carol in my play The Stars are Made of Concrete this May. I just hope I have written dialogue that is worthy of their talents.

relaxing-after-the-stars-are-made-of-concrete-jenny-jordan-oneill-matthews_zoe-dakin_jo_20058661252_o

Jennifer Jordan-O’Neill, Zoe Matthews and Joanne Dakin.

You can help us make this show a reality by donating to our Crowdfunder campaign below

Where have all the working class actors gone? We’re over here!

So this week has seen another set of articles bemoaning the lack of opportunities for working class actors. Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: ‘I believe that it’s important we find a way to give more access to working class aspirant actors to proper training.’

Now of course, I am not going to disagree with this. But what I am going to disagree with is the nature of the problem. Training is expensive, yes. But most of the 3 year acting courses at drama school are now degree courses which means you can get a student loan.

Whether or not you agree with charging students to go to university (I don’t but that’s a separate issue) a student loan does not work in the same way as a bank loan. You don’t have to pay back a penny until you are earning over £21,000 a year. Once you are earning that you then pay back 6% of your earnings over that amount every year.

As an actor from a working class background myself, this is how I financed my training. Six years after graduating I have not had to pay back a penny and it does not affect my credit rating. In fact as I got a Saturday job during my training I left drama school with a first class BA (hons) and £3,000 in my bank account. Most of the people on my course were also from lower or middle income backgrounds. It is not training more working class actors that is the big problem. It is giving them the opportunities after graduation.

At the start of your career you spend more time pursuing work than you do actually working. I myself did a little tally up of my audition to jobs ratio last year and it was very disappointing.

In 2015 I applied for 207 acting jobs.

I was offered 12 auditions (9 of which I was able to attend)

I got 2 jobs.

The arts being what they are, there are not very many permanent jobs available. It tends to be a day here and a day there so applying for 207 jobs was actually not that many. I wasn’t trying particularly hard. I spent most of last year performing in an entertainment attraction, which was poorly paid, but at least I was doing what I trained to do. After a hard days work, scouring the internet looking for castings which want you to be in London the following day or writing letters to casting directors which almost never get a response was not my idea of a fun evening. Just imagine how many jobs I could have applied for, or networking events I could have gone to if I didn’t have to work to keep a roof over my head.

And this is a problem my fellow actors know only too well. The thing that is holding our careers back is that those who are well off and don’t have to work in a pub to pay their rent have the time to put in all of the hard work and relentless chasing of work that is required to forge a career.

I feel we have created a two tier system of actors. One tier which has recognisable faces earning lots of money making work about other people who have lots of money and another which is people you don’t know who are juggling medical role play with a bit part on Corrie while trying to rehearse for a piece of new writing on the fringe.

Which is the reason I have set up a crowdfunder for our next project The Stars are Made of Concrete to cover the production costs so that any box office takings can be used to pay the actors wages. You can see more here

So, yes there are fewer opportunities for working class actors, but what the people with the power to change that haven’t seemed to notice is that we are busy creating our own opportunities. We are here, Julian. Come and see us! You really haven’t been looking hard enough.