INTERVIEW | Sunday, 26 August 2007

Fame, I’m gonna live forever…

Mark Featherstone-Witty, Founding Principal and CEO of the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, was in Malta for a few days to suggest the possibility of offering their courses in Maltese schools. He talks of LIPA, Sir Paul McCartney, and the internet amongst other things.
Interview by Bianca Caruana

“LIPA started off about 10 years ago when Paul and I realised the need for a performing institute. As an institute we began by providing an undergraduate course, then developed a foundation course. A course for youngsters came next which is called LIPA 4:19 which is for youngsters ranging from four years of age to 19.”
Flanked by Mark Grima, the owner of XFM radio and the club Fuego in Paceville, Mark Featherstone-Witty is talking about the seminal idea which brought the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts to life a decade ago. I am curious to know why he chose Malta to bring this opportunity and he says the reason behind it all is the question of whether there is any way in which their expertise as teachers could be of help, over here.
“And secondly to see if there would be anyone interested in running our courses here… To be frank, it’s the standard of English which brought us here, since our courses are all in English. Another thing is the distance. It only takes three hours to get to Malta.”
It is a highly competitive business and LIPA currently has 450 students attending the school. Mark says, “Acting has swirled out of control, especially amongst girls, who think that it is a good career move, but it isn’t.”
His visit to Malta is really to introduce LIPA and it is rather like shouting out and waiting to see if there is an echo to show interest.
I ask him if he is considering opening a new institute here in Malta but he shakes his head. “It would always be in partnership because one of the big mistakes people can make when opening new businesses or institutions in countries different from there own, is that they don’t actually understand what is going on locally.”
Malta is culturally different to the UK and what might work in the UK might not work here which is why he believes they need people who understand the scene in Malta.
The partnership would be for anyone interested in setting up anything along the lines of what LIPA offers, regarding the syllabus or even offering their diplomas to the Maltese.
“I am not here to promote LIPA here in Malta for people to go to the UK and study there. We have the largest intake of international students of any performing arts school in Britain. That is not to say that we would not like to have Maltese students, but we do have quite a large demand.”
He tells me he was influenced by the film called ‘Fame’ by Alan Parker to start the institute, and he remembers talking to the headmaster of an American school.
“I asked him, ‘How do you see your job?’ and he said, ‘Well, my job is to find the best people I can find, the best faculties, give them good premises and try and get as much credit for myself as I possibly can.’ When I heard this I thought, ‘That sounds about right doesn’t it’.”
The philosophy followed by LIPA is that the institute is ‘For performers and those who make performance possible’ and using images on their prospectus, they try to show what it is they do in visually. He shows me the cover of the prospectus to explain. The image on the cover is of a number of students doing various things from dancing to singing, to acting to sound and light.
“We try to show that they are all doing different things in the same room. One of the first ideas we had was to keep together the people who perform and the people who make the performance possible because, as Sir George Martin put it, ‘A common understanding between everyone in the music business is essential’. I think the recording engineer must appreciate what it’s like being a musician; the musician, similarly, must understand what it’s like being an engineer.”
From this very simple starting point, Mark thought it true of other forms of art such as acting. The performing arts is a collaborative endeavour and it seems people tend to forget the people working behind the production and solely focus on the stars.
“I find that incredibly irritating. The people who are funding the production are the ones taking the risk; the performers are being paid; yet the providers are not getting any form of recognition or credit for what they do. You can’t have ‘Show Business’ without the business because you would not have a show.
He tells me that all students, whatever their discipline, and there are four major disciplines, have to study business as part of their syllabus.
“We believe that all students should study a range of activities outside their comfort zone. Which leads me to point out that choosing to go into performing arts or any form of art for that matter, is a very difficult career choice and the way to survive is to be as versatile as possible. And I’ve learnt whilst being in Malta that most people in these areas have second jobs and this is also true of most people in England.”
In England there is a union called Equity, which recognises artists. 80 per cent aren’t in work, 16 per cent earn GBP10,000 a year, which is less than minimum wage and four per cent earn regular wages.
So, if a child tells their parents they want to go into acting, Mark says, “they wouldn’t encourage them. They would probably say something along the lines of ‘Shit, where did I go wrong?’”
He believes show business is just too high risk and the best way is to be multi-skilled, and making a person more versatile and so more employable as a result.
“I do not know if it is the same in Malta, but in England, jobs usually turn up by word-of-mouth and you have to be swimming in the right pool to hear about it.”
In Malta, most people would probably recognise the term ‘it is not always what you know, but who you know’ and Mark agrees, “Absolutely, contacts are extremely important.”
Every year they produce a magazine at graduation, and they call all the graduates from three years earlier to find out what they are doing and include it in the magazine to give other students an idea of what is to come.
“We choose three years because we think that if after three years it hasn’t worked out then they have probably given up trying and have moved onto something else. So far, 86 per cent of our graduates are still working in their chosen profession. We cannot compare these statistics with others because no one else does this to my knowledge.”
LIPA is trying to take out some of the luck out of show business by making the students more employable. Some may even open up their own business, which Mark thinks is great.
I ask if LIPA provides anything similar to the apprenticeship schemes in Malta. “Yes, we do in terms of managers, engineers but in terms of performers, no. They do not get placed because frankly the performing world is choc-a-bloc so who’s going to pay for them. What we do provide them with is experience through performances at the school itself. I must also add that regarding placements, we never place them ourselves, but we do provide lists of contacts for the students to call utilise themselves.
“Teaching, as I see it, is like being a good parent giving them the guidelines but allowing them to follow them.”
When LIPA puts on a show, the students are the ones to organise the whole thing. They set up the sound, lights, design the set, clothes and perform. They all take part and interact, making the show their own.
“The Internet can be considered a problem or an opportunity,” he says when I ask him for his opinion on the current Internet situation where free music downloads are keeping musicians and recording studios from receiving any form of profit. “More people are listening to music than ever before but not many are buying it. It can be giving an opportunity to artists to take their art in their own hands and experiment as they please. And live gigs are really the best way to earn anything and gain the experience on needs. The Internet is just another medium.”
Mark tells me it was the Minister of Tourism, Francis Zammit Dimech who was the one to introduce him to people to talk to about the courses but he was not actually taken to any performing arts schools adding, “To be honest, I didn’t think there were any in Malta.”
Before he rushed off to another interview, I ask him whether the fact that he is a business partner with Sir Paul McCartney, makes LIPA different from other schools. “Enormously. We could never have gotten this far had he not been attached to it in some way. He is the largest contributing donor. We would never have done this without him and it was pure luck that he came into this. He even comes and coaches the students although it is not regular. How many schools can say that?”

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