After completing my degree in Performing Arts I got a place at Mountview Theatre School which would have given me the much sought after equity card that every professional actor needs. However, I somehow needed to find £10,000 for the fees or lose my place. My parents weren’t wealthy and I already had debts from doing a degree,but I didn’t give up. I started giving piano lessons and doing various fundraising events. And then I started a Saturday morning drama club for children in my local area. I had about 30 children coming paying £3 each and I taught all the classes myself. Jump forward 5 years I was still running this club while pursuing my acting career. Then the local community centre was about to be shut down because of lack of income. I had meetings with the chair to try and work out how we could save the centre and I came up with the idea of expanding my drama club to include other classes and provide some income to the community centre.
Having grown up in Hackney, I knew there were no organisations providing professional performing arts classes for children. Lots of voluntary run clubs but nothing that would give on-going training. I went to the Prince’s Trust who gave me advice on how to write a business plan and a loan of £1500 and 3 months later the first branch of the Anna Fiorentini Theatre & Film School for 4 – 18 year olds was born.
I was passionate about providing places for disadvantaged inner city children; those that had talent but could not afford stage school fees or those that wanted to build confidence and self-esteem via the performing arts. I also wanted to engage young people and give them a thirst for learning so that they would succeed in whatever career path they chose even if it was not in the performing arts.
The school now has 6 branches all over London, (in Hackney, Docklands, Camden and Greenwich), and a performance troupe that tours to hospitals, care homes, hospices, homes for the elderly and at various corporate gigs.
Via the school’s agency, many of the students have gone on to secure professional contracts including 5 years with EastEnders, leading roles in Rev, Top Boy, West End’s the Lion King, Oliver! and Matilda to name but a few. Last year, one of our students, Jermain Jackman won The Voice UK.
Earlier this year I set up Stage & the City; after work performing arts classes for city workers that want to have fun. It runs a variety of classes including Acting for Beginners, Contemporary Choir, Total Beginners Dance and Musical Theatre. ALL profits from this new venture go to the Fiorentini Foundation which provide bursaries and scholarships for disadvantaged children that wish to attend the Anna Fiorentini School. Stage & the City also provides fun team building events for corporates. So for example, on 3rd July we turned 20 Natwest and the Royal Bank of Scotland Managers into zombies for the day. We taught them the dance routine to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and made it into a music video. They did this as a sponsored event for the Fiorentini Foundation so were able to hit their CSR targets as well as providing an innovative team building experience for their staff.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Like I said, I wanted to give opportunities to financially disadvantaged children as well as those with physical and learning difficulties and chaotic home lives. We have a track record of keeping young people away from gun crime, gang crime and even suicide. Over the past 14 years we have given hundreds of children a thirst for learning and many have attained better academic results because of our incentives.
But in some ways we have been the victim of our own success. Many corporates I have gone to ask for sponsorship or to provide volunteers have said that we look too professional. The problem I have is if we didn’t look professional we wouldn’t attract the families that could afford to pay and then we wouldn’t have a sustainable business. This attitude is why so many disadvantaged inner city children get funding for the odd street dance class or drumming lesson but nothing that will give them the skills needed to compete with children from wealthier backgrounds,or it is easier to get funding for gun gang drama or projects that concentrate on this type of negativity. But I am a great believer that if you want to keep young people away from gangs stop concentrating on it. Teenagers want to be given proper skills that they can use in the future not be patronised to. Over 40% of my students are from ethnic minorities, 60% from lone parent families and 20% have a learning or physical disability. However, because I don’t concentrate on one sector of society, and prefer to be all inclusive, it is very difficult to get mainstream funding.
Hence why I started Stage & the City. It is my way of offering the corporate sector something in return for its support rather than just going to them with a begging bowl.
I also love coming up with fun ideas to raise much needed funds. Apart from the Thriller workshop, we can provide a variety of themed team building days including Saturday Night Fever, Dirty Dancing, Mama Mia, Rocky Horror as well as Your Company’s Got Talent or Strictly Come Dancing event to name but a few, and of course we can help with presentation and communication skills as well as public speaking.
Whereas before I would get so frustrated at the lack of funding we receive now I’m just coming up with fun alternative ways to achieve our goals.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
Definitely my parents. They taught me about the importance of hard work and gave me a thirst for learning. We didn’t have much money growing up and I grew up in a Hackney council tower block, but I was provided with love, security and the knowledge that a good education would help me succeed.
They also taught me the importance of integrity, no matter how ambitious I might get with my business having integrity is the most important aspect that I strive for both in terms of what I offer my clients and students but also how I deal with potential partnerships and competitors.
What advice can you give potential business owners?
Hiring the right staff that have passion and integrity.
I am very blessed to have a passionate staff team many of whom go beyond the call of duty. Many of my teachers are high profile directors, choreographers and actors but they all want to give something back to the community.
Rhiannon Mosson, who runs the schools and the agency for me has been my right hand woman. She has been with me for 7 years now and the fact that I can trust her with anything, whether that be confidential information or the finances is incredibly important. Like me she values integrity and we know we can be completely honest with each other.
And then there is Mark Short, my dance teacher and deputy head who has been with me for 14 years. Mark has choreographed artists including Tina turner and Peter Andre. He is amazing at making even those with 3 left feet feel like they can dance; both children and adults,and again his honesty and integrity means I can trust him.
What does the future hold?
I want the reputation of the Anna Fiorentini Theatre & Film to continue to thrive. It would be my dream to raise enough money each year so that we could provide many more bursaries and provide more employment opportunities. We already have a good reputation within the TV, Film and theatre industry and many casting directors use our students as they know how reliable, respectful and well trained they are. I would like this to develop even further.
Stage & the City has only recently launched but already it has over 100 regular adult students every week. I will be expanding on the classes we offer over the next few months. I would love for more companies to hire us to provide fun team building events for their employees and clients.
And again, because I have a trust worthy staff team I can continue to perform myself as an actress. It is great to be able to pursue both my passions.
More information about Stage & the City can be found at www.stageandthecity.com
More information about the 4 – 18 years Anna Fiorentini School can be found at www.annafiorentini.com