Tag Archives: arts

No Man is in Ireland

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Hello, dear reader.  How was your weekend?  I hope you managed to catch up on your sleep.

Last week my lovely friend Katie nominated me on Facebook to post “seven things that you might not know about me”.  I love Katie very dearly, and I respect the fact that she met this challenge, but I will not be completing it myself.  This is for two reasons:

1) Whatever the seven facts about me would be, there’s probably a reason that they’re not common knowledge, i.e. they’re boring as hell.  Who cares about my Year 6 SAT marks?  Not you, that’s for sure.  Not really me, either.

2) I’m a very transparent person, and I’m not sure that there are seven facts about me which aren’t common knowledge.  My Year 6 SAT marks, by the by, were 6, 6 and 5.

I make no apology for the fact that I’m an open book, because I think being honest about yourself is the only way to make real connections with other people.  Obviously I don’t go around with a megaphone broadcasting my personal information to the unsuspecting public of London town, but if someone asks me a question I will do my best to answer it truthfully.  (Except in very specific circumstances, such as when I’m being interrogated by MI5.)

Making connections with other people is important, because we need each other, don’t we?  Even Bernard Black needs Manny.  Ok, here’s something that you might not know about me but could probably guess: I’m very dependent on other people.  I set a lot of store by my friends’ advice, because they’re a pretty wise bunch, and when I’m sad or ill or cranky I want hugs and sympathy.  Sometimes we might berate ourselves for needing other people.  We do this because it doesn’t really fit in with the whole “independent, capable go-getters of the 21st century” persona that we are all so determined to portray, but actually that’s just a knee-jerk reaction to feeling insecure.

It’s all very well to look like a self-sufficient success story, but in reality nobody is completely independent.  No man is an island (or “no man is in Ireland”, which is what I thought the phrase was until I was about 11, and it confused the heck out of me at the time).  Yes, of course we should be able to take care of ourselves, be aware of our own worth and cross roads without other people’s assistance, but there is no shame in respecting and valuing the emotional contributions of the people in our lives.  That’s why we have them in our lives in the first place.

This is also true from a professional perspective.  Working in the arts is demanding (not least because the amount of effort you put in very rarely corresponds with your salary), and we need each other’s support in order to stay motivated.  In the case of Tumbling After specifically (the show I’m directing in Edinburgh this year – here’s some more info in case you missed my last post), the devising process means that we all need to trust each other and be as honest as possible.  Just in terms of the admin, the producer and I find that we are more productive if we meet up to swear and glare at our laptops together.  Sure, we could sit at home individually and do the same thing, but we are more productive (and more importantly, much happier) if we have someone to share ideas and coffee with.

Have a beautiful day.  Go and hug someone who contributes to your life.

No More Drama

Hooray, it’s Monday!  A brand new week!  A fresh start!  Potentially the beginning of the best week of your life!  Joy and fuzzy feelings for all!!

Bit too cheerful?  Sorry, I’ll tone it down a bit.

Today I would like to show you the most upsetting and infuriating thing I’ve clapped eyes on since my house mate made me watch Jingle All the Way.

Here it is:

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My university is discontinuing my degree course.  What the actual hell.

Perhaps this shouldn’t bother me so much.  After all, I graduated three years ago.  I spent four years doing spinal rolls and writing essays (and drinking cider and other extracurricular activities that we don’t need to go into here).  At the end of it all I got to spend a day wearing a fancy gown and throwing my hat in the air.  In short, I got my degree.  So why do I have a problem with this?

First of all, it seems to be symptomatic of the degeneration of higher education in general.  People not being able to afford university fees means fewer applicants to previously popular courses, and eventually the courses become too expensive to justify running.  Due to the screw up with student fees (thanks a lot Clegg, you asshat), university education has gone from being something that anyone could pursue to something that requires re-mortgaging your kidneys.  This is unfair and elitist, and it can only lead to an increased class division between those who can afford university and those who cannot.  Why on earth should something as arbitrary as wealth decide your academic path?  

Secondly and more specifically, my drama degree is the bee’s knees.  I realise that I’m pretty biased about this point, but for people like me that course was the making of us.  The fourth year of the course is the main selling point of the degree, because it’s that final push in the right direction that gave us all the impetus to pursue our careers.  My Masters in Directing got me to start up Empty Photo Theatre.  A lot of the guys who took Stand-Up Comedy are still gigging now (and doing insanely well, in many cases).  My friends Laura and Jess set up the arts charity Ingeenium because of their year specialising in Applied Performance Practice, and Little Cauliflower would not exist if those guys hadn’t specialised in Contemporary Performance Practice.  

At £9,000 a year in fees, who is going to opt for a four-year course when they can just do a BA?  It’s such a shame that fear of lifelong debt is going to deprive future students of a lifelong creative passion.  Essentially, the most important thing about that four-year course is that it taught us to make our own work.  You will never find a Kent graduate sitting around waiting for the phone to ring – we get out there and we do stuff.  Dozens of excellent professional theatre companies, performers, writers, directors and producers have come out of my university.  And they are not happy about this situation:

“It’s a terrible shame that the Conservative ideal of economic viability being the presiding factor in academia has forced such a unique course that has value beyond the career it may or may not instantly provide for you.  The fourth year of specialised study at the University of Kent trained, inspired and invigorated me in ways that the previous three years of undergraduate study never did, and I know that I’m not alone in that.  My greatest fear is that great traditions within the university, such as the Monkeyshine comedy club and the week of directors’ plays, may fall casualty to this horrid decision and be lost forever.”

“It seems a shame that UKC has discontinued one of the only university courses that actually gave students an idea of the working practice of the theatre. I understand that as a qualification on a piece of paper the MDrama is next to useless and causes an endless need to explain exactly what on earth an MDrama is, however that extra year gave us the focus and work skills we needed to succeed that the general study in the other three years didn’t. The drama department at UKC however seems to have gone down hill in recent years with budget cuts, unexplained course changes and staff losses and losing the fourth year as an undergraduate seems another cut that only lessens the experience for the students.”

“I think it’s really sad, I found it to be such a fun and interesting year to specialise in one subject for a year, in something I never thought I’d even get the chance to do. It really got you to grips with a specific area and focussing on a particular topic, rather than just kind of glancing over a few areas. It’s a shame more people won’t experience that amazing and eye-opening year!

“It’s a complete shame and I feel very sorry for prospective students who will miss out on the invaluable fourth year that myself and many others benefited from immensely. It’s a year in which you are able to fully explore, deepen, and develop your specialist skills in either directing, producing, dramaturgy etc. that will make you stand out amongst fellow students from other theatre courses when you graduate.”

“I am saddened to learn that the course I gave four years of my life and many thousands of pounds to is being stopped. I don’t know if it saddens me because of the experience I had there – if only for the fourth year specialism, which is the one year I really felt as if I learnt a great deal and was given the opportunity to develop and grow, creatively and intellectually. It was also the year which I felt genuinely benefited me in terms of career progression, particularly for the contacts – and friends – I made along the way. But I fear that, selfishly, one of the main reasons it saddens me is that it may diminish the value of my degree. I fear it will go from “oh you went to Kent, that’s quite good for drama isn’t it?” to “Kent? I never even knew they did a drama degree” in a matter of short years. I know, realistically, that this will not hamper my future job prospects; no one will probably even ask where I went to uni, nor have an opinion of it if I tell them. But I’d like to think that those four years of hard work has a lasting value outside of my own development at that time. After all, it cost me enough.”

“It seems we’re seeing the repercussions of our government’s attitude towards the arts. The sad thing is, at the current extortionate prices, even I’d think twice about taking the course, and that’s coming from someone who has benefited immensely from it. Remember when we voted in that guy who swore he’d not raise the fees and then he stabbed us all in the back? At least Cameron and Clegg listened to us we turned out in huge numbers to march on the capital to voice our disapproval. Oh well, so long as the government gets its way, what does it matter if the arts get swept to the side and young people lose faith in democracy.”

“It’s a crying shame. UKC offered a unique course that appealed to such a wide range of potential Drama Students. The chance to choose a specialism in the last year makes the course feel focused and personal. UKC will now join the countless other universities offering a generic Drama and Theatre Studies MA. How is it going to stand out from the crowd? And how are its future students going to stand out from the crowd?  The four year course also offered another unique opportunity to it’s students. It kept then together for longer! I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many strong theatre companies are formed at UKC. Would The Noise Next Door have started if we’d only had three years? Would Little Bulb? Would Spun Glass Theatre? Would Accidental Collective? Would Wide Eyed Theatre? Would we have all developed into the varied theatre makers we are without our final specialisms?  What’s happening to Dr. Oliver Double? He’s the only Doctor of Comedy and a superb lecturer and inspiration. If UKC stop doing the final year stand-up specialism aren’t they wasting this unique asset? Ollie’s course has produced so many excellent comedians: Jimmy McGhie, Tiernan Douieb, Laura Lexx, two of Pappy’s, two of The Noise Next Door and many more besides. All these people are working in the industry that their final year trained them for! And for a drama degree that’s rare! It seems to me that in dropping the four year MDrama UKC are throwing away the thing that has made them and their students special.”

“As a graduate of the reputable MDrama & theatre studies degree at UKC, I’m really disappointed to hear of its discontinuation. Having the opportunity to gain further experience and to specialise in your area of choice is something that a BA simply doesn’t offer you. The specialism was, for myself and many of my peers, the stand out reason for applying to Kent, and it really set itself apart from competitor institutions. Admittedly, higher education faces more pressure than ever with the rise of fees and cuts in funding, but I feel giving into this pressure is a real disappointment for students, lecturers, alumni and of course prospective students.” 

“It’s sad to learn of the end of pre-professional practice at UKC. As someone who partook in the programme, studying stand-up, I found the resources and almost one on one tuition astounding. To be able to specialise practically at a high level with accomplished tutors in arts is something of an enigma amongst many theory-heavy courses on offer today. In terms of employment, university allows you to present the best version of yourself. It’s not to say that specialist skills can’t be learnt on the job, but being able to do so in a safe and progressive learning environment was well worth the time, money and fun!”

“In a nutshell I think losing the MDrama would be losing a big part of why a lot of people choose Kent to do drama. The ability to specialise for a whole year in something you find genuinely interesting without incurring the costs and lack of funding for a full masters was a huge draw. Also it sent Kent apart, showed that for however long a time the department really cared about taking a standard drama course in a new individual direction, one personal to the student. Now it will fall into the category of ‘another uni that does a 3 year BA in drama’. It’s reflective that for whatever reason, drama at Kent is changing, it’s falling into line with everywhere else and perhaps may indicate that people involved in the course don’t care about it as much as others that preceded them did. Or maybe they just got less funding. What do I know? I’m just a drama graduate.”

I realise at this stage that there’s nothing we can do about the discontinuation of the MDrama course at Kent.  Having said that, can we all agree that enough’s enough now?  This has to stop.  We cannot keep accepting the funding cuts and political decisions that are ruining our education system, particularly in the arts.  I hate to think of future drama students missing out on the life-changing year of education that inspired me and so many others to work in the arts.  Who knows what kind of side-splitting comedy or eye-opening theatre we will miss out on in future because the students who would have made it never discovered their passion?

I’m calling you out, David Cameron.  You’ve got to stop spoiling stuff.  If I were feeling particularly immature and petty, I might even tell you to do this.

Thanks for reading what turned out to be a pretty hefty piece.  Have a beautiful Monday, and I promise that tomorrow’s blog will be much more cheerful (and shorter).

Couch Caterpillar

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Hello, dear reader!  How are you doing?  Are you making the most of the sunshine?

I’m not, to be perfectly honest with you.  I’m sitting on my sofa under three blankets, watching Friends and talking to you, you lovely thing.  I’m not ill or upset or anything, I’m just really, really tired.  I’m also a big fan of blankets, because I can wrap myself up in them and pretend to be in a cocoon.  Soon I will emerge as a BEAUTIFUL BUTTERFLY!  MWAHAHAHA!  Sorry.  Anyway…

The other appealing thing about how I’m spending my morning is that it allows me to be a bit childish in a way that doesn’t affect anyone else.  Obviously when you behave childishly around other people, e.g. having tantrums, that sort of ruins their day.  But being a grown-up is difficult, so sometimes we need to be childish, and it’s best to do it in the safety of our own homes/with people who will humour us.  Here are some excellent ways to do this:

  • Building a fort – most things work for this, including furniture, cardboard boxes, books and on one memorable occasion, handbags.
  • Eating a picnic – are we too old for Babybels?  Probably.  Never mind, they still taste good.
  • Pyjama days – spending the entire day in your favourite pjs just for the hell of it is bizarrely empowering.  It’s your way of saying “screw you, reality!  I shun you in favour of comfortable clothes and bad television!”
  • Playground games – true story: I stayed up ’til 3am the night before my graduation playing Sardines with my friends.  Terrible decision, excellent evening.
  • Dressing up – have you ever been to the theatre section of the V & A Museum?  They have a flipping dressing up box.  It’s amazing.  Go there now.  Go.
  • Arts and crafts – I’m terrible at art, but sometimes making a picture type-thing with glitter and so forth is really, really fun.  You can stick it on the fridge, too.
  • Silly jokes – even though they’re incredibly childish they are also absolutely joyous.  For example, my favourite cheese joke: what did the cheese say when it saw itself in the mirror?  Halloumi!
  • Watching Disney films – that’s just common sense.  Nobody grows out of Disney.

Have a lovely Sunday.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Good morning and Happy Mother’s Day!

Today is obviously a good day to tell your mum how much she means to you, and as soon as I’ve written this I will skidaddle off to Watford to do just that.  Before I do, I’d like to pay homage to some of the best mums I know:

  • The Single Mums

One of my best friends is a single mum, and she manages to juggle a career in the arts (and all the ambition, uncertainty and madness that goes along with it) with being a mum to a gorgeous little boy.  When I was a teenager I used to babysit for a single mum who had been through a lot of terrible things, but she was the most gentle, compassionate and fun person I’d ever met.  I have so much respect for single mums and dads who raise their children with high standards and a lot of love.

  • The Dear Departed Mums

My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a parent.  I can’t imagine the pain that that kind of loss entails.  To the mothers who are no longer with us: we miss you.  Thank you for the lives you made.  You have left your families with fond and happy memories, and they will think of you during good times and bad for the rest of their lives.  Your example will serve as an inspiration to your children whenever they have to make a decision or work through difficulties.

  • The Not Yet Mums

I am not a mother and neither is my house mate Ash, but she definitely takes care of me the way a mother would.  My life is full of maternal, compassionate people who are not mothers but will make damn good ones one day (except the boys; they’ll be terrible mothers), and I’m very grateful for them.  If you have a nurturing instinct you can guarantee that your friends adore you for it, because there’s an incredible sense of safety and confidence that comes from knowing someone will always look after you.

  • The Surrogate Mums

It might be because I’m very close to my family, but I’ve always thought it was important to make an effort to connect with my friends’ families.  Sometimes I have taken it too far: my two oldest friends’ mothers essentially dragged me up (and one of them was still force-feeding me vitamins when I was nineteen).  Wonderful, generous, warm-hearted women they may be, but they’re also honorary parents in my head.

  • My Actual Mum

My mother has given me so much: a terrible short-term memory, the tendency to leave mugs of coffee all over the place, four lunatic siblings whom I cannot live without, inspiration, a brilliant example, confidence, an education, humour and above all an enormous amount of love.  I am constantly bowled over by the lengths my mum will go to to look after her children, and I hope that if I ever become a mother I will be just like her: selfless, strong and incredibly kind.  (It’s highly likely that I will be more prone to sarcasm, forgetfulness and accidentally leaving my kids in shopping centres, but her characteristics are what I’ll be aiming for.)

Happy Mother’s Day one and all.  I hope that your Sunday involves awesome things like Yorkshire pudding.

The Hard Logic

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Good morning, dear reader!  It’s a bit chilly today, so I hope you’ve got your scarf, gloves, etc.

Last  night some friends and I went to the Finborough Theatre to see a play called The Hard Man.  The producer is a friend of ours whose work we wanted to support, but actually it was well-worth seeing in its own right.  The story is based on the life of Jimmy Boyle, a notorious gang leader who was convicted for murder in Glasgow in 1967.  I’m not sure if this is what we were supposed to get out of it, but for me it came out as somewhere in the middle of Trainspotting, Brighton Rock and The Shawshank Redemption.  I won’t go into too much narrative detail after that baffling three-way comparison, but the performances were brilliant and the production as a whole was very compelling.

The crux of the play’s message was that people are the product of their environments.  This wasn’t so much an attempt to absolve the characters of responsibility, but an indication that there is always logic at play rather than a conscious decision to become “evil”.  If you were born into a hard life in Glasgow, you responded in kind.  If you didn’t have a father, you did what you needed to to bring money in.  If someone hit you, you hit back.  There was inevitability at play rather than a tragic downfall of the imperfect hero: in the writing and the performances, there was no tangible plea for the audience to understand or sympathise, it was just: “Here we are.  This is what we started with, so this is what we had to do.”  It was logic, not bad luck.

That may just be my opinion, and I hope that my producer friend will forgive me if I’ve interpreted the play all wrong, but it definitely struck a chord with me.  Perhaps there is an inevitability and logic to our lives, sometimes so small that we don’t even notice it.  For example, everyone in my family went to university, so I did too.  I wanted to go, but it never even occurred to me to do anything else, when of course there are hundreds of other options to take.  I loved my university, and I don’t regret my decision in any way, but it’s just a curious thought: did I apply to university on autopilot because of my environment?  What might I have done differently if no one in my family were university-educated?

The things that we believe, think, say and do are all a factor of who we are now, and who we are now is the result of years and weeks and minuscule moments that have shaped our lives.  I don’t know how many moments in your life you can point to and say “That split second changed my life”, but in a way it doesn’t matter, because they all did.  The question is what to do about it now that you are here.

In the arts sector in particular, people have found that the years, weeks and moments have led them to a place where there is no money and no certainty.  It’s all very well to say either (or both) of the following two things:

1) “We didn’t get into this business for the certainty of it; art is all about the precarious and unknown!”

2) “It’s not fair.  Why shouldn’t we be able to make theatre?  It was just dumb luck that our generation started out in the middle of a recession.”

But saying these things is not going to get your play produced or your your novel published.  Saying those words is just repeating what we all know already, so don’t waste your time.  We are where we are, and there’s nothing we can do to go back in time and stop the recession, so we will just have to use it.  I’m not saying that making theatre is going to pull this country out of its financial canyon (although you never know), but the fact is that people who want to paint, write, act, direct, dance and every other artistic discipline under the sun have to take what the world gives them and use it to make their work better.  You can’t fix it, so use it.

The recession is not going to go away just because we don’t like it, and arts funding is not going to magically increase just because we want it to.  Those might be nice side effects of our work in the future, but for now we should be looking at the world around us, accepting what we cannot change and using it to our advantage.  On a very basic, impetuous level, we should take every opportunity to defy the asshats who lost our money by becoming stronger, better and more active artists.  Think about the logic: if the country’s wealth hadn’t been so skew-whiff in the sixties, John McGrath would never have formed 7:84 Theatre Company.

I think what I’m trying to say is that we should be ruthless and realistic when it comes to facing the odds.  Even if they are stacked so highly against us that they’re starting to wobble a bit, we should always, always be looking at situations as opportunities to become better artists.

I got on my soapbox a bit there, didn’t I?  I’ll clamber down now and make us some coffee.  D’you take sugar?

The Polymath Problem

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Hello and happy Tuesday, lovely reader!

This morning I met up with an old friend from university.  We don’t get to see each other often enough, so inevitably our coffee mornings consist of work updates, living situation discussions, frank bemusement at the behaviour of men and excessive giggling.

Sometimes (not always), we get around to discussing our mutual passion: the arts.  This friend of mine has a lifelong passion for the arts in all its forms: she is a wonderful baker of lovely cakes, she dances, makes amazing craft stuff and is, of course, a fellow Drama graduate.  She co-runs a charity called Ingeenium which does beautiful and inspiring work with vulnerable people, she is a nanny and she currently works for the government in a top-secret, slightly scary capacity.  Oh, and she’s also studying for her PhD.  Superwoman?  I think so, but I’ve never seen her wear a cape, so it’s hard to tell.  The posh term for this friend of mine is a polymath, which sounds like something out of Red Dwarf, but is actually a real thing.  I like that word, don’t you?

This morning she and I were discussing the problem with being a polymath, although the terms we actually couched it in were more along the lines of “What are we actually DOING with our lives?”  The answer is, currently at least, loads of stuff: we are both trying to pursue careers which support as financially as well as challenge and inspire us, we feel very strongly about a lot of things but are not sure what exactly to do about them, and on top of everything the spectre of George Osborne looms menacingly, reminding us that whatever we choose to do, we will still never be able to afford a mortgage.  Do shut up, George, there’s a dear.

My friend was saying that she wishes she could just have one job and pursue one goal, but I had two concerns about this:

1) Sure, it would be amazing to know from an early age exactly what you want to do with your life, but what happens if that dream fails?  What if your one ambition in life is to become a footballer, and you contract Motor Neurone Disease?  What happens if an aspiring doctor fails their exams?  How does a person recover from the abolition of a life-long dream?

2) Pursuing more than one ambition is not only practical in terms of personal investment; it’s a really, really good idea.  Being good at lots of things is something to be proud of, and caring about lots of things makes you a more rounded human being.  Working in several domains can actually improve your skills in certain areas: having acted (a bit), I consider myself to be a more empathetic director.  Besides, there are many awesome people who can be referred to as polymaths.

Here are a few examples:

1) Mark Watson

An excellent stand-up comedian, Mark Watson has also written some brilliant books.  His writing style is engaging, unbelievably touching in some places and (predictably) very funny.  The stories are completely unique, but the characters are very true to life (terrible phrase, that, but it’s the best I can think of).  His books are novels with little or no relation to his comedy career, so much so that it took me quite a while to twig that the author of some of my favourite books was the same person I’d seen on Mock the Week.

2) Kenneth Branagh

The man can act and direct simultaneously.  I have no idea how he does it (especially given that I can barely walk and talk at the same time), but his adaptations of Shakespearean plays into films are intelligent, moving and spectacularly performed.  Since acting and directing technically fall under the same sector I suppose he’s not technically a polymath, but I think he should get bonus points for being able to realise his artistic vision (ANOTHER terrible phrase – sorry, I’ve no idea what’s happened to my cliché filter today!) within two separate roles.

3) Laura Lexx

Another friend of mine from uni, Laura is excellent at pretty much everything she puts her mind to.  It’s mildly sickening.  A formidable academic success, Laura is also an excellent writer (of blogs, plays and more), an hysterically funny stand-up comedian, a queen bee of baking and “one of those” actors.  By “one of those”, I mean those people that you see on stage and wonder how on earth other performers can bear to compete.  She’s also a very lovely person with an excellent impersonation of a dinosaur in her repertoire.

4) Hannah Barnett

Yet another superwoman that I am lucky enough to be friends with, Hannah is *deep breath* a producer, actress, stage manager, unbelievably talented guitarist and singer with the voice of a particularly well-behaved angel.  Hannah is simultaneously the most organised and most easily distracted person I know.  That takes a lot of skill.  Why do I surround myself with these sickeningly talented people?  Oh, yeah – because they’re awesome.

5) Josh Widdicombe

Putting aside the fact that I love Josh Widdicombe quite a lot anyway, he is a brilliant example of why it’s good to have many talents.  Well-known as a stand-up comedian, he is also a talented DJ who hosts a weekly show on Xfm, which he uses as a platform to promote his friends and colleagues in the comedy world.  I am a massive fan of “paying it forward”, i.e. using your experience and opportunities to help others in similar situations.  (One of my favourite things about my university year group is that even now, we still tell each other when we see jobs or opportunities on IdeasTap that we think others in the group would be interested in.)  Josh Widdicombe is substantially more successful than any of my lot are right now, but he still uses his multiple roles to help out his mates.  I think that’s brilliant.

There are dozens if not hundreds of other examples of polymaths around, including national treasures like Stephen Fry and Michael Palin, and they are all to be congratulated on their ability to pursue many dreams.  It’s wonderful to have a passion in life, but I think that being good at and enjoying several activities is a more realistic and open-minded way to live.

By the way, actors turned models and anyone turned reality television “star” (please read enormous sarcasm into the speech marks around the word star, there), do not count.  Being pretty, greedy for money or desperate for attention cannot in any way be classed as a skill.  That’s just sad, and those people need a hug/slap/stern talking to.

Have a glorious afternoon!