How did you get started?
After I’d trained as an actress I set up the Anna Fiorentini Theatre & Film School for 4 – 18-year olds in 2001. This school helps children who have talent but can’t necessarily afford expensive stage-school fees and kids who simply wish to increase in confidence, self-esteem and life skills.
Trying to get funding for my school was proving increasingly difficult. I hated going to corporates, cap in hand, asking for sponsorship. It felt like a full-time job – filled with lots of rejection and disappointment. There was so much wasted time and it was taking me away from developing my business.
I was feeling stuck. But when parents starting coming up to me after the children’s classes asking when they could join in the fun it sparked a thought.
My idea was to offer after-work performing arts classes for adults who wanted to combine fun while learning new skills for personal or career development. All the profits from this new venture would go to the Fiorentini Foundation to provide bursaries for less-privileged children wanting to access the Anna Fiorentini School.
My initial target audience was people working in the City, such as bankers, lawyers, and accountants. But since launch three years ago our clients have really diversified as word-of-mouth has spread. Our clients now include teachers, taxi drivers, GPs and more. The age range is diverse too, everyone from 20s to 50s.
Stage & the City (SATC) clients are taught by teachers from the Fiorentini School. These include West End directors and highly respected industry professionals – they are top-notch, so people learn fast.
What surprises you?
The way that singing and acting can transform people never fails to amaze me. You get straight-laced accountants coming in and being improvisation heroes in the comedy acting classes. People who didn’t realise they could sing, learning how to control their breathing and project beautiful, powerful voices. You are uncovering people’s talents all the time and what is wonderful is that you see people realise how transferable these skills are. Lawyers tell me that they are able to use drama and poise in their jobs. Similarly, people who were dreading Monday-morning presentations now look forward to seeing how they can weave in improvisation skills to bring their presentations to life.
What have the challenges been?
The main challenge is marketing. With my children’s school we have an excellent reputation in the performing arts industry and many primary and secondary schools have formed partnerships with us which helps spread the word. We advertise in a couple of really popular magazines which go out to parents free of charge – and that brings good results.
However, with the adult classes it is a completely different ball game. Advertising in newspapers that they are likely to read can be incredibly expensive. Many companies have offered to spread the word amongst their staff and we offer great deals in exchange for this. But it takes time to build trust and contacts.
Adults are a lot more nervous about trying acting or singing classes than children are. Fortunately, as we have now been going for three years, word of mouth is spreading. We obviously push via social media and the testimonials we have received have helped increase business.
As with any other small or medium-size business, cash flow is always a challenge. We give students the option to pay in instalments but most of our expenses have to be paid upfront.
Finding grants and funding for the children’s school, which SATC supports, has been an incredible challenge over the years. Often you need to stick to very specific criteria aimed at fulfilling a certain prescribed goal set by the funders. Although we have many success stories involving our students winning leading roles on TV, in film and on the West End stage this does not bring in that much extra finance – even though it is great kudos for the school.
What’s the bravest thing you’ve done in this business?
Starting SATC in the first place. I had to use my personal overdraft to put out a few adverts and there was no guarantee that people would be interested. I was also taking a risk with the reputation of my children’s school, which I had worked so hard to maintain.
What is going well?
Thankfully all of the adult classes seem to be going extremely well. With adults coming together once or twice a week to learn and develop a skill, you see some lovely friendships being made. The success of the classes means that I am able to gradually expand on the courses that we offer. Initially it was just Acting for Beginners, Dance and Singing; but we now have Musical Theatre, Comedy Acting & Writing and Acting for Intermediates – and we have plans for even more.
Also, our team-building opportunities are developing. For example, we worked with 20 NatWest Bank managers, taught them the Thriller dance routine and hired Chats Palace theatre, which we converted into a graveyard. We turned the bank managers into zombies for the day and had them make a music video. They did this as a charity event for us – raising £3500. They absolutely loved it and I know it helped bond the team.
What’s the best thing about what you do?
Firstly, since SATC started three years ago, it has helped over 40 children access the Anna Fiorentini School. That’s hugely satisfying to know that we can help kids who will really benefit. One example of a child it supported was Jaden Osheneye. Thanks to SATC we were able to give him a full scholarship to attend the school. Once he attended and became a member of the Fiorentini agency we were able to get him the role of Fletcher in the West End’s The Bodyguard playing alongside Beverley Knight. He is currently in China for three months with The Bodyguard. It’s been an unbelievable experience for this young boy, who wouldn’t have been able to attend if it wasn’t for SATC.
The second is seeing the joy on my adult student’s faces. For many of them SATC has given them the chance to relive their youth, discover skills they didn’t know they had and gain confidence.
Of course, we are helping adults achieve a work / life balance. So many adults suffer from stress, partly from tough daytime jobs. At the classes you see it lifted off and channelled into something positive. Knowing that we have contributed to reducing this stress and enriching their social and working lives makes me think this is one of the best things about what we do.
SATC has a major Variety Performance every year, and we have one or two numbers where SATC students and children from The Fiorentini Performance Troupe perform together. This for me is always a highlight because it shows the audience exactly where the money raised is going to and gives SATC students the opportunity to work alongside the very children they are helping. There often isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Who do you like helping most?
As you know, I set SATC up to help my kids charity. And I love being able to tell a child or their family that we are able to help them. I think performing arts is such an amazing way to help youth of today get essential life skills – regardless of whether they go into the industry or not.
But now I have seen how SATC has helped the adults that attend I think this is just as important. In fact, I would say that many adults lack confidence even more so than young people and certainly have more inhibitions. London can be a very lonely place but having something like SATC can help people develop as individuals and make connections.
I like being able to help anybody, child or adult, who needs that extra boost.
Why did you choose Hiscox?
Their staff went through things carefully with me, which reassured me that I had not overlooked anything. I have been with Hiscox for years and on the rare occasions I have had to make a claim they have been great. You hear horror stories about insurance companies taking your money but not keeping to their side of the bargain, so it’s good to be with one that seems to have integrity and cares about it clients.
What are your future plans?
In a word: expansion. Every term we add one or two new courses with a view to hiring more staff to help me with the development and PR of the company.
Also, I would like to do more team-building days with corporates and develop those type of relationships which all have a positive impact for my charity. Through these partnerships we can really help companies’ employees in exchange for publicity and development.
With the children’s school I currently have six branches – the next step would be to open a branch in West London.
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Female founder of Fearless Futures, a social justice training agency
Female founder of Availexe, a recruitment agency
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