Coffee Break – Joel Kern  

Still only, 31, Joel Kern started Make Believe 16 years ago. The company provides drama, dance and singing training for children and now has 50 franchised branches. He chatted to Susan Elkin.

Have you always been interested in drama? Yes. I was born in Leytonstone and did GCSE and A level drama at King Solomon High School. I was drawn to drama, not necessarily as a performer, but as a way of life which seemed to bring so many useful skills. I understood the benefits. When I was 14, I produced a show. I invested £4000 – which was everything I had in savings including my Bar Mitzvah fund. I worked on it for a year and we made £10,000. I took back my £4,000 and we donated £6,000 to Parry Charitable Foundation. I’ve always regarded that year as my professional training. It was like university. I learned a huge amount.

And when did the teaching start? Four days before my 16th birthday. They encouraged me at school and I started a class based in the school. Five children came to the first session. After that we doubled the numbers every week and I had to start employing other people to help me. Suddenly Make Believe was born and that was the name from the very beginning. Children have vast imagination and self-belief and “Make believe” sums up what I was trying to do.

What did you do about safeguarding? Oh, I suspect it was all a bit haphazard at the beginning! But there were teachers around and my mum is a foster parent, so I’d grown up very aware of children’s needs, health and safety and so on. Of course, it goes without saying, that today Make Believe complies fully with the law, everything is done properly, and that every child is safe.

So where are your fifty branches? In the UK, Australia and, now, Israel. Because I started in the East London/Essex area we remain, within Britain, focused on London and the south east. There are plans to move into the rest of the country very soon. I’m also building links in China. We run international residential summer schools and this summer we had 100 Chinese students join us. Performing Arts is such a wonderful vehicle for breaking down cultural barriers and being both diverse and inclusive. Many of the Chinese participants spoke very little English, but it didn’t matter at all because of the nature of what we were doing.

And where is your head office? We’re based at Stratford Circus Theatre and have been there nearly three years now. It’s nice and central (very close to Stratford Station with underground, overground, DLR and mainline trains) and we do quite a lot of our shows there, so it feels like home. I suppose we’re quite big now and growing all the time. About 40 people per month apply to work with us, but we don’t advertise much and we don’t go to franchise shows because we don’t meet likeminded people there. The growth just seems to be organic although we do run recruitment days.

How does the franchising work? A principal, once approved, buys an area in which to teach singing, dance and drama using our methods. He or she can choose when to run sessions – evenings or weekends or both – using more than one venue within the area without extra cost if they wish. It’s really a case of buy the area and then do your own thing with a lot of support from head office. We’re much less restrictive than many other franchise companies.

What should parents look for if they want to send their child to a part-time stage school? A focus on the needs of the individual child. Of course, we have an agency and some of our students sometimes get professional jobs but that’s not what this is about. Many children come simply because they think it’s fun. They have no professional ambitions. But their parents know that, at the same time, they’re acquiring lots of confidence and transferable skills which will set them up for life. A good school will be diverse and inclusive. And regional shows mean that they get to work with children from other areas where the demographic might be different.

You’re still very young to have achieved all this. Do you find time for a personal life as well? Well I’m 31 now so I’m gradually catching up with everyone else! I bought my own apartment four years ago so I’m living independently now. I’ve had a few girlfriends over the years but am in no hurry to settle down yet. Really I suppose the truth is that Make Believe is the centre of my life – almost like a family – and I’m not yet ready to live any other way. There’s no hurry.

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