Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?
My name’s Jennifer David, and I’ve been a Debutots franchisee in North London (Muswell Hill, Hampstead, Finchley) since 2007. Debutots is a really unique brand, offering wonderful interactive storytelling and drama sessions for little ones as young as 6 months up to 7 years old. Unlike many other children’s activity providers, our reach is very wide and varied, from independent parent/carer and child classes in independent venues, nursery sessions, school clubs, parties, bespoke events, and holiday camps, to intergenerational sessions in care homes. We’ve also recently launched Debutkids which caters to up to 11-year-olds, as there was growing demand from our ‘tots’ to continue with us beyond 7 years old.
I trained as an actor, director, and teacher at a drama school, but before that, I graduated with a Law degree from Bristol University and the LPC from The College of Law in Store Street, London.
What does your job involve? What happens on a typical day?
My job is so different from one day to the next, which is one of the things I love about it. Currently, I’m only teaching on 3 or 4 mornings of the week, with a private class at someone’s home on a Tuesday morning, and nursery sessions on a Wednesday morning (I walk in and the children shout “It’s Jennifer Day!”). Thursday mornings I might be running an intergenerational session in a care home or a trial session in a nursery, and then I hold parent/carer and child classes on a Friday. I also often have a party or two or a bespoke event on a weekend. I have a team of 7 practitioners and they run the rest of our classes and parties over the week and weekend. When I’m not teaching I may be answering emails or phone calls, sending out invoices, planning a party, doing sales or marketing, social media, researching new songs or games for classes, trying out a new craft for one of our party, or camp sessions, or practicing the story for the week. I tend to work from around 9 am to 3.30 pm, so I’m around for when my children get home from school, but will often need to finish off some tasks later in the evening.
What’s great about what you do?
I love running my classes, which after 15 years feels like quite an achievement. It’s very invigorating working with little ones, their joy is so visible, uncensored, and infectious, and it keeps me in the present. I also love running my own business, choosing my own hours, being my own boss, and setting my own goals, but as it’s a franchise I have the added benefit of support from my franchisor and fellow franchisees. They’re all such a lovely group with very varied backgrounds, and we’re constantly sharing ideas, along with a lot of jokes! I think I laugh more at our AGM than any other day in the year! I love that I can decide in which direction I want to grow my business, whether that’s working on developing new collaborations (I recently ran a very successful event with Soho House), nurturing new partnerships with children’s charities, or extending the number of care homes we can partner with.
What are the toughest parts of your job?
The toughest part of my job is probably having the discipline to switch off. Like properly switch off and put my phone and computer away for more than 10 minutes! I think I am (finally) getting better at this, but I’m quite a driven person and can often lose myself in one task then another without stopping to take a breath.
What are the highlights of your career to date?
I think one of the highlights was over Covid, as we very quickly converted all our classes online and we would send out pre-recorded classes to children’s charities. Once a week I would make a new 30-40 minute class and it was a real family affair, with my husband filming, my daughters helping with the sound and set up, and my son editing. ‘The Independent’ watched one of my pre-recorded classes and wrote it up as one of the top children’s online classes over lockdown. Our school clubs also all continued over Zoom and there wasn’t much being offered by schools during that first lockdown so the children and parents were so grateful and enthusiastic. We even ran birthday parties over Zoom, so the children didn’t need to miss out on celebrating. Another highlight was doing my first intergenerational session in a care home, where we partnered a nursery group with a group of residents and together we all enjoyed singing, dancing, popping bubbles, and various other activities, with a soundtrack of music from the 50s and 60s. Running intergenerational sessions is incredibly heartwarming, and to see the joy of both different age groups is priceless. It’s times like that when you think “I’d actually do this for free!”. Sometimes the joy and adrenaline after a class (not just the intergenerational ones) is so wonderful you wish you could bottle it.
What's been the biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?
I’d say that the biggest challenges to my career so far were at the beginning, when it felt like there was a lot of rejection and that I was at the start of an incredibly steep learning curve. You start out with a completely blank timetable, and it can feel like grueling work making the calls to nurseries and schools, sending out information, offering free trials, and following up. It felt like there were a lot of ‘no’s’ and the ‘yes’s’ were few and far between, but that’s just the way it is when you start out. There’s no ‘fast forward’ button, you just have to be consistent, determined, persevere, look ahead, and keep taking all the steps that need to be taken. My husband’s also always been very supportive which makes a huge difference.
What was your career path into this job? Have you also worked outside the arts?
After A levels I was on the way to becoming a solicitor, but during my year at Law School, I started a part-time course at a drama school. By the end of that year, I knew I’d be making a mistake if I followed through with the training contract at the law firm that was sponsoring me, and I switched courses and ended up going to drama school. I had to pay the law firm back though for my Law School fees, so I worked as a paralegal during the day and went to drama school in the evenings. After a while, I switched to a full-time course at the drama school, but my biological clock was ticking so loudly, I gave birth to my son just months after graduating from drama school. Over the next 3 years, I worked part-time, teaching acting, going for auditions and acting in various productions, and some PA work too, plus my first daughter (I now have two) was born 2 years after my son. When she was nearing 1, I started looking at franchises online and came across Debutots. It seemed like a perfect fit for me – I could combine drama and storytelling with teaching and being with little ones, plus I could also fulfill my ambition of running my own business, but with the support of someone more experienced (the franchisor and other franchisees).
Have you noticed any changes in the industry in recent times? If so, what?
Pre-Covid it felt like the competition in the children’s activity market was growing and growing, it felt like it was reaching saturation point. It tailed off a lot though over the pandemic, with a lot of providers changing professions.
How has your background, upbringing and education had an impact on your artistic career?
I was lucky to have been taken to lots of shows when I was growing up and enjoyed acting at primary school. Once I left primary school though I didn’t act, and then when puberty set in my confidence took a dive and I never would have gone near a stage! I then found myself rather blindly following a more ‘traditional’ academic path, and if it hadn’t been for my sister encouraging me to try the part-time course at the drama school I would have ended up becoming a solicitor.
You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?
I would say “think outside the box, there are jobs out there that are perfectly suited to you. Focus on what you’re passionate about and do what makes you happy (not what you think will make other people happy). You can create a life for yourself that is healthy, fulfilling, and very enjoyable. Oh, and learn to say ‘no’ sometimes.”
Do you have any advice for young people interested in your field?
The advice I’d give anyone (young or otherwise!) interested in my field is to go for it! Keep going, even when there are knockbacks, keep an eye on the competition but don’t be distracted by them, keep doing what you’re good at and keep working at it so you keep improving.
Where can people find you online?
You can find out about me and my work at www.debutots.co.uk/finchley-hampstead-muswellhill