In this guest blog, Susan Elkin – author and Education and Training Editor at The Stage – tells AYT about the need for more practical careers advice when it comes to theatre, and talks us through some of the opportunities available to young people. After all, we can’t all be actors…
A longer version of this article first appeared in The Stage on March 14 2013.
Too little honest but informative careers advice goes into schools. Almost every day I meet, or am contacted by, desperate young people – or their parents – wanting guidance about how to get started in the performing arts industries.
Teachers in their schools don’t usually know much – unless there happens to be a dedicated drama department staffed by industry professionals. And careers advisers tend to be focused on almost anything but the performing arts – because “everyone knows” that most actors are usually unemployed.
But there is good news for these young people. And my new book So You Want to Work in Theatre? spells it out. The truth is that there are many more ways of working in theatre off-stage than on it. You can’t blame school students for not understanding that when they see a live performance there are many – dozens if it’s a big show – highly skilled creative people working behind the scenes to bring the piece to life.
Why should a young audience member be aware of stage managers, lighting technicians, sound engineers, scenic constructors, designers, costume makers, stage door staff and many more if such roles are not pointed out to them? Also behind every performance, of course, there is a director and producer, not to mention a playwright if it’s a modern play. And if it’s a big company – such as the Royal Opera House or National Theatre – accountants and administrators will be on the payroll. Most companies, even small ones in which such roles overlap, have someone to do the marketing, education and outreach work too.
The list of things you can do “in theatre” apart from performing is a long one. And what we should be telling these youngsters is that in many aspects of technical theatre there are skills shortages. Unlike actors, trained theatre ‘techies’ can often find work relatively easily.
Obviously places on technical theatre courses are competitive, but they attract fewer applicants than those famously oversubscribed acting courses.
A young person who might like to work in theatre needs to know that if he or she is drawn to hairdressing there are opportunities for hairdressers and wig makers in the performing arts industries. Keen on craft design and technology – and theatre? Well, why not consider training as a scenic constructor?
I worry about the failure of such creative thinking to filter through to the very people who need it, but of course there are organisations working very hard to rectify that lack. Creative and Cultural Skills, part of the National Skills Academy, for example, runs over a hundred Creative Choices days all over the country each autumn. These involve taking whole classes of 13-15 year olds into venues and showing them, with the assistance of venue staff and tutors from local further education colleges, the range of work there is in the venue. I’ve recently watched, for example, a mixed group being shown make-up techniques at Palace Theatre, Southend and large numbers of young people at Lyric Hammersmith being shown, and invited to experiment with, what designers do.
Another useful source of information is TheatreCraft, the annual careers fair each November at Royal Opera House. It shows more than 1,000 young people what they might do in the industry via trade stands and a large programme of seminars led by practitioners.
But good as these initiatives are, they reach only a tiny proportion of the nation’s teenagers. Surely more youngsters should be enabled to meet and question theatrical milliners, puppet makers, assistant directors, theatre company accountants, outreach staff and the rest to find out what they do and how they trained?
A Younger Theatre readers can purchase Susan Elkin’s book So You Want to Work in Theatre? (published by Nick Hern Books) for just £7.49 (a 25% discount!). Click here to find out how.