I was recently at a director’s workshop with ten others who had all come together on a rainy Monday to learn about dramaturgy skills and the director’s process, with an artistic director. We started the day in a circle (classic), went around saying our names and talked about what kind of work we were currently doing. Workshops like this can make me nervous. As with any time you’re in the same room as other people pursuing a similar career path to you, there is always that unreasonable voice in the head that compares yourself to others and how successful they are. Various people in the group shared that they were currently working on a new project, had just directed a play that was touring or were working within a theatre in some capacity. It was a really diverse and interesting group of people, but as the youngest person there just venturing into directing, all I was thinking was whether or not these people were doing this as a full time job, and if so, how were they surviving?
A few years ago, The Guardian published an article on the Stage Directors UK, finding that half of UK directors were earning less than £5,000 a year. I remember reading this mid degree thinking, how can this be, they all look so glamorous wandering around on press night! I started to look into how most people get into directing and found that many undertake Masters courses at top drama schools. With a hefty price tag of £12,000 a year, the future earnings hardly seemed to justify applying for an MA. When I googled my favourite directors, most were Oxbridge educated. Of course, attending Oxbridge does not always mean someone is wealthy enough to sustain a low-paying artistic career, but the facilities and funding available to Oxbridge drama societies often means directors can come out with a handsome portfolio of work before they’ve been given their diploma. Taking all of this into consideration, why would any young person who doesn’t come from money even attempt to be a director?
It goes without saying that most directors, like other creatives must also do other work on the side – often full time. The annoying thing about theatre (although I’m sure every practice has its particular financial irritations) is that it requires chunks of time for rehearsals and nearly always involves a team of people. This means it can rarely be done at home in the evening, or from a laptop in a cafe. It is a job that naturally requires a lot people, time and space. I work in a pub whilst pursuing theatre when I can, and for now, it’s great as I often have a whole day or two a week to work on a funding application or a script edit. The downside is, if I took a month to do a play I could easily be replaced by another recent creative graduate.
Justifiably, many young people pursuing theatre directing, or theatre in general, feel frustrated and lost upon leaving uni or school. The British education system is often very focused on the success of the individual and being the best, without any acknowledgement that being the best might mean years of tutoring GCSE English on the side until you see any good earnings coming through. I had a friend who told me that at her first drama school audition at 18, a residing student at the school made a speech to her and others: “if you have a plan B, you should walk away now, because it means you don’t want it enough.” As an impressionable 18-year-old, I would have been very influenced by such a statement. A few years on, I’m realising that plan B is paying the rent, while plan A is still developing. Having a job to support your art is not only necessary, but beneficial. As someone who is terrible at Maths, having to work in shops and pubs has helped my budgeting skills. I worked as box office staff for three years which helped me understand how a theatre works inside and out. More support and information is needed to be given to young people on the reality of pursuing theatre, not in a way that will deter them, but in a way that simply says: if you want to be in theatre, there are many ways you can support your career…
Change does seem to be afoot for theatre directors who are from working class backgrounds or simply cannot sustain this career as a freelancer. The JMK trust are always offering marvelous opportunities for directors such as The Mountaintop‘s Roy Alexander Weise, especially in regions where funding for theatre is harder to find. They also post really great blogs with lots of advice about starting out as a director and how to work flexibly around it. Theatres have also recently been hiring directors on a basis that does not require lofty, verbose responses, but instead accepting video cover letters which are often easier for directors who may not have had that Oxbridge education, or merely struggle with written language.
At the end of my wonderful directing course, we all headed down to the bar, and someone uttered the word ‘day job’, to which there was a clear sign of relief. Someone was a teacher, another was a solicitor. We talked honestly about making theatre while working, and it was great to see that people of all age groups were still pursuing it and felt as passionate as I feel now, just starting out. I said that I felt worried about perhaps always having to do a job on the side and the eldest in the group shot back: “Who cares what you do for money – you’re here now aren’t you?”