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Learning about the craft of theatre

A few years ago there was a lot of anxious talk about worsening skills shortages in the performing arts industries. Young people know about acting, singing and dancing but they tend not to be aware of the importance of stage managers, scenic constructors, directors, producers, costume makers, make up artists, lighting technicians etc. Then there’s the whole field of design.

Theatre, as I wrote in my 2013, book So You Want to Work in Theatre (Nick Hern Books) is like an iceberg. For everything you can see there’s an awful lot going on behind the scenes which you can’t.

Well, much has been done to dent those skills shortages since then. There are some excellent apprenticeship schemes at, for example, National Theatre and Royal Opera House and in regional theatre all over the country – working in almost every aspect of theatre making. Creative and Cultural Skills has beavered away very successfully to provide courses, create opportunities and raise awareness. And drama schools such as Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Mountview and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire run fine theatre arts courses. So, incidentally, do Wimbledon College of Art, London College of Fashion, Nottingham Trent University and Plymouth College of Art – among many others.

The training opportunities are lined up but there is still ignorance at school leaver level. Many teachers and careers advisers know very little about the creative industries (including performing arts) which contribute £250 billion per year – that’s 14.2 % – to the British economy, The sector is growing faster than the economy as a whole and is one of Britain’s strongest exports. Who says it’s not a good area to work in? Unfortunately too many school staff merely know that actors are often unemployed and try to put thespy kids off. So how to we get the message to young people who often don’t have the experience to know what goes on beyond the visible performance?

Theatrecraft, the annual careers fair, which I attended last week, is doing a fine job by getting around a thousand young people through the door every time. It’s now in its 13th year and I’ve been to most of them. The event has – encouragingly and rightly – grown over the years. This year, as last, the main stands and some of the events were at Waldorf Hilton Hotel, Aldwych with some of the seminars and workshops in nearby theatres.

It was good to see so many young people talking earnestly about courses to staff from, for example, LIPA, East 15, GSA, Central and RADA. Organisations such as National Youth Theatre (excellent backstage summer courses) and Roundhouse which runs a far reaching opportunity-rich education programme were present too. And I stress that those are just examples. It was a very busy, buzzy event graced by 61 stands.

The eclectic workshop/seminar programme was impressive too. I dropped in on some sessions and was particularly taken with Nigel Lilley (MD on Company at the Geilgud Theatre) talking with animated charisma about the role of the musical director. I thought I had a pretty clear understanding of how musical theatre works but I learned loads in 20 minutes.

It’s quite a bonus for young people to get all this free. Some come in school or college groups and others as individuals. And they range from enthusiastic 16 year olds though to researching 20 somethings who may already have trained in theatre or something else and are now seeking a next step.

Look out for next year’s Theatrecraft – usually a Friday in mid-November. It’s doing an excellent job. I just wish more careers advisers and teachers were there gathering information to take back to students who couldn’t make it.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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