Busting the theatre myths


Students who want to work in the theatre are often put-off their ambitions for fear it is too tough an industry. Susan Elkin’s new book aims to help schools better advise young people.

What do you tell students in year 11 or in post-16 groups when they tell you they want – desperately want – to be actors, singers, dancers or other sorts of performer? 

Perhaps they have been to the theatre a few times, or seen some highly misleading television talent shows and think that is the life for them. 

Maybe they are doing a performing arts subject at GCSE or beyond and/or been in school shows. If they are really keen they probably take part in youth theatre or classes outside school too.

Well, sadly, most teachers and nearly all parents pour cold water on such ambitions. The one thing everyone knows is that most actors spend more than three quarters of their lives out of work. And just how much do most teachers and parents (with honourable exceptions, obviously) know about training for, or working in, the performing arts industries anyway?

Theatre is like an iceberg. For every actor you see performing, up to 10 more people are out of sight working their socks off, one way or another, to bring the show to you. And that is what young people are not, for the most part, being told.

Theatre, without “the” on front of it, is not a building. It means the whole activity of creating live performances – and it can be done anywhere, in almost as many different ways as there are people. Think, for example, of street theatre, site-specific theatre, promenade theatre and devised theatre.

Some of these theatre workers, such as stage managers, dressers and scene-shifters are physically close to the actors and only just out of sight. The people operating the lighting rig and sound system are slightly further away but still in the auditorium if this is theatre in a building. 

Before the show you are watching saw the light of day, designers worked with the show’s director. Together they have ensured that the set, costumes, sound and lighting support the director’s overall vision for the play – which had to be written by someone who may still be alive and around if it is a modern piece.

Elsewhere in the venue, whatever form it takes, there may be a theatre manager and people selling tickets and programmes, collectively known as “front of house”. Others could be on hand to sell you ice creams, interval drinks or other refreshments.

And behind the show is a producer or production company who invested money in it, or persuaded others to do so. Someone marketed the production so that the public knows about it. That means posters, fliers, internet exposure and working with the press.

Then are the people who make the costumes and build the sets to the designer’s specifications. 

It adds up to a large hidden workforce, all of it creative and skilled. There is a great deal more to “working in theatre” than acting or performing, which is only the visible tip of that huge, unseen iceberg. Really large companies such as Royal Opera House, National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company employ hundreds of people, including some who would not necessarily be associated with theatre, such as accountants, administrators, education managers, website developers and fundraisers.

And once a show is ready to roll, in comes the press who write reviews so that their readers know what is on and whether or not it is any good. Theatre critics are, in a sense, working in theatre too. 

And the good news for young people wanting to work in theatre is that in many areas of it there is a serious shortage of people who can do these jobs.

In 2008, research by the then newly founded, National Skills Academy for Creative and Cultural Skills predicted that by 2017 the industry would be short of 30,000 skilled people to undertake back-stage work for theatre and other live events.

Some progress has been made since then towards setting up training opportunities to deal with this shortfall. That means more ways for young people to get into these jobs. 

There is decent money to be earned in many of these careers too. And stage managers and the rest are far more likely to be consistently employed than actors.

So can we please start telling school students all this in an informed and positive way, rather than simply trying to put them off because we do not – in all honesty – know much about such opportunities and anyway their parents would rather see them doing business studies at university?

  • Susan Elkin, a former English teacher, is education and training editor at The Stage. Her book So You Want to Work in Theatre? is published by Nick Hern Books and is out on March 8.


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