Get Into Theatre ... a career in the performing arts

 8 August 2014

What do you need to know about getting a career in the performing arts? Ten people, with careers spanning across the industry, talk about how they got into theatre and how you can too.

Claire Williamson, deputy stage manager

A deputy stage manager is the hub of the rehearsal room. So when a rehearsal period starts, I’m in the rehearsal room with the director and with the cast.

Once we get to the theatre, once the rehearsals are finished, I then work backstage. I queue all the lighting and sound operators and all the scene changes from the prop desk. So I'm kind of a bit like an air traffic controller – in charge of everybody else and making everything run smoothly.

If you contact theatres, quite often they will be delighted to have you in.

The thing I’ve realised since I’ve actually started working is that if you want to come in and sit backstage, or if you want to spend a week or a couple of days, if you contact the theatres quite often they will be absolutely delighted to have you in.

We want to encourage people to work in this industry. Had I known, I would have contacted every theatre and said: 'please can I come in and watch backstage for one day or sit backstage for a show?'

[Claire Williamson is the Deputy Stage Manager at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company Edinburgh]

Leila Kalbassi, scenic artist/design assistant

My job as a scenic artist and design assistant is quite varied. It depends where I work – it varies in the different theatres – but for Dundee Rep Theatre, primarily I’m here to assist the designer.

I think if you wanted to work in theatre or do what I do, I would always recommend doing any job that relates. Don’t be particular and don’t think you’re better than you are because you’ve got a degree or a postgraduate or some form of training.

There’s always something to learn and the smallest company can teach you the biggest things, so it’s always worth doing anything and everything people offer you.

Matthew Robinson, dancer and rehearsal director

For an aspiring dancer I would say work hard. I think this is the beginning. And it’s going to be hard.

But I think along the way of working hard, don’t forget to enjoy yourself because part of our job is learning how to play and be open and be free and be able to connect with other people.

John Liddell, head of costume

The role of a head of costume is to organise absolutely everything that appears on the actors or the singers on stage.

There’s always something to learn and the smallest company can teach you the biggest things.

People who work in costume making, when they study for that at college, they have to make a choice between on the one hand a design-based approach and on the other hand a making-based approach. And I have to say that most of the people that are actually working and earning a living in the theatre are coming from the costume making abilities.

It can be more realistic and just as rewarding to concentrate on making the costumes, and there are many specific courses for that.

Louise Brown, creative learning officer

A lot of my work involves helping the wider public engage with the work on the main stage at the Citizens Theatre.

Probably the best thing about the job is its variety. You are never doing the same thing twice and your day doesn’t really follow any particular pattern. It’s fantastic being able to work in a theatre building – it’s a fantastic privilege.

I think you have to like people. I think you have to really believe in this beneficial power of the arts, and that theatre and the arts play a really valuable role in people’s lives and everyone has the right to access that. I think you need to believe that passionately.

Every job in the arts is often quite competitive so you have to be determined. And I think a love of theatre is as essential, as is a love of wanting other people to take part and love it as well.

Lisa Williamson, creative learning facilitator

I think with creative learning and with running workshops and things like that, it’s about getting as much experience outside of college and school.

I feel like – especially now with so many people coming out of university – with those skillsets of ‘you’ve got a degree’ and ‘you’ve got your qualifications from school’, there are so many people like that and you need something to stand out and more relevant experience in the actual workplace.

So I think if you can volunteer in your local theatre or assist with a drama group in your local community centre, that’s the best way to do it.

Euan McLaren, head of lighting and sound

I didn’t come this route but I certainly think education’s a good route to get that grounding in a structured environment. And that’s not to say you can’t go the other routes. We’ve got an apprentice at the moment in straight from school and that’s worked very well. There are lots of routes in.

Fundamentally, when you get in, work hard and work well.

[Euan is Head of Lighting and Sound at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company Edinburgh]

Caroline Deyga, ensemble member

My advice for students wanting to become an actor would be to be prepared for a lot of hard work and long hours. The other thing is that it’s really good to be open-minded about other talents that you have related to the arts.

Things like maybe writing or directing, because loads of actors do those things on the side, whether it be in between acting jobs or alongside their acting work. That keeps them involved in doing what they love.

George Aza-Selinger, literary manager

I think you have to believe in the beneficial power of the arts, that it plays a really valuable role in people’s lives.

For someone wanting to enter this I’d say one of the key things to consider is you need a passion for storytelling, and the best way to develop that passion and to showcase that passion is just to create your own stuff.

Whenever your friends are putting plays on or putting films on, you can be that go-to person and work with them on their stories, advise them on their stories.

There’s so many outlets, whether that be YouTube or social media, and also all the new writing festivals and new writing stages that are out there for theatre as well.

Philip Howard, chief executive/joint artistic director

My role as chief executive and joint artistic director is to be the person who provides leadership for the overall organisation. So I’m responsible for the whole management of the business, but also the artistic direction of the theatre.

I think if I was advising someone just starting out in their career: well, it’s all about learning and education still. And I guess it always will be. It’s about really getting the right qualifications that you need.

But it’s also about following your heart and making sure you don’t get stuck in a job that really does not make you happy.

About the film

This film was made as part of a live brief involving students and graduates from City of Glasgow College. The music was by Stefan Celosia, a student of Glasgow Kelvin College.

The film was commissioned as part of the CPTS (creative production and technical skills), a collaborative skills project with Federation of Scottish Theatre, Creative & Cultural Skills and Scottish Drama Training Network to promote wider careers in the performing arts.

A special thank you to all the theatres and interviewees who participated.