Learning technical theatre

 21 March 2011

Theatre would be nothing without people working behind the scenes to bring it alive. Chichester Youth Theatre teaches young people the skills they need to work backstage.

Learn backstage skills at the Technical Youth Theatre.
Learn backstage skills at the Technical Youth Theatre.

Training for backstage skills

Chichester Youth Theatre runs a training programme for backstage theatre skills. Jointly funded by the city’s celebrated Festival Theatre and the Noël Coward Foundation, the Technical Youth Theatre course has already proved successful beyond the imagination of its founders.

The courses run for twelve weeks, and cover a comprehensive range of theatre skills:

  • Lighting
  • Sound
  • Stagecraft (including scenery management, use of power tools, safety procedures, etc)
  • Set design
  • Costume design (including make-up)
  • Prop-making

The students learn the ropes in these various specialities, and also have the chance to apply their skills to a forthcoming YT production in the Minerva Theatre, filling roles in stage management, lighting, sound and design.

Learning on the job unquestionably deepens the experience for an apprentice in any field. They may also gain experience by shadowing professional crews on productions in the Festival Theatre. This could involve a day of sitting in on tech rehearsals, or perhaps listening on headphones to the technical director at work.

As well as learning and applying these technical skills, in the later stages of the course, students are also required to demonstrate them to others, which is a great teaching technique.

Getting started with backstage skills

"We have one student who has gained a place at Guildhall to study stage management. Another student, who was deputy stage manager in a very small arts centre, has since gone on to the National Theatre."

The technical course stemmed from an Arts Council initiative called Open Doors. This aims to recruit young people between the ages of 15 and 19 to the backstage and front-of-house aspects of a career in theatre.

An initial day-long presentation of talks and interactive sessions proved wildly popular, an impression that has been borne out by take-up of Chichester’s programme.

According to Youth Theatre director, Dale Rooks, it wasn’t long before the course started expanding. "We started on Tuesday evenings with a maximum 15 in the group, but quickly found we would have to establish a Saturday morning group as well."

The course covers many skill bases, and in a professional theatre environment, but it hasn’t proved daunting to the students.

"At that age, a lot of young people don’t really know which direction to follow, so it’s hugely advantageous to them to have that overall experience, and then be able to specialise in whatever they feel they’re good at, and where their interests lie."

"We have one student who has just gained a place at Guildhall to study stage management. For others, it’s an interest that may have been kindled at school, and they’d simply like to be involved, say, in something like youth theatre shows.

"We have another student who was DSM (deputy stage manager) on a show in a very small arts centre in Hampshire. It then transferred here (to Chichester), and has since gone on to the National Theatre, so she’s now working at the Olivier."

Advertising in schools and colleges, and through the YT’s own website, brings in potential new recruits, but Dale Rooks says that many young people just approach the theatre on their own initiative.

Recognition for backstage skills

Since the inception of the technical course, the Festival Theatre has become eligible, for the first time, to participate in the National Arts Awards scheme.

Run by a partnership of Arts Council England and Trinity Guildhall, the awards aim to recognise young people’s development in the arts, through making their own creative choices, meeting challenges they have set themselves and – crucially – sharing their skills and achievements with other learners.

The cost of the technical training

"A lot of young people don’t really know which direction to follow, so it’s hugely advantageous to them to have that overall experience, and then be able to specialise."

There are fees for this technical youth theatre course, on top of an annual membership subscription. The cost of undertaking training in backstage skills is something to take into consideration.

However, the theatre does offer bursaries, and Dale Rooks is adamant that the programme does not select by ability to pay. "We would never prevent anybody from joining on that basis. If somebody is keen enough, I would never turn them away because they couldn’t pay."

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