This is our second blog post on our Careers in Theatre event which was held back in February. If you haven’t already, read out first post here. This blog post will focus on the discussions and insights gained from the second panel, which included professionals working within performing, producing and technical roles.
Elizabeth Lloyd Raynes – Actress
Whilst studying for her BA in Drama and Theatre Arts at UoB Elizabeth started her professional career with various companies: The Birmingham Opera Company (Life is a Dream, Mittwoch aus Licht), FRED theatre company (The Lasting Sense of Sudden, The Diary of a Nobody) and Birmingham REP (Eat!). Whilst training for her MA in Acting at ArtsEd she featured in a music video (Moving London) and in her last term landed her London debut as Francesca in the four month run of Heartbreak Hotel. In the last month she starred in Swing By Around 8 as Katherine, and featured in an advert for Virgin Active.
Jake Bartle – Assistant Producer (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Jake works closely with the RSC’s Artistic team providing administrative support for selected productions in Stratford- Upon-Avon, London and on tour both across the UK and Internationally. Prior to the RSC Jake worked in a similar role at Chichester Festival Theatre and before that worked as an Assistant/ Deputy Stage Manager for a number of companies across the UK (ZHO Visual Theatre, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Theatre’s , Bolton Octagon Theatre, English Touring Theatre, Goodnight Mister Tom Ltd).
Laura Kileen – Production Assistant (Birmingham Repertory Theatre)
Laura has been working as a Production Assistant at The REP for nearly three years. She provides key support to the Head of Production and Production Manager, as well as the Heads of Department for sound, lighting, wardrobe, workshop, paintshop, props, stage and stage management. Previously Laura worked at the National Theatre as costume administrator for the large costume department and at Arts Council England as the performing arts assistant and then the assistant officer for literature and photography.
Pete Wheller – Technical Manager (Ruddock Performing Arts Centre)
As a young technician Pete has tried to keep his work inside Birmingham and has sustained a more than full time career in the industry since graduating from the Drama and Theatre Arts course at Birmingham in 2011. He has now settled in a full time job as Technical Manager at The Ruddock Performing Arts Centre (Edgbaston) where his creativity is stretched and knowledge of the ever morphing industry grows. Pete has shifted his skills to centre his career around helping to drive a new venue forward by working with creative teams from professional companies, charities and community performance groups spanning the full spectrum of performing arts.
The questions asked by students were specific to the areas that our panellists are specialists in; therefore this post will be split into three sections accordingly.
Starting out as a performer
Elizabeth told the group about her busy and slightly unusual start into her professional acting career in London. She landed her London debut whilst still training at drama school therefore her days consisted of school in the day, and then leaving early to go to theatre to do a show. It was a very busy period for her until her course finished and her time was freed up a bit more.
Elizabeth had completed some acting jobs prior to this whilst still at university. She found these on www.artsjobs.org.uk, a free website that she highly recommends that advertises a wide variety of jobs in the sector, including performing and non-performing jobs. This was where she found auditions for acting jobs in Birmingham. She didn’t get the first few things she auditioned for but pleaded with the room to “keep on trying.” She highlighted the importance of networking and felt this helped her get her first job after building up some rapport with a casting director from auditioning for him a few times.
Elizabeth also offered some great advice about non-performing jobs that actors can use to support themselves financially when starting out in the industry. She recommended the following facebook groups which she called ‘lifesavers’ with flexible job opportunities for people wanting to support themselves through a career in theatre:
Though opportunities for castings, lighting designers, stage managers etc are advertised on these groups, there will also be casual jobs offering the income and flexibility that actors need to support themselves alongside pursuing a career in the industry. Often employers are particularly looking for people who are performers or from the creative industry as the roles require approachability and confidence. These jobs are ideal for fitting in around auditions or performance opportunities. When taking on this type of work, it is important to be honest with your employer from the outset about your expectations of needing time off for auditions etc, they will respect your honesty and may be more flexible because of it.
Elizabeth went straight to do her MA in Acting after graduating from UoB. She funded this via a loan from the bank. Interestingly, Elizabeth told us, “when I went to drama school I was the youngest by a long shot. Everyone else had had a few years off, getting money, getting loads of experience. They were all late twenties, early thirties, even forties, so being 21 and going straight to drama school to do a masters – I felt very young. And actually it made me think, instead of getting myself into loads of debt, I could have actually taken a few years out and that’s definitely doable”. This could be a very useful insight for students interested in pursuing an acting career with worries about how to fund it. It seems a misconception that one should go straight to drama school as soon as possible, but in reality this isn’t the norm.
The tasks and responsibilities involved when working within production
Jake described his role as “a really reactive job where you’re dealing with a lot of the whims of the artistic teams of a production.” He explained how producers will work the artistic director to ensure all elements of the production are in tune with the organisation. Day to day, Jake does a lot of contract negotiation with touring venues, other producers and the creative team as well as negotiating with other departments at the RSC including events, exhibitions, marketing, education and research and development to make sure that everything is in keeping with the production. He also drafts and manages production budgets, research and development projects, coordinates RSC online concept trailers and assists in the management of the RSC Emerging Director programme. Jake is also lead producer for smaller scale RSC projects. The key element of his role is liaison and as Assistant Producer he benefits from seeing the production through its journey right from the beginning with the artistic director’s vision to when the show finishes its run at the RSC. He describes it as “an interesting process to be a part of”.
Laura’s role is very varied and often strange and wonderful requests appear, as is the nature of theatre. She provides all administrative support for the production team and production manages the Learning and Participation shows at The REP. Her role can be very admin-focused, dealing with invoices, keeping track of the production’s budget and processing timesheets and contracts for casual staff. Her key role is to support the head of production and production manager with tasks such as creating schedules and contact sheets for shows, contacts and supporting with sound and lighting.
Working in Tech
As a freelance technician it’s quite difficult in the first instance to pick up enough work to fund yourself fully if you’ve got overheads and bills. Pete stresses the importance of always keeping track of your accounts as you’ll have a self-assessment at the end of the year and be sure to register as self-employed. Similarly to Elizabeth, Pete told students not to be afraid to have something else to support them whilst starting out. Pete himself worked in a bar on Broad Street.
It’s crucial to get your name out there as much as you can and not to be afraid if people say no. Once you’ve done a short contract somewhere, they’ll often invite you back for another, if you’ve done a good job, and people within the industry talk to each other which can bring you more work. Pete told us “it seems like a big network but it’s surprisingly small when you get to know people.” Working in tech, you’ll often build up your experience through a variety of contracts, and get to the point where you’re getting phonecall after phonecall and you have to say no. He encouraged students to get on professional networks, as well as LinkedIn and twitter, but be sure to keep your social media professional. As a freelancer, be very careful about your work ethic, for example if you’re late for a job, don’t expect to get paid, and certainly don’t expect to get called again.
Pete shared some insights about the touring lifestyle, mainly the late nights and lack of sleep involved. It can be great and really exciting, but it’s important to realise it isn’t for everyone. Though you might be travelling to some fantastic cities, you probably won’t get to see them – you get there, you fit up, you do the show, you get out and then you sleep on the bus to the next city. “That is your life as an international tourer working for tech.”
In terms of prior knowledge or qualifications needed when first starting out and going for tech jobs, Pete explains how “you can go round the houses and spend a lot of money on training and experience.” Pete recommends making sure you’re confident in tasks such as ‘sweeping the stage’, “qualifications which sound ridiculous but you need to know how to do things like that.” You need to be prepared to start at the bottom and don’t be too overambitious with roles you’re going for, be realistic and be yourself. Sometimes, some of the ‘desirable’ criteria for a job aren’t really necessary or called upon in the role itself, therefore use your common sense when applying and sell yourself. Pete advises getting some experience behind you initially, then consider when you’ve saved some money spending it on qualifications. When you’re in the environment, make the most of it and observe how other people are doing their jobs. Offer to help and assist where you can to increase your own experience. Keep your eyes open in those jobs, watch how people are doing their jobs and ask questions – just make sure you get your jobs done first.
- Don’t be worried about the need to take on another job or casual work to support yourself whilst pursuing your career
- Networking is key – get your name out there and this could lead to opportunities
- The panel all agreed that within the industry, a positive, can-do attitude can go a long way. People who are reliable and easy to work with are highly sought after and it is in this instance where contacts you make are more likely to think of you when a suitable job opportunity may arise.
Written by Michelle May, Internship Officer for the College of Arts and Law