Last month students with an interest to work in theatre had the chance to hear from a panel of industry professionals working in a broad range of roles across the sector.

After short introductions from each of the speakers, two separate Q&A panels were formed, allowing students to visit both panels and hear from all seven speakers throughout the course of the event.

Panel 1:

Tom Saunders – Senior Youth Theatre Director (The REP)

Tom has been Senior Youth Theatre Director at The REP for almost five years and before that was Creative Learning Assistant at Hull Truck Theatre for just under two years. His role for both of these theatres was to engage the local community in the life of theatre. This involved children and young people in and out of education, people with learning disabilities, homeless adults, victims of domestic violence, adults with mental ill-health and recovering adult.

Sarah-Jane Watkinson – General Manager (The Play House) and Freelance Producer   

Sarah-Jane is a freelance producer and manager, living in Birmingham since 1985 when she studied Theatre Design at Birmingham Polytechnic. Following this, she worked as a designer and workshop leader on a range of theatre, community and education projects before moving into managerial roles. She works part time as General Manager for The Play House theatre in education, based at The REP.

Antony Pickthall – Head of Marketing and Communications (Town Hall and Symphony Hall)

Antony leads a team of eight at Town Hall Symphony Hall and is responsible for the marketing and communications strategy, managing the marketing and communications budget and is a member of the senior management team.

Panel 1 saw professionals with experience in Creative Learning, Producing, Marketing and Communications.  In this blog post you can read about the insights, tips and advice that were shared during this session.


An interest in theatre

A genuine interest in theatre was the perhaps obvious, but still valuable reason for all three speakers wanting to pursue a career in the sector. Ultimately, to work in theatre, you really need to care about it. Sarah-Jane stated clearly; ‘if you don’t care about the work you’re working on, it won’t be any good.’ As a room full of students who had given up their evening to traipse up to the Selly Oak campus to attend this event, an interest in theatre was hopefully something the whole room had in common.

Getting into the industry

  • Antony has worked in arts marketing for most of his career, beginning as a press and publicity officer for the Library Theatre, Manchester. Since then, he has worked in theatre, music and contemporary art organisations sometimes combining a development role. Previous organisations include: London Bubble; Centre for Performance Research (CPR), the Bluecoat, Liverpool Biennial and Worthing Theatres and has involved venues, production companies and festivals.

He told us “I made a nuisance of myself, asked if I could help.” He built up his CV with voluntary experience before landing a Press and Publicity Assistant job. He realised he really enjoyed looking at why people go and see work and wanted to understand audiences better.

  • Over the last seven years Tom has become a theatre director out of necessity rather than ambition but really enjoys the craft of theatre making. He develops new writers and has commissioned a number of new plays, taking many of them through to full production. Recently Tom has collaborated with Outer Circle Arts to stage In The Motherhood a new play about what it’s like to be a mother.

Tom had been convinced there were only four jobs you could have within theatre; actor, director, stage manager, drama teacher. In his own time he did volunteering with children with learning disabilities and discovered new possibilities working with kids and drama. Following a project within a special needs school during his 2nd year of university, Tom was asked to do a 3 day project with the Hull Truck Theatre, which led to Saturday work as a Youth Theatre Director. After finishing university the Hull Truck Theatre offered him a three-month internship which developed into a full time job and following this he moved to the Rep Theatre where he still works now, despite originally taking a five month contract!

  • In 2014 Sarah-Jane set up her own company Outer Circle Arts and works with theatre companies such as ATRESBANDES from Barcelona and Sleepwalk Collective from the Basque Country, as well as her own projects in collaboration with other artists on projects such as In the Motherhood, a new play by Hayley Pepler. Previously, she has worked with many other regional organisations such as Women and Theatre, Sampad South Asian Arts and Worcestershire Arts Partnership.

Sarah-Jane, after completing a practical degree in theatre design realised she really enjoyed the participatory side of theatre; “helping people take part in stuff is just as important as the theatre.” Through enterprise allowance grants offered by the government at the time, Sarah was involved in putting on productions and was actually the one taking phonecalls, organising and applying for grants rather than making, painting and building things.” She got her first senior job at Sampad as programme manager and after realising “all the stuff I’d been doing was called producing and I’d been doing that all along”, she set up her own theatre company.

Freelancing Practitioners

When wanting to work as an external freelancer, it’s really about getting your CV into the right person and giving them an opportunity to see you work. Organisations including the Rep, the Playhouse, Women in Theatre, the Midlands Arts Centre and the Birmingham Hippodrome all work with freelance practitioners. Sarah-Jane mentioned there being a real shortage of people in applied theatre roles, that really care about the work rather than turning to it during a ‘stop-gap’ period. Being able to facilitate effectively requires a very particular skillset, beyond performance.

Speculative applications

When emailing a company speculatively to enquire about work experience or jobs, the professionals had the following tips/advice:

  • Be clear: say who you are and what the purpose of your email is
  • Be realistic about what you’re asking for
  • Remember you’re not owed a reply – the industry is an incredibly busy one
  • Where possible, prefix your email with a connection (e.g. if you’ve seen someone speak at an event, been passed details by someone)
  • Spell check! Do not make typos – you’ve got to be at your best no matter what the communication
  • Don’t be too informal: be polite and respectful

It’s easy to get disheartened when you don’t hear back or have success with speculative applications, but it may be as simple as that when you’re contacting, there is nothing available. Timing can play a big part in the success of speculative applications.

Another tip to make sure you’re up to date with any opportunities and news within prospective organisations is to get yourself on people’s mailing lists, follow them on twitter and check their websites regularly.

The best advice Anthony said he’d give to anyone is to “start a conversation, you never know where it’s going to lead or what people might be looking for.”

Demonstrating a passion for the arts

Most applications for jobs within theatre will list a ‘passion for the arts’ as part of the essential criteria, but how can you actually demonstrate this to employers? We asked the panel for their thoughts…

Antony believed it was very simple: “whenever we do an interview we always ask what people have listened to or seen. You can tell immediately whether they’re just making it up, or whether they’re genuinely enthused by what it is.” He urged students to get out in the arts scene and go and see something, and not to use the excuse that they can’t afford it. There are so many schemes in place offering discounted and sometimes free tickets to students and young people, plus various community festivals and street art performances that mean there is always a way to actively engage in the arts.

Tom talked about how Birmingham has a fantastic arts scene and with organisations like Birmingham Rep, Symphony Hall, the Hippodrome, MAC, the CBSO and the IKON gallery “making amazing art,” studying in this city means this is all on your doorstep.

Showing a real passion for interest in the organisation you’re applying for is equally as important. Sarah-Jane reflected on applications she’d seen whereby applicants had expressed how important the opportunity was for their career and personal development, but failed to actually say why they wanted to work with her organisation in particular. She said “I want to know what it is about our work that you find interesting.”


Volunteering is a really good way into an organisation. If you make an impression, people remember you and your name might pop up for a potential job.

There are various arts festivals taking place this summer that you could volunteer for, assisting with marketing, bar shifts, dinner service, box office, front of house, ushering, technical support and more:

Be Festival

ON THE EDGE: the World Festival of Theatre for Young Audiences

YAY 16: Year of Arts and Young People

Doing front of house or box office work in a theatre is also a recommended and valuable way of building experience within an arts environment and making useful contacts.

Application tips – stand out but don’t overdo it

Anthony gave us an idea of how competitive it is to get a job in the arts. A recruiter could receive anything from 80 to 200+ applications, therefore the importance of a strong application is ever-important.

Tom explained the process of applying for a job is a bit like learning to pass an exam, and that people often think it’s more complicated than it really is. Tom plainly told the students not to try and be too creative but to directly address the criteria in the job description. For example if the person specification requires a passion for theatre, you need to say at some point “I am passionate about theatre”. Tom advised “be matter of fact, do it in the order they set it out in and do it in their words.” Repeat what is in the job description, with evidence and examples of how you meet each criterion.

The panel all agreed that applicants should be careful not to overdo it when trying to stand out. For example writing every word of your application in a different font or live tweeting from an audition will not work in your favour. One of the main things employers are assessing in an interview is how well the candidate would fit in with and work with the team, therefore applicants should be wary of behaviour and techniques that aim to set them apart in a recruitment process, but could backfire by coming across as a poor team player.

Final thoughts:

  • A demonstrable passion and interest for theatre is crucial to forge a career in the sector
  • Don’t overcomplicate job applications
  • Don’t be narrow-minded – focus on what you can do for the organisation and why it interests you, not just why it is good for your career
  • Volunteer and engage in the vibrant Birmingham arts scene


This is the first of two blog posts in follow up to this event. The 2nd blog post will focus on the discussions and insights from Panel 2:

Jake Bartle – Assistant Producer (Royal Shakespeare Company)

Laura Kileen – Production Assistant (The REP)

Pete Wheller – Technical Manager (Ruddock Performing Arts Centre)

Elizabeth Lloyd-Raynes – Actress


Click this link to visit our second blog post.

Written by Michelle May, Internship Officer for the College of Arts and Law