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Getting trained for a technical theatre job

A White Light training session in progress A White Light training session in progress
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Last year, I wrote in these pages about ways to find out about what technical theatre jobs are available and how to choose the most suitable training. For those who are sure they already know exactly what they want to do, one option suggested was to pester your local theatre. Get to do a work placement from school, get a job as an usher, get to know the technical staff and you might just get a job as a follow-spot operator, or a dresser, or show staff.

It is a valuable start but will not make you generally employable. Robin Townley, of the Association of British Theatre Technicians, says: “To undertake any job you need to be competent at the tasks that job requires. Competence is the ability to undertake responsibilities and to perform tasks to a recognised standard on a regular basis. Competence is always a combination of three fundamental ingredients: skill, knowledge and experience.”

If you have already managed to get someone to pay you for backstage work, you may be reluctant, or unable to afford, to undertake a full-time course, whether at drama school or university. The first, most important, thing is to identify what you are missing in terms of skill, knowledge and experience.

It will help to talk to your colleagues or organisations such as the ABTT, Association of Lighting Designers, Association of Sound Designers or Stage Management Association.

drian Cottle, ABTT silver stage technician candidate, inspects stage rigging gear
Adrian Cottle, ABTT silver stage technician candidate, inspects stage rigging gear

One increasingly available option is to become an apprentice. You will gain immediate access to employment in your chosen career. Your employer will pay you the appropriate minimum, depending on your age, and you will be given the opportunity to gain skill and knowledge both in the workplace and by attending courses that may be at a local college or delivered by industry trainers.

Apprenticeship schemes are still very variable and many employers are uncertain as to what exactly completing an apprenticeship means that you know. This is improving and national standards and qualifications remain an industry ambition.

A group led by Ambassador Theatre Group and White Light provides an apprenticeship that is a carefully thought out mix of formal training and experience.

If you have been lucky enough to get regular work in a theatre, you may wish to increase your skills on your own initiative and gain recognition for what you know. In this case, you might think it worth investing in one or more ‘short courses’ that will give you confidence and competence in the basics of your chosen work. Among the best of these are the ones run by the ABTT and accredited by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The bronze award is for all technical disciplines and covers:

• Manual handling and introduction to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 .

• Electrical fundamentals.

• Knots and splicing.

• Fundamentals of flying.

• Safe use of temporary access equipment.

This course gives candidates knowledge and understanding of best practice, whether they are working in regional rep, touring, multi-art form studios, community theatre, the West End or as a freelance. It is run on demand and may be delivered anywhere within the UK – and some technical theatre apprenticeships incorporate courses such as this into their programme.

ABTT bronze candidates inspect access equipment
ABTT bronze candidates inspect access equipment

The silver award is more advanced for those have completed, or have skills equivalent to, the bronze award. It is divided into three and you can choose between a course for stage technicians, stage electricians or sound technicians.

Bronze and silver courses may be taken as a series of one-day training courses or over a period of five consecutive days. To achieve a full bronze or silver award, each candidate must satisfactorily complete a multiple-choice assessment test after they complete their final course.

And for that little gap in your knowledge, or to have a chance to familiarise yourself with the latest kit, many manufacturers and suppliers run one-day training courses for just that. For example, lighting and sound hire company White Light offers a range of both lighting and audio training. This includes courses on the operation of specific products. White Light describes those who run the courses as “the best talent to lead our equipment training, whether these are members of our own staff, product manufacturers or experienced freelancers who use the products on a daily basis”.

So, for those who have managed to get a start in backstage work, it is well worth investing the time and the fees in carefully chosen short courses to ensure that your skills are up-to-date. Who knows, your employer might even help with the costs.

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