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Careers Clinic: Am I too late to pursue my dream?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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If you’ll pardon me starting with a cliche, working in theatre really has ‘always been my dream’. Unfortunately, the last six years have taught me that reality is very good at pushing dreams to one side.

In my case, that reality has been caring responsibilities that meant upon leaving school I had to prioritise income over any ambitions to study theatre further. That constraint has now come to an end, but the way forward isn’t necessarily clear.

On the one hand, ever since I popped my head over the parapet of some of the casting websites, I now get random texts and emails telling me how my ‘star-quality’ has been spotted and all it will take is one (expensive) workshop or a portfolio of (even more expensive) headshots to get me in front of the Hollywood casting directors.

On the other, every other week I find myself reading broadsheet newspaper articles that say if I’m not a 20-something, white member of the aristocracy who went to the right school, my chances of having a theatre career are practically non-existent.

As for backstage work, I’m not the most techie of individuals, nor are my sewing and painting skills likely to win me a BAFTA in my lifetime.  That said, I am a hard worker and a fast learner and, if you can point me in the right direction, I’m prepared to knuckle down and do whatever it takes, either in front of or behind the scenes.

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE You have definitely got the right idea in steering well clear of anybody who tells you that success in this business can be guaranteed (especially if the basis of that guarantee is handing over money to themselves).

While there is definitely a lot of groundwork still to be done by all of us in increasing the level of inclusivity in the theatrical world, the truth about your prospects as a (somewhat) late entrant into the jobs market lies somewhere in the middle of ‘easy’ and ‘impossible’.

The fact that most of this industry’s scams and rip-offs, ranging from ‘money upfront’ agencies to ‘record a hit song in a day’ studios, tend to target the performing side of the business is a reflection that, on the surface, ‘standing up on stage and doing a turn’ looks like the easier option. As countless aspiring performers find every year, it isn’t, no matter how much natural talent a person is blessed with.

You’re right not to waste money and time on false promises, but you will still have to invest quite a lot of money and time in proper training and appropriate marketing materials, and it is well worth reflecting on what a big commitment this actually is, to see if performing life still appeals as a career rather than a hobby.

The offstage side of theatre requires just as much hard work and flair to succeed in, but as each role is different, one key step to deciding where you might fit is to explore just how many different skills are needed to get productions up and running. As you’ll see from our annual theatre jobs round-up (p24-27), there are more than most people imagine – each with its own career path and skill set.

Technical skills aside, being able to communicate well with people, demonstrating reliability and patience and the ability to stick at ‘unglamourous’ tasks as diligently as the more ‘showbiz’ ones are skills that I can only assume somebody who has been a carer for six years has in abundance, and are just as useful in theatre.

Do your research by all means, but also use those people skills to connect with as many people as you can who are already doing the jobs you aspire to and can give you the real lowdown on their ‘day-to-day’. I wish you every success with your career-change plans.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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