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Ultimate beginners’ guide to theatre jobs 2016

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There are so many different professions in the theatre industry that whether you love being in the spotlight or you feel more more at home behind the scenes, there's a career for you. Here we present an introduction for beginners to the various roles available...


Entry-level difficulty ratings

★★★★★ Extremely difficult
★★★★ Very difficult
★★★ Difficult
★★ Relatively straightforward
★ Easy

Pay/salary expectations are at the lowest level and the difficulty of getting a job assumes appropriate basic skills, whether through drama school, other training or on the job


Backstage

Stage management

The team usually consists of three people, although on big shows there may be more. The assistant stage manager (ASM) looks after the props, the deputy (DSM) takes notes in rehearsal and cues the show in performance and the stage manager is in overall charge. Between them they cover all aspects of the production and during performance they are in charge of everything that happens.

Pay: About £400 per week minimum for a new ASM.
Training: Drama school is best – most run a stage management course.
How hard is it to get into? ★★

Wardrobe, wigs and make-up

Roles range from casual work as a dresser or make-up assistant to head of wardrobe or wigs and make-up in a major opera house. Many costume-makers are freelance and often specialise in particular fields such as knitwear, millinery or footwear. Larger producing theatres have a making wardrobe department where skilled tailors, cutters, and costume assistants are required. Not all the wig rooms manufacture but wigs need careful maintenance from skilled wig dressers and stylists. During the show, people are needed to prepare for the show, cover quick-changes and wash and maintain costumes and wigs. Wardrobe supervisors liaise with the designer, makers and buyer to manage the budget, fittings and deadlines.

Pay: About £7-£8 per hour.
Training: Specialist courses in costume and/or media make-up at University of the Arts London, Arts University Bournemouth and Nottingham Trent University. Smaller academies offering intensive training in wigs and make-up include the Delamar Academy and Brushstrokes.
How hard is it to get into? ★★

Stage crew

Backstage-generic-rigging-c-Antonio-GravanteShutterstockThe stage crew is responsible for getting the scenery into the building, putting it together, flying and scene changes during the performance. Permanent staff at a theatre will be supplemented by ‘casuals’ for busy times or heavy shows. A knowledge of stage technology, tools and safety at work practices is important.

Pay: About £7-£8 per hour.
Training: An ABTT bronze award might be a good way to start. It is also possible to get casual work on fit-ups and most reputable employers will provide a basic induction session.
How hard is it to get into? ★★

Electrics

You can be a resident electrician in a theatre or work freelance. At the basic level, the work includes rigging and operating the lighting. Increasingly there is a specialist role for moving light programmers.

Pay: About £7-£8 per hour.
Training: An ABTT summer school course is a good start. Most drama schools offer  training and others, such as Central and Rose Bruford College, have specialist courses. A diploma in the safe use of electricity is very useful.
How hard is it to get into? ★★

Sound

The basic job is to set up and maintain equipment, run checks and operate sound during performance. On musicals one or two sound technicians work on stage in charge of the radio mics and other onstage equipment. There are many ways to specialise. A production sound technician will work closely with the sound designer to realise their design, while others concentrate on mixing sound for large musicals.

Pay: About £7-8 per hour – but skilled operators are at a premium.
Training: ABTT silver award for sound technicians. Many drama schools have a sound element to their technical theatre course.
How hard is it to get into?  ★★

Construction, props and scene-painting

Almost every practical skill and material is used to create theatre at one time or another, from carpentry to welding, from fibreglass to paint. Some skills allow you to work as a freelance, others can be used in a scenic workshop.

Pay: About £100 per day.
Training: Most skills are variations on those used in other industries. A design college or a general construction course would be a good basis. RADA runs specialist courses in construction and scene painting.
How hard is it to get into?  ★★

Specialists

Video and automated scenery are new areas of employment. Video can include the preparing of content and operation in performance. Automation operators are only the norm for West End musicals, but the job involves a working knowledge of the automation equipment. There is also work for electronic engineers with manufacturers creating the hardware, software and control systems for shows and permanent installations, such as powered flying.

Pay: £500-plus per week.
Training: Few drama schools provide training: some video technicians come from film schools and Guildhall has just established a video in performance course. Automation operators have often been stage managers or worked backstage. Manufacturers such as Stage Technologies are often willing to train such people.
How hard is it to get into? ★★

Technical management

A production manager is responsible for putting the whole production together, working with the creative team and the construction and technical departments. A technical manager is likely to be based in a theatre, leading the technical departments and responsible for the building and equipment.

Pay: From £27,000 per year – more in larger companies.
Training: Get as much working experience of all aspects of production as you can.
How hard is it to get into? ★★

AK Bennett-Hunter


Creatives

While all those working in theatre are, by their nature, ‘creative’, these are the people who lead the overall creative vision for the production. They also tend to instigate projects.

Writer

The writer has overall responsibility for the narrative of the play. A theatre may commission a play based on an idea pitched by the writer or, occasionally, a writer will be commissioned to write a script based on a format from a producer. A writer may also work collaboratively on a project instigated by a director.

Pay: £5,000-£12,000 per commission, depending on the size of the theatre and level of subsidy, with little or no fee on the fringe. Writers may also receive rehearsal attendance fees and royalties.
Training: There are a number of well regarded  writing MAs, but this is not a necessity. A number of theatres such as London’s Royal Court run playwriting schemes. In either case it is best to look at recent ‘graduates’ to give you an idea of the success and focus of the course.
How hard is it to get into? ★★

Director

The director has the overall vision for the production, and is responsible (usually in collaboration with a producer or artistic director) for bringing together the cast and creative team. They lead the rehearsal process up to opening night, and return regularly to give notes (on long runs they will often have an assistant or associate working alongside them).

Pay: £3,500-£20,000, with little or no fee on the fringe. Directors also get a royalty for commercial productions.
Training: There are a number of directing MAs, of which Birkbeck’s is the most prestigious. It is not essential to have any formal qualification, and most directors learn by being an assistant, but an MA creates a bridge into assisting. The Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme runs placements across the country and has an excellent website detailing the various schemes: rtyds.co.uk
How hard is it to get into? ★★  

Designer

A production designer is responsible for the overall look of a production, and is usually responsible for set and costumes. A designer creates a scale model of the set and detailed sketches of costumes for the production team to create. On fringe productions the designer may be expected to help build the design.

Pay: £1,500-£6,000 for a design, with royalties for commercial productions.
Training: Several art schools offer degrees in theatre design – notably Central Saint Martins and Wimbledon (now both part of University of the Arts London). There are also design degrees at drama schools such as the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
How hard is it to get into? ★★   

Lighting designer

Photo: Antonio Gravante/Shutterstock
Photo: Antonio Gravante/Shutterstock

Lighting designers ensure the action can be seen, while creating atmosphere and helping to locate scenes. The job is both creative and technical. A good lighting designer needs to
be able to talk about the look and feel of a play, and dissect and analyse a script, as well as understanding the technicalities of a
lighting rig.

Pay: £600-£3,000, with more for very big commercial projects and royalties paid on commercial productions.
Training: Most lighting designers come through a degree in technical theatre, specialising in lighting design from a drama school, or occasionally a university. Many lighting designers begin their careers as theatre technicians, often taking on fringe design work on the side, and assisting established lighting designers.
How hard is it to get into? ★★  

Sound designer

Sound designers work with the designer and the lighting designer to create the world of the play – responsible for sound effects, but also creating atmosphere, helping to locate a scene, and composing soundscapes. Thanks to advances in technology, sound design has recently become much more ambitious as programmes such as QLab allow for much more control and flexibility. On musicals the sound designer is responsible for mixing the production, finding the right balance between band and singer. They work closely with music directors and composers.

Pay: £600-£3,000, with larger fees and royalties paid on commercial productions.
Training: There are a number of good technical theatre courses, but very few places to study the creative art of sound design. The leading course in sound design is at RCSSD.
How hard is it to get into? ★★   

Choreographer/movement director

Choreographers play a key role in musicals, in which they are responsible for the staging of the musical numbers and work closely with the director. Choreographers or movement
directors will also be used on many straight plays, and the role will vary enormously depending on the production, from being essentially a co-director, to coming in for a couple of sessions to choreograph a piece of period dance.

Pay: For a non-musical production, about £1,300, or a day rate of £136-£200. Choreographers on musicals earn considerably more – a fee closer to that of a director – and royalties on commercial productions.
Training: Most (but not all) choreographers start as dancers, and train on a dance or musical theatre course. Notable dance colleges include London Contemporary, Millennium Dance College and London Studio Centre.
How hard is it to get into? ★★  

Composer

A composer for a musical will share responsibility for the overall narrative, and may also take on lyric writing duties. For many straight plays a composer will write ‘incidental’ music to underscore scenes.

Pay: A composer for a musical will share a commission with a writer – usually split 50:50. There are no guidelines for how much a composer would be paid for a musical, but you could expect between £3,000 and £5,000. Rates for a straight play might vary from £1,500 to £7,500 (usually about £2,500). A composer of a musical would receive a royalty.
Training: Most composers come through music college. A talent for composition and an understanding of text is far more important than a qualification.
How hard is it to get into? ★★   

Producer

A producer instigates a production, raises the money, and oversees the marketing. At other times a producer may be a general manager. A producer should not be confused with an investor, although sometimes (especially in New York) investors are given producer credits.

Pay: Anything from bankruptcy to becoming a millionaire.
Training: There are MAs at RCSSD, Mountview and Birkbeck, as well as the Stage One Apprentice Scheme.
How hard is it to get into? ★★ 

Casting director

Casting directors know every actor out there. When a production is being cast they work alongside the director, producers and the writer to find the actors – they make suggestions, introduce the director to actors and they organise the whole casting process.

Pay: £30,000-£50,000.
Training: There are no set routes into casting, nor any specific qualifications. Many casting directors come from other departments, and there is some crossover between agents and casting directors. An internship in an agent’s office or with a casting department will be a good place to start.
How hard is it to get into? ★★   

Literary manager

Sometimes known as a literary associate or a dramaturg, this role focuses on writing. This is particularly true for theatres with a strong ethos of producing new work, though a literary manager may also be hunting out forgotten classics or new translations. He or she works with an artistic director to programme productions at the theatre.

Pay: £30,000-£50,000.
Training: A degree in English or theatre studies would help. Many literary managers start as script readers – you can find script-reading work by writing to theatres’ literary departments.
How hard is it to get into? ★★   

Artistic director

Artistic directors are almost always theatre directors, but they can be producers, and every so often they are actors or actors-turned-directors. An artistic director is in charge of the creative life of the company, often working with the executive director. Usually also performing the role of chief executive or the joint chief executive, he or she holds an enormous responsibility: ensuring the books balance and looking after the welfare of the staff and visiting professionals.

Pay: £40,000-£100,000.
Training: Most artistic directors start as freelance directors. RTYDS and Birkbeck offer apprenticeships at theatres that would be a good grounding in the administrative and producing side of an artistic director’s job.
How hard is it to get into? ★★   

Thomas Hescott


Onstage

Actor

An actor’s workplace can range from a wide variety of stage and studio settings to outdoor and site-specific productions. Work can also be found in specialist sectors such as voice-overs, corporate role play or theatre in education. The different roles an actor can play, from lead and character parts to supporting roles and walk-ons, may vary considerably at different stages of their career and has a direct effect on pay levels. Although a relatively small number of high-profile actors get the bulk of publicity and press coverage, the reality is that many actors struggle – regardless of talent or experience – to earn a sustainable income from acting alone. Many supplement their income with other jobs, ranging from table waiting and call centre work to temping or teaching. Finding paid work is significantly harder than getting unpaid work. A well-connected agent can advance an actor’s career, but whether seeking representation or not, the ability to market oneself and self-generate work is becoming increasingly important.

Pay: Many acting jobs on the fringe pay nothing, ‘profit-share’ or expenses only. The 2016/17 minimum weekly rate for a performer in a commercial theatre production in a venue of less than 250 seats is £350 (higher rates apply depending on venue size and there are separate rates for TV and film work – uktheatre.org is a useful source for rate information). Rates are obviously negotiable through an actor’s agent.

Training: Although it is possible to begin an acting career with no training, Drama UK research suggests that 86% of working actors have had professional training at a university or drama school. Full-time training is expensive and entry for the top drama schools is highly competitive, so part-time training is a route taken by many. Relevant subjects include performance studies, contemporary theatre and performance and musical theatre.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Photo: Tracy Whiteside/Shutterstock
Photo: Tracy Whiteside/Shutterstock

Singer

Singers in the charts or headlining West End musicals represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of the profession as a whole. In addition to the many singers performing solo in venues from opera houses to cruise ships, those employed most regularly are often backing vocalists and session singers.

Pay: A West End cast member could expect to earn a minimum of £545.19 and upwards depending on the size of the venue, and number of shows per week. The minimum weekly rate for an opera singer is currently £360. A singer on a cruise ship might earn between £1,200 and £2,500 per month. An experienced vocalist playing functions or corporate events can earn significantly more for one booking – although the responsibility of sourcing and paying the musicians is often part of that fee.

Training: Proper vocal and performance training is important, from a health point of view as much as from an employability perspective. Singers who wish to specialise in a particular field, such as musical theatre or opera, can pursue a formal qualification at a drama or music school. Private vocal coaching is also an ongoing training option and one that even experienced singers sometimes return to, either as a refresher or in preparation for specific auditions and roles. For singers whose ambitions include musical theatre, additional dance and acting training is also advisable.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Dancer

Due to its physical nature, there is often a limit on how long a dancer can sustain a performing career. While not every professional dancer started as a child, it is probably the hardest career to get into if you have not been practising from an early age, particularly in disciplines such as ballet. Although many dancers specialise in a particular style, versatility, teamwork, reliability and being a fast learner are the key skills needed to attract regular employment. As their career develops, many dancers branch out into related fields such as choreography and teaching and continue in these roles once they hang up their dancing shoes.

Pay: An experienced dancer can earn £450-£500 per week, either in a specific show or from a variety of short-term bookings. Although many dancers are freelance, there are some opportunities for full-time work with companies.

Training: Most dancers take classes from childhood, often taking graded exams from awarding bodies such as the British Ballet Organisation or the Royal Academy of Dance, before moving on to vocational training at a dedicated dance college or on a musical theatre course. The training route into the commercial dance industry can be less formal but regular classes and ongoing training are a key part of all successful dance careers.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Musician

There have been many great self-taught musicians, but in order to make a living in theatre, most will need to be able to read music as well as to play with other musicians in an orchestra or band in a variety of different styles. Unlike in the music industry, the role of a musician in theatre is often an invisible one, whether playing in a West End orchestra pit, in a resident band on a cruiseliner or as part of the studio orchestra for recordings and broadcasts.

Pay: A musician in a commercial production can expect to earn a weekly minimum rate of £497.43, with additional payments for playing several instruments.

Training: Formal training and qualifications are available in a variety of musical styles and in specific instruments. Given the increased role of technology in music production, many professional musicians advise students to undertake training in technology and business along with more traditional music studies.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Comedian

Standing up at an open mic night is within most people’s capabilities, making this perhaps the easiest onstage job to begin. Developing a long-term sustainable comedy career is a much tougher and very competitive process of building a reputation via longer spots at established clubs or the comedy ‘shop window’ of a one-person show at Edinburgh and other festivals. Very few last the course. Although stand-up is the most common comedy format, improvisation and sketch groups are flourishing, many of which include trained actors, and regular comedy circuit performances can include everything from ventriloquism and magic to poetry.

Pay: A short spot at a smaller club can earn anything from a pint of beer to £50 depending on the venue and the performer’s experience. Established comedians can expect to earn from £100-£500 and upwards per gig. Access to the lucrative corporate, stadium or theatre circuits usually requires TV exposure via promotion from specialist agencies with a track record in this area.

Training: There is no recognised formal training route, although Kent University offers a comedy MA and both Peter Kay and Jason Manford are graduates of Salford University’s performance course.

How hard is it to get into? 

John Byrne


Other jobs

You don’t have to be onstage or backstage to work in theatre. There are many other ways in which people with a wide range of talents can be professionally involved.

Agent

An agent is contractually responsibility for an actor’s career and arranges for him or her to audition for available roles. The agent should be in the theatre to support his or her clients at the opening of their shows although the agency office is, obviously, elsewhere. A literary agent does a similar job for playwrights.

Pay: Depends entirely on the list of actors and their earning capacity. The agent typically charges a commission of 15% of client earnings.

Training: Many agents have been to drama school and trained as performers. Others have a background in producing. Some still operate as part-time agents alongside other professional work. The traditional route in is to work initially with an experienced agent as a junior.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Marketing and PR

Every theatre has someone responsible for promoting its wares – including projects and outreach work – to the public. Smaller theatres often outsource this function. In larger theatres there is a department with several staff. The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, has a full-time team on its staff.

Pay: High if you’re managing a big department. Modest if you’re a freelancer taking small contracts. Regional theatres pay about £30,000 to marketing managers.

Training: A university degree in marketing, PR or other subject. There can be a career progression if you move from smaller theatres to larger organisations. Some PR people start as journalists.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Front of house

Photo: Tyler Olson/Shutterstock
Photo: Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

Front of house staff manage seating, sales, tickets and audience safety, overseeing facilities such as lavatories and everything thing else to do with ushering the audience in and out of the theatre. Big theatres have a duty front of house manager and a number of part-time staff.

Pay: £34 for a three-hour stint at a West End Theatre. Full-time managers can earn up to £50,000 in prestigious venues.

Training: On the job. It’s a favourite source of extra income for drama students and actors.

How hard is it to get into? 

Box office

The box office manager and staff are a specific branch of front of house. They are responsible for the management of all ticket sales, although some of this is usually contracted out to agencies in large theatres and theatre groups.

Pay: Up to £30,000 full-time, though many box office staff work part-time.

Training: Many universities run arts management courses which include placements and internships. In practice, most box office staff learn as they go along.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Education

The education manager or department in a theatre runs youth theatre, outreach and community projects and often show-related programmes to take out to schools. Many actors and teachers are employed as part-time facilitators.

Pay: The going rate for a two-hour facilitation session is £80 if you’re working for a company. You can charge more if you work independently with the client. Education management pays roughly the same as mainstream teaching: £25,000-40,000 a year, depending on location and scale.

Training: Most education managers are former teachers or actors with associated degrees.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Finance

The finance department manages the accounts with responsibility to the owners, trustees or board, depending on the company structure. Large companies might employ a team of accountants but in smaller theatres this function may be part of a general management role.

Pay: High for a qualified accountant. More modest for accounts-related clerical work.

Training: University degree and professional training, usually through the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Stage door

Working on the stage door is a form of reception work: overseeing theatre arrivals and departures, providing security for the building – as well as taking in mail, calling taxis for actors and, occasionally, managing crowds of adoring fans.

Pay: £19,000 plus overtime in central London, working full-time.

Training: You learn on the job – advertisements tend to stipulate at least five GCSEs and good “people skills”.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Catering

Almost every theatre has an on-site cafe or bar. In larger venues, catering is big business, sometimes outsourced. People are employed at every level from top chefs and experienced restaurant managers to kitchen porters and dishwashers.

Pay: Good chefs and restaurant managers can earn £40,000 a year depending on scale and location. Junior staff may be on zero-hours contracts and the national minimum wage.

Training: Chefs train in the kitchens of other chefs and have high-level qualifications. Managers may have degrees in leisure industry subjects. Casual staff usually learn on the job.

How hard is it to get into? (lowest levels) to ★★(highest levels)

Chaperone

A chaperone is a legally accredited adult responsible for the welfare of one or more child performers in a show. This person may be a parent a paid professional who is legally required to defend minors against exploitation and other dangers.

Pay: About £50 per show or for half a day, £80 for an eight-hour day or £100 for a 12-hour day. Performers’ parents may be paid less or expenses only.

Training: Learn on the job. Many chaperones start by looking after their own children before doing it professionally.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Publications

Programmes, flyers, digital content and other company publications such as newsletters and annual reports have to be written and produced. Large theatre companies have a publications department to manage this and there are freelance opportunities to contribute, for example, programme notes.

Pay: A publications manager in a big company could earn about £40,000 a year. A freelance writing an essay or interview for a major theatre programme might be paid £250 depending on length and experience.

Training: A degree in English, media or arts and then start in a junior post and learn as you go.

How hard is it to get into? ★★

Susan Elkin


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