Stuck in a rut? Get your career back on track

Graeme Thompson, creative producer at Newcastle’s Live Theatre, leading a Step Change masterclass session. Photo: Chris Auld
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After several years working as a freelance stage manager, Katy Demain decided that 2010 was her year to make a career move into theatremaking and producing.

“I felt confident that working in rehearsal rooms and on stage had given me sufficient transferable skills that would enable me to make the transition into my next role,” she says.

But the goal and the reality did not line up as easily as expected. “I became disappointed when, after a period of months applying for various industry roles, I had not secured even one interview. On reflection, I realised that just having the desire to change career, even with the experience I already had, just wasn’t quite enough. I needed to gain work experience in areas that were missing from my CV. I spoke to previous employers to see if I could secure that experience. A conversation with the National Theatre led to me finding out about the Step Change programme.

“While on one of the secondments that the programme arranged for me, I was lucky enough to be offered a short-term contract working at Lyric Hammersmith and this first role outside the rehearsal room proved to be the gateway for the next stage of my career.”

Demain is currently preparing to take a further step in that direction, by joining the National Theatre’s New Works Department. For Gemma Baxter, the current programme coordinator, Demain’s initial situation was a very good example of one of the challenges the Step Change initiative, launched in 2006, was created to address. “The lack of professional skills development available to early career theatre practitioners means people can often end up becoming stuck on a particular career path – or in a particular organisation – with no real opportunity of gaining the necessary skills to make a change.”

In its original format, which ran until 2013, cohorts of 16 participants with various career change goals received mentoring, masterclasses and secondments to partner organisations including, along with the NT itself, the Royal Opera House, Young Vic, Battersea Arts Centre and Nitro Music Theatre (now Nitrobeat). In 2014, Step Change became a national programme with the addition of new partners Bristol Old Vic, The Lowry in Salford, Live Theatre Newcastle and a growing list of supporting organisations around the country.

Baxter is very enthusiastic about this expansion of support both in terms of location and variety. “The beauty of Step Change is that it is completely malleable for each participant. Each individual has a bespoke experience. This could mean having two contrasting mentors, or undertaking two shorter secondments at separate organisations. The coordinator role involves working with each participant to devise the best combination of opportunities based on their personal aims.”

Despite the bespoke nature of individual support, residential group sessions and the ongoing interaction with other cohort members from diverse backgrounds are among the programme components most consistently lauded by those involved.

“I did not expect how much solidarity there would be among group members,” says 2017 participant Naomi Sumner, who aims to move from working in engagement and education roles in theatre to the field of literary management and new writing. “At the residential in Newcastle, we learned coaching skills and received a coaching session from a professional coach. This was a very significant experience for me. I was talking with my coach about times I lack confidence in work settings.

“Rather than just telling me that ‘everyone gets nervous’ there was the acknowledgement that for black, Asian and minority ethnic artists it can be harder to be in certain spaces, due to a different set of pressures or experiences that white, middle class, university-educated people don’t have.”

Inclusivity is one of the programme’s ongoing drivers. It has affected Rachel Bagshawe’s career direction in a personal as well as a professional way. “I was working at Graeae at the time and was approached to see if we could advertise Step Change to disabled theatre professionals,” she says. “I thought it sounded so good that I wanted to apply, myself. I was running the company’s training and learning programme, which I loved, but I was really keen to direct more and wasn’t sure how I could continue doing both, especially in mainstream theatre.

“I ended up being mentored by Matthew Dunster who pushed me to explore what I really wanted and what I had to offer. I don’t think I’d be directing now if it wasn’t for him. Shortly after I took part, an assistant director residency at the Young Vic was advertised. Matthew encouraged me to apply and it firmly moved me into directing as my career.’’

For some participants, career change is not only about moving into a different area of the arts, but into the arts as a full-time occupation.

“I had been moonlighting in dance alongside my day job for 10 years,” says Anand Bhatt, producer at Aakash Odedra Company. “I had just quit my voluntary-sector work position to pursue the arts full time. Not having had a ‘proper job’ in the arts before, it felt like this world had a language and swagger I didn’t have access to. My secondment meant I was able to immerse myself in an arts organisation – Dance Umbrella. I was exposed to a new world of work and range of contacts, which made me think much more broadly about my practice, my reach and my goals in a positive way. A year later, not only was I able to tour one of Dance Umbrella’s invited artists regionally, but the executive director of the organisation also became my own company chair.”

As coordinator, Baxter feels that the ability to adapt to the strengths, aspirations and needs of each individual and cohort is vital. “We do not run it as an annual programme, because we believe it is vital to take the time to fully evaluate each cohort’s experience and embed the required changes into the planning for the next intake.”

Not surprisingly, when places do become available, competition to join the scheme is increasingly intense. Despite the many positive career transitions that have resulted, participants past and present acknowledge that taking part can also be challenging, not least in terms of the time commitment required for secondments and residentials.

“Being involved in Step Change alongside my own work as a producer meant working long hours,” recalls Bhatt. “You cannot stop running your own organisation or let your current job responsibilities slip while taking part, but, for me, it was a sacrifice worth making.”

Sumner concurs on both the stretching nature and the ultimate value of the experience. “Step Change involves a lot of self-reflection. At times, I found that quite difficult and uncomfortable. During the induction there was an exercise where we had to look back at a period of our life where we were facing challenges, experiencing pressure or even failure. I have had quite a tumultuous work history and prefer to look forward not back, so analysing these periods in detail was quite upsetting. However, I discovered that I had the skills, drive and resources to make a fresh start when I needed to.”