How technical training keeps up with an evolving theatre industry
As backstage technology becomes ever more sophisticated, staff from leading schools tell Nick Smurthwaite how they are equipping students with the skills to work not just in theatre, but in the wider world of entertainment
Backstage skills are so many and varied that young people embarking on technical training courses find themselves spoiled for choice.
Ian Evans, head of stage management and technical theatre at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, expects his newly arrived students to be undecided about which path to follow.
He says: “Our technical course is designed to let students chop and change during the three years before deciding which path to take. They do a bit of everything: sound, lighting, video, stage management, rigging, virtual reality, the lot.”
The days of expecting technical training applicants to have had hours of experience in school productions are disappearing, thanks to cuts in drama provision. “Now it is more a question of spotting potential and enthusiasm for theatremaking,” says Alex Purser, newly appointed head of technical at East 15 Acting School, part of the University of Essex.
As with other areas of technology, technical training for the theatre has changed radically in the past 25 years, from analogue to digital.
Gill Allen, head of stage management at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, says: “The speed of technical development across all industries is fast and furious, and the theatre is no exception. Not only do we have to keep up but we also have to provide the latest kit on which to teach our students if we want to continue to be at the forefront of our industry.”
This means investing in digitally controlled sound and light systems, and sophisticated automation equipment of the kind graduates will be expected to operate at the UK’s larger and better-resourced theatres, as well as the music and events sector. Many emerging from technical courses are now finding employment in events, corporate work, music, film and TV.
The keyword seems to be adaptability. Graduates not only need to hit the ground running when they move into the workplace, they also need to be able to work effectively in a large, interconnected team of people.
“If you want to progress in this industry, you must have the right attitude, top communication skills and application,” says Evans. “If you have all three, people will help you up the ladder even when you have to learn a new skill on the job.”
Purser, formerly production manager for a big events company, says technical training has become a lot more collaborative since he trained.
He says: “Technical theatre used to be quite isolated, now it’s more collegiate and outward-looking in terms of other disciplines. Nobody in this industry works in isolation, so it makes perfect sense to be more aware of the knock-on effect of what you’re doing on everyone else around you.”
According to Sarah Dodwell, marketing manager of the Essex-based National College for Creative Industries, learning how to work in a team and communicate effectively is as important as acquiring the technical know-how.
“The industry now employs many more freelances than employees,” she says. “Producers tend to bring together teams of people who don’t necessarily know each other. So it is important to be able to adapt to that situation quickly and productively.”
Given that some technical students will be better at ‘people skills’ than others, what provisions do the course leaders make for helping them acquire these skills?
Royal Welsh’s Evans says there has been a lot more emphasis on pastoral care in recent years, with mentors and counsellors on hand to help sort out any problems. “We are a close-knit family,” he says. “If a student is having difficulty getting on with someone they’re working with, we talk about it and get them to look at different ways of managing it. There is a lot of contact time with the students.”
Bringing in professional practitioners to lead workshops and give out advice is also paramount in terms of setting an example, as are work placements.
“It’s easy for a department to become staid,” says East 15’s Purser. “So we are really keen to bring in top industry professionals to support the teaching staff and provide that cutting edge in terms of development and practice.”
Work placements are an essential part of technical training, both in terms of the technical experience on offer, and the foretaste of what’s to come after graduation. Because there are a lot more technical training courses now than, say, 20 years ago, the admissions procedure for some of the more sought-after venues, such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, are more stringent.
The issue of diversity is high on the technical training agenda because of its long-standing white, middle-class image. Allen says: “One challenge is that technical theatre careers aren’t always widely known about, so we’ve developed relationships with schools and colleges to promote the scope of careers available.”
This kind of outreach work seems common to all technical courses now. “We need to emphasise that you don’t have to be white and middle class to qualify for a career in technical theatre,” says Evans. “A lot of kids simply don’t know there are challenging and stimulating careers out there.”
Dodwell adds: “We draw a large socio-economic mix of applicants and we’re working with industry employers to encourage them to look more widely at potential apprentices.”
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