Meet the people who keep theatres running: administrators
Do you want to work in theatre? Are you both organised and creative, looking for a stable salary and career progression? Then an administrative role could be for you. John Byrne discovers how it can impact lives
As with many children interested in the arts, Nadezhda Zhelyazkova’s playtimes had a distinctly theatrical theme. However, the dream role she acted out was not set under the spotlight, but instead one of the administrative jobs that make spotlights, sets and virtually every other aspect of theatrical production financially possible.
“I used to play box office with my grandfather, a sculptor and theatre enthusiast,” she says. “His early nurturing of my appetite for culture eventually culminated in me doing a master’s in arts administration and cultural policy. Since leaving Goldsmiths in 2014, I have worked in administrative roles for several theatre companies in addition to working as a freelance producer.”
Zhelyazkova is now administrator for multi-award winning feminist theatre company Clean Break. “I have always been interested in the power of theatre to create change on an individual, local and global scale. Clean Break’s very collaborative culture means that, as administrator, I get to work with all teams across the company in delivering their specific goals. My ambition to be a full-time producer is fuelled by this experience. Understanding all of the vital infrastructures of a theatre company allows me to grow as a professional and develop a skillset that can support the environment that exciting and radical theatre needs in order to thrive.”
Simone Watson, head of events and corporate partnerships at Theatre Peckham, agrees that, contrary to popular misconception, administrative roles in theatre are neither boring nor isolated from the creative process.
“My first job when I left university was a six-week national tour as an actor, which was fantastic. I then moved back to London and realised how unreliable working as a performer could be. I’ve always been someone who is organised and process-driven as much as I am a creative.
“My first ‘office’ job was working part-time as a creative projects coordinator for an arts education organisation in east London, while still working as a performer/facilitator. It allowed me to have a stable income and feel as though I was progressing up a ‘ladder’ so to speak. As I gained experience in arts admin, I found myself in many roles on the other side of the stage, from tour coordinator to project and programme manager, to producer and client relationship manager, to running my own creative-based social enterprise.
“The part of my current job that I love is using creativity to positively impact people’s lives. Data entry and admin help me to answer the ‘why’ questions, which are often needed to underpin that creativity. For example, while looking at ways we can invest more in promoting our amazing spaces here at Theatre Peckham, I have recently put in a new process that captures information about incoming hire enquiries. That enables me to pull interesting reports telling me how people came to us, peaks and trends in the year, and what has or hasn’t been successful. In the next month or so when the artistic director asks why I think it’s important to promote our venues in certain places to boost revenue, I will have the facts and figures to support my answer.”
Christopher Rodriguez, deputy chief executive and finance director of One Dance UK, started out in the world of figures, qualifying as an accountant and reaching management level at PricewaterhouseCoopers, before leaving to become a playwright.
“My training in the performing arts was on the job, working for and learning from artistic directors such as Yvonne Brewster and Paulette Randall, creating new programmes such as a black writers’ group for established writers and reaching out to literary managers at Soho Theatre, the Royal Court, the National Theatre, Channel 4 and the BBC for training, involvement and financial support. This all proved useful when I combined my financial background with my arts experience to become executive producer at Talawa, before taking on this larger and different post at One Dance UK, the sector support organisation for dance.”
For Elizabeth Howells, head of ticketing at Ambassador Theatre Group, the variety of ‘hands-on’ experience that building a career in the administration and operations field can entail offers an ideal foundation for upward progression.
“I saw a job as an assistant to the ticketing director and went for it. From that, I moved into project management, which led me to ticketing new venues and then on to ticketing operations. There are a variety of career routes through ticketing: event configuration, system analysis, customer care, fulfilment, box office, e-commerce. I’m on the council of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers, which has recently launched ticketing apprenticeships, working with the National College Creative Industries. For the first time ever, there is structured training and accreditation available in ticketing. We’re now looking forward to employers recruiting and training apprentices and to seeing those young people rise through the industry.”
Howells’ ATG colleague Lisa Mart is theatre director of the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, a job that gives her a unique overview of the many administrative and office-based roles required to keep a large venue operational.
“Every day is different. I get to work with every department in the venue, so the focus can vary depending on our priorities at any given time. Sometimes I am working on part of a marketing campaign with the team, brainstorming ways we can grab the attention of customers to sell a particular show, other times I can be sitting with our technical team talking through the needs of an upcoming production. Recently, my main project has been working on the relaunch of the venue, which has included refurbished seats, a new external facade, a stalls bar and an upgrade to our dressing rooms. I am proud to be able to have such an impact on the future of this beloved building in Birmingham.”
What’s her advice to fellow organised minds wondering what office and administrative opportunities might exist within their own local venues and theatre companies?
“Don’t be afraid to start on the front line – stage door, front of house, box office – if you are clear about your desire to progress and you involve yourself with the venue team at every opportunity you will find management will be keen to retain and develop you. Theatre runs on passion, collaboration and an ambition to provide the best experience possible – everything else can be learned in the field.”
To find out more about theatre management apprenticeships go to: creativeindustries.ac.uk