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How to choose the right drama school for a technical theatre career

A student stage-manages The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Photo: Kirsten Mcternan
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There is a huge range of roles available for those who want to work in technical theatre. Susan Elkin speaks to course directors from a variety of drama schools on what to look for when making a decision on where to study

Thirteen of the 20 schools that form the Federation of Drama Schools teach technical theatre and stage management – often under a generic title such as production arts.

Sometimes these courses are structured, as at LAMDA, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and RADA, as a two-year foundation degree (FdA) with an option to complete to full BA (hons) in a third year. By law, students on foundation degrees, in any subject, must be offered a top-up opportunity either in the same institution or elsewhere.

Importantly, these courses are approved by the Stage Management Association (as are those in a handful of universities), so there’s a clear understanding that they offer vocational, practical training that equips students to be competent, employable costume makers, stage managers and scenic constructors, for example.

“Look for a course that not only covers your interests but introduces and involves you in the world of theatre production,” says Neil Fraser, RADA’s director of technical training, who stresses that learning collaborative team-working and leadership skills are as crucial to the training as honing the practical skill itself. “Many of our students talk about how much they value this breadth of experience in their first year at RADA, and it makes a huge difference to what they can achieve when they are working in the industry”.

How to choose your technical theatre training

Rob Young, head of technical training at LAMDA, advises aspiring applicants to keep an open mind about specialising. “You should be looking at a course that offers you training in a variety of technical skills or disciplines,” he suggests. “We find that many students start a course with a particular focus and then, as they discover different disciplines and job roles their passion can change”.

That is why the LAMDA FdA course has no requirement to specialise. “It gives the students the freedom to explore many different roles within production and technical theatre,” says Young.

This broad-base starting point is quite normal, although at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama the course is structured differently. Its BA (hons) Theatre Practice offers nine specialist pathways: costume construction, production lighting, prop making, puppetry, scenic construction, stage management, technical and production management, theatre lighting design and theatre sound.

Rose Bruford College offers eight specific production arts BA (hons) degrees including Performance Sound (Live Design and Engineering) and Costume Production.

LIPA, like Guildford School of Acting, tends to stress music and musical theatre with an emphasis on up to date technology. It aims to teach “a varied skill set making you adaptable and able to meet industry needs”.

There’s a focused BA (hons) Stage Management at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, where students work on 14 shows a year, progressing from assistant stage manager to deputy stage manager to stage manager across the three years. For the six to eight-week industry placement in the third year, students have been placed at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Birmingham Rep and Royal Opera House among others.

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in Glasgow, offers a BA (hons) Production Technology and Management – the only conservatoire-based technical theatre course in Scotland.

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Meanwhile, Mountview and East 15 both teach technical theatre in new purpose-built workshops. The former, which moved last year to its spacious new building behind Peckham Library in south London, is working hard to raise public awareness of the role of technical theatre in the industry. Its workshops are publicly visible from the street so that people can watch prop making, scenery building and so on, as they can from the National Theatre’s viewing bridge. Mountview runs degree courses in lighting, sound, stage management and scenic art and prop making. At East 15, a range of technical theatre training is taught under the umbrella Stage Management and Production BA.

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, meanwhile, strives to promote student work as much as possible. It facilitates blogs and videos and stages a graduate exhibition in which students can display and talk to industry visitors about set boxes, digital installations and other examples of their work. Guildhall starts all its BA (hons) Production Arts on a common broad-based curriculum before individuals move on to one of four specialist pathways.

Good courses offer a wide range of work experience. One of the best reasons for doing technical theatre training in a large, busy drama school is that productions are happening all the time. “Our students work on 11 different productions,” says Ian Evans, head of stage management at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. “Up to three of these can be external placements with companies such as Bad Wolf Productions, Wild Creations, the RSC, London’s Royal Court and the National Theatre.”

It’s a similar story at LAMDA. “Our training is vocational and our aim is to make all our students employable,” says Young. “We mount 22 public productions a year across our three theatres so that students can immerse themselves in production. We also offer them two six-week professional work placements. This interaction with the industry is important to help the student to network, engage with potential employers and practise their skills in a professional environment.”

RADA technical students are involved in 15 public productions a year in the three on-site theatres, six short films and the annual RADA festival which, Fraser says: “creates a brilliant opportunity to work with graduates and visiting companies on new material”. And, at RADA, a student begins as a crew member or operator in productions from the start of the course, progressing to more senior roles as learning develops.

As you work out which course to apply for, remember that whichever course you choose, you will have better job prospects than many others emerging from drama school – there are many more paying jobs for theatre technicians than there are for actors.

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