Interest in stage apprenticeships has never been greater, with more than 30 applicants for every vacancy. As National Apprentice Week ends, Nick Smurthwaite talks to three apprentices and a staff member who has graduated from being an apprentice, each learning very different backstage and front-of-house skills
What made you apply for the apprenticeship? I’ve always been interested in carpentry and making things. A friend asked me if I’d thought about going for an apprenticeship in backstage theatre. I didn’t think I’d get it because of my lack of experience.
How do you find the work-college balance? I go to the Building Crafts College for two to three weeks every six weeks, where I can focus on getting particular techniques spot on. I used to be apathetic about learning so it’s great to be able to enjoy that side of it. There is freedom to learn independently, which I thrive on.
Is the apprenticeship what you expected? No – it has totally exceeded my expectations. I wake up every morning feeling glad to be part of it. There have been times when I’ve been physically and mentally exhausted, but it is never boring.
What do you like most about it? I love the pride I feel with each project or job I’m working on and the sense of involvement in the bigger picture.
What would you like to happen after your apprenticeship is finished? I’d like to travel while working in the theatre, so perhaps working abroad. The great thing about what I’m doing is that it gives me transferable skills, so I might move into furniture construction and design at some point.
Were you always interested in theatre? Yes, I did a BTec in production arts – covering technical theatre, costume and make-up – so that was really helpful for what I’m doing now.
Is the Wolsey your local theatre? Yes. I live in Felixstowe with my parents, which is a 10-minute drive away.
Can you describe a typical day? Every day is different but typically might include a get-in, starting at 8am and lasting until 10pm. You never know exactly what you’ll be doing beforehand. It can be anything to do with backstage duties. You get used to the long hours and don’t notice how tired you are.
What do you like most about it? I enjoy lighting the most, but I also like all the stage management things. I’m going to be assistant-stage-managing the musical Our Blue Heaven, which is coming up in May. It’s good to do a wide range of things because then you have a wider range of options for your future career.
Will you get a job at the Wolsey after you’ve finished your apprenticeship? If it all goes well and they like you, then it’s up to the apprentice to decide whether or not they want to stay or move on. I’d like to stay on if they’ll have me.
Why did you decide to go for the apprenticeship at the Royal Exchange? Were you already into the theatre? It never crossed my mind to work in theatre. The digital apprenticeship just came up on the Royal Exchange social media platform and it happened to cover my skill set: graphic design, making posters and creating stuff.
What job did you do before you started the apprenticeship? I was a hotel receptionist in Manchester.
How long did it take you to settle in at the Royal Exchange?
My first job was helping to redesign the theatre website, so not long at all. I’d built small-scale websites for people when I was younger, so it didn’t faze me. After a year, my director of marketing went on maternity leave, and they made me digital marketing assistant.
What do you most like about your job? I’m a social media nerd so I think I know what people respond to. The thing I’m enjoying most at the moment is producing short promotional films for upcoming shows. There isn’t a day when the job isn’t creative and challenging.
Has working at the Royal Exchange changed you as a person? Yes, completely. It’s so different having a job where there is a future. It makes you more confident, more assertive and more determined. I’m also a lot more interested in the other arts than I was before.
What made you apply for the apprenticeship? I originally intended to go to university but then I realised I wanted to do something out in the world – earning while I was learning. I applied for it an hour before the deadline.
What are your duties? At the moment I’m shadowing duty managers, which entails liaising with tour managers, production managers, and meeting performers and customers. It’s mostly about talking to people and meeting their needs. I’ve always been a people person, so this is playing to my strengths.
What sort of experience did you have prior to the apprenticeship? I’d had various jobs since I was 14 – I was an elf at a Christmas shop once – and they were all customer service-based so I had experience of dealing with people.
How does studying fit in to your schedule? We do the course work for the customer service qualification one day a week, but the apprentices are given space at the Junction to study. There are two other operations apprentices and one technical, so we all work together.
Is there a social side to it? Oh yes, it’s a very friendly environment, there are always people to talk to, half the time it doesn’t feel like work at all.
What do you like most about what you do? The interaction with people. You meet so many different kinds of people, and the entertainment sector generally is so friendly. You rarely have a bad situation and no two days are the same.
Is it harder work than you expected?
The hours are certainly longer than I thought – there are a lot of late nights.