From design apprenticeships to accounting: at the National Theatre’s Creative Careers Day, children aged 11 to 14 experienced some of the different careers available in theatre. Susan Elkin reports
An articulate, grey-suited teenage boy is presenting an impressively thoughtful and imaginative set he and his team have just designed for a scene in Alice in Wonderland, supposedly in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre. He points to the set box and, assisted by the rest of his group, makes it all sound surprisingly professional.
Elsewhere in the room, one of the National Theatre’s education spaces, three other groups take turns to explain their Alice sets using Olivier and Dorfman boxes, encouraged and advised by designer Grace Venning and production design assistant Shankho Chaudhuri.
This – along with workshops on sound management, lighting, sound design, props and more – is all part of the National Theatre’s Creative Careers Day based in and around the Dorfman Theatre, where some of the workshops are based on the set of The Antipodes. Seven schools have been invited from across London and about 130 key stage 3 (aged 11-14) students are taking part.
The atmosphere is enthusiastic engagement, especially in the sound workshop where the National’s head of sound Dominic Bilkey has four groups working with plugs, sockets, mixers and more, trying to work out, under supervision, how to create a sound board. “So much more fun than telling them exactly what to do at the beginning”, grins Bilkey, commending one group that has sussed it all very quickly and completed the task already.
In another room, Gemma Tonge, head of company management, has a group watching a short video clip from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She is drawing their attention to visual and other clues and then inviting them to “call the show”. Elsewhere, students are being initiated into the mysteries of “bonbons” (capsules held in the mouth that produce fake vomit) and making blood bags. Another group is using bread to make food props. Everything is task-based and focused.
“We’ve been doing this twice a year for a while,” says Sarah Eastaff, the NT’s secondary and further education programme manager, who is in charge of the day, adding: “but this is the first time we’ve done it as part of Discover! Creative Careers Week. It’s a national initiative backed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and we are one of 500 organisations taking part.”
Eastaff and her colleagues look for schools that meet certain socio-economic requirements including a high proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals, large numbers with English as a second language and lack of arts engagement, possibly because of location. “We try to bring in different schools each time and we don’t specify the nature of the group so it could be a tutor group, students who have opted in, a subject class or whatever works for that particular school,” she says.
The purpose of the day is to raise awareness, in practical ways, of the range of creative careers there are in the entertainment industries, bearing in mind that the creative industries employ three million people and contributed £101.5 billion to the UK economy in 2017, according to a report from DCMS in November 2018.
But there are skills shortages. There are thought to be more than 70,000 positions currently vacant and/or requiring specialist skills. Hence the need to draw such work to the attention of students before they choose which GCSEs and other courses to opt for.
One girl was in a group learning about special effects (including a gun shot apparently hitting set walls and a character being apparently wounded) and how they’re made convincing. Invited to ask questions at the end, she wondered, in a very practical way, how well-paid these jobs were. She then revealed that she wanted to be an accountant and asked if the NT had a finance department and if so what would she be paid for running it.
“And that’s brilliant,” says Eastaff. “We want them to realise that whatever their skills and interests, there will be a job for them somewhere in the creative industries if they’re interested. There’s more to creating theatre than acting. That’s what we have to get across.”
Eastaff often works with drama and English teachers and is delighted to do so. “But I’m also particularly pleased if a group comes through a different department. One group here today is Year 7 biology,” she says. “Of course there are technical jobs in our industries that require a lot of science and it’s great when science teachers realise that and actively involve their students.”
Thirty or so NT staff are involved in presenting and leading these workshops, which Eastaff estimates can take up to 40 hours to prepare. “There is no charge to the participating schools. We factor in the cost as part of the role of our staff with some support from the Edge Foundation,” says Eastaff, adding that she is grateful for the willingness of workshop leaders. “They went into backstage because they didn’t want to stand up in front of people and then I come along and asked them to do just that.”
There is a careers information problem in many schools. There are, for example, apprenticeships in many of these creative fields especially in the big companies, but careers advice still tends to focus on university and/or drama school. “It’s the wrong thing to tell them,” says Laura Wigan, a former scenic carpentry apprentice at the NT (2015-17) and now a freelance scenic carpenter. “I didn’t know apprenticeships existed when I left school.”
Initiatives such as Creative Careers can help to dent that lack of knowledge.
NT’s next Creative Careers Day is on March 25, 2020. For more information on routes into a career in theatre, visit getintotheatre.org