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The Green Room: What career advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

A stage management and technical theatre student from LAMDA. Photo: Graham Michael

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…

Alice Mitchell, a 20-something West End sound engineer, has opened several productions as a number two as well as freelancing as an engineer. 

Susie Bussell is in her 50s. She started as a performer before moving into stage management. She is now a company stage manager

Lizzy Weber, 31, has spent the last nine years working in producing houses in the South East, often masquerading as a multi-skilled technician.

Rob Victor is 30 and trained in production and technical theatre. He is a freelance lighting designer, production manager and event technician

Erica McCauley, 31, worked as a stage manager and producer before becoming a freelance production manager a few years ago.

 

RobI wish I knew. Technical theatre is not an easy industry to break into. Perhaps not quite as bad as acting, but it still feels like there are many more people graduating tech courses in a given year than there are jobs available.

Lizzy Tricky.

Alice The career you will end up loving is one that you have never considered before, so be open-minded.

Susie I changed careers (from dancer to actor to stage manager). So I would tell younger me to stay open to your options. I didn’t think I would be doing what I am doing now when I was 18. But I know I am happier (and better) in my current role than I would have been if I had carried on dancing. Or acting.

Erica Never be afraid to ask. No one knows everything and they are usually happy to share what they do know. There aren’t any secrets and there aren’t any definitive answers, so don’t worry too much about trying to find them.

Rob It took me a decade of doing rather shitty work before my experience and skills built up to the point where I was offered touring jobs. Casual technician jobs are generally zero-hours and you’ll get work only when there’s a show in that needs the crew. So there’s a very strong case for diversifying.

Alice Freelancing and contract-hopping is a scary thing and you need to allow yourself days off and holidays from work. Loving a job does not mean that you don’t need a break. Never lend anyone your Leatherman.

Susie Work hard, but get the balance right between work and life. Make sure you take some holidays. Have times when you turn your phone off. This last point would have made no sense to 18-year-old me, as we didn’t have mobile phones when I was young.

Thomas The work-life balance is certainly something I need to get better at, and would be a note to my 18-year-old self.

Lizzy Try not to specialise too soon. We’re screaming out for versatile techs right now. The specialisation trend of the last few years has left us with lighting techs who proudly declaim: “Oh, I don’t do sound”, which is just not useful. Get a good grounding in everything – so if something goes wrong in tech and something must be put in quickly, you can help. Casual techs like that are worth their weight in gold.

Erica Each show has its own life and needs, and you’re better off trying to identify and respond to those than forcing it into a preconceived plan of how things should work.

Lizzy University/college/amdram is very different from actual theatre. We all make the mistake of thinking that because we conquered the tech department on so-and- so’s tricky show in the third year, we can jump straight in to a producing house and it’ll be the same. It isn’t. Of course, being the person that has done that is useful, but please be aware that professional technical theatre is a big step up. It happened to me and I felt like I’d been hit by a train, even though I’d lit four third-year productions and done all the tech for my own.

Rob I mix theatre work and corporate work. The pay is far superior in corporate, the hours are often better, the work is generally easier and you have the added bonus of being able to afford your rent. Admittedly, you may lose your soul doing yet another conference for a bank, but it’s a small price to pay to avoid homelessness.

Thomas Yes – understanding how your skills are transferable is key. As you say, doing some corporate work to pay the bills allows you to take work that’s lower paid but more inspiring.

Lizzy Be prepared to let in the people you’re working with. Theatre is a massive support network, and you’ll need to be able to give and receive love from your fellow techs (who are all sniggering at that) to be able not just to survive but also be successful.

Alice Theatre people are the best people in the world, and you will meet great friends here.

Susie Being a company manager is all about how you relate to people.

Erica No matter how well you plan, or how hard you work, there will always be a Thing. It’ll be a door, a costume change, a curtain, a lighting effect that just won’t work how you expect it to. The most important thing isn’t making everything perfect – it’s how you respond when it’s not.

Thomas The same goes for directors. Anyone can direct if it all goes perfectly. It doesn’t, though. Most directing is understanding how to respond to the situation in front of you.

Alice You will need to be brave.

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