For the stage managers, designers and technicians of tomorrow, building contacts while training can often lead to work later. Sarah Lambie talks to those in the know about some of the key steps to making this a reality
Jo Franklin, head of technical theatre arts at Guildford School of Acting, is embarking on the annual process of recruiting a new cohort of theatre technicians, designers and stage managers. Like many drama schools, GSA’s course teaches sound, lighting, stage management and scenic arts to all students at the start, with specialisms then selected as the course goes on. “Your average 16 to 17-year-old, unless they’ve been to a specialist school, doesn’t know enough to know that they want, say, lighting, to be their career,” she says.
Franklin’s point is backed up by Jacob Amos, a 24-year-old stage manager who trained at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. “I went to LIPA straight out of sixth form at 18, to study theatre and performance technology from 2013-16,” he says. “When I arrived, I thought lighting was my future, and by the end of my first year, I’d realised I was rubbish at choosing where to point the lights from, which is kind of key… but I found out stage management was fun.”
Neil McDowell Smith was studying production technology and management at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in the same years. “By my third year, I had decided that I was really interested in lighting and video control,” he says. “I had some great opportunities throughout the course, including programming the opera Sir John in Love for the renowned lighting designer Johanna Town, and working as the video designer for Earthquakes in London.”
Technical theatre students’ careers begin when they start training, and for many, work continues seamlessly once they graduate. Of her students at GSA, Franklin says: “When they’re still students, they start picking up freelance work: casual crew, working for hire companies – and that tends to carry on as they graduate. I get emails all the time, as do all the other staff here, asking: ‘Can you recommend someone?’ We don’t want to pick one student over another, but we do circulate those options round to students who can choose to apply.”
Amos had the same experience at LIPA: “We were very much encouraged to find work, and lectures were flexible to a certain extent, depending on the opportunity you had. But if the potential employer was just taking advantage because I was a student and they were after cheap labour, the lecturers would say: ‘Don’t bother with that’.”
‘Students need to put themselves out there at networking events’ – GSA’s Jo Franklin
Working at the Atkinson Theatre in Southport as an in-house stage manager through training, and for a year or so after graduation, “was something I could always fall back on, [it] being a zero-hours contract”, Amos says. “I think in our industry we can make zero-hour contracts work for us rather than [them] just being advantageous for the employer.”
McDowell Smith also made contacts at drama school that led into work later. “Since graduating, I’ve done a lot of programming and associating for Edinburgh-based company LightWorks, run by Kate Bonney and Simon Hayes, who I worked with while I was a student at the RCS,” he says.
His main tip for young people embarking on their training: “Get to know people and make friends. Our industry is a very small world, and that person you’ve just met could very well be employing you in a few years. Seek out people who want to make the same kind of work you do, and develop ideas together. Stay a couple of hours late to see how that bit of set is rigged, or how that projector is lined up. Soak up all the knowledge you can and always ask questions: you never know when that little bit of knowledge from years back can help you out.”
Franklin says apart from those contacts born out of training, stage managers, designers and technicians can also “put themselves out there at networking events”. The Stage Management Association recently held informal drinks to celebrate International Stage Management Day, for example. “That’s the sort of thing that if you turn up, you might meet that person who’s going to be offering you your next job.”
Amos says the SMA’s ‘freelist’ is also an invaluable resource for freelances and employers alike: a catalogue of people’s availability and immediate professional background, “a yellow pages for people who want to work in stage management”.
As in all freelance careers, though, the chief maxim is that work breeds work. Amos worked post-graduation at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, after which company manager Sarah Lewis recommended him to others. Recommendations then took him from Manchester International Festival to the West Yorkshire Playhouse and then, he says: “Such is the way of recommendations, I ended up in London on Deafinitely Theatre’s 4.48 Psychosis.”
A freelance career can take all sorts of unexpected turns if one is willing to explore every opportunity. Working for Deafinitely Theatre ignited an interest in BSL and a passion for disability theatre that meant that Amos chose to pursue a sign-language qualification, and went on to work on another BSL show, at Bush Theatre at the start of this year.
“I think it’s incredibly naive to think you can never develop further from the day that you graduated,” he says. “I’ve done various courses, I’m doing my mental health first aid course in a couple of months… You’re always learning and you always need to better yourself, because the industry is becoming so over-saturated that you’ve got to find a niche for yourself.”
When I ask Amos what his early years in the industry have taught him, he replies: “You’re never going to get your dream job straight away, it doesn’t happen – never look at the other people from your class and think ‘they’re doing X, why aren’t I doing that?’ because everyone’s different, and everyone goes about getting jobs in different ways. Just keep going – if you want it to happen, it will. And don’t be an arse. People will employ the person who is nice, even if they’re not necessarily best for the job – so don’t be an arse, and you’ll be fine.”
More on training at: thestage.co.uk/advice