Actor turned drama teacher Ahmet Ahmet joined The Stage in 2018 to help develop Get Into Theatre. Serving as outreach director for the project, he explains why it’s vital for the site to engage as many young people as possible
What was your background before becoming outreach director at The Stage?
In 1998, I began my training at Arts Educational Schools London on the musical theatre course. That led to a 12-year career on stage, working in shows such as Mamma Mia!, Just So in Chichester and a season at Leeds Playhouse. I then began teaching at drama schools, directing and set up my own young peoples’ theatre company before training as a teacher. I spent five years at an arts-based free school in Stratford East called School 21, first as head of drama before becoming head of school.
Did you grow up going to the theatre?
Not at all, we were Turkish immigrants, so I almost led a double life. At school I was exposed to new worlds of art and theatre, while at home we were very much living according to Turkish values. Theatre just wasn’t on our radar. When I told my dad I was going to go to drama school, his first question was “What about the family business?” followed by “How much will you be paid?”. I think we take for granted that for some people theatre is not even ‘not accessible’ – it’s not a tangible reality. It certainly wasn’t for my family.
What made you want to be a performer?
A friend who went to a stage school took me to see Miss Saigon, I remember being mesmerised by the tiny little performers (as seen from the £10 seats), they were actually real people doing a job. My mate gave me an out-of-date ArtsEd prospectus that I studied for months before I finally phoned up. It was just a shame that I had no idea of the many roles in theatre. At that point, all I knew was there were actors and I wanted to be one.
How did you know where to start looking?
You can’t start looking for something you have no idea exists. I remember my careers adviser suggesting a course in hospitality when I asked about theatre careers. It would have been good to know that the jobs of producer or set designer existed as that was probably a path I could have taken. I only knew about ArtsEd and that was the only place I applied for. I had no idea what I was doing and had to ask my drama teacher what a monologue was. I was a part-time pot washer in the local cafe, so I saved up and just went to the audition.
What was working in theatre like?
It was tough. When I was training, I remember consciously trying to adapt the way I spoke so I could fit in more. I had landed myself in this world, but had never heard of Les Misérables and didn’t know who Harold Pinter was. Once I started working, I often felt people couldn’t quite make sense of my ethnic origin. Having a Turkish look and a name like Ahmet Ahmet was hard for audition panels to place. Once I was spontaneously asked to sing a gospel song in an audition. As a Muslim, I had never listened to those kinds of songs – I had no idea what to do. I obviously didn’t get that job.
Why did you decide to leave performing to work in education?
As an actor, you are very much focused on yourself. I had a new ambition to grow others. My achievements in education were rooted in my aspirations for all young people, regardless of who they are, to know that the theatre world is a wonderful place to be. No matter what your background is, just like me, you deserve to know the best of the best.
What drew you to become the outreach director for Get Into Theatre?
A conversation about the diversity and inclusivity in the theatre sector has been growing for some time. I felt that to lead change in improving access to the theatre sector, I had to join the conversation. It is essential that when we talk about theatre careers that we balance our understanding of what the theatre industry needs with the needs of young people, schools and parents, as well as what is happening politically. I felt it was a chance to marry up everything I’d been doing in the past decade and make change.
Why is a resource such as Get Into Theatre so important to young people?
It levels the playing field. If you are not born into a theatregoing culture, you just don’t have access to theatre careers information. It’s just not a reality. Get Into Theatre gives everyone the same information regardless of whether your mother is a director or your family has never been to the theatre. We must break the ‘who you know’ cycle that currently exists in theatre and nurtures the elitist tradition that many of us want to change. There are some great organisations doing great work, but this is spread across hundreds of different websites. Get Into Theatre brings this together.
Why do schools need Get Into Theatre?
As well as being directly in line with the Gatsby Benchmarks that ensure schools are improving careers advice, we are working with the Creative Careers Programme to join the government’s push to highlight creative careers. I also think that drama and arts teachers need support when defending their subjects. Many careers are available in theatre: not all involve being on stage or are strictly creative. When a parent asks a teacher “Why should my child study drama?”, teachers need expert careers information for the on and offstage opportunities the theatre sector offers. This will help them give real-world theatre careers advice, which is often not available for those choosing performing arts subjects.
How will Get Into Theatre help improve diversity within theatre?
From the very beginning, Get Into Theatre has aimed to diversify theatre – not only providing information to those from backgrounds that typically don’t know about theatre careers. Get Into Theatre’s design, outreach strategy and content focuses on encouraging the kind of people who are currently not seen much in theatre. There are also filmed interviews and stories of young people that look like, and speak like, the young people we want to see more of. In these videos, they talk about the obstacles they have faced and advise people like them that aspire to work in theatre. If young people are advised by people like themselves and have access to information, we will see a new wave of talent in theatre very soon.
How can the industry help?
Get Into Theatre has been made to digitally join up all the great work that theatres and training providers are currently doing. If we are going to be the UK’s fully comprehensive theatre careers site, we need to make sure we are covering every opportunity out there. It is important that the industry engages with the site: by listing every opportunity organisations have they will enable us to tell young people about what they do. And by paying to enhance their listing, organisations will support us to sustain the website in the future. This project is the essential link between the industry and young people and it will only work if the industry gets behind it.