Investing in the future of technical theatre

Attendees at the 2011 TheatreCraft event which was held at the London Coliseum. Photo: Alex Rumford
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At the end of this month, 1,000 young people aged from 17 to 25 will turn up at the Royal Opera House, London for the seventh TheatreCraft event which is designed to introduce them to non-performance jobs in the theatre.

Add to this the series of regional events, Creative Choices, organised by the sector skills council, CCSkills, and there is no doubt that there will be a great increase in the number of young people who will realise that there are many different jobs in the entertainment industry which have traditionally been neglected by careers advisers.

And then there are the increasing number of opportunities for them to take up a Creative Apprenticeship which provides a new entry route for those for whom a drama school course is unsuited, or is too expensive.

The much quoted figure of a 30,000 shortfall in technical theatre and music business jobs over the next few years has been largely discredited, but there is definitely spare capacity. This is especially true in the high end of the craft disciplines, such as prop-making and scene painting.

[pullquote]We should welcome the initiatives which will allow the next generation of technicians to be chosen from a wider range of backgrounds than ever before.[/pullquote]

But what will it mean for the rest of us? Apprentices may take over some of the work which has usually been done by casuals. This should professionalise basic stagecraft roles and mean that training on the job is expected rather than resisted. Good.

But, while it means that those of us with practical experience will have more control over what is being taught and the standards expected, we are also likely to have to deliver some of it.

Employers are beginning to see that having apprentices is not just cheap labour but is also a way of creating the kind of workforce they need with consequent improvements in working practices and health and safety. Will they also recognise that it will take the time of their staff? Will they ensure that those staff know how to mentor apprentices?

If they do, and the apprentices are properly trained and assessed and receive recognition for their new skills, then they will soon be employed in their own right.

But then it will be only those new members of staff who will have such formal qualifications. The stage crew member or the assistant electrician will have a portfolio of officially recognised specific skills. These may not be high level qualifications but they will be a formal recognition of their competence in, for example, working at height, which many heads of department and even drama school graduates with a BA in technical theatre may not have.

So we should welcome the initiatives which will allow the next generation of technicians to be chosen from a wider range of backgrounds than ever before. But the implications for the rest of us must be included in the plan.

We will need to have formal recognition of the skills learned over many years of doing the job. We will need help in taking on the responsibility of looking after those learning on the job.It is potentially a very satisfying role for us and provides the opportunity to improve the quality of those we work with. However, it will all take time and that is something that costs money and is often at a premium.

These young people will be let down if employers do not embrace the wider implications of this major change in how we recruit new technicians.