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Lyn Gardner: Finding a good mentor is crucial for a successful theatre career

F Murray Abraham in The Mentor. Photo: Simon Annand
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In Daniel Kehlmann’s The Mentor, seen at the Ustinov in Bath and in the West End last year, F Murray Abraham played an elderly writer living off the acclaim – and the royalties – from a play written when he was 25. During the play he is paid handsomely to mentor a rising young writer, but this transactional relationship turns out to be anything but nourishing.

In the real world, however, mentoring – both informal and formal – is often a crucial but hidden part of successful careers. Eddie Redmayne may have won an Oscar, but he still rings up his old school drama teacher for advice.

Interviews in The Stage include a section in which the interviewee is asked a series of set questions about their career from first jobs to awards won. One of those questions is what or who has influenced them most. Beyond family members, teachers from school, youth theatre and drama school or university often figure prominently in the answers.

I’ve written before that drama teachers are the great unsung heroes of British theatre, and are more crucial than ever at a time when arts education is being devalued and sidelined in schools and courses cut at university level.

Lyn Gardner: Inspiring drama teachers are the unsung heroes of British theatre

But those early relationships don’t just provide the catalyst for a career in the arts; they can help sustain it. Stay in touch with those teachers, and build an adult relationship with the people who first encouraged your talent: they are invested in you, and will likely keep nurturing you as your career develops, even when you have a Total Theatre award, a Herald Angel or an Olivier on the mantelpiece. You will certainly need them in those darker moments when everything seems too hard, after a string of disappointments or when you are thinking: ‘Why did I ever believe I could do this?’

Mentor-mentee relationships often arise naturally: you get an assistant-directing gig and it leads to a longer-term association. If you have done well out of theatre and it has been kind to you, then you should give something back to those who follow after, not pull up the ladder behind you.

One of the joys of Devoted and Disgruntled each year – organised by Improbable, which rightly sees one of its roles as supporting the future of British theatre – is the pleasure of watching young theatremakers being freely offered advice and contacts by those much more established in the profession.

In the past 15 years, a change for the better in British theatre is the greater spirit of collaboration, which encourages people to share what they know or have: from getting the best deals at touring venues to advice on filling in your Arts Council funding application to borrowing a van. Companies and venues such as Slung Low and the New Diorama may still be the exceptions in their support for artists, but I hope that one day they will be the norm in the way British theatre operates.

Simply contacting someone whose work you admire may lead to a relationship

But finding someone to mentor you when you are starting out isn’t always easy, particularly if you have few connections in the business. One thing I’ve learned from The Stage interviews is that often simply contacting someone whose work you know and admire can lead to a meeting and a longer-term relationship. But that requires confidence.

When I spoke to the Gate Theatre’s Ellen McDougall recently about running a theatre, she pointed out that often it was those who were most confident, perhaps because they come from more privileged backgrounds, who write to her seeking advice.

“We have to be more active in seeking out those people who think it would be too presumptuous to write in the first place,” she said.

In the past five years, Arts Emergency has been trying to create “an alternative old boys’ network”, set up because “low income does not mean low imagination, low ambition or low intelligence”. AE recognises that it is often the least able who “pull favours, work for free and find short cuts into cultural work”.

So if you are seeking mentoring and don’t know how to go about it – and there is no shame in that – or you think you could offer advice and exchange skills with those starting out, then the Arts Emergency initiative may be able to help. It is a good place to start.

Arts Emergency says: “Never forget that culture is politics”, and “opening doors for those coming through really matters, giving hope and opportunity to those being demonstrably locked out right now matters”. It does, and it is what a good mentor provides.

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