I’m often asked – especially by work placements and young people – how I got my first paid work in theatre. This has happened regularly in the past few weeks, as I’ve taken up a few of the many requests I get from schools to talk to pupils about careers. Few students consider theatre, beyond the occasional aspiring actor.
This is not surprising given that drama is now on the curriculum’s endangered list, with the number of students taking GCSE drama falling 8% in 2018. Some new-build schools do not have a theatre or even a designated performance space as they focus on subjects such as maths and English.
Of course, there are still valiant teachers giving up their free time to create the school play or musical – just as when I did GCSE drama (thank you Mrs Deens) – rehearsing in the evenings and enlisting families to make costumes and paint scenery, which is something any student can have a go at whether they are doing drama or not. But with all the pressure teachers face you can see why they might prefer to carve out their free time for family or resting.
With so few opportunities available to young people, it makes me think of how fortunate I was to get my own start. As a working-class student it simply did not occur to me that I could work in theatre. I was determined to get a sensible, ‘proper’ job as soon as possible and none of my teachers really countered it. I didn’t even go to university at first.
Luckily, I met another working-class woman who was leaving banking to do a music degree. Seeing her launch herself into the creative world gave me the courage to do the same and I did a degree in costume production as a mature student with – in those halcyon days – a grant for my living costs.
My route into a paid role came from an unpaid placement through the college. In my case, it was working on a theatre in education schools tour of Twelfth Night for the National Theatre. When the costumes came back to the building they needed some love and the workshop manager offered me a paid job.
After graduating I got a full-time, permanent job as the wardrobe manager in a producing theatre in Basingstoke, which I found advertised here in The Stage. We talk about routes into the industry, but honestly, how many working-class people could do that now?
The theatre that employed me no longer has a costume department; most wardrobe manager jobs are not advertised and are not full-time permanent positions; degrees are expensive and there are no living grants.
If we are to ensure that the future of the industry isn’t populated solely by the white upper and middle classes, we all have a responsibility to nurture and encourage the next generation of theatremakers. More than engaging with schools and colleges, offering work placements and talking to young people about the work we do, we need to create the opportunities for them to be employed.
Catherine Kodicek is head of costume at London’s Young Vic theatre. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/catherine-kodicek