The theatre can be an exciting place to work – providing many different career paths and opportunities to display skills such as creativity, management, practicality and communication.
However, there are some tough realities that come with working in such a competitive area. Many jobs in theatre, especially at the start of your career, involve freelancing, irregular working hours and no permanent contract. Though salaries are high for the top-earners in the business, in practice pay is relatively low for many in the industry, meaning that you may have to work a temporary job at the same time to boost your salary.
What can I do at university to increase my chances of getting a job in theatre?
It is a good idea to get involved with student theatre at university to gain experience of working in a theatrical environment. You can act or direct, as well as helping backstage in aspects such as stage managing or lighting.
Networking and gaining practical experience will help you access careers in theatre. You can do this through getting work experience and placements, such as those run by the National Theatre, or by showcasing your skills at events such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Seona McClintock, who has recently completed a creative traineeship in producing at National Theatre Scotland, advises: ‘I did different roles in student productions. Even if you want to be a director, you should try stage management and try producing as you get a better idea of how it all works. It’s also a good idea to ask people about their jobs and what they did to get there as it may inspire you and shows that there isn’t one straightforward path’.
Is it worth doing a postgraduate qualification in theatre?
It is not essential to do a postgraduate qualification for any job in the theatre if you have practical experience and a relevant degree, such as acting or stage management; but it can help you to gain experience, skills and contacts, especially if you have a degree in an unrelated subject. There are masters programmes in specific areas such as stage management, directing and costume.
What specific roles are available in theatre?
People become actors through different routes, but most actors have some sort of training before they perform onstage professionally. Most gain work through an agent who finds them roles and takes a percentage of their earnings in return.
Directors require creativity to bring a script to life by deciding which themes to emphasise, choosing a setting, and researching contextual factors. They also need practicality to organise and lead rehearsals.
You can get into directing by taking on assistant director jobs to build experience and gain contacts, alongside directing your own small-scale shows. Schemes such as the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme aids directors in early stages of their career and runs placements.
Producers work behind the scenes to ensure the commercial success of a play. The role varies, but can include budgeting, timetabling, and sorting funding and legal matters. Many start off as a production assistant, though there is no set path. The charity Stage One aims to help aspiring producers with placement schemes.
There is no formal training to become a playwright; it hinges on talent. However, you can build your skills through practice, attending workshops and courses, and by entering competitions, such as those run by the BBC Writersroom. Some companies such as Paines Plough encourage budding writers to send their scripts in to be read.
Stage managers deal with the practicalities of a performance, such as scheduling, props and liaising with other departments. A typical entry route is by starting out as a member of the backstage crew, an assistant stage manager or a deputy stage manager. In larger theatres, you can progress to a company stage manager, who leads the stage management department and provides support across the departments more widely.
Set designers work with the director to create the overall vision for the setting of the production. You can build up your experience by creating a portfolio of work, getting some relevant training and networking.
Working in costume involves designing and sourcing costumes for a production, as well as researching costume, so it fits a play’s setting. You need to have a good working knowledge of textiles, and a portfolio of sketches and productions you have worked for. You can start out as a dresser or assistant, before progressing up to a wardrobe supervisor or costume designer.
Sound and lighting
Designers envisage appropriate sound and lighting for the performance, while technicians set up and operate equipment. Some basic electrical knowledge is useful, and designers usually begin as assistants. The Association of British Theatre Technicians offers awards and courses to help you get into the area.
Front of house
Working in the front of house is a good first job in a theatrical environment and involves taking care of the audience through tasks such as ushering and working in the box office or catering facilities. There are no formal requirements, but you do need to be friendly and provide a high level of customer service.
Working in fight direction involves creating and teaching stage combat so that it can be performed in a way that is dramatic but safe. You need a formal qualification and training so that you can get onto the register of fight directors approved by the Equity (the theatre union).
Those working in marketing decide how to bring in audiences and create publicity for the theatre. You can start as a marketing assistant or by having a marketing or administration job elsewhere.
Potential employers and useful websites
- The Stage and ArtsHub jobs have information on a selection of vacancies in theatre.
- The Mandy Network advertises casting calls for actors.
- Theatres such as The Old Vic, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and many more have application pages on their website.
- drama therapy
- teaching drama
- TV and film.