Theatre Management Technicians

Investigating Arts Management Practice

This report will look into technical jobs in the theatre industry. Looking at the people who work as technicians. Do they have a technical theatre degree or did they get into the job by gaining ‘hands on' experience. The report will show if there are specific requirements for technicians e.g. to have a degree to work in the west end on a ‘high profile' show or if to work in a regional theatre that has a variety of small scale shows, would ‘hands on' experience be preferred, as they would not just be working in one area on a show, they will need the knowledge to work in all areas of backstage in a theatre.

Research was compiled by emailing questions to production and touring theatre companies, interviewing the technical managers of two regional theatres, and from sourcing information from job adverts in ‘The Stage', on careers advice websites and on theatre forums specifically for theatre technicians.

The findings show that technicians who work in the regional theatres mainly started out as casuals who then gained experience and applied to the job full time, where as the production and touring theatre company do not necessarily look for people with degrees but if they are applying for a manager or head of department job then it would only help their application, or if they were wanting to work as a stage manager then preferably studying a specific stage management course at a drama school would also be benifical.

To conclude although a degree is not needed to get into the industry if you were wanting to go into a management position then having a degree could help you application as the company would know that you would have had some level of ‘paper based' learning which would have involved for example financial studies.

Introduction

This report is based on the question:

‘To work in the theatre industry is it necessary to gain a technical theatre degree or is experience preferred'

This subject has become an increasingly talked about topic within the theatre industry. Older theatre managers nowadays never had the chance to gain a qualification, as there was no such thing, some still feel that it is a waste of time to go the academic route as the job is practical and this is the way to learn it.

This topic is discussed a lot on the technical forum ‘Blue Room'. Where technicians can speak to each other asking questions about the jobs backstage, or how to get into the industry. One member of the forum answers a similar question about which university courses give the best training to get into the industry:

‘I don't believe the best way to get involved in this industry is to take an academic course - production/sound is a very practical hands on job that benefits more from experience than teaching.' ‘Gareth Young, Freelance lighting designer & sound engineer'

This is the way a lot of people think in the industry but as there is now more choice of specific courses to study to get into theatre, a lot of people are taking these up.

‘The industry is changing as there are now more and more specific technical courses. I think that the non-University route is a valid one and I know many people who have been successful without going to Uni.' ‘3Pens - Blue Room'

After speaking to the technical manager at the regional theatre Wycombe Swan, who did study a degree in drama said on the topic

‘It helps to get a degree if you want to go into teaching, but 10 years ago the industry laughed at people who went the university route, but people are slowly beginning to realise that it might be a good idea, not necessarily to become a technician but if they ever wanted to become a technical manager' Sebastian Petit - Technical Manager at the Wycombe Swan

Literature Review

When researching this topic a lot of information was found on the technical theatre forum ‘Blue Room' (bringing backstage online). This is where people who are specifically interested in the backstage jobs of a theatre can talk to other people about any questions they have or just have a general chat.

Topics include general chats about productions, non-technical chats about insurance, working overseas etc, technical forums for each technical area, stage management, lighting, props etc and another for training and qualifications, ‘A forum for the discussion of Training and Education issues'. This is where the research information was sourced.

Many people have joined this forum asking question such as ‘Interested in the industry – Where to start?' These questions are usually asked by younger aged people deciding what to do after GCSE's or people who are at the age to go to university and are asking what is the best option to get into the industry, a degree or experience?

In one of the forums ‘Industry Training, Interesting comment from L&S International' ‘Paulears' talks about an article that was printed in the monthly journal ‘Lighting and Sound International' added 22 April 2007.

"One thing that I am very keen to do is head off as many kids as I possibly can from taking the college route. We do have quite a few people here from LIPA and Liverpool Community College, but they will all tell you, more or less, they have wasted three years of their life attaining a piece of paper that, when they walk in here or anywhere else in the industry, isn't worth anything at all. They might be able to give me a brilliant description of the polar pattern of a microphone but they can't even put up a mic stand properly or wind a cable." ‘Andy Dockerty, the Managing Director of Liverpool's Adlib-Audio'

This shows that in his company experience is preferred, that although the student could explain technically they couldn't do the job practically, therefore would have to gain the experience after gaining the degree, setting them back 3 years that they could have had that experience.

This topic has also been discussed in the weekly newspaper ‘The Guardian'. In the guardian education, there was an article ‘Playing in the mud' This article is discussing ‘the future of live events is threatened by a lack of technicians ... Step up the new skills academy.'

They are discussing the future of the live music business:

‘No Glastonbury festival, no Radiohead tours and no Brit Awards ... that could be the future of the live music business, according to research for the National Skills Academy for the creative and cultural industries' Allan Glen – The Guardian

The popular live music industry has bought major opportunities both for the education sector and the live music industry. Thus allowing a variety of courses to be set up, but there are some strong views about this within the music industry

"What you don't want is someone breezing in waving a degree and telling everyone how to do their job." Geoff Ellis, director of DF Concerts, The company behind T in the Park festival and the Glasgow venue King Tut's Wah Wah Hut.

This is how the technical manager at The Civic Centre Aylesbury feels, as he doesn't have a degree, he feels that people do not have the practical knowledge to do the job, even with the ‘piece of paper'. Also mentioned in the article was Chris Hill, director of Wigwam Acoustics, who launched ‘the company's Charlie Jones sponsorship programme at the School of Sound Recording in Manchester'. Talking about the company he works for, and the school he set up:

"All the CVs we receive from kids on music courses go straight in the bin, our programme at least allows students to be taken seriously by prospective employers." Chris Hill

The general vibe of the article is that going down the education route does not gain you any idea of what it is like to actually work in the industry, it is no good knowing that you have to do something, but not actually be able to do it. Andy Reynolds a university lecture and a tour manager explains,

“The live event production industry is very sceptical of graduates, they are often not prepared for the reality of what they will be doing, which is cleaning mud off speaker boxes that have been at Glastonbury for a week."

Frazer Mackenzie who also works as a lecture in music management and production feels that

"If the industry feels graduates leave university without the necessary skills, it should contribute more actively to the education process,"

Due to this the government are speeding up the opening of the National Skills Academy (NSA) for live entertainment and the DCMS are to launch an apprentice scheme. The course will concentrate on courses in lighting, sound and backstage skills, therefore allowing students to get the ‘piece of paper' as well as learn the skills practically. The idea of bringing back apprenticeships gives everyone to do both routes, whether they are academic or not.

Methodology

To conduct this study my idea was to look at two regional theatres and two London theatres. The two regional theatres that were researched were the Wycombe Swan and Aylesbury Civic Centre, these venues are receiving, so they have a variety of performances by different production companies. Their technicians are not hired to do a specific job, for example stage management; they need to have the knowledge to work in all areas of technical. To find out if their technicians have experience or degrees, they were interviewed, simply asking about their technicians, and how they got into theatre.

To find out if technicians in the west end had degrees, e-mails were sent out with these questions:

  • If people who enquire to you about work have either the qualification or experience,
  • If the majority of people who work for you have a degree or have gained the experience instead?

But with no reply, contacts were then made with a production company, who contract staff to theatres for the run of a show and a touring theatre company. Information was also gathered from collecting programmes from the west end venues that have biography of the lighting and sound operators; these were then used to see if they had attended university.

‘The Stage' a newspaper for the performing arts industry was also used a source, where adverts for technicians are placed, these describe what their person specification is, what they want from an employ. Research was also done by looking at careers website for example learndirect and prospects.

Finding and Discussions

I wanted to find out if technicians in either regional or London theatres have degrees or experience. From the interviews that were conducted with the technical managers of the regional theatres it showed that none of their technicians had done the educational route.

At the Wycombe Swan many of the technicians were casuals while at school, then became full-time once finished. At the Aylesbury Civic Centre all of the technicians are older, a couple of them came from other theatres, one whom used to work in London loading and unloading the trucks for shows, the others just applied with no theatre experience.

Because e-mails were not sent back from the two London theatres that were contacted, contact was then made with production companies that contract our staff to these venues. Companies that were contacted and replied were PSL “one of the leading rental and event production companies based in the UK”.

Darren Glossop, a director of the company answered:

‘Generally we are not bothered whether people have degrees or not as mostly they are irrelevant to what we want. What is important is the drive and the enthusiasm to be successful and of course fit the job profile, which is the most important thing.

So long as people are organised, are intelligent, motivated and have common sense that is good enough. For education generally we look for English and Maths GCSE's. We have taken on graduates but not because they had degrees but more because they were the right fit for the business.'

This shows that for their company a degree is not necessary needed, they just need to be able to show that they can do the job.

For another side of the industry contact was made with the Northern Ballet touring theatre company, the same e-mail was sent out and this was the response from Diane Tabern, PA to the Directors:

‘For some areas of theatre work, e.g. lighting, stage, wardrobe etc. degrees are less important than practical experience - though these can only add strength to an application as Heads of these departments need to balance budgets, manage staff etc. as well as the practical work involved.  The Government are currently looking into Creative Skills Apprenticeships for such areas and hopefully this would lead to academic/practical courses for each area. For other departments e.g. Stage & Stage Management degrees do exist already so naturally having one would put you above a candidate who only had practical experience. I would imagine in our technical departments most have gained experience in their chosen field rather than degrees.'

This answer shows that degrees are not needed to become a technician but if they are wanting to progress into management then they would be needed to strengthen their application, she also mentioned about the apprenticeships that were said before in the guardian article, mentioned in the literature review, thus showing that this would be a better option for people to get into this industry as it gives you both the experience and the academic side of job role.

Also mentioned was that the technicians that already worked for the company had fallen into the job and gained the experience rather then the study route, suggesting that they are probable of an older age.

This company shows that they do accept people with degrees, rather then at the regional theatres who would prefer people who had gained the experience practically as they have to be able to do the variety of backstage jobs, whereas the production and touring company only have people for specific roles, for example if they are hired to be a sound engineer then this is all they will do, they wont need to know about lighting or stage as they will not work in them areas.

From looking at ‘The Stage' job vacancies you can see that there is only one (Appendices 1.0) that is advertising for a theatre technician. This specifically asks for the person applying ‘to be educated to a good standard' and need ‘relevant experience'.

This shows that they are looking for someone who has a degree, or at least a level of higher education, with relevant experience that would have been gained while doing this.

From the other job vacancies (Appendices 2.0) you can see that the majority of these are for technical manager jobs, for a deputy chief electrician, and a theatre technician. This asks for ‘a minimum of one years experience' and to be ‘multi-skilled in all aspects of technical theatre'. All of the others say ‘previous experience is essential' or with ‘a minimum of three years experience'

This shows that they are looking for someone who has experience rather then a degree, as they would have gained more experience working. If someone has a degree this would then mean having to gain three years experience after three years studying, where people who have studied for the degree would then no want to start at the bottom gaining the experience which they could have been doing instead of the degree.

Looking at the careers advice websites you can see that for technical crew jobs it says that you do not need any formal qualifications to become one ‘You would often start as a casual technician' Learndirect http://www.learndirect-advice.co.uk/helpwithyourcareer/jobprofiles/profiles/profile695/

It does say that if you want to progress into technical and production roles, for example specifically stage management you could enrol in a technical theatre or stage management course at a university or drama school.

This shows that although you do not need the degree to get work in a theatre, you may find it useful to study a specific stage management course to get into that job role.

From the prospects careers advice website it states the following entry requirements for a technical stage manager:

It is still possible to enter theatre stage work from any degree discipline, but candidates with relevant qualifications are often preferred. If you are interested in technical theatre, you should ensure that your degree has considerable practical content. Prospects –http://www.prospects.ac.uk/cms/ShowPage/Home_page/Explore_types_of_jobs/Types_of_Job/p!eipaL?state=showocc&idno=463&pageno=3

This suggests that it is better to get into the job with a degree, but preferably with a relevant one, that has a practical content. These are usually best from a drama school, or a university with facilities to support the practical content, for example a theatre. It also states that it is possible to get into the job without the degree, but practical experience is needed.

Entry without a degree or HND is sometimes possible. Practical experience of performance-related work and technical skills in sound, lighting or carpentry can be helpful. Some stage managers come through acting or writing route. Prospects - htttp://www.prospects.ac.uk/cms/ShowPage/Home_page/Explore_types_of_jobs/Types_of_Job/p!eipaL?state=showocc&idno=463&pageno=3

Conclusion

From the research I undertook to answer the question

‘To work in the theatre industry is it necessary to gain a technical theatre degree or is experience preferred'

it was shown from the interviews I had with the technical managers of the two regional theatres that their technicians were not a degree level, and had ‘fallen' into the job by starting as a casual technician, gaining experience then starting full time, thus showing the company that they are competent at working, and already have the skills to do the job.

From the e-mails that were sent back from the production company and touring Theatre Company it was shown degrees are not looked for when a person is applying for the job, that they are less important then practical experience but for the touring theatre company if they were applying for a head of department role, or specifically a stage management role then a degree would strengthen their application.

From these results and the adverts that were placed in the stage the report shows that it is not necessary to gain a technical theatre degree to get work in the industry, but if someone did want to progress into technical management then a degree could only help. This could be because there is a significant amount of paper based learning when studying a degree where the applicant would have these skills, for example most technical theatre degrees have a module of touring their own show.

In this module they have to put together a budget, and know about licensing issues, and although this could eventually be learnt ‘on the job' they would already have some knowledge of this from going the academic route. Also seen from the results if someone wanted to go specifically into a stage management role it seems that they would be better off studying a specific course for example at a drama school.

This could be because the job, although ‘hands on', it is also a management position, where you will have control of a stage and technical team beneath you. This job also involves knowledge of budget and licensing issues, which are taught in university and drama school modules.