Technical theatre is the term used to describe the roles undertaken ‘backstage’ in the creation of a stage performance but within this there are a multitude of specialist careers. Managers, technicians, designers and creative artists with an enormously diverse range of skills and experiences are involved and all of them will have had their own unique journey into the theatre industry.
Some may have discovered an interest by working on school shows or in amateur dramatics but others may have first pursued a work through a trade or craft and come to the theatre in a more roundabout way.
The important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way into this industry and there are many routes to choose from. It’s also worth noting that most technical theatre training is very transferable into the broader entertainment industry, so the career options are not just limited to staged performance but can include theme parks, cruise ships, exhibitions, corporate events and sporting events.
To degree or not to degree?
The majority of jobs in theatre do not require you to have a degree, although if you decide to move to a management position in the future you may need one then. If you do not have the academic qualifications to join a degree course there are lots of local college courses that can help tick that box.
There are some great courses in technical theatre and theatre production at this level but there are also courses like sound production, graphic design, model making and textiles which are good options as well. At degree level, the diversity of the industry is also shown in the training available so the first thing to do is to find out what is on offer.
The Federation of Drama Schools and The Stage newspaper have extensive technical theatre training directories on their websites and you can also get more specific listings and advice through organisations like the Stage Management Association and the Society of British Theatre Designers. If you are in Scotland, the Scottish Drama Training Network also has a really useful list of training providers.
Each institution will be different. For the most part, drama schools and conservatoires will have the more vocational ‘hands on’ approach to training and their courses will be very practical, whereas universities tend to have a more academic structure.
You may have some personal priorities that influence your decisions, especially in terms of living costs and accommodation, but don’t be too quick to limit your options before looking at what is on offer across the country.
A key factor will be the course itself and, in particular, student opportunities like placements and industry contacts. Some courses will be more generic, offering a range of experiences in different areas, which is great if you have little experience but lots of enthusiasm and commitment.
Others will be very specific to a particular career or specialism and will probably require a certain amount of knowledge from the start but there are also courses that offer a broad based training in year one with the chance to specialise in years two and three.
If possible, I would strongly advise attendance at an open day or a building tour. It will be easier to decide how you feel about the location, the facilities and the staff if you can see them for yourself as well as talking to current students about their experiences. Ask yourself – do I want to be here for the next three years?
Having done as much research as you can about each institution and each course you can then choose which ones you want to apply for.
You will normally do this through either UCAS or UCAS Conservatoires and the main information you will need to provide, beyond your contact details and educational profile, is a personal statement. There is a good deal of guidance about personal statements online but my advice to applicants at RCS is to remember that it is personal to you so don’t try to follow a formula. It’s an opportunity to tell the interview panel about yourself in your own words so just be honest and support what you say with examples of your work or experiences.
In order to give yourself the best possible chance at interview, make sure you read everything and follow all instructions carefully, as some courses will require you to complete specific tasks in advance.
Here are a few other ways you can prepare yourself.
If possible, get some work experience in a professional theatre or even just go on some backstage tours but, either way, use the opportunity to talk to people about what they do and what you want to do.
See as much live performance as you can or watch some live recorded digital shows online. This will broaden your knowledge of the industry and help you build your analytical skills, which is especially useful if you are interested in design. It will also help you to identify work you admire and, from there, you can start to seek out and follow key practitioners and companies on social media.
Create a portfolio of work to take with you to your interview, identifying on your experiences and abilities. This might include a CV and photos of shows you have worked on but might also include lighting plans, prompt books, model boxes, technical drawings and so on, depending on the course. Remember that evidence of your process is important too so including a sketch book or note book may show the panel how you think and operate.
Make sure you have researched the institution and the course you have applied for and create a list of questions you might want to ask the panel. The interview is a two way process, the panel are deciding if they want to offer you a place, but you should also be deciding if you want to accept it!
Technical theatre is challenging in many ways so the panel will be looking for enthusiasm, commitment, understanding, ability and above all, passion. If you are successful, your reward will be hard work, unsociable hours, good friends and the best time of your life!
This article first appeared in the Student Guide to Drama Education, a comprehensive guide for all prospective drama school/conservatoire applicants.