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‘Don’t you want to get a proper job’, is a sentence that children who pursue artistic careers often hear. It’s not a totally unreasonable question; parents want their kids to be happy, but we are also aware of the harsh realities of life, and worry that they won’t be able to pay the rent (if they ever move out!).
If your kids are dreaming of the stage, how do you balance enthusiasm and encouragement with caution and sensible advice?
The author of our upcoming book on #12Women of the Stage, Sarah Whitfield knows and understands both sides of this conundrum, and has some fantastic advice.
Like many young people, I caught the theatre bug at an early age. While I’ve been led to believe there are still VHS tapes of me performing ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ onstage when I was about 8 years old in existence, it was Youth Theatre which really did it for me. There I was able to find a sanctuary from a secondary school I found quite difficult to understand – I didn’t quite get the ‘which socks are the right socks’/ ‘which carrier bag should I carry my P.E. kit in to have the most social status?’ type debates. I wasn’t great at being a 14 year old in mid-Wales.
But my Youth Theatre showed me a new world where what counted was what you could do and how you did it. The group was run by an awesome woman of the stage called Ginny Graham. She was uniquely aware that everyone had something they could do, while that might not be lead parts, Ginny saw what we shy and awkward teenagers might be, if we were given half a chance. Long before any of us saw it ourselves, theatre was a transformational experience of friendship, hard work, perseverance and gaining confidence in our own abilities. Ginny died earlier this year, and it is no coincidence that so many of us who attended the theatre group ended up working in education as well as the arts.
For a long time I thought that I was going to be an actor, I thought I would make a more sensible decision and be a theatre director. I have a notebook from when I was 20 with a page on it called ’10 Year Plan’; it earnestly records:
1) Be respected for my work in the theatre
2) Get my PhD
3) Run the National Theatre
I was not lacking in ambition, let’s put it that way.
I went to university to do a degree in Theatre Studies, directing plays and musicals wherever I could, in and outside of my degree course. Afterwards, I did a Masters degree in Musical Theatre at Goldsmiths College, before taking a few years break from education in order to be able to eat something other than pasta and tomato sauce.
It wasn’t the case that my plans changed; perhaps more that I saw people more experienced and better than me working to get odd jobs here and there, and realised that if I wanted to eat, there had better be some sort of middle ground. I didn’t want to be a director as much as other people around me did. Goodness only knows what my 20 year old self would make of such a compromise!
The thing that enabled me to eat during this time was the fact that I could type really fast, and I worked as an admin assistant for various theatre directors and writers. This gave me great experience of the processes of theatre, and I got real training in how things worked from the inside. This led me to realise that despite what I thought as a twenty year old, thankfully theatre isn’t the kind of black and white you’re either in it or you’re not. It is much more normal to have something like a portfolio career, where you have lots of different aspects to your working life. For me that’s directing, teaching, writing and researching – with probably the biggest emphasis on teaching.
My biggest advice for a young person wanting to work in the theatre would be don’t give up on your dream, but find out if your dream is actually a bit broader than you originally thought.
If you are a parent with an acting and singing obsessed teenager, there are many options open to them. If they are a budding singer, then singing lessons and joining a chorus will help. If they love dancing, classes are expensive but important – and taking dance exams can help them develop their skills further. If they love acting, then taking part in school productions and youth theatres all help, watching as much theatre (even if that’s on YouTube) as possible is helpful too.
I would encourage anyone to get work experience in a theatre to find out about all the other kinds of jobs you can do, as well as perform, because they are just as creative and exciting even from backstage. If you volunteer as an usher in a local theatre you can often get to see productions for free as well.
If they still want to continue with their passion after school, there are many different kinds of training opportunities, from conservatoire type stage schools actor training courses, to degrees like the one I now teach on at University of Wolverhampton in Musical Theatre. Many choose to do degrees at a university before specialising at drama school; on the basis they get graduate skills and those all-important options.
As for me, I now have (almost) three-year old twins. One of whom, when interrupted by her Dad to ask if she would put her shoes on earnestly looked up from her Duplo theatre and said ‘Not now Daddy, I’ve got to finish my show.’