Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Training for Stage/Technical Management and Design

The Technical steering group of ATW's report on the future of technical theatre training and education in Wales

This sub sector grouping represents all those working ‘behind the scenes’ – stage managers, set and costume designers, lighting and sound technicians, props makers etc. A lack of professional development opportunities, particularly for theatre technicians, has been of major concern to the industry for some time. The industry has become increasingly technological over the past ten years while, at the same time, legislation regarding health and safety has tightened up. Professional development opportunities have not kept pace. In November 2001 the Arts Council of England brought out a Report into Continuing Professional Development and In-Service Training for Performing Arts Professionals in the Technical Disciplines (AK Bennett-Hunter). This Report, available from Arts Training Wales, illustrates the fact that the situation is no better in England than it is in Wales.

Entry Points

As is the case in the arts management sub sector, many of the most experienced people working in this field today were not initially trained for the work. For many, what was originally casual work or a hobby helping out backstage, turned out to be a career. These days most people have followed some kind of training at least to BTEC level. Many follow a career path from either A Levels or BTEC into one of the drama schools such as the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School or one of the London schools.

In terms of how vocational drama schools view potential recruits, some FE colleges have a better reputation than others. This is largely based on the amount of practical experience BTEC Performing Arts students are able to get both at college and via work experience elsewhere. At present there is not a full, two year level 3 stage management BTEC on offer so successful BTEC Performing Arts students are usually those from the more practical courses ie the BTEC Performing Arts (Technical). For theatre design, the recommended route was a good art foundation course to develop practical skills, combined with work experience in community or college shows.

There was much interest and discussion regarding the BTEC course, which was termed by RWCMD as the perfect entry point in many ways. There was frustration at the different standards coming from different FE colleges. Not surprisingly, specialist equipment and staff who work within the profession make the difference. There are potential barriers to entry for less academically gifted students, more so than was the case in the past, and there is a contradiction in that entry to some BTEC courses requires a minimum of four GCSEs whereas entry to a BA in Stage Management at RWCMD, for example, is down to evidence of ability and work experience.

There is currently no infrastructure (assessors or assessment centres) to deliver NVQs for this sub sector in Wales. Also, there is little enthusiasm for bringing the qualifications into Wales since they are believed to be heavily bureaucratic. However, Yale College in Wrexham hopes to have the soon-to-be built new theatre at Wrexham as a base to explore a new, open access, foundation/apprenticeship type qualification and technical NVQs in spite of the anticipated ‘sheer magnitude of the paperwork’.

ABBT apprenticeships, which took young people from the age of 16 to shadow particular jobs eg theatre electrician, would appear to solve this entry barrier issue. However, these no longer exist and the new Modern Apprenticeships and Modern Skills Diplomas for Adults both have within them NVQ units.

There is general agreement that a general drama degree does not equip students for this field. However, postgraduate diploma courses can provide suitable training to enable them to go into the industry. Academic ability is considered more important in design than stage/technical management but in both cases trainees are given opportunities to develop these skills as they progress through their technical training.

For keen young people in the community, however, the traditional access point to this sub sector still exists via helping out backstage at the local theatre. Furthermore, IT skills are now thought as the new potential open access route to training on the job where so much technical stage equipment is operated in this way and so many young people are computer literate.

“Kids have intelligent lighting hidden under their beds for their mates’ discos
these days!”

Career Development

As with most of the other sub sectors, the preferred bridge between training and work is apprenticeship. The Torch Theatre in Milford Haven operates a young designers scheme where newly graduated designers have the opportunity to work on productions. RWCMD is hoping to set up apprenticeships with technical companies such as Stage Electrics to give stage/technical management graduates experience of the industry. The Sherman Theatre in Cardiff and RWCMD have been considering a ‘transitional’ producing company which would give young actors, designers, technicians, directors and stage managers opportunities to practice their chosen artform and hone their skills after graduation.

Having trained, most people in this sub sector work as freelancers for up to ten years. At this point many seek more stable employment, particularly those who wish to settle down and perhaps start a family and do not want to continue to tour. Since there are very few staff jobs in this sub sector at the regional theatres, teaching, television work and arts management are the three main options.

The switch to television work is not easy, mainly due to the fact that contacts in this field are usually established early on in the career. In spite of what appear to be suitable posts eg television props buyers, floor managers, etc, there appears to be little crossover at this point. Transfers early on in the career come about these days mainly through work placements/contacts made during training. RWCMD now runs film projects in order to give students experience of this field as a potential avenue for future employment.

There also seems to be little evidence of crossover into arts management later in the career although some research participants had trained in stage management and transferred into arts management after training. The lack of transfer later in the career is thought to be due to the fact that transferring is likely to mean a drop in salary and level of responsibility – or at least a perceived one initially.

Event management is an area where increasingly it is possible for people to broaden their work opportunities and be well paid. RWCMD now includes event management in its curriculum and there are opportunities for stage management, technical and designs students to gain experience in this emerging field.

Some training early on in the career of a stage/technical manager/designer would develop their transferable skills in these areas in order to build up a portfolio of work throughout their careers. This type of CPD might stop people leaving the industry in their early 30s by developing their related options and contacts.

Professional Development

After college there is very little opportunity in terms of professional development in Wales for this sub sector. It is necessary to go outside Wales eg Loughborough where a two day stage technician’s course can cost as much as 500. In a profession largely dominated by freelancers, not only is this considered to be too costly to begin with but given the distance to be travelled, a considerable amount of time would need to be taken off work. For a technician employed by a theatre, even if the theatre was prepared to pay the fee and expenses, it is likely to balk at the cost of replacing that technician for two days – and these posts have to be replaced in order for the show to go on!

Accreditation of short courses is not particularly of interest to this sub sector. However, where particular skills are concerned eg working at height, forklift driving etc they are of course felt to be essential.

Current provision

- The Stage Management Association runs its short courses eg in score reading outside Wales but is considering bringing these into Wales.

- Other one day courses exist outside Wales, run by the Association of British Theatre Technicians, Association of Lighting Designers or Theatre Management Association.

- The Sherman Theatre used to run two day courses for professional stage managers who wanted to become production managers but these no longer take place.

- RWCMD has provided occasional weekend technical courses for local authority venue staff.

Gaps in provision

There do not appear to be any CPD opportunities for this sub sector in Wales at the present time. The following are the areas of need identified by the research participants:

- Training opportunities for those who have joined the profession by learning ‘on the job’ eg crew. These people may have been in the industry for many years but their career progression has been hampered by lack of training. Areas are as diverse as literacy,
health and safety, IT skills and basic skills such as knot tying. Some of these skills could form part of a weekend course.

- Opportunities for technical staff in smaller venues to train on advanced technical equipment not used at their venue. When new equipment is bought by a company/venue, the industry trains the staff who now own it. This opportunity does not exist for those people working in smaller organisations who need to know how to operate the equipment in order to move on in their career.

- Stage managers to production managers: no training exists for this very obvious career path development.

- New legislation updates: health and safety, disability awareness, ABBT codes of practice etc.

- PAT testing for theatre technicians.

- Pyrotechnics. A proposed City & Guilds course at RWCMD did not come to fruition.

- Design master classes in different historical periods, techniques and styles.

- Jointly initiated training for TV/film/theatre workers, which might be useful both in terms of making new contacts and understanding each others’ disciplines. These sessions could include practical work as well as discussions and might assist in cross fertilisation between the two areas of work.

Development Issues

- There is a need for students who train in this sub sector in Wales to see and experience the bigger budget, large scale work in London theatres. Tutors from both the RWCMD and Yale College courses both felt it essential also that students understand that there are other ways of doing things!

- Lack of touring product and producing theatres in recent years in Wales has had a knock-on effect on stage managers, technicians and designers. It is felt that professional development opportunities will only partly solve the problem faced by young theatre designers in particular. At present of the 20 theatre design graduates of RWCMD each year, many do not sustain work if they stay in Wales for more than
a year.

- Welsh speaking stage managers and technicians are difficult to retain in North Wales, not least because most companies are small and work on short term projects and cannot offer the salary levels or security of TV.

author:Pat Nelder | Arts training Wales

original source: Arts Training Wales
02 May 2003


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