Theatre in Wales

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

"Careers advice is woeful"

Parliament Enquiry into Talent Pipeline

The House of Lords Committee never reached its conclusions or recommendations due to the surprise general election of June. Had they emerged they would have been a remarkable intellectual and policy achievement. The forty-six page interim report reveals a tangled geography across different regions of state activity.

Sue Emmas, Associate Artistic Director at the Young Vic, speaks for all in the arts. “What is needed in education is for young people to get exposure to theatre and drama as early as possible, so in primary school and leading through into secondary school.” Alice King-Farlow, Director of Learning at the National Theatre: “At primary, in the English curriculum, there is quite a clear mandate requirement for drama as an art form in the purpose of study. However, it is being squeezed out in a lot of schools by a narrow focus on attainment and the understandable anxiety about league tables.” Michelle Carwardine-Palmer was witness from Wales: “a huge issue that we do not have arts identified specifically within the STEM subjects.”

Careers advice in schools was deemed insufficient. Bryan Raven, Vice-Chair of the National College of Creative and Cultural Industries, told the committee: “Our experience, both as an employer and in backstage training, is that careers advice is woeful. There is a complete lack of awareness of the careers available in the creative industries.”

The qualification system and processes of apprenticeship are muddled. Bryan Raven: “colleges want 200 bricklayers or 300 hairdressers, because that is how they make their numbers add up. We have been losing money on delivering apprenticeships, because it costs the same amount to deliver 20 apprenticeships as it does to deliver apprenticeships, more or less. It is expandable, but they will always be small numbers.” The Committee: “He made clear that providing apprenticeships on a cost-effective basis is challenging in this industry.”

The third side of the triangle is structure and stability of employment. The Committee: “Many of our witnesses noted the hardship facing those aspiring to enter the theatre industry. The industry is a ‘gig-economy’—that is, individuals are paid for delivering a particular role for a finite term. They are rarely employees with continuous contracts. Moreover even successful actors who are regularly employed are not paid very highly. According to one survey in 2014, just 1 in 50 actors earns more than £20,000 per year. At the entry level, there is a strong incentive to work for free in order to gain the experience needed to go on to better paid roles. One route for gaining experience is at fringe festivals, where the costs of travel, accommodation and venue hire can easily exceed ticket sales.”

That use of the verb “can” would be seen as an understatement from those who have been there.

Tony Peers, Human Resources Director of the National Theatre: “The arts is [sic] difficult, because it is vocational. It straddles the boundary between being a hobby and being a profession and, for some people, it never truly lands one side or the other.” The Committee noted the National's efforts. “Mr Peers told us that at the National Theatre bursaries had been “incredibly important in supporting people through what is quite often a low-paid period in their life.”

The Committee touched on theatre-government relations. “Moreover, there appears to be a wider lack of dialogue between the Government and the theatre industry. While on our visit to the Royal Court Theatre we were told by Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany that when they worked in Scotland, the Scottish government kept in regular contact, whereas this is not the case with the UK Government.”

The Creative Industries Council is co-chaired by Ministers and its membership includes heads of industries including television, computer games, fashion, music, arts and publishing, but not theatre. “Speaking in the context of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, Christine Payne and Julian Bird agreed that the theatre industry should have a more effective voice with the Government and a place on the Creative Industries Council.”

Appendix 4 covers a visit on 21st March to the Royal Court Theatre (“a non-commercial theatre which is known for producing the work of contemporary playwrights.”). The Committee held three sessions with different company members. As expected these practitioners provided a rich source of material. “There are many more courses taught at dramatic arts schools. It was questioned whether this was necessarily a good thing or an attempt to commodify something which should be learned through experience. Speakers criticised certain dramatic arts schools for recruiting more students than the number that can reasonably be expected to obtain jobs in the theatre industry...Speakers urged that policy should be developed with the advice of experts. They noted that in Scotland, the government had much more open lines of communications with the theatre industry. As a result the drama schools had put creativity at the heart of their curriculums.”

This Appendix is rich in detail from these women and men on the front-line and deserves to be read in full. John Tiffany “argued that arts subjects should be available to young people. He also felt that there was a “poverty of ambition” in the UK as parents discourage children from attempting to get work in theatre.” But Tiffany is one in ten thousand. It is harsh to criticise family attitudes. The Committee is frank. “The perception of a career in this sector is associated with insecure employment and “low pay or no pay”. These assumptions, along with the introduction of fees for further and higher education, as well as the concentration of opportunities in London, dissuades [sic] parents, teachers and careers officers from recommending or even supporting young people from regional, less affluent, culturally diverse or less well connected backgrounds from pursuing careers in theatre.” There it is, plainly put.

This condition beyond London has ramifications. “We heard a great deal about the ecosystem, in which regional theatres of all kinds and fringe theatres in London provide the opportunity for new talent both on and off stage. Regional theatres risk increasingly becoming ‘receiving houses’ rather than ‘producing houses’, a shift which threatens the next generation of theatre makers and further disadvantages those who live outside London. It also reduces the economic benefits of a theatre to its local area. The case was made that this trend will eventually have a profound effect on what ends up in West End Theatres, on Broadway and on our TV and cinema screens.”

It is a pity indeed that conclusions from all this work were stymied by the election.

The full report can be read on:

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
09 December 2017


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