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  • Cyphers Theatre Company

I acted in a lot of plays at university, so I should be an actor, right?

Written by Will Holyhead, Co-Artistic Director

Knowing what you want to do with life can take time… And turmoil! Yet when you leave university, I think you feel that you need to decide right away what you want to do and how you’re going to do it. And why not? You’ve been conditioned to think that you’re wise enough to know which degree and vague life path you want to take at the age of 17, so why on earth wouldn’t you have been able to take the relatively small step of wisdom to deciding exactly what job you want to do for the rest of your life three years and what seems like a lot of life experience and growing up later?

I could go on for hours about how I think this is all nonsense, quoting the scientific view that adolescence now ends at 25 rather than 21 and all sorts of other arguments that point to the ridiculous trend in society at large that encourages people to make big career decisions far too soon and the disastrous effect this is having on our society! But I won’t…

Instead, I’ll write about how this all relates to theatre and specifically most people’s lack of serious exposure to aspects of theatre making beyond acting as they grow up performing in youth theatre shows and then go onto university drama societies and again, despite a few more opportunities to do things like direct and design, mostly just act in plays.

I know this is a ‘problem’ that exists, because what I’ve just described is myself. I’m now, at a relatively young age, the Co-Artistic Director of a theatre company, have worked in the West End and on productions that have toured all over the UK and internationally all under the broad career banner of a Theatre Director. Yet, at university, whilst I directed a play in my second year, the majority of my student drama time (and indeed all of my time!) was spent performing in about 15 plays (may even have been closer to 20 - ridiculous!) over the three years of my degree. In my final year, as part of the company’s initiative to offer professional theatre opportunities to university students, I performed in the first couple of Cyphers productions too!

All of this quite naturally led me to buy into the Pinocchio-esque philosophy of ‘Hi-diddle-dee-dee, an actor’s life for me’. After having already spent a questionable amount of time in the last and most important year of my degree pursuing this actor’s life, I made the relatively last minute decision to apply for drama school in the final term. Whilst I unsurprisingly didn’t get in, given that I decided to actually write my dissertation rather prepare my monologues too thoroughly, I was nevertheless now fully committed to becoming a real actor. After graduating, I acted in another Cyphers show and did a few more fringe production and some student films. Alongside that, I was working in all sorts of jobs to pay the rent: I handed out magazines to commuters at Baker Street station (well – I tried to – amazing how difficult it actually is to get someone to take something for free!), I did some tutoring and I managed to stick at a job in a call-centre selling life insurance for an entire year when the average life-span of employees was three weeks!

At the end of this cycle of my life I once again applied to drama school. I did a lot better this time around – I almost got into LAMDA. However, it was during an interview at my LAMDA final round that I realised (and said!) something that surprised me and I’m sure the panel. I didn’t really enjoy acting – especially performing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that was the moment that I talked myself out of an otherwise inevitable place at one of the world’s best drama schools – whilst I felt (and my feedback suggested) that I did a very good job in the workshop elements of the day, my monologues (the performing bit!) weren’t all that great.

I didn’t realise it at the time – but actually what that day highlighted was that whilst I wasn’t ultimately suited to being an actor for all sorts of reasons, I was suited to working in and making theatre. As I say, I eventually realised this, but in the meantime, I spent a couple of years working as a Special Educational Needs Teacher in Brixton and then almost returned to King’s College London (where I’d done my English degree) to do an MA in Military History. Thankfully, I got an eleventh hour reprieve from my one way ticket to a sensible job and ended up going to Mountview to train in directing – the best decision I’ve ever made.

So what’s the point of telling you all of this? Well, I suppose it’s that if you were to look at my bio on the Cyphers website, you may well assume that I simply did my degree, went straight to Mountview to do my MA and that I was in clover by the age of 22. I absolutely wasn’t! That’s not just true of me – it’s true of pretty much all people who are working in theatre. Life is never as simple as it seems on paper, yet most of the time when we look up to people, that abridged summary is all we have to go on. So, inevitably, it adds to the phenomenon that I began this story by ranting about - "Marrianne Elliot, Phoebe Waller-Bridge et al. all knew exactly what they wanted to do when they were 18, when they were 21, so clearly I should too." Of course some people do know and are very successful very quickly. But that’s very rare and even then, that success or even conviction of wanting to do something is even more seldom a long lived thing.

So – what are the practical things that I think that you can take from all of this:

  • Don’t feel that you need to decide what you want to do sooner than you naturally know what that is

  • If you do think you know, don’t be afraid to thoroughly question it

  • When it comes to going into theatre in particular, as well as questioning whether it’s the life for you, don’t forget to question whether you’re pursuing the right branch within it

  • Remember, you can only answer that question by experiencing more that one branch

Probably my biggest piece of advice though would be:

  • While you’re mulling all of this over, don’t be afraid to try things that are completely different!

It will give you a better perspective on life and whether you really want to work in theatre full stop. Not only that, but it will give you a lot of transferable skills that might allow you to stand out amongst all of the other graduates trying to do the same thing as you.

Ultimately, this can all be a pretty scary thing. I think a lot of people choose not to ask themselves the difficult questions when it comes to pursuing a career in theatre because they’re afraid that the honest answer will be ‘I don’t really want to do this’. That was certainly the case with me. But just remember, if you’re in the same strange situation that I was of thinking ‘I really want to do this’ and ‘I don’t really want to do this’ at the same time, then maybe, like me, you just need to look a little further into all of the jobs that are on offer in the industry beyond just acting.

Will Holyhead, Co-Artistic Director

Will studied English Literature at King's College London, before starting his career in theatre.


If you want more information about roles in theatre off the stage, check out the Cyphers Theatre Podcast. Over the next couple of months, we'll be interviewing university graduates who have gone on to have careers in a variety of roles on and off the stage.


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