I didn’t go to drama school, I’m not going now, so how on earth do I get into theatre?
Written by Marcus Bazley, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director
So, you’ve done or are doing a ‘proper’ degree at university, but what you really want is to work in theatre. But Theatre (yes, with a capital T) feels like this giant, intimidating, competitive, judgemental world that you have no real knowledge or experience of. ‘Why on earth would they take me and my humanities degree seriously??’ (And if you’ve got a science degree – ‘why on earth would these thesps with their scarves and jazz hands listen to the geeky, science nerd over here??’).
I hear you! It’s tough and scary. It feels like Theatre has this massive insurmountable wall round it – how can you possibly find a way in?
The truth is there is no such thing as Theatre with a capital T. There definitely isn’t a wall. And absolutely no-one ever feels like they have made it ‘into’ theatre. I’m constantly struck by the level of imposter syndrome that exists amongst theatre professionals. I’ve been lucky enough to work with and have honest conversations with a number of very established theatre directors. They all, without exception, get terrified before the first day of rehearsals (one literally has to find an outside corner to dry retch in before going into the rehearsal room). Some get so nervous on press night they literally sit backstage or in the foyer. Before every show, pretty much all of them think: ‘this is the show I’ll be found out. Where everyone will finally realise, I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing.’
Why am I sharing all this? Well, because I think it’s important to debunk this idea that theatre is an industry in which you have to ‘make it’. The truth is you’ve never ‘made it’ and even if you have, you don’t feel like you have, and you might be ‘unmade’ any moment.
The only thing that can be made, is theatre itself. You can make plays, you can make scripts, you can make live performance. This is what counts. And if you’re making these things, you have ‘made it.’
Ultimately, all you can do is work hard, do what you believe in and don’t be a dick. (I can’t emphasise this last point enough. Seriously, DON’T BE A DICK! People in theatre talk to each other. If you’re a dick, very quickly everyone will know you’re a dick and no one wants to work with a dick…).
The other thing to realise is that although theatre feels like this giant impregnable monolith, it is actually incredibly small, fragile and (on the whole) remarkably friendly, welcoming and encouraging.
The truth is the vast majority of people make sensible decisions. Most people go into ‘job jobs’. I’m sure your contemporaries are preparing to be accountants, solicitors, administrators, teachers. Boring, proper jobs. Jobs with computers and desks. Jobs with bosses and managers. Jobs with a salary and a pension. This is what the vast majority of people do because it is safe, secure and doesn’t require too much aggro.
What this means is that, although it can often feel like there are lots of people competing for very few jobs in theatre, there are actually very few people, they’re just competing for slightly fewer jobs!
But the great thing about working in theatre is that you can also make jobs for yourself! You don’t have to be employed by someone; you can make something happen yourself.
You also don’t have to be working at the National Theatre or Sheffield Crucible to be ‘in’ theatre. Everyone starts somewhere. If you’ve put on a show in a car park in Worcester and sold tickets to an audience for it – you’re in theatre. If you’ve taken a show to Edinburgh – you’re in theatre. If you’ve put a play on above a pub in London or Bristol or Manchester – you’re in theatre.
I keep a quote from Rufus Norris (Artistic Director of the National Theatre) on the desktop of my laptop that reads:
“The great thing about directing is that every aspect of it is your fault; that includes not having a job. You can make stuff. Just get on with it and be aware that it will probably take a long time. And that’s a good thing.”
Although, he’s specifically talking about directing here the same applies for any role in theatre. In honesty, the power is in your hands. You can make theatre. It’s a lot of work but it is perfectly achievable. There are loads of spaces where you could put on a play. Theatre doesn’t have to exist in a theatre! It could be in a gallery, a village hall, the park.
And, hey, you made plays at university! You know what’s involved! Everyone mucking in, making sets on the cheap, raiding your own wardrobe for costumes, finding props on eBay. These are all skills you already have. And if you weren’t the one doing these things, there’ll be people in your drama society who did. Get them involved, buy them a drink and ask them how they did it.
“But doesn’t making theatre cost loads of money? I can barely afford the rent and a loaf of bread; how can I possibly fund a play?” I hear you cry.
Here are a few specific tips for reducing the costs upfront (we'll come back to this again -it's a whole blog in itself). You can get venues to agree to a box office split instead of a hire charge, so you don’t have upfront costs there. Always negotiate with venues. Also - it’s not ideal - but you can run the whole operation as a profit share, so every person gets paid an even split of the profits from the show. Again, no upfront costs there. Rehearsal space can normally be cajoled out of people. You might be able to get a room above a pub for free. If you talk nicely to the local church or theatre, they might let you use their spaces on the cheap or even for free. We’ll go through this in more detail on our podcast and in later blogs but believe me – it is possible. It’s not easy but it’s possible.
And it's worth it, making your own theatre has some huge advantages.
- First, it means you’re actually doing it! You’re making theatre – hurrah!
- Second, it gives you a way of learning on the job. You’ll make mistakes but you’ll learn from them. You’re learning about every aspect of theatre-making which will be incredibly useful going forward.
- Third, it gives you something to talk about with more established directors, producers or theatres. It shows you’re serious about making this your career. It shows you’re working out your style and voice. It means they can start to advise you and support you in more specific ways.
- Fourth, it means you can start pulling together a CV and applying for roles with other people and other companies. In fact, you might not even need to! People might have seen your work already and asked if you’d be interested in working on this project or that piece. Making work leads to more work to make.
In short, the best way ‘into’ theatre is to get on and make theatre! And, as university graduates, you are incredibly well equipped for this – much more so than drama school graduates – because you’ve done most of it before!
Marcus Bazley, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director
Before founding Cyphers in 2014, Marcus studied History at King's College London.
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