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I want to be a theatre director. But where are the opportunities and how do I get them?

Written by Will Holyhead, Co-Artistic Director

It’s a position that everybody who ever wanted to be a theatre director ever has definitely found themselves in at some point towards the beginning of their career journey. You know what you want to do – direct theatre – but you don’t have the foggiest about what the early career opportunities to work in that profession are or where to get them.

I suppose the logical and perfectly sensible thought that a lot of people have is assisting. It is, by nature, an entry level job after-all. The question of how to get a job as an assistant still remains though.

In trying to answer that question, I’ll start by being brutally honest – it’s very difficult and does require a bit of luck. There’s a number of reasons for this. For a start, a lot of theatre directors like to work with assistants that they know and trust. Whilst I think that’s a pretty understandable mindset to have, from the point of view of somebody who’s just starting out, it’s obviously a bit annoying. The trick therefore becomes how to get yourself in a position where you can get to know a director and earn their trust. This is where the old adage that you can make your own luck comes into play.

I think that there are two main ways that you can get yourself into this position. One is to apply for advertised assistant director jobs and opportunities. There’s all sorts of places to find these, but the two best places to regularly check in at are the JMK Trust website and individual theatre’s websites. The JMK is a charity that supports young directors and as part of its work, it funds a number of assistant director jobs at regional theatres (Cyphers Co-AD Marcus Bazley worked on a show at Salisbury Playhouse as one of these JMK Assistant Directors). They also offer great training opportunities and all sorts of other things for young directors, so that’s a good website to check out generally.

When it comes to which theatres to look out for assisting opportunities, here are some which advertise these jobs openly online:

- The Young Vic – if you sign up to the Genesis Network, you can access all sorts of opportunities to work and to train for young directors

- The Almeida Theatre – each year, a cohort of resident assistant directors are selected

- The Royal Court

- The Kiln Theatre

- The Bridge Theatre

That list is by no means exhaustive and theatre’s policies are constantly changing, so your best bet is to regularly scour around for opportunities.

Websites like Arts Jobs UK and the Stage’s jobs page are also good places to regularly check to see what’s out there.

Remember, it’s the relationships you develop with individuals that leads to sustained work in the long – so any opportunity is a good one.

The other way to begin to know a director is to write to them. The benefit to this is that you’re likely to be one of a far fewer amount of people that have made contact in this way than would apply for an advertised job. So here’s a few practical pointers when it comes to trying to get opportunities by writing to directors:

- Write letters – they’re far more likely to get read and responded to than an email

- Send them either to stage door, if the director you’re writing to has a show on, or their agent if not

- Keep it to one page max. They don’t need your life story, just why you’re writing to them, a little bit about you and your experience in theatre and what you’d like from them

- Don’t be afraid of being honest about all of these things – if you don’t have the most experience in the world make a virtue of that, don’t hide it. Honesty is always the best policy – you never know what someone wants to read/hear so don’t bother trying to second guess them

- Make sure you put your contact details in the letter: Email, phone number, address

The most important thing to remember though is not to worry about if people reply or not! It’s nothing personal – sometimes people are very busy and they just don’t have the time (I once received a reply to a letter I sent to a director 6 months after sending it!) and some people just aren’t interested in replying to letters full stop. But in both of these cases and all of the other reasons that sit in between, don’t take it personally.

I guess that leads to the point of how many people to write to. Again, there’s no right or wrong answer, but my personal rule is that as long as each letter is properly thought through and it’s to somebody that you’d genuinely like to meet or work with, then the more the merrier. Of course there’s a limit to this and as I say, everyone’s different. But for what my opinion’s worth, the worst thing you can do is to work out the one director you’d like to meet or work with above all else, spend hours (or even days) composing what you think is the perfect letter to them and then write to no one else. Putting all of your eggs in one basket is pretty dangerous ground at the best of time, and with something that relies on as many things outside of your control as their replying to you does, it’s asking for trouble.

Ultimately, you’ve got to accept that it’s a numbers game as much as anything – Quality and quantity is your best chance of winning this particular lottery.

The other reason that I think writing to people or applying for things in volume is a good habit to get into is that it creates a certain mindset that I think leads you to find the more obscure opportunities that are out there. The first couple of big breaks I got in my directing career neither came from applying for advertised jobs or writing to directors that I was hoping to work with. But I genuinely don’t think I would have been in the mindset to even see the opportunities which led to those jobs, let alone to make the most of those openings and land the jobs if I hadn’t been writing letters and applying for other things. It sharpens your focus and really fine tunes your antennae for opportunity when it pokes its head briefly out of the sand.

I suppose though that the biggest message that I’d transmit when it comes to getting opportunities to work as a young director is to make your own work.

That’s not to knock assisting at all – it’s great. You get to learn fantastic lessons, make fantastic relationships and of course you get paid to make theatre – all of these things are brilliant. But ultimately, the goal of assisting is to end up directing. And whilst you have to get very lucky to get paid to direct your own work early on in your career, there’s relatively little stopping you putting on a play and directing it at any point along that road.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of other challenges beyond not getting paid to putting on that work and all of them are legitimate and can be very stressful. But ultimately, it is usually possible to jump over the hurdles in the way of making your own work if you really want to however high or unjumpable they might seem at times. There will sure as hell be sacrifices to make, but ultimately you can do it and it is in your own hands, even when it feels like it isn’t.

So whilst putting on and directing your own work poses its own challenges, when you consider how many more of the variables are in your own hands compared to trying to get opportunities from other sources, I think it’s more than worth the effort to try and do it yourself whenever you can. Spreading your eggs over as many different baskets, having as many fingers in as many pies and sowing as many seeds as possible – whichever hackneyed food metaphor you choose – the ultimate rule to getting directing opportunities is to seek out and explore as many avenues down which they might be hidden as you can.

Will Holyhead, Co-Artistic Director

Before training as a Director at Mountview and becoming Co-AD of Cyphers, Will studied English at King's College London.


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