It seems to me there are two routes which lead out of university and into the world of theatre (and I speak here more as a maker than an actor; for performers the general route is to go through drama school, even though that’s changing slowly). The first – perhaps the more traditional route – is to join a theatre company as an assistant (director, producer, marketing etc) and work your way up through a combination of demonstrating aptitude and building a list of contacts. The other, more autonomous route, involves setting up a theatre company with like-minded people and making a name for yourself that way.
Over the past few years, both paths have been walked by students leaving Warwick. Some, for example, have gone to work at the Royal Court, Northern Stage and National Theatre, whilst others, like Curious Directive, Fellswoop, Fat Git and Whole Hog, have formed collectives and showcased their work around the country.
University is the perfect place to start up these companies, as the environment encourages the discussion of ideas and allows collaborations to form and develop in a safe space over a period of years. It’s also ideal for those simply looking to expand their own portfolio, supporting those with little experience so a wide variety of skills can be gained.
This does, however, set up a dichotomy that often goes unacknowledged. We all want to use our time at university to build up a portfolio of achievements and experience to help us find jobs in the arts world. At the same time, most of us want to involve as many people as possible and create progressive productions, collaborating with our peers and forming relationships which may lead to future work. It’s not as though the two drives are mutually exclusive, but it does set up various dilemmas. Should you direct a production when other people with less experience also want to apply for the same funding? Should you step in to fill someone else’s job in order to save a show even though they could do with the experience?
It’s a horrible fact of the arts world that limited government spending means these questions are not really asked at a professional level and individuals wishing to work their way up may be given the advice to fend only for themselves. As much as it pains me to admit it, much of the theatre industry is just as much in the thrall of neoliberalism as other markets, and it has become accepted and unquestioned that it should be subjected to the whim of capital. But how is this conducive to creating good theatre? If everyone involved in a certain production is only there for themselves – and thinking about their next job – then it’s unlikely anything earth-shattering is going to be presented.
These two routes each have their strengths and weaknesses, with differing respective impacts on the wider theatrical ecology.
If deciding to “go solo”, as it were, and learn your chosen craft from others, then you are immediately thrown into the professional world, allowing skills and techniques to be picked up on the job. The name of an established company on a CV is also likely to be useful in the future by giving punching power when applying for jobs. And I get the impression (though I have next to no evidence for this, so it’s hard to prove) that “working your way up” is easier when attached to other professionals who have been working in the industry for a while.
On the other hand, the safety net of another company may mean risks aren’t understood fully and the intricacies of running a company are always just out of reach. A personal worry of mine is that this route may lead to a more individual-centric notion of theatre, with artist as lone agent who goes from project to project without ever really getting that attached and constantly thinking about the next job without a concept of the entirety. Working for an established company may also mean less artistic freedom, with the person in question having to chop and change their ideas in order to fit with the house style.
The company route, conversely, fully integrates artistic freedom, allowing a group of like-minded people to write their own mission statement and be in complete control of their productions. These companies are the bread and butter of fringe festivals and are shaping the future of British theatre by experimenting, interrogating and playing with the status quo. Individuals involved in student companies also, as far as I can tell, have a little more understanding about the collaborative nature of theatre and the need to take ideas from everywhere, ensuring no one person believes they are any more important than anyone else.
There are drawbacks, however. For a start, those involved in the company may end up being stuck in a rut, unable to leave even though they feel they want to go on to do other things. It may also mean – and this isn’t the be all and end all, but if looking for a career in theatre it no doubt crosses countless minds – that even after half a decade the CV, with only one company credit, looks no more impressive and it becomes tough to expand horizons.
I write all this because it’s a dilemma I have been facing as I consider life after university. No one wants to make a bad decision which could affect an entire career and it feels like this is the only chance we’ve got. This is, of course, absolute rubbish, for mistakes are inevitable and we’ll get plenty of opportunities even if this first one is pissed up the wall. The argument presented above is, too, a false dichotomy; there’s room for one individual to dip their toes into both metaphorical waters, as ideas and skills are honed, shaped and challenged. Indeed, perhaps the best route is indeed a mixture of the two, so that each and every aspect is experienced.
Still, that doesn’t stop me being fucking terrified.