Features Published 29 July 2019

Are theatre’s schemes and awards deterring a new generation of talent?

Emerging directors leap through ever-shifting hoops for a chance to work at the UK's biggest theatres. Holly Williams asks: is the system working?
Holly Williams
The Noises at Old Red Lion Theatre. Photo: Ali Wright.

The Noises at Old Red Lion Theatre, directed by Tamar Saphra (interviewed below). Photo: Ali Wright.

There’s a scheme that asks you to programme three shows, and do two rounds of interviews, for the chance to be in a pool of potential assistant directors. One that asks for thousands of words pitching a pie-in-the-sky show, right down to the marketing strategy. One that starts with reading eight plays and producing a written proposal about your favourite, then attending a meeting at the theatre and contacting a whole – still only potential! – creative team, then presenting a visual concept with a designer; shortlisted applicants must also produce a full model box, and do a full weekend of directing workshops and interviews.

Everyone knows theatre is a wildly competitive industry, without enough opportunities for everyone with talent and enthusiasm. Which is why awards and assistant director schemes for those in the early-stages of their careers are so important. As director Josh Roche, who won the JMK Directors award in 2017 (after not getting shortlisted six times), points out: “If you’re in a desert and there’s only one oasis, that oasis is a good thing.”

But as an outsider, who’s only recently got a peek at what such applications entail – well, they seem nuts. And much more involved than job applications in almost any other industry (let’s not even go anywhere near comparing salaries). A written application or an interview are quite blunt tools for working out if someone has clarity of vision, can mine a script, run a rehearsal room, work with a creative team. The rigour of these processes theoretically means that a really brilliant applicant gets to put on a show, not just someone whose uncle works at the theatre. But in trying to make the process fair and thorough, applications also seem to have bloated. And to do them properly, they take up an awful lot of time.

And time equals money and can therefore be exactly the thing emerging artists don’t have much of. Unless funded by the bank of mum and dad, directors trying to break into the industry are often doing several casual, flexible and therefore low-paid jobs in order to live. Even within the industry, this problem is rarely publicly discussed – beyond bursts of frustration on Twitter – as those who need the opportunities don’t want to be seen to be critical (or bitter). But for many, the sheer amount of time such applications demand can be so daunting, they don’t even apply.

Tamar Saphra, who directed The Noises at the Old Red Lion, worked out she’d done around thirty applications before recently getting into the Almeida’s pool of ten resident directors. “My hit rate is one. One in 30. It’s a numbers game – for people who can afford to keep doing them.”

Each one takes Saphra a day to complete. “The big irony is, this is the time to be learning to experiment and develop your work, and instead you’re asked to spend eight hours defining what your work would be if you were allowed to make it!” laughs Saphra. But was it worth it, to finally get that assisting role? “Yes, in short. It’s a big stamp of approval.”

But as Saphra also points out, she was applying to more opportunities when she lived at her parents’ house, and didn’t have to work so relentlessly to make punishing London rent. What if you can’t afford to take a few days off in a week to craft reams of self-promotion?

David Loumgair founded Common, which supports working- and under-class artists and conducts research into socio-economic inequality across the UK theatre industry. He points out that “applicants are rewarded on their ability to clearly, concisely and compellingly articulate both themselves and their skillsets” – but that working-class creatives may often have a “learned sense of inadequacy”, apologising for themselves or even talking themselves out of applying. He believes a step to make such opportunities less intimidating would be positive discrimination. “Pure and simple: anyone who comes from an intersectionally diverse background needs to be offered an interview.”

“I think there’s a real structural imbalance between what theatres expect from applicants, and what the majority of applicants are realistically able to offer,” he also says. “There is a certain amount of time that needs to be put into planning and thought processes. The Almeida ask you to programme a season and I’m just like ‘How fucking dare you?’ If you’re interviewing someone to be an artistic director, fine – not to be put into a pool of potential assistant directors.”

Still, the pay-off can be huge: Roche says the impact from winning the JMK has been fantastic. And while he recognises it’s difficult to apply for endless schemes “alongside three jobs and a fringe show”, he’s proof it can be done – and he can’t really see a way round it. “If you choose to do a profession where there’s no money, really fleeting work, just because you like it… How much are we allowed to complain? But obviously that means that someone with a certain amount of capital in a savings account or from mum and dad is able to survive much better.”

Freelance director Lucy Jane Atkinson is especially frustrated by the current career pathway for directors. Despite having made a lot of her own fringe work over the past 12 years, including A Hundred Words for Snow and Verspertilio, she feels she now needs to get a big assisting role, pointing to paths followed by break-through young directors like Lynette Linton and Roy Alexander Weise.

“It is seemingly impossible to emerge to the extent where a theatre actually takes the ‘risk’ of directly hiring me,” she said. “Now seemingly the only way to become respected as a director is by being an assistant director.”

But since she’s started applying for roles, she’s found that “so few of them actually ask questions that have anything to do with directing or your process. They seem to be more about the research you’ve done into the building than on your own artistic identity.”

The fact that different application styles and formats suit different people is something people running such schemes are painfully aware of. Director Rebecca Frecknall – who had success with Summer and Smoke at the Almeida after going through their resident director scheme, which she now helps run – says that they hopes their ‘fantasy season programme’ is interesting; she remembers enjoying it, and even if it riled Loumgair, Saphra said she massively preferred it to a big, vague ‘why do you want make theatre?’ question.

Having been through the mill herself, Frecknall says that the Almeida deliberately keeps the first interview short, relaxed and casual. “There can be a frustration when you haven’t got much money or time, and being asked to prepare presentations or pitches, or to do budgets and whole designs,” she recalls. “I definitely had moments of going ‘I’m never going to get anywhere’, I had so many rejections. What’s happened to me demonstrates that you just never know, and it’s always worth applying. What these things do reward is real grit and determination.”

In order to improve access, the Almeida – like many places – lets people apply with a video rather than a written form. The Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme and the Genesis Future Director Award go further: both involve, for every applicant, a written component and an in-person interview (in the former) or a ‘lighting talk’ timed presentation of your visual concept, with slides (in the latter). Which sounds like a lot of work for a first round – but is, in fact, intended to level the playing field.

“Obviously not everybody is really good at filling in a form, so those [face-to-face encounters] can supplement the form,” explains Sue Emmas, who works for both schemes.

The RTYDS form, asking six questions (total possible word count: 1,800), certainly prompted groans among emerging directors I spoke to – and Emmas is candid in saying that actually, this year, she thinks it was too long. But it’s about balance: they have to make sure the hosting theatres have enough information to go on. 197 people applied this year, and she thinks everyone hit the criteria. No wonder whittling it down is tough.

“You just have to endlessly reflect and respond,” Emmas says, and they collect feedback from applicants as well as theatres. She hopes that “it’s not just a bunch of questions testing their skills in how to write delightfully. Where possible it should be an interesting experience, thinking about being an artist in the 21st century.”

The JMK Award gives its winners – a director and a designer – a full-scale production, which is a fantastic opportunity. But it’s also the scheme that demands shortlisted artists have read eight plays, pitched, fully designed, and even run ‘audition rehearsals’ with actors, equivalent to at least five full day’s work. The thought behind it is that the process itself is useful – training you in how to develop a show.

“People pay a fortune for this at Birkbeck!” says Stephen Fewell, chair of the JMK Trust. And he points out that it also reflects the brutal truth of working in theatre, where doing unpaid work in order to secure paid opportunities is standard. “Is that always reasonable? Of course it’s not. But those kinds of challenges are implicit in the industry.”

The JMK is largely run by passionate volunteers – Fewell among them. He insists the Trust isn’t some intimidating institution but rather a collection of people who love theatre and want to make a difference. They work to try to make it inclusive: Fewell and others run free to access events all around the country to encourage people to apply – especially people who might not think it’s for them. “The message that we’re being counterproductive just devastates me.”

He recognises the frustration (“from Twitter storms that give me sleepless nights”) that doing all that work and not winning can cause. But he also defends the process. “I would hate there to be an accepted wisdom that the investment you make isn’t rewarded. It is a learning process.”

But do shortlisted directors need extra ‘training’? Given how many are actually Birkbeck graduates, probably not.

I get the sense that perhaps within each of these carefully calibrated awards, people forget their applicants are often on a hamster wheel of forms and interviews, trying to break into a hyper-competitive industry. It’s harder to view something as just a fun intellectual exercise or fruitful learning process when it feels like an exhausting competition for precious, scarce resources that’s wiped out half a week’s wages.

What’s the solution? It’s tricky. There’s no silver bullet. But I hear pleas to make first rounds shorter and simpler; greater clarity on what experience is required so people don’t waste time applying without a hope; and guaranteed feedback, even if it’s only a couple of lines or tick boxes/scores for areas where the applicant was strong or weak in (experience, vision, fit for the building, suitability of suggested play, etc).

Beyond that, two things come up repeatedly. Firstly, theatres should be getting out and seeing more work by emerging artists. Secondly, they need to be bolder in giving them a job, to allow career progression through the industry.

“The biggest crisis is in coverage,” says Roche. “My personal opinion is that [artistic directors] should come in at 12 o’clock if it means they see three shows a week. Maybe they don’t need to be there for that breakfast marketing meeting – but they do need to be seeing work. They’re employed for their taste.”

Atkinson also thinks that there’s a “dispiriting” lack of engagement with work that’s actually being made: “It is so frustratingly common for theatres to ask for comps to come see fringe shows and then simply not show up.”

Theatres seeing grassroots work would obviously be a brilliant way of judging directorial, rather than form-filling, talent. It could, perhaps, lead to automatic shortlisting for directors whose work they admire. But… then that risks privileging people who can afford to put fringe work on, which is obviously fantastically expensive too, favouring those who already have contacts and resources. It’s tricky.

The biggest difference would come from theatres giving work to newer artists, promoting a healthy churn and change within the industry. “A lot of theatres are incredibly unimaginative: take the big five or six theatres, and if you named 15 directors you’d get pretty much all of their productions,” points out Roche while Fewell suggested regional and off-West End theatres need to do their bit in “backing people more directly.”

Ah, but isn’t that a financial risk? Isn’t it safer just to have Ian Rickson, Patrick Marber, or James McDonald? Well, not really. Look at the recent hits of a young cohort of directors who were given a main stage show and absolutely killed it: Weise with Nine Night, Frecknall and Summer and Smoke, Ned Bennett and Equus, Tinuke Craig and random / generations, Lynette Linton and Sweat, Ola Ince and The Convert

Does that really look like a list of risk? Or does it look like a list of people ready to be given the space to make fresh bold work?

Emerging directors need to be seen as an opportunity, not a liability – ambitious, and with a reputation to make. As Saphra points out, “of course young directors will put everything into a show. Ian Rickson doesn’t have to.”

For more on theatre and access, read Poppy Burton-Morgan’s piece on how the industry favours people who are good at speaking its language

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Holly Williams

Holly is an freelance journalist and staff critic for What's on Stage. She was lead arts writer for the Independent on Sunday before its demise, and has since written for Time Out, The Stage, the BBC, The Observer, the TLS, Elle and The Telegraph, among others. She hails from Wales, but lives in London. There's more here: hollywrites.com.