THERE IS NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS
Monday, September 8, 2008.
The lure of a life in the spotlight has seduced many would-be actors. But what about all the other jobs necessary to support the stars treading a famous stage? The National Theatre (NT) on London’s South Bank, which produces over 20 new plays each year on its three stages, employs over 800 people in a huge range of roles, from catering to IT, finance to wig-making. It’s a dynamic, forward-looking organisation.
‘We want our workforce to reflect the diversity of society; the National Theatre should be truly ‘national’ in every sense’ says Head of Personnel, Tony Peers. ‘Not having experience in arts or entertainment isn’t necessarily an obstacle to working here.’
Some jobs do need specialist training. Cynthia Duberry is an Assistant Stage Manager. ‘I always wanted to work backstage and did a stage management degree in Edinburgh, before moving to London," she says. "Stage management is a very competitive field and it can be difficult to build a consistent career, rather than just getting the occasional freelance job; so I’ve been extremely lucky."
Cynthia has worked on such shows as The Play What I Wrote in the West End, and then early on in her career was given the opportunity to join the stage management team at the National. In rehearsals, she is responsible for liaising between the director, designer, prop makers and actors, ensuring that the necessary props are made.
"During performances, I make sure that everything remains as the designer intended: for example, if a play is set in a living room, that all the furnishings and things like lamps or photos or magazines are correctly placed and in working order," she says.
People come to the National from a wide variety of backgrounds. Alton Brown, aged 24, is Directors’ Office Assistant. Alton read Business Studies at London’s Southbank University, and gained a work placement in the NT’s Marketing Department. After leaving Uni he worked in the Daily Mirror’s advertising department, but applied for this job when it was advertised on the NT website.
"My role is to support the work of the Artistic and Executive Directors and their assistants," he says. "I administer the invitations and sort out the tickets for the opening nights of new plays, and organise functions such as the fortnightly “scripts lunches”, when ideas for new plays and productions are discussed. I do a lot of running up and down! – it’s great not to be stuck in front of a computer all day and I get to see how the whole organisation works. I’d be really interested to work on our Discover programme, bridging the gap between the plays on the stage and people’s understanding of them."
Lloyd MacLean is a stage technician on the huge Olivier Theatre stage. “I look after the scenery, from unloading it from the delivery trucks to building the set on the stage, moving and running it during the show, right through to packing the set away when the production eventually ends. The current play, Her Naked Skin, is a great example: there’s lots of scene changes, so it’s very physical and active – no time to get bored!"
Punctuality, Lloyd points out, is a very important asset; the curtain has to go up on time. You have to be able to get on with lots of different people too, to know when you can have a laugh and joke with an actor and when to be serious.
Going on tour is another challenge Lloyd enjoys. “You’re visiting lots of different theatres, teaching their stage crews how to handle and move the set in a short space of time,” he says.
Electrician Karl Burke is part of the team responsible for the management of the National’s electrical services.
Apart from day to day maintenance, her team is the first port of call for any power losses or electrical problems, whether that’s on the stage or in the workshops, foyers or offices. They advise on safety and keep things up and running.
"I’ll also be involved in major projects such as our drive to reduce our carbon footprint and energy consumption," Karl says. "For example, we’re looking at the extractor fan in the car park, which removes exhaust emissions, to see if it can be made more energy efficient," he says.
Karl originally worked for Ealing Council in London, and came to the NT via companies such as Marks and Spencer. "I come from a customer-focused background which helps a lot in this job; I love the environment and the people. Just changing a flickering light-bulb in an actor’s dressing-room can make a huge difference to someone."
Agatha Walcott, PA to the Head of Personnel, came to the NT as a temp for 6 weeks; four years later, she’s still here! "I work part-time, liaising between Tony and the other department managers; taking minutes at union meetings and liaising with the union branch secretaries. It’s a responsible position because I’m party to a lot of confidential information. One of my favourite tasks is organising the annual Long Service Awards, for people who’ve worked at the National for 25 years – organising the ceremony, and compiling biographies of each person. It’s a great way of meeting people from all parts of the organisation."
Agatha also got a rare chance to act in an NT production. "The casting department needed 'supernumeraries' [actors with no speaking lines] for Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones; after two tough days of auditions, I was thrilled to be given a part! It was a fantastic experience and has inspired me to take up acting classes."
Last word to Lloyd Maclean: “If I won the Lottery, I’d still want to work on the stage. If more people knew what it’s like to work here, there’d be loads of applications.”
Visit the NT website to take a behind the scenes tour and discover more about the host of career possibilities; jobs are also advertised here.
www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover and www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/jobs
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