As hundreds of thousands of children and young people flock back to school this week I’m wondering who is going to give the ones who are in love with the performing arts the advice they so sorely need.
The only thing the average parent (unless he or she works in the industry - and most of those also try to deter their children from following the family tradition) knows about being an actor is that you spend most of your time out of work.
Some secondary schools have big drama departments staffed by people active, or recently active, in the industry who can tell and show the students what’s what. In those same schools — and I’ve seen it in the maintained as well as the independent sector — there is often a professional standard theatre for students to work in. But the sad truth is that most schools do not have such facilities or give the performing arts the priority they deserve. Drama is still, far too often, taught as a minor adjunct of English - or worse, lumped in with dance, and relegated to the PE department.
And that means that the keen student’s source of advice is an English or PE teacher whose own experience begins and ends with having seen/read a few plays and had a spear-carrying role in a student production of Macbeth in 1988.
Careers advisers are rarely any better. Most know almost nothing about the performing arts and typically see it as their job to do everything they can to put kids off. I hear this all the time from sixth formers who tell me they have no access to anyone who knows anything at all about working in the performing arts industries.
There’s another problem too. Working in the performing arts industries does not necessarily mean acting or performing. That is, of course, obvious to those of us who are steeped in performing arts culture and its modus operandi. But it isn’t obvious at all to Emma Smith, 14, who attends a bog standard comprehensive school which has a half-hearted ‘specialism’ in modern languages or maths. She has no idea that you can actually make a living in theatre - and possibly a good living - as, say, a lighting technician, wig maker, designer or front of house manager. I pick this up from students all the time too.
Creative and Cultural Skills, part of National Skills Academy, does a good job with its Creative Choices programme. Each autumn it takes schoolchildren aged 13-15 into venues for a day to show them how theatre works. This term the scheme will reach over 9,000 youngsters all over the country. But, I contend, excellent as that is, it’s still only a drop in the ocean.
The annual Theatrecraft backstage careers fair run by Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass is another fine source of information - for the 1000 or so people aged 17-25 that it can physically accommodate. This year’s event is on November 30 at Royal Opera House.
We need a great deal more of this sort of thing. We have to find ways of getting the information to young people so that they can make intelligent and informed careers choices. As I said earlier this week, I think we are training too many actors. But equally, I’m certain we’re selling youngsters short by not telling them enough about other work in the industry and how it operates.
I have a “careers” book coming out in the new year (watch this space) about the usually unsung breadth of opportunity in theatre and related industries, so I’ve given this subject a lot of thought lately. Let’s hope my little contribution goes into lots of schools and helps, in a small way, to dent that huge bastion of ignorance. And let’s keep thinking creatively of ways to solve the problem - because there sure is one.