‘In theatre we are teaching life skills, not soft skills’: Learning at the National Theatre

On the 13th March, the National Theatre invited over 130 secondary school children to learn about backstage and offstage careers in theatre. Over the course of workshops, demonstrations and Q&A sessions, students were invited to realise the crossover between STEM learning and skills within the creative industries. 

The National Theatre hosts a variety of apprenticeship training schemes. London Student’s theatre editor spoke with Kelsey Smith, an apprentice studying technical theatre, and Simon Godfrey, deputy head of stage, to learn more about the programme.  

AWC: What does it mean to be studying an apprenticeship in Technical Theatre?
Kelsey Smith: I cover lighting, sound, and stages. The course is twenty weeks in each department and then after that I have six months in the department I’ve preferred the most. 

What are the benefits of studying at the National Theatre?
KS: Having three theatres that are all different gives the experiences of working on larger stages, like the Olivier, and smaller ones, like the Dorfman. The way the stages are set are all different: the Olivier has the revolve, whilst the seating and stage in the Dorfman can be switched. 

Could you outline a typical week?
KS: I spend forty hours a week here, seven of which are spent on coursework: English, Maths and IT. There is a tutor that comes in every so often, but it’s mostly online. We work in the theatres for the rest of the time. Today, for example, we have been doing the fit up for Top Girls. When I worked on Follies the show was already running, so instead I had to work on cues. 

How much experience did you have before coming to the National and is that representative of your peers?
I didn’t have much knowledge, and everyone has their own ways: some have been to university whilst others have stumbled into it. 

How much training are you provided with when you are working?
KS: It depends – if I feel confident and comfortable, and the NT feel the same, then they would leave me. But if it is something big then there will be someone with you. There is always someone to help, which adds to confidence.
Simon Godfrey: That’s a really good point: there are very few technical theatre jobs where you’ll be flying solo. An exceptional example is programming a lighting desk, but you are talking years of experience before being left alone. The course helps make contacts.

What advice would you give to students wanting to get experience in the industry?
KS: Just to go for it – it is fun and doesn’t always feel like work. Working at the National is great, providing so many opportunities with a variety of shows. There is always a new challenge, which also looks great on a CV if you are looking elsewhere.

Students take part in Creative Choices backstage at the National Theatre.

London Student also sat down with Sarah Eastaff, secondary and further education programme manager with the National’s Learning department. We spoke with Sarah to learn more about the role of a learning department in a large building like the National and the different opportunities offered to schools.   

Can you explain the purpose of a learning department both at the National Theatre and everywhere else?
Sarah Eastaff: If you are a producing theatre, you’ll have a learning department. A learning dept is about opening the doors to everyone; it is about making sure the building is open to the different people coming in, but it is also about me looking at the upcoming shows and trying to gauge how many students should see the show. It’s an opportunity to tell kids from a diverse range of backgrounds that theatre is not only accessible but wide-ranging and potentially an alright salary, which is a really important narrative. It’s also about opening the NT to the community, so older people, young people, families, single parents. At the NT the department [of thirty] is large enough so we can specialise: we have teams for community, primary schools, secondary schools, I could go on.

What would you like schools to know about the resources offered at the NT?
SE: I’m not sure schools know how much we want to work with them. Especially if theatre is not something the school has a history of: as an industry it can feel exclusive. The NT runs ‘On Demand in Schools’, which shares shows recorded through NT Live. It is free to access for schools in the UK. We also have the Archive: if you want to encourage independent learning it’s a brilliant resource. Most learning departments want to have relationships and it is important that schools realise their local theatre belongs to them. 

What is the importance of theatre learning in schools where STEM subjects are being pushed because they are considered the more employable careers?
SE: Regarding STEM, there is a change in Ofsted that will put emphasis on creating more rounded students. In theatre we are teaching life skills, not soft skills. The Arts is one of the fastest growing industries and it is important for students to know it’s not all dancing routines. We do not want to breed actors, but empathy. It is why we need technicians willing to share their craft. The fact that we can highlight and create a platform for a technician to share their knowledge is brilliant.

What’s the most rewarding experience you’ve had working in learning?
SE: Often it’s a privilege to just be in the room, especially when people are watching theatre for the first time. When Warhorse returned to the National we had two performances for just school children. Seeing 800 students screaming at the stage is incredibly powerful.

Have you a favourite show to have worked on from the perspective of learning?
SE: We run New Views, a playwrighting programme that runs nationally and currently with 85 schools. It runs from September to June and teachers run playwrighting workshops in school after CPD sessions. They are partnered with a mentoring playwright who will then read and provide feedback on drafts of plays written by schoolchildren. One of these plays will then be put on in the Dorfman Theatre with a professional cast and crew. Giving young people that opportunity is magic. It’s about giving people ownership of their work. 

Applications to the apprenticeship schemes at the National Theatre will open this summer. More information can be found here: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/about-the-national-theatre/careers/apprenticeships

Photograph credit: Emma Hare.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. @AntWalker_Cook

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