Bethany McDonald Shepherd believes that students must develop their business knowledge and practice, and the Commercial Education Trust Entrepreneurs’ Award is helping them to do just that.

Image of actor and plan of boat
A public exhibition by students on Central’s Theatre Practice course

Patrick Baldwin

The Commercial Education Trust (CET) is an independent grant-making charity founded by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It supports “commercial education by helping institutions to learn how to trade profitably in an ethical and socially acceptable way”. Through CET’s Entrepreneurs’ Award, graduating students at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (Central) on the MA/MFA Creative Producing course have had the opportunity to pitch to CET for funds to support their projects.

CET looks for projects that are innovative, deliverable, sustainable and socially conscious − solid values for anyone to consider when embarking on a new endeavour. After submitting business plans, projects that score highly on the criteria are shortlisted. Those projects are then pitched by the students to a panel of judges (including theatre producers, creative and commercial entrepreneurs) and the funds are split between the winning candidates. The winners are then paired with a mentor to support them in the delivery of the work over the year following graduation.

Arts practitioners are required to respond to their work environment by creating their own opportunities and ultimately their own jobs

Graduates today are entering a unique job climate and economy. It is not as simple as being hired by an arts organisation and settling into a 15-year salaried career. More than ever, arts practitioners are required to respond to their work environment by creating their own opportunities and ultimately their own jobs. This is incredibly empowering. Being in charge of one’s own work is the best way to earn recognition in the field by colleagues, heroes and future employers alike. During my time studying directing at drama school, I remember Colin Cook telling me in his gruff northern voice: “You’ve got to hustle in here because you’re going to have to hustle out there!” And that’s the truth. Successful creative entrepreneurs are people who think outside the box and find new ways of achieving their goals. They are people who break convention, who scratch below the surface, and who, in short, hustle.

Therefore, initiatives like the CET Entrepreneurs’ Award are vital to shaping the way artists think about their careers so that they can answer to and thrive in the creative and cultural landscape. Arts schools that embrace and encourage this approach, going beyond just the teaching of skills, have employability in mind for their graduates. They are providing the tools to sustainable careers in the creative industries. What is great about our programme is that training crosses over every discipline in the performing arts so that students can begin to form companies right here and now with their peers. Furthermore, students on the MA/MFA Creative Producers’ course are not necessarily just producers – they are artists and practitioners who have decided to take the reins on their careers, become multi-faceted and learn to be arts managers.

In my own artistic work, I have been able to apply my arts management skills in all sorts of different ways and it has given me the freedom to define my own path. For example, I find myself using fundraising skills to engage with arts organisations I admire, leading to further opportunities where I then engage on an artistic level. During my MA study in Arts Policy & Management, I investigated the role of artistic director and interviewed David Lan on how he balances creative and business imperatives at the Young Vic. He explained that he identifies with the artist who is torn between the practice of the craft and the necessity of the means to produce it, but sees it is essential to the work: “If you don't produce the work of art, it will never happen in the whole history of the world. It's never going to happen in the way that only you can do it. And once you're gone, you're gone. So there's no alternative. You have to find the way to make it happen. That's our business model.”

Looking to the future, Central hopes to open the CET Entrepreneurs’ Award to a wider group of candidates. Beyond our creative producers, we have students developing their work in lateral ways on courses such as Performance Arts, Advanced Theatre Practice and Applied Theatre, and the award provides new ways of thinking on more traditional courses such as Acting and Design. These lessons directly reflect the industry for which we are preparing them. Consequently, being able to extend the award, we embolden artists to become arts managers, we encourage students to collaborate in creating their own destinies and we further underpin our mission to “develop practitioners who shape the future of theatre and performance across the UK and beyond”. As an artist who has learned the value of this mindset during the course of my own journey, I am thrilled to have helped establish this opportunity.

Bethany McDonald Shepherd is Head of Trusts & Foundations at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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