Be the person you want to be but also the person you should be: advice from Garry McQuinn to people starting their careers.

Gary McQuinn

As a kid from a working-class Australian family, whose career began with work as a labourer on the floor of a blast furnace, I understand the importance of giving back.

I’m more surprised than anyone that I currently find myself at the producing helm of a successful musical, and I certainly can’t claim all the credit for my career path. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see it was often due to good fortune, a combination of ‘right place, right time’, very supportive early mentors and loyal relationships.

In short, my journey has been shaped by generosity and mentorship. Let me try to repay the karmic gift…

Embrace the journey

It’s a small industry and everyone in it has long memories – so be the person you want to be but also the person you should be

If you’re reading this, you probably already want to work in this wonderful business, but remember, you’ve chosen an interesting life over a well-paid job. When considering a career path, reflect on this: it will rarely be predictable. Your life in the theatre will be a long and winding one with many unexpected turns, there will be crossroads you may not recognise until later. The obvious and predictable choices are not always the right ones.

You should embrace the excitement of the new and unknown while you can, sometimes take the road less travelled, and remember the better jobs are not always the better-paid jobs. Consider every opportunity, don’t wait for your future to come to you, put your hand up and volunteer. See as many productions as you can, always keep reading and learning, and give yourself the time and space to think.

Our business constantly evolves, as you will. Work out what you’re good at, work out what you need to improve upon and focus on that. At this late stage in my career I find myself a generalist – not a specialist. There was no particular planning behind this but it’s certainly given me an interesting and challenging life in the theatre.

Respect your guides

I got into Australia’s national theatre school, NIDA, with the help of my labourer co-workers, and I had my first lesson in sightlines in the crib room during meal breaks. So, remember: you will always depend on the people around you, and everyone you work with should be important to you.

I believe there’s something karmic in our business; you will almost certainly have many guides and mentors in your life – recognise them, treat them well and acknowledge your debts. And when you are able pay it forward – become a mentor.

Be the person you should be

There are not many rules in our business, but there are certainly standards. It might be a cliché, but be true to yourself and do the right thing. It’s a small industry and everyone in it has long memories – so be the person you want to be but also the person you should be. That doesn’t always (or necessarily) mean compromise, but learn when to stand firm and when to fold.

I believe genuine and inspired leadership is based on loyalty both given and expected. Be flexible and adaptable in your professional relationships, stand up for your team (and stand in front of them when necessary), encourage them to be better than you, and be ready to admit ignorance and ask questions. And remember this when it gets a bit tough: everyone fucks up, including/especially you, so when someone else does, understand, support and move on.

And finally, pay some attention to your personal organisation. Be systematic, have a to-do system, get into a regular routine and stick to it. And weigh carefully the work/life issues. It won’t be easy, especially when you’re starting out, but you’ll be a better person and a better professional if you work on the balance.

Garry McQuinn is a Producer and Managing Director of Nullabor Productions.
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McQuinn's latest production, The Hunting of the Snark, is to tour the UK from 24 September to 19 November.

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Photo of Garry McQuinn