• Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email

Freelance writer and director, Jane Prinsley explains the difficulties facing young people like her trying to set sail in an industry in which entry routes have been cut off. 

Image of actors in a rehearsal room

Cottonbro Studio

With so much in the headlines about experienced arts leaders at sea, what about the theatre directors still trying to set sail? In an industry plagued by cuts and still recovering from the impact of Covid, there has hardly been a more challenging time for theatre directors at the beginning of their careers. 

Gone are the days when a director could hollow out a space for themselves through fringe theatre and residencies at producing houses. We are in the era of university educated arts professionals. And maybe that’s no bad thing. Perhaps there is a golden recipe to a brilliant show that can be taught at drama school. Perhaps theatre directing is an academic discipline. Perhaps. 

Some schemes have been fundamental to the careers of theatre directors. The Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme (RTYDS) stands proudly as one of the few pipelines for those based beyond the capital. Having recently been dropped from the Arts Council England National Portfolio, it remains to be seen how RTYDS will evolve, although it says it remains “fiercely committed to dismantling barriers and supporting freelance artists.”

Opportunities dominated by fee-paying students

Beyond RTYDS, The JMK Award at the Orange Tree Theatre and the Jerwood Assistant Director programme at the Young Vic do great work. Being shortlisted for either of them can kickstart a career.

However, many programmes demand a minimum number of professional productions. The definition of professional is malleable, but this can be a major barrier. Some schemes require at least three professional credits, others ask for two previous assistant director jobs. Staging professional work in the early stages of a directorial career is no easy feat, and obtaining the necessary assisting experience without other employment can be equally daunting.

Postgraduate study as a route to directing has gained traction in the last decade. If a hopeful early career director chooses this route, they might get smaller scale experience and then go on to study (and pay) for a Masters (MA or MFA) in theatre directing. Many directors working today have completed such an MA, and a pattern is emerging of directors gaining experience and industry networks via their MA. 

High profile training programmes are partnered with producing houses. Theatres including Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Liverpool Theatres, the Leicester Curve and The Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, to name a few, give assisting work to students on the Birkbeck MA programme. Pairing paying students with regional and national theatres for placements mean many producing houses have assistant directors they don’t have to pay. In fact, the assistants have paid fees to be there. So assistant directing work is difficult to come by unless you are a paying postgraduate student.

You need a private income

In the West End today, directing alumni from LAMDA, Mountview and Birkbeck are making waves. Other directors have jumped straight from unrelated degrees in Oxbridge. (So perhaps the MAs are a meritocratic development in a previously sealed-off professional world.) 

Looking at course fees, they reveal a twisted and illogical pathway towards a fairer theatre landscape. Mountview’s directing MA is £15,295 for UK students and £18,765 for international students. Birkbeck’s is £9,810 for the UK and £18,030 for internationals. 

And Bristol Old Vic charges £12,000 and £27,510 respectively. At the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland it’s £12,870 and £27,467. While some bursaries are available, these extortionate costs come on top of the burden of undergraduate debt. 

And all this to become a theatre director, an infamously low-paying profession. Adele Thomas’s thread on ‘X’ sparked debate, when she unpacked the average directing fee at major producing houses. When payment is so low, it is surprising that early career directors fork out tens of thousands of pounds to train. As Thomas also said: “In theatre, you need a private income just to live.”

Transparent hiring practices

In this cut-throat industry, if someone can pay for a shoe-in, can you blame them? Of course not, but where will this precedent lead theatre? It is in the industry’s interest to support emerging theatre makers and recognise talent and originality. 

Producing houses need to expand their support for early career directors beyond the realm of MAs. The few programmes that do exist should not stand alone. Other theatres and funding organisations could view the proliferation of MA programmes as an opportunity to innovate away from formal education.

Transparent hiring practices around assistant directing positions should become the norm. Open Hire has set the standard, yet it is still rare to see an assistant director position which does not demand extensive experience or specific protected characteristics. Is an inexperienced director only trusted when they identify with the work?

People want to direct plays but if this trend continues, we will look around in ten years’ time and the theatre being made will be narrower and less interesting. Unless we tackle the inequity at the beginning of a director’s career, the privileged landscape of theatre will persist. High-cost MAs won't solve the problem.

Jane Prinsley is a writer, director, teacher and facilitator. 

Link to Author(s):