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Many young people dream about breaking into the performing arts industry, but without some work experience it can be almost impossible. Ruby Clarkson offers some guidance on how to find it.

Photo of a silhouette of an audience facing a red stage curtain

The performing arts industry is perfect if you’re creative, active and passionate. But this is a competitive industry. There are opportunities, but you will have to work incredibly hard to get your foot in the door.

Look for opportunities that will help you gain the skills that will make you stand out from the crowd

Finding some work experience demonstrates commitment and provides an awareness of the realities of your career choice. Prospects, the student website for career advice, recommends both work experience and participation in voluntary projects. Although unpaid, voluntary projects provide valuable experience and create opportunities to meet and network with industry professionals.

Claire Williamson, now Deputy Stage Manager at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company in Edinburgh, provides an example of how this approach can work. She contacted a large number of theatres and asked if she could watch backstage for a day or sit backstage for a show. She then secured her first professional role by taking advantage of local work experience opportunities. She says that theatres are quite often delighted to have extra help. 

Work experience

Here are some ways to gain work experience:

  • Spend your summer as a creative and performing arts counsellor in the US with Camp America. This has recently become popular with university students. The camps run for nine weeks and offer the opportunity to run your own drama classes and perform in musicals. 
  • Produce your own play – get a group of friends together and create your own work experience. 
  • The Ambassador Theatre Group advertises regular opportunities for students to gain experience of working life through its Creative Learning Partnerships.
  • Organise your own acting or dance workshops.
  • Volunteer at your local theatre, doing backstage or technical work, or in the costumes or props department.
  • Become a film studio or theatre runner. These roles can provide you with vital experience and knowledge for both media and theatre, with responsibilities including general admin, setting up props and looking after actors. 

Any sort of work experience in the industry should help you make useful contacts. 

Networking opportunities

Developing good contacts is one of the best ways to break into the performing arts. Another way to build up a network of contacts is to attend networking events and opening nights of performances. Some theatres offer networking events that are perfect for drama students and aspiring performers, so check local theatres for any upcoming events. Once registered, it’s a good idea to prepare a short pitch about you and your work. If possible, try and find out who else will be attending these networking events so you can tailor your pitch to them. That way, you’ll always know what to say, and feel more confident that you do.

As well as theatre performers and the production crew, also look to work with the theatre’s marketing team and administrators. You may be able to use these contacts to gain a day job in the theatre, which you can then use as a networking opportunity for a number of roles. 

Behind the scenes 

There are plenty of important behind-the-scenes roles as well. For example, have you ever thought about costume design, lighting or sound? Two websites that provide guidance on careers are Creative and Cultural Skills Sector Council and Get into Theatre

You can search for work experience opportunities by region and find information on the sorts of jobs available in performing arts. Different skills and qualifications may be needed for these job roles, so find about them and look for work experience opportunities that will help you gain the skills that will make you stand out from the crowd.

Patience and dedication

The performing arts industry is extremely competitive, and breaking into it will take patience, hard work and dedication. But, if it’s something you’re truly passionate about, then it’ll be worth it in the end. Securing your first couple of roles may be difficult, but don’t be discouraged. Persistence always pays off…

Ruby Clarkson is a writer and editor.

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