Pilot programme designed to address a 'huge shift' in the creative workforce towards film and tv launches.
LBJ Library photo by Jay Godwin
Mid-career backstage professionals will get two-year contracts with theatre venues across the UK as part of an effort to address an "exodus" of talent.
The £1.5m project, being launched by Sam Mendes' Theatre Artists Fund, will see 20 individuals offered full-time two-year positions in backstage roles at 15 partner organisations.
Each recipient will have a full-time post with a commensurate salary, alongside mentorship from industry professionals and additional professional development provided by Theatre People throughout their time in the scheme.
The programme is designed to address the “exodus” of mid-career theatre professionals that has seen large numbers leave the industry for better-paid work in film, TV, or other professions offering more stability.
Originally launched between July 2020, Theatre Artists Fund provided emergency funds for theatre freelancers across the UK in need of critical financial aid during the pandemic. In July 2021, Mendes announced the development of a pilot programme to create employment opportunities.
Placements are due to be completed by January 2026, with an evaluation by Tonic Theatre scheduled for spring 2026.
Describing freelancers as “the beating heart of the theatre industry”, Mendes said he hoped the scheme, which is exploring a range of models, would grow to help many more practitioners over the next few years.
A panel of theatre professionals, including Movement Director Shelley Maxwell, Lighting Designer Paule Constable and Managing Director at Cameron Mackintosh Ltd Alan Finch, have offered advice on the scheme's development.
"Everyone in the industry is acutely aware of the challenges for freelance artists, particularly in the wake of the pandemic," said Justin Audibert, Artistic Director of one of the partnership venues, Chichester Festival Theatre.
"The Theatre Artists Fund is providing invaluable, practical and financial assistance for both mid-career artists and theatres in helping to smooth out obstacles in the pathway to employment and enabling talent development. It’s win-win for both sides, and we’re immensely grateful for their support."
Barriers to access
At Kiln, the programme has allowed the theatre to employ EJ Saunders as a full-time Company Manager, a role that Nicki Brown, Head of Production, said is "proving invaluable ".
"We have been able to increase our capacity to deliver excellent productions whilst also ensuring we are always providing pastoral support for our freelance workforce," Brown said.
"We have also been able to increase our efforts to demystify technical, production and stage management careers - EJ has been absolutely instrumental in this work."
Saunders added: "My time as Company Manager at Kiln has been great in terms of career development for me. I have honed and grown my skills and confidence in a supported environment."
"I have also been involved in recruitment for roles in Kiln’s production department and, as a result, have given support and mentorship to less experienced freelancers. I am passionate about this part of the role because the backstage industry is lacking in people from underrepresented backgrounds, particularly those from the Global Majority.
"If people can see and learn from those like themselves, we may begin to break down some of the barriers to access."
The disciplines currently offered include production management, design, company management, lighting, automation and rigging, costume, props, ddraughting and scenic art.
Organisations signed up to offer the funded placements include Theatre Royal Plymouth, York Theatre Royal with Wise Children, Leeds Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Belfast, Nottingham Playhouse (with Rocket and Glitter Productions), Unicorn Theatre, Kiln Theatre, National Theatre with National Theatre Productions, National Theatre of Scotland, and Theatr Clwyd.