Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: Introducing TheatreMakers

This week DT+ launches a new series, TheatreMakers, five short films created by Russell Lucas exploring the different journeys through the profession of a diverse range of independent theatre-makers.

It reminds us that there are many varying ways to make theatre and numerous versions of what success in the industry can look like. Success definitely doesn’t only mean starring on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre or having your name in lights above the Royal Court in Sloane Square. We need to wean ourselves off those stereotypes.

Last year I did an interview for the Stage with Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham who teaches on an MA in Devised Theatre in Coventry. During the first term, he invited many successful practitioners to come and talk to his students. But he realised that contact with too much success could be inhibiting for the students who felt they could never live up to the levels of accomplishment with which he was presenting them.

Nobody in the TheatreMakers films has won an Olivier (at least not yet), but they have all found success on their own terms and in varying ways. Quieter careers can be no less rich and rewarding than those with much higher visibility, and such careers are often a choice. Many of our most exciting theatre-makers choose to practice on the outside.

That’s true of those who feature in these films. Lynn Ruth Miller didn’t even start her career as a stand-up until she had turned 70; the blind theatre practitioner Amelia Cavallo has forged a rewarding cross-disciplinary career that embraces aerial circus and burlesque as well as acting, while Satinder Chohan is a journalist and documentary researcher turned playwright. The Brazilian born but UK-based Gaël Le Cornec trained as a biologist before becoming an actor, director and playwright, and Myah Jeffers juggles dramaturgy, directing and photography.

Lucas’s own career is one that has embraced making many different kinds of performance. He is using the transferable skills he learned making theatre to produce films which put the bread on his table. They allow him to continue to run workshops, education projects and collaborate with others, including cult female duo, Sh!t Theatre. Such portfolio careers in theatre are likely to become the norm as the funding climate turns colder.

When I was at university I directed a lot of plays and made a great deal of theatre. Much of it in non-traditional theatre spaces. But it never occurred to me that somebody like me from a non-theatre family, who together with my sibling was the first of my family to go on to higher education, could make a professional career as a theatre director. I had no idea how to even begin. On the other hand, I was aware of some of the routes into journalism.

I am not complaining, because I have had the astonishing good luck to have landed (more by good fortune than judgement) a career writing about theatre and thinking out loud about the industry and how it works.

There remain significant barriers to access a career in theatre, and many of those are socio-economic, but it has been cheering to see increasing numbers of initiatives which are working hard to change that.

The brilliant annual TheatreCraft offers a yearly opportunity for secondary school students to find out about off-stage careers in theatre. The re-launched Get into Theatre, supported by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, connects those from all backgrounds with opportunities for careers in theatre.

Arts Emergency is doing invaluable and much needed work pairing school students with mentors and creating an alternative old boys’ network for those from diverse backgrounds who are no less bright or talented as their more privileged peers who so often “pull favours, work for free and find short cuts into cultural work”. At a time when arts education in schools is under threat, such initiatives are needed more than ever.

Lucas’s aim with the films is to demonstrate that breaking into theatre is an achievable dream rather than saying “it is too difficult, and it is closed off to you.” His mantra is that “you can do it” rather than “watch out” because it is impossibly hard.

As I discovered when I graduated at the age of 21 with no idea that a career as a theatre director might be feasible, we all need inspiration and role models. One of the great things about these interviews is that they don’t for a moment rule out the possibility that someone might indeed become the next Judi Dench or Caryl Churchill. They offer both motivation and encouragement and a good dose of realism by saying: this is what a successful theatre practitioner looks like and this is how they do it.

It’s important because even those who manage to access drama school and university theatre courses often find themselves feeling lost once they graduate into an industry and a shifting theatre culture, where those who can both make and self-produce have an advantage over those who simply sit around hoping to be chosen. What is notable about all five theatre-makers is that they have many strings to their bows and they work in a variety of ways, both collaborating with others but also initiating their own projects. As Lucas says:

There isn’t a golden pathway, there are many ways to have a career in theatre, and it is OK to forge your own way which works for you.

Lucas hopes the films may provide inspiration as well as some practical advice to those who would love to work in theatre but who feel that it is an impossible dream.

“Some of those who are in the films have had to fight hard for their place at the table,” says Lucas. But they have done it, and Lucas thinks that we need to do more to encourage others to do the same, not least because it helps widen the pool of talent. He believes passionately that when young people contemplate careers in theatre we must do everything possible to “enable, not disable them.” These films are his contribution.

Amelia Cavallo on Performance Art