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Career Footsteps goes behind the scenes at the National Theatre

The annual Olivier Awards literally shine a spotlight on London’s theatre land and naturally the actors take centre stage on the red carpet. Amongst the categories which attract the most media attention – Best Actor, Best Actress and so on – awards are also given for Best Sound, Best Costume Design and Best Set Design.

Yes reader, you may well roll your eyes and sigh, ‘Well of course there are. Everyone knows that a theatre production involves a whole cast of characters behind the scenes.’ Indeed, but the breadth and scope of the creative and technical skills which feed the performance machine is far beyond what most theatre-goers might imagine.

All was revealed at a Career Footsteps event for 160 young people from schools across the south east, who visited the National Theatre (NT) on London’s South Bank on 26 March. The NT’s Learning Department took us behind the scenes of what is technically one of the largest factories in central London. Skilled craftspeople, technicians, practitioners and artists make up a large proportion of the NT’s 3,500 staff, alongside the actors, ushers and administrative staff.

The day got off to an impressive start. Without giving away any secrets, we can safely say the Year 7 and 8 students were blown away by a demonstration of the special effects used in the NT’s latest production, the epic thriller, The Great Wave.

The technical team then took to the stage to talk about their roles, how they got into their jobs and answer questions. The most striking thing was how each had taken a very different pathway into their job. The stage manager – who gives the crew their cues – had studied drama at university, but found she preferred being behind the curtain. One technician had done an apprenticeship in his discipline, another had learnt ‘on the job’. Most hadn’t planned to work in the theatre at all, but they all loved their work.

The students then set to work themselves in a series of workshops which saw them designing costumes for the Alice in Wonderland inspired musical by Damon Albarn, wonder.land; constructing maquettes of scenery structures for productions such as the Lion King and Matilda; creating moods, illustrating scenes and amplifying the theatrical narrative for different scenes with lighting and sound.

So far, so creative, but the students who had come along were all interested in subjects like maths and sciences so what was in it for them? Well the focus of the day was the role of STEM subjects in the performing arts and broadening perceptions of what a job in theatre might be. For example, making set trusses out of straws and tape, demonstrated that when it comes to engineering, triangles make the best structures.

Whether it’s using trigonometry in lighting design, carpentry in props making, mathematics in set building or chemistry to create special effects, it is these skills which contribute so much to the joy and discovery of a visit to the theatre.

Last year a report commissioned by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre, found a significant shortage of skilled technical workers in theatre and performing arts. As technology develops so the demand and breadth of skills needed is only set to increase.

Teacher Fiona Taylor had brought along students from Sydenham School in south London. She said not only was it an inspiring day, but they had learnt a lot about the range of technical skills that were required.

‘The girls’ whole concept of jobs in a theatre has been changed for life.’

 The lesson of the day seemed to be that old notions of a divide between science or arts or creative or technical do not exist in this environment as everyone has a critical role and a common goal – the production. The show really is the thing.