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Careers in theatre

Leaflet Q 06
July 2011

There are many jobs 'behind the scenes' in theatres. These include costume, make-up, lighting and music, set design, as well as stage management and production work. Some jobs require experience, as well as academic and professional qualifications.


Working in the theatre appeals to many people as an exciting and varied career. While there is a range of essential jobs that need doing, many staff – production managers, as well as technical staff – are employed on a freelance basis. Freelancers work for different companies on particular productions. Well-established directors and designers can earn good salaries when they are working, but most technical jobs in the theatre are not so well paid. Working hours are long and involve evening, weekend and night work. Whatever the job, to work 'behind the scenes' you need:
  • to be good at working in a team

  • to be reliable, and flexible about working hours and duties
  • stamina and determination.


The directorputs the whole show together, coordinating the work of actors, writers, musicians, singers, dancers as well as all the technical components such as lighting and sound effects. Increasingly, camera operators are employed to record shows. The work may involve:
  • reading and analysing scripts, perhaps working with a writer to adapt them if necessary
  • auditioning and selecting performers
  • hiring backstage staff, musicians etc
  • working with a creative team to create the right look for the production – in terms of scenery, staging, special effects and lighting
  • supervising rehearsals and instructing performers.

The job requires talent and creativity, a great deal of technical knowledge as well as plenty of energy and drive. Training opportunities with theatre companies are very limited. The best way into directing is to get practical experience in a working theatre. Experience in another area of backstage work, such as stage management can be useful. Some people move into directing following experience as a performer. Directing, or helping to direct, productions in the fringe theatre can also be a way of getting your name known. Some people may start by working as an assistant director. Assistant directors provide support wherever needed, and stand in for the director when necessary. They may assist with rehearsals, and make sure any notes the director makes are circulated to the cast and crew.

Many directors are graduates of drama/theatre studies and performing arts courses. Foundation degrees, HNDs and degree courses are available in performance arts, theatre practice, and theatre arts. Check the content of courses carefully. Find out how much practical experience is offered, what links each course has with theatres and the destinations of previous students. It's also important to look carefully into the technical facilities available at different institutions.

Postgraduate courses in theatre directing are also available; applicants will be expected to have practical, professional-level experience in addition to a first degree or other acceptable higher education qualification. RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) runs a masters degree programme in theatre directing, for example.

You can search for relevant courses on the Conference of Drama Schools website (listed at the end of the leaflet).

The Regional Theatre Young Director Schemeoffers up to three directors the chance to spend a year in a UK theatre gaining experience and training in different areas. Applicants must be professional directors who are over 21 and in the early stages of their careers. Applicants receive a tax-free bursary of £15,000. For more information, see:

Generally, directors move from theatre to theatre on a contract basis, working on anything ranging from a season of plays to a one-off production. They may move into TV work.


The producerraises the money for the production, and then coordinates the work of the various departments and individuals to make sure that it actually happens. In the commercial theatre, the producer usually:
  • chooses the novel/play/show and makes sure they have any rights that are required
  • finds financial backers for a production
  • arranges the hire of a theatre
  • recruits the creative team, including the director and set, costume and lighting designers
  • develops a budget for the production and monitors costs
  • deals with marketing and advertising the show.

Producers need good business and problem-solving skills. There is no formal training but a technical or stage management background is useful. Many producers start by gaining experience of production in a junior/assistant role.

Stage One runs an apprentice scheme for new producers. Apprentices are based in a theatre producer's office for six to 12 months and learn all about producing commercial shows. Apprentices receive a bursary of £18,600. Applicants need a least one year's experience in theatre administration. For more details see:

The production managerassists the director and producer and ensures that all the different teams of people involved in a production (wardrobe, props, sets and lighting staff) are working to schedule and on budget. They also arrange the rental of any necessary equipment and deal with health and safety. Production managers need business, planning and organisational skills – an understanding of technical issues is also helpful. Degree courses covering production management are available, including the BA in theatre practice: technical and production management at the Central School of Speech and Drama (at the University of London).

Stage management

The stage managercoordinates the work of the whole backstage team, keeping rehearsals and performances running smoothly. They ensure that the backstage area is organised and safe to work in, and oversee technical equipment and rigging. Stage management and technical theatre courses at various levels, including degrees, are available at a number of drama colleges and at some further and higher education institutions.

The deputy stage managerusually attends all rehearsals and 'calls' the actors when required on stage and, together with the stage manager, keeps records of all the technical aspects of the show. The assistant stage managershadows the deputy stage manager and helps with jobs such as getting props and playing sound effects. Deputy and assistant stage managers have usually undertaken stage management training, as described above.

The stagehands(also known as stage crew) take delivery of any new scenery and move all the items on the stage including furniture and scenery. Some may use mechanical machines to move large items, but many items are moved by hand so the work can be physically demanding. A similar role is that of flyman, who works in a fly gallery 30ft above the stage, using ropes and pulleys to control the movement of scenery and backdrops that are suspended above the stage. Some theatres have mechanised systems, which allow backdrops to be moved about using a computer-controlled mechanism, however many older theatres still use traditional pulley systems.

A large, established theatre will have a small group of resident stagehands and will take on temporary staff when needed.


The costume designerdesigns and oversees all costumes for a production, producing the working sketches and drawings for the wardrobe department. This calls for a very high standard of creative ability, and a good knowledge of historical costume.

The wardobe master/mistressis involved in making, altering and maintaining the costumes. It may mean hiring costumes and accessories, and keeping within a budget. Wardrobe assistantshelp with the routine sewing, ironing and cleaning of costumes. A wardrobe assistant must have good practical skills and be quick and flexible. Some wardrobe/costume department assistants work as dressers. The dresserlooks after costumes, helps actors to dress for the performance and with quick changes during the show.

For more information on these roles, including training routes, see leaflet Q 07 in this series.


Actors performing on stage in a theatre need make-up to define their features and make their expressions more visible to the audience. You need qualifications in both hair and make-up. For more information, see leaflet RC 01.

Set design and construction

The work of the set designerhas to reflect the ideas of the director or producer. The designer designs the set and produces plans, with working drawings and models, from which it will be constructed.

Carpentersmake new sets and modify and repair old ones. Practical ability, with a strong interest in the theatre, is essential. Scene-paintersor scenic artistswork with the set designer and the carpenter producing the set.

For more information on set design and construction work, see leaflet Q 07 in this series.


The properties (props) managermakes sure that all the props are there for the performance and are put back at the end of the show. During rehearsals, all the props are bought, borrowed or made and, during the run, are repaired or replaced as necessary. More information on props work is also in leaflet Q 07.

Lighting and electrics

Lighting designers and technicians are needed to create the correct lighting for a production. In larger theatres, the overall effect of the lighting will be the responsibility of a lighting designerwho will work with the director. Light is used to create certain moods or even to convey a particular time of day. The lighting designer will choose which parts of the stage to illuminate, and how. Lighting designers will often work with lighting technicianswho will carry out the practical tasks and perhaps control lighting from a console. Lighting designers need creative flair as well as technical knowledge and qualifications. More information about training to work in lighting (in TV and film) is in leaflet PA 13 in this series.

Lighting designers and technicians may also work with electricianswho are responsible for all the electrical systems in the theatre. See leaflet GE 02 for more information.


The musical directorcomposes or arranges the music for a performance and teaches actors and singers (both soloists and choruses) their music. They hire instrumentalists for an orchestra and, most importantly, conduct singers and musicians during the performance. This is a job for a very experienced musician. Most musical directors have trained at music college, or have a popular or light music background.

Répétiteurs/rehearsal pianistshelp singers learn their music (by repetition) and play for rehearsals. Similarly, a ballet company will have a rehearsal pianist who plays for the dancers' class work and rehearsals.


Actors, singers, dancers and circus performers all work on productions in theatres. From Hamletto Hairspray, many different performers are required to put a show together. Competition for work, however, is fierce – you need to be talented, dedicated and determined to succeed. For more information on training as a performer, see leaflets Q 01 and Q 02.

Administrative work

Staff are needed to deal with publicity, the box office, finances, planning, general management and so on. Leaflet K 06 gives more details.

Entry and training

There is a range of courses related to theatre at all levels, including BTEC Level 3 National qualifications,  foundation degrees, HNDs and degrees. Some courses are broad-based, others more specialised. Check the content of courses carefully – some degree courses in theatre design, for instance, may cover a variety of subjects including costume, scenery and lighting. Most drama schools and colleges offer backstage training. For example, RADA offers various short courses such as scenic art, lighting design and property making. Rose Bruford College in Kent offers various degree courses including scenic arts, lighting design and costume production. The National Council for Drama Training (NCDT) website has a guide to training. See the list of NCDT-accredited courses, and use further and higher education reference books and online course databases for more information. Employment prospects for students who've completed NCDT-accredited stage management and technical theatre courses are good.

To help more young people get started in the creative industries, Creative Apprenticeships allow apprentices to learn on the job and work towards qualifications at level 2 or 3. Routes are available in technical theatre and also in costume and wardrobe. For more information young people should contact their local Connexions/careers service.

If you are interested in working in a theatre, relevant experience is very helpful. Getting involved with a local amateur theatre group or a youth theatre group in your area is a great way of finding out what the work involves. To find a youth theatre near you, see:

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For Further Information

Creative & Cultural Skills– tel: 020 7015 1800. The Sector Skills Council that covers, among other areas, performing arts.

For lots of information on the different careers available in theatres, see:

National Council for Drama Training (NCDT)– tel: 020 7407 3686. A partnership of employers, employee representatives and training providers in the theatre, broadcast and media industry. To search for a course accredited by the Council, see:

The Conference of Drama Schools– publishes the CDS Guide to Professional Training in Drama & Technical Theatre 2010and CDS Guide to Careers Backstage,which can both be downloaded from:

To see short videos about the work of the various backstage departments of the National Theatre, click on 'Discover' and then 'Backstage' on:

To read about the different types of theatre roles available, click on 'People' on the following website, which is maintained by the Royal National Theatre:

The website of the Theatrical Management Associationcarries vacancies:

– tel: 020 7437 7631. Publishes Contactsan annual list of companies, services and individuals involved in TV, stage, film and radio. 2011 edition priced at £12.99 + £3.00 postage and packing.

Working in Creative and Performing Arts– published by Babcock Lifeskills, £9.50.

So, You Wanna' Be A Producer?!
includes information on the role of a producer, written by those working in the industry. Can be downloaded from:

The Stage– a newspaper published every Thursday, features news from the performing industry and job vacancies. Available from newsagents.
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