Work Experience

When is an Opportunity not an Opportunity?

When you’re walking across London in bone-chilling, bra-soaking, sideways rain to fix someone else’s problem. When you’re not learning anything (apart from how to catch pneumonia) and you’re not getting paid.

I’m not bitter. No really, I’m quite honestly not.

That said, it’s true that in the past I have taken on the role of the appreciative, ever nodding dogsbody on a few too many occasions for very little or no financial compensation. The general idea behind offering to do these things, at the time, was to learn something new, to make contacts, and to broaden my experience of theatre in its various forms.

But when does an ‘internship’ or ‘work experience opportunity’ stop being useful to the person making the cups of tea, picking up other people’s over-the-counter drugs, and scooping poop for the director’s dog, and start being a genuine opportunity for free manual labour on the part of the employer?

Sometimes when I discuss what I have been up to with certain ‘non-theatre’ friends and family, they are shocked and occasionally saddened. It’s often difficult to shake the feeling that there are some middle-level ‘theatre success story’ types who have reached where they wanted to be by stomping ever so confidently, bedecked in ridiculous vintage couture, on the heads of those grateful interns following closely behind.

Let me try to reassure those troubled friends, and myself. True, many theatre companies in the UK rely on a multitude of unpaid enthusiasts, but, sometimes, that’s just great. In these situations, everyone is working towards the same goal for the simple reason that they feel genuinely passionate about whatever bit of tut is being put on the stage. And that’s fine, so long as you have the savings/pocket money/hassle-free, fast approval, payday loan to allow you to put food on the table.

In addition, I have done some seriously useful work experience jobs. And when I say useful, I really do mean useful to me. I was given what I still perceive to be a genuine opportunity, based on very little experience on my part, by an opera company who treated me much like a paid employee. In this way, yes, I was taken advantage of, but I also learnt how to do the job, on the job.

Of course, we can never know just which ‘unpaid opportunity’ (as many of the familiar job sites advertise them) may lead to something really pivotal in the formation of a successful career, but with just a little bit of hindsight I think it becomes painfully clear exactly which of them didn’t.

I admit that this post doesn’t aim to plumb the depths of the unpaid internship ‘situation’, which has become a significant issue throughout the arts sector. It’s been debated at large across most of the usual reputable news channels. All I might offer is my own viewpoint, and I suppose that viewpoint is somewhat conflicted.

Without unpaid work experience placements I wouldn’t have evolved, Pokémon-style, into the Charmeleon that I am now. But, from where I am now, I can appreciate how frustrating it is when a company chooses a clueless unpaid intern over employing a qualified stage manager, for example.

What I would say with some conviction is that it is extremely important to learn when you really have to say “no, I will absolutely not pay my own travel costs to come and work for you shovelling shit on a Sunday for absolutely no monetary compensation and little more than a half-hearted nod by way of a thank you”.

We must try to make a reasonable assessment of what our time is worth. But, as long as people like past-me keep agreeing to the bonds of the unpaid ‘opportunity’, companies will keep relying on them to survive.


Talking Regional Theatre Laundry Facility Blues

I have recently finished touring for the first time ever.

I’m sure you’re wondering what delicious nuggets of knowledge I foraged during my very first tour as an assistant stage manager with costume responsibilities. What crucial lesson about regional theatre did I learn moving a couple of one-act operas from venue to venue around England and Wales? Let’s just say, where quality of venue is concerned, for a lowly costume ASM, the truth always comes out in the wash.

That’s right. I am using this blog to talk about washing machines. In fact, charting the pros and cons of each venue’s laundry facilities, in a ‘higher or lower?’-style (mostly humourless) game, became a serious and well-worn topic of conversation over tea and Hobnobs. And you would be surprised which theatres did not come out on top when judged by this all-important yardstick.

But this is not a gossip column. Rather more a cross between a psychological profile and a how-to guide. The key criteria you will need to conduct just such a thorough comparative investigation yourself are as follows:

  1. Number of washers/dryers. It’s all about multi-tasking. When a theatre boasts more than one of each, it is truly a rare bonus to be cherished whenever and wherever possible.
  2. Top loader or front loader? We all prefer a top loader, if we’re being painfully honest. Allowing for the classic ‘tip and run’ manoeuvre.
  3. Speed of wash. Jobs in theatre, like most legitimate ways of making money, revolve around deadlines. In addition, we like to set ourselves little (sometimes unnecessary) challenges. Is it possible to get all of that blood out on the fastest wash cycle in the time it takes to pack the props? Good golly, who can tell?!
  4. General ‘industrial-ness’ of facilities. If it looks like you would not find it in your aunt’s utility room, it must be good. An industrial sized dryer will bring a wry smile to any costume ASM’s world-weary face.
  5. Distance from stage. What obstacle course may face you in your attempt to transfer your bag/wardrobe pan/basket from truck to wash is certainly part of the venue assessment process. Several hundred flights of stairs? A lift that’s kept under lock and key with a criminal record for holding people hostage? Door frames that should allow enough clearance… but don’t. It’s all part of the game!
  6. Sundry items. For example, what luxurious and/or intriguing half-used laundry products or toiletries are lying around in the running wardrobe? “Oooh! Ariel Bio with actilift! … I didn’t even know they made Lynx shower gell?! … I’ve never smelt that brand of spray starch before…”

The darker days were those when the washing machine was not up to scratch, tragically unable to complete its cycle in time to get those lights and darks onto the truck before closing up. Or perhaps when an irritatingly nonchalant ‘out of order’ post-it clung stupidly to a singular tumble dryer.

But when the laundry facilities impressed, well that really shed a positive light on the theatre as a whole. So what if there weren’t any seats in the pregnant singer’s dressing room? So what if I had to operate surtitles sitting in a draft on a cold, angular flight case. Who cares?! They had TWO washing machines, TWO tumble dryers, an iron, and an ironing board!!!

In case you hadn’t already surmised as much, I suppose what I am really getting at by focussing in on this sad inner monologue is just how completely insane touring can make you. How it is possible for the most banal issues to become lodged at the forefront of one’s mind. And this strange fascination for the running wardrobe is just one, infinitesimal example. Who knows what peculiar, cable-based, obsessional thoughts are tearing apart your over-worked TSM? And we all know the mental breakdowns held at bay simply by finding your DSM an appropriate show-calling pedestal.

All sarcasm aside, of course this message about laundry facilities was one of a very long list (some of which I may chronicle at a later stage) of absorbed insights and just a small dribble in my growing pool of theatre experience. Perhaps more accurately, this is a reflection on the advantages, the quirks, and the challenges that differ every time a touring company enters its new place of work. And, of course, we embrace them, because that’s what makes our job ‘interesting’!