New beginnings

Young people wishing to make a career in the arts sector face many obstacles. The competition for full-time paid opportunities is so competitive, that prospective employers expect even an entry level candidate to have significant industry experience.

In 2015 Create, an arts commissioning organisation (together with Goldsmiths, University of London, University of Sheffield and LSE) released the findings of a survey that they claimed provided “the most wide-ranging picture to date of working life across the core sectors of the cultural and creative industries in the UK.” The findings provide hard evidence for the common impression that the arts sector is a closed shop, dominated by people from middle class families whose parents can afford to give them a leg-up.

The most accessible and obvious source of this experience is an unpaid internship. However, for those young people not the product of an economically advantaged background, unpaid internships are impossible to commit to. Living expenses can be crippling, particularly in London, long unpaid internships cannot meet a young person’s living expenses. Those fortunate enough to have attended university, are likely to be burdened with significant debts, making it virtually impossible for them to take unpaid work.  Unless parental support is available, young people are forced to take unreliable temporary work, or work in a less competitive industry. The arts industry is not available to them. This situation leads to the workforce in the arts being incredibly non-diverse, and unreflective of the UK’s population. Our programme hopes to overcome that.

The survey of more than 2,500 people working in the arts found that 75% had at least one parent in a “middle class” job, while more than half had at least one parent with a university education. 88% of respondents also said that they had worked for free at some point in their careers. This research shows a bleak picture, that if young people don’t have parents that are able to support them in their pursuit of a creative career then it is extremely hard to break into the industry. This research is backed up by the experiences of the leadership team at OperaUpClose. Unpaid internships perpetuate this cycle of inequality and we have chosen to start breaking this cycle.

We offer paid training programmes to give emerging professionals the skills that they will need to produce and direct their own work, or to successfully find employment in a producing company or venue. Our recent training programmes have been supported by the likes of the Noël Coward Foundation and the Idlewild Trust, and we’re investigating inviting a corporate partner to the programme. We've caught up with two former trainee producers and two former trainee directors, to find out what they are up to now, and how their time with OperaUpClose helped steer their careers. 

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Holly Aston

Prior to working for OperaUpClose in 2011 I studied in Paris and worked for various theatre education companies in Hong Kong. Upon arriving in London I was lucky enough to be accepted to the Trainee Director’s programme with OperaUpClose, and once the traineeship ended I went on to work as the General Manager for a year. The experience I gained with the company was invaluable, broadening my skills in a professional theatre environment which acted as a springboard for my career. I genuinely don't believe I would be in my current role had it not been for the amazing learning opportunities that my time there provided.

Since my time with OperaUpClose I have worked for the RSC as Production Coordinator for Matilda The Musical and I am now Deputy General Manager at the Donmar Warehouse. I am currently working on the New York transfer of Les Liaisons Dangereuses; Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest staged in a new, temporary space at King’s Cross; as well as the forthcoming season at the Donmar. I am also a trustee of Magic Me, the UK’s leading provider of intergenerational arts projects.

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Rachel Lerman

I joined the OperaUpClose Trainee Producer scheme at the beginning of 2011. I had some festival and student productions under my belt and knew that the next step was some significant professional work experience, but competition was fierce. At the time what I wanted was simply to get my foot in the door of a company and learn from what was happening around me, even if it meant doing nothing but photocopying. What I actually did while at OperaUpClose was much more hands-on, challenging, and valuable.

I started the scheme working initially on OperaUpClose’s productions of Madame Butterfly, The Barber of Seville and Pagliacci which at the time were running in a repertory system at the King’s Head, where the company were resident. The small amount of experience I had when I joined was soon eclipsed by those first 3 months in the OperaUpClose office with a huge variety of work to be done across the entire production process. Besides everything I learnt about budgeting, fundraising, contracts, project management and all the other nuts and bolts of producing, crucially I developed a love of opera and a belief in what it can achieve. Seeing audiences responding to the work was, and continues to be, one of the best parts of the job and it instilled in me a conviction that opera should be immediate and accessible.

The initial three months led to another three as Associate Producer on OperaUpClose’s production of Don Giovanni at Soho Theatre. After the run at Soho ended, I was taken on full-time as a producer. A three-month internship became three years of employment, during which I worked on over twenty new opera and theatre productions.

In 2014 I joined The Royal Opera House, working on the company’s contemporary and mid-scale opera programme. In the two and a half years since I have worked in diverse venues across London and the UK, from the Roundhouse to Wilton’s Music Hall, and on work that spans the whole breadth of the genre from Monteverdi to some of the most brilliant composers of the 21st century. I recently embarked on my first experience of international touring, when we took our production of Gerald Barry’s anarchic The Importance of Being Earnest to New York City, and in May this year we’ll be taking the world premiere of Ravi Shankar’s only opera Sukanya to Leicester, Salford, Birmingham and London.

Schemes such as this one run by OperaUpClose are invaluable to emerging producers. They provide a much-needed opportunity to get genuine professional experience, and there is still a great deal from those months as a trainee that I still use today. In a job where no working day is the same as another, the most important thing for me since my first day at OperaUpClose is to keep revisiting what I think I know, and never stop asking questions because there’s always more to learn.

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Jordan Blackwood

My time at the OperaUpClose spanned seven brilliant months, kicking off as Assistant Stage Manager on Guy Harris’ new opera Two Caravans. I then spent some time in the office as Assistant Producer on Robin’s production of La Traviata, and my most memorable project, was as Assistant Director on Dido & Aeneas (directed by Valentina Ceschi).

Embarking on the residency with no prior experience working in opera, my time with OperaUpClose was enlightening and beneficial to me as a young theatre-maker. Working on a model of progression through various roles offered perspective and a deeper understanding of the bigger picture in making theatre.

One of the most beneficial skills I was able to observe and develop through my time with OperaUpClose was resourcefulness and the ability to create high quality work on limited budgets: Dominic opened up his business mind, while Robin demonstrated an ability to transform a less-than-glamorous theatre space in collaboration with brilliant designers.

Immediately after completing my residency, I graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama and directed my first Edinburgh Fringe show, which was received well by critics and public. I’ve worked across various disciplines in the industry, recently in a Company Manager role with companies such as DV8 Physical Theatre (International Tour) and BalletBoyz (Sadler’s Wells & UK tour).

Most recently I have moved back to my hometown of Glasgow to set up my own theatre company in collaboration with two other theatre makers. In Motion Theatre Company creates and supports new writing productions across Scotland and beyond. Since launching in June this year, we have developed two new plays, touring one of them, and I'm currently producing a four-day winter festival in the side room of a pub in Glasgow - my pub theatre experience at the King’s Head has been very useful! I've directed work for the event and have been working on various other new writing projects in Scotland this year.

I would highly recommend the residency with OperaUpClose - it's an opportunity to grow within a supportive environment, and be working with a cracking team of people. I'm incredibly excited by the new work they are creating, and am thankful for the opportunity I had at such an early stage in my career.

Hannah Groombridge

I was on the Trainee Producer Programme back from December 2013 to March 2014. During my time there I worked primarily on Dido and Aeneas and Once We Lived Here.

After finishing the scheme, I stayed on as a Front of House Manager whilst producing two shows at other fringe venues. I then became the Resident Producer at Magdalen College School and the Oxford Playhouse in September 2014, before becoming the Assistant Producer and then Producer at the Playhouse.  I was also the Associate Producer for Shared Experience’s most recent tour – Mermaid and have worked on a freelance basis for the BBC.

The trainee scheme was a crucial bridge between my student and professional experience. It gave me the space to learn how to apply all of my student experience in the world of theatre, and gave me confidence in my abilities as a producer. As I had never worked in a professional theatre office before, I learnt a huge amount about budgets, marketing, future planning and project management – and will always be grateful to the team for taking the time out to teach me those things! I have certainly used everything I learnt there in all of my jobs since. Mostly, though, it was a lot of fun and I loved every second of working with OperaUpClose, which was an amazing first experience to come away with.

We are now recruiting for a Trainee Producer to join our team this summer, and details about how to apply can be found here. For more information about becoming part of our team, go to Work With Us or get in touch with us at amy@operaupclose.com.