Image of four speakers for National Theatre masterclass

Navigating a theatre career both on and back stage…

Posted on July 8, 2022

This Wednesday Creative Access partnered up with the one and only National Theatre to deliver a masterclass discussing how to navigate a career in theatre and the future of theatre both on and off stage. We were joined by Juliet Gilkes Romero, writer in residence at the National Theatre, Sara Bakhaty, Deputy Director of Marketing and Sales at the National Theatre and Ola Animashawun, who is a National Theatre associate, as well as connections dramaturg and co-founder and creative director of playwriting consultancy, Euphoric Ink. We were spoilt by their wealth of knowledge! The discussion, chaired by Lisa Jonas, assistant director of Business Planning and governance, provided an insight into a career within theatre and how the industry is growing from strength to strength after a long, hard two years of stagnation. 

“Have faith in yourself!”

Ola Animashawun 

We began by exploring the various routes our panel took into the sector, and with all members, this journey was not a linear one. Juliet came from a journalism background and maintained her love of writing by also joining writers’ groups, completing a masters and surrounding herself with like-minded people who were just as passionate about writing as she was. “There’s no straight line to this,” she says as she encouraged our audience to build resilience, “and there’s nowhere to hide on stage.” The importance of remaining true to yourself is a theme that continued through this masterclass, as we learnt just how your integrity can act as a magnet, or a beacon, shining to those who are willing to take a chance on your work. As a dramaturg, Ola’s role is vital in the process of bringing a script from paper to stage play. They are experts in the study of plays, musicals or operas and it is their job to provide the cast and crew with vital knowledge, research and interpretation for their works. He also sits on a board that discusses the wider programming at the theatre and is vocal about creating a strategy to address diversity within the sector. Having started out as an actor, Ola eventually found the right role for him, becoming an advisor, instead of being on stage. Sara also struggled to find the right fit, moving from a career in retail, initially into advertising agencies and latterly into theatre marketing. “It became apparent I had no passion for the things I was selling”, she told our audience, “then this role came up and it felt like a real natural transition.”  It is truly never too late to begin that change, and with the rise of the squiggly career, the working journey is no longer a straight line; instead, it’s quite common to change role, company and even career to find something that fits just right.  

“Find things that will cradle your creativity”

Juliet Gilkes Romero 

Juliet shared an inspiring story about a play she wrote “At the Gates of Gaza”, which took seven years to go into production. She went on to talk about the play’s first bad review. “I wanted to shave my head and hide under the covers” she continued but stressed the importance of remembering the people who did support her and the impact her play had. She then shared a poignant quote from author Hilary Mantel; “The most helpful quality a writer can cultivate is self-confidence – arrogance if you can manage it,” finishing on the note that you may have to believe in yourself way before the world does. Ola agreed, encouraging us to “keep the faith”, especially with freelancing and the issues that can sometimes arise. The instability means it’s necessary to have a fallback option, but this shouldn’t deter you from theatre if it’s truly your passion. Juliet adds “get serious about your finances” as there may be times when work is a little quieter, and you will still have bills to pay. Both Ola and Juliet wouldn’t change their careers though, as their love of culture, theatre and playwriting allows a richness, and pride that almost jumps off them as they speak. 

“Following your passion makes it easy to come to work every day” 

Sara Bakhaty

When asked about marketing in theatre, Sara had lots of gems to share. “The fundamentals are the same” she begins, “as you still identify your market and create a campaign, but it begins to get a little more complex.” The hardest thing, she admits, is capturing the essence of a 90-minute play into a short Instagram advert or a poster you might see on the tube. A marketing campaign not only has to incite interest but pique it enough so that seats are filled at the play. When the average attention span is 8.5 seconds (a goldfish’s is 9!) this can take a little work. Sara also says it’s important to think about the existing experiences, and how they can be used and translated for new work. Marketing in theatre is a fantastic opportunity for those who don’t want to be on stage or write, but are still passionate about the sector, and creative enough to find new and innovative ways to share and spread their excitement. Its career trajectory is wide, with many entry positions. Although it’s competitive, Sara tells us not to give up! If you can’t find a direct marketing role within the theatre, find a marketing role in another adjacent sector. “Sometimes it’s the sidesteps which are the most interesting”. She finishes by telling us “It’s never too late” as she made her career change at 30 and is now super excited to come to work as she is surrounded by culture, music and art that she finds interesting.  

“Remember your own power, be responsible for the world you live in” 

Juliet Gilkes Romero

We finished our evening by touching on the future of theatre, the still very present issues surrounding diversity and the moves that need to be made to create an industry that reflects our society. Sara openly admitted that theatre needs to do better, especially surrounding progression. She’s passionate about “continuing to nurture the talent” as there are a few entry-level roles, but this means nothing if retention is poor. Ola agrees, advising us to look at the organisations and hold them accountable. If you walk into a room where no one looks like you, be prepared to ask why, and question any answers you aren’t content with. If we aren’t prepared to ask uncomfortable questions, diversity may take a lot longer than necessary. “It’s never over till it’s over” Juliet adds, “we are always on the verge of having improvements taken away.” Theatre has made strides, but the walk is long, and we must be prepared to fight to make space in places where we too can belong.  

We’d like to give a special thanks to Lisa Jonas and the National Theatre for hosting our first in-person masterclass in two years since the pandemic. We’d also like to extend a special thank you to our amazing panel and all of you who attended. We hope you enjoyed it, and we’ll soon be back with some more in-person masterclasses – hope to see you there!