Theatre bemoans shortage of backstage workers

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They dream of seeing their name in lights. They do not, it appears, fancy the graft and grime of life backstage. Young theatre recruits are so dazzled by the prospect of fame and fortune that many staff fear that essential behind-the-scenes skills are in danger of being lost.

In the face of a national shortage of skilled technical staff, one leading regional theatre has launched a more traditional apprenticeship scheme to train the wig makers and lighting designers of the future.

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre is giving six people, aged 16 to 21, training for 18 months in many departments including sound, lighting, make-up, wardrobe and stage management.

Stuart Rogers, the theatre's executive director who has a permanent staff of about 90, said it had never been easy to recruit and it was getting more difficult. "There is a real shortage within the UK theatre industry of skilled technical staff, partly because the national television companies have abandoned all of their traditional apprenticeship schemes," he said.

"We have struggled over the past few years to fill a number of skilled posts backstage, so we had to come up with a solution before the problem grew. It's not a crisis but it's fairly serious."

He said backstage was a "hidden industry" which many were not even aware of. The Mousetrap Foundation, which acts as a bridge between theatre and education, recently set up its TechTaster scheme to introduce young people to the rudiments of theatre practice precisely because so few understood how theatre worked and, therefore, what jobs there might be.

Mr Rogers hopes that the Rep's scheme will not only address the problem of a skills shortage but also encourage young people to see theatre as a viable career option.

Matthew Harper, 19, who is training in lighting, was one of those thrilled to get the chance. "I always wanted to do theatre work once I left school but trying to find the right opportunity was very hard," he said.

He had worked as a labourer but was unemployed when the apprenticeship was advertised. He has helped with productions of Romeo and Juliet and the current show, The Wizard of Oz. "To be hands on is the best way to learn. It's really good," he said. Although training is on the minimum wage and few in theatre earn a fortune, Mr Harper said he does want to stay in theatre after training. "Anything after this will be a goal. It will be something to be proud of. Four months ago, I was sitting on my bum at home - now I'm sitting in a very respectable theatre doing a very good job."

Mr Rogers admitted pay was a problem. "Carpenters and welders can earn an awful lot of money working for construction companies and exhibition companies," he said. A theatre assistant might earn £14,000 rising to £30,000 for a department head. But the rewards can be great for the successful.

Rick Fisher, one of Britain's most acclaimed lighting designers, said after impoverished years on the fringe, he now earns a good living thanks to royalties from the hit musical Billy Elliot and the long-running play An Inspector Calls. "Everyone sees what Broadway stars earn and think there are riches in theatre, but the reality is very long hours, very hard work and very low pay. It puts people off."

And it had become tougher, he added. For instance, many of those involved with Jerry Springer: The Opera, for which he did the lighting, did not even receive their contracted royalties.

And theatres are increasingly sharing productions, which reduces opportunities for young creatives. The Birmingham Rep and the West Yorkshire Playhouse have created new shows this Christmas but are swapping productions next year.

"I'm really encouraged that some of the theatres are beginning to realise there's a problem," Mr Fisher said. "For me it's very rewarding. I wouldn't get a proper job to save my life."

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