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SOLT/UK Theatre ‘inspiring the future’ campaign.

‘We need volunteers with different backgrounds, career routes, and jobs.’

This exciting education and employers platform is supported by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre (formerly the TMA), who are eager to address the current crisis in the recruitment and talent pipeline behind the scenes still affecting the industry.

The Backstage Centre director, Brian Warrens, explores this brilliant campaign and explains how his own journey opened his eyes at a formative time.

The Backstage Centre from the Southside – a maker space for production.

Every day I look at our building, I am reminded that this was the creation of some brilliant, inspiring, like-minded creative people from the theatre, music, moving image, live events, and commercial sectors. It provides a home to the very top of our profession and is hidden within this award-winning design that also provides a contemporary home for training.

Brian has been there pretty much from the start, and although its ownership and management have seen shape-shifts and acquisitions, the latest in 2020, it now proudly boasts a list of clients making content for the planet to enjoy. And in that mix sits theatre, dance, Opera, and Ballet. All very close to Brian’s heart.

I am supporting the SOLT/UK Theatre campaign as it didn’t exist when I started in theatre in the early 1980s, although life as an actor was exciting, certainly challenging, and about to meet head-on a major shift in Arts funding. These were the early days of the Thatcher government, and I was tucked away with actors Kate Layden, Rachael Hodgson, Andrew Dunn, and Jez Ready working on a Theatre-in-Education project, based in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, on the cheerful subject of the threat of nuclear war following the government’s release of a leaflet, ‘Protect and Survive’.”

Brian Warrens FRSA. Director of The Backstage Centre.

Kate Layden was born in Yorkshire. She is known for The Full Monty, Emmerdale Farm, and many more TV and film appearances. But back then, Kate was an inspiration and role model for Brian, not only as an actress but also as a visionary, within an art world riddled with funding challenges.

Kate Layden as Argante in The Lady of the Lake. Photograph: Keith Pattison

“I was straight out of Bretton Hall College, near Wakefield, when Andrew Dunn asked me to join Kate, Rachael, and Jez in their theatre company, Wide Angle Theatre Company. This was, for me, my version of ‘inspiring the future’, working with brilliant minds, talent and inspiration.

Photo: Andrew Dunn. As Tony in ‘Dinner Ladies’ (c) BBC tv.

Andrew Dunn and Brian moved to the Northeast and continued working with the theatre-in-education sector at Dragon Theatre Company.

Keen to pursue drama, Andrew had studied teacher training at Bretton Hall College but realised he was more interested in acting than teaching it. A meeting with Bretton Hall alumni and playwright John Godber (‘Bouncers’, Up ‘n Under, ‘On the Piste’) led to starring roles with the Hull Truck Theatre Company, and it went from there. Andrew has enjoyed a very successful career, you will know him from Victoria Wood’s brilliant ‘Dinner Ladies’. But this has never taken away from any of us how important the world of education is to the creative industries.

“I caught up with Andy, not long before the pandemic took hold. He was touring the UK in ‘The Full Monty’, and we grabbed a quick cuppa and a catch-up. Looking back and reflecting on the early days, and the theatre work touring schools and small art centres across the North in particular, we were so grateful those experiences had given us the impetus to continue and follow careers in the entertainment industry.”

This was also a time when Brian first got involved with volunteering. He worked with a youth project in Wallsend, run by the amazing David ‘Spike’ Milligan. The group was nicknamed the ‘Latchkey Kids’. It was the early 1980s, and unemployment in Wallsend had rocketed following the closure of the shipyard. A drama group evolved and every Wednesday, a number of local young people started their journey into creativity…….and way before Byker Grove had been conceived! The project grew and before we knew it the communities of young people across the region came together to perform a version of the traditional Durham story, ‘The Lambton Worm’ for His Royal Highness, Prince Phillip. A classic tale, indeed local folklore, ‘that’s aall Aa knaa aboot the story!

To this day, and because of working with a wider arts community, we are reminded by Inspiring the Future that ‘every young person in our country, wherever they live, whatever their parents’ or carers’ circumstances, should have the opportunity to meet a diverse range of volunteers and hear first-hand about jobs and the world of work.’

One of the questions I hear so often today is about how people can learn and become involved and where it all happens. From an industry perspective, we are in great need of skilled technicians, stage managers and more behind the scenes. And the SOLT/UK Theatre support for the ‘inspiring the future’ campaign encourages people like me to continue our voluntary work with careers advice in our schools and colleges and to let people know what it is they can train in, and where that is located. “

Brian represents the Backstage Centre as a Cornerstone Employer in Essex and regularly supports careers events across Essex.

SOLT/UK Theatre provide information on what people need to do to be involved. We are asking our colleagues across the industry to volunteer as Inspiring the Future of Theatre Ambassadors. Once signed up, Ambassadors will be invited to careers events in local schools. This is an open invitation to everyone who works in our industry, regardless of what stage in your career you are, or the role you do.

Close to the Backstage Centre is a community of artists and organisations that occupy spaces and buildings in the High House Production Park, not least of which is the Royal Opera House. And also tucked away, both at the Backstage Centre and in a shared building with the ROH is the University Centre South Essex Higher Education offer for careers in Performance, Costume Construction and Hair & Make-Up for Production.

The University Centre South Essex is the HE wing of the South Essex Colleges group, which has campus locations in the City of Southend, Basildon, and Thurrock. Working with a range of organisations is vital to reaching out and connecting with young people. Staff and students regularly work with Essex-based schools, and arts organisations, which include among others the Royal Opera House Thurrock, and METAL Culture based at Chalkwell Hall. More recent projects providing engagement opportunities include START Thurrock People and Places, and Creative BasildON People and Places, and the college look forward to seeing these projects grow and becoming more involved.

We are now looking ahead to the 2023/24 academic year, and as always, the Backstage Centre is happy to visit schools and community organisations to showcase the work we do, and how a career in our industries can be achieved. We want to hear from teachers and leaders and open up a dialogue to see how we can work with you…and Inspire the Future together!

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