Adapt and Survive – me and the #RTYDS

with Farnham Youth Theatre, about 1988. (I'm centre back). The production was Stephen Lowe's Touched.

with Farnham Youth Theatre, about 1988. (I’m centre back). The production was Stephen Lowe’s Touched. They’re in 1940s costume. I’m in 1980s.

If you have read my bio, you’ll have noticed that I have had what might kindly be called a portfolio career. This is a feature of the lives of many writers – not many of us manage to start earning money with our very first words. It also happens to many people who become parents, too – particularly the women parents – as we seek ways to allow our work and family lives to function more effectively.

This week I went along to an event at the Young Vic Theatre celebrating fifty years of an organisation that provided me with one of the most formative experiences of my working life: The Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme (RTYDS). When I was 25, I was one of three people picked out of hundreds of applicants to spend two years as an assistant director in a regional theatre. I got The Redgrave Theatre, Farnham, which is sadly dark now (I have to point out that this had nothing to do with me…).

I was proud to be part of the first year when all three recipients were women, and I had a great time on the scheme. I was lucky to direct three main house productions, as well as the more usual assistant director jobs of helping out in rehearsal, dealing with the slush pile of plays (as tall as I was), running the youth theatre and Theatre in Education companies, and spending time in all the departments, learning how they worked. I also wrote three plays while I was there.

The most challenging part for me was standing in for the Front of House Manager. I really enjoyed the work during the evening – the meeting and greeting of theatregoers, managing the bar staff and ushers – but hell arrived at the end of the night, when I had to tour the entire building, making sure that it was empty, necessary locks fastened, and lights turned off. For someone with the kind of imagination that would later make me a crime writer, this was torture. I’d do the rounds heart beating, palms sweating, running along darkened corridors hands over my ears, jumping at clanking pipes. It was after one of these nights that I ended up in the Aldershot Military Hospital having my appendix whipped out. I’m sure it was not unrelated.

About thirty of the two hundred or so people who have benefitted from the award were at the evening at the Young Vic this week – theatre directors are busy and far flung types. I worried for a while about going, because I’m not still working in theatre. But I went along anyway, because I am very grateful for the opportunity and grounding my time at Farnham gave me. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one there whose life had taken a different direction – as well as directors, there were people working in TV, film, and education. We all agreed however that our time on the RTYDS taught us as much about management, team work, writing, marketing and storytelling as it did about the art and craft of theatre. So, even if we didn’t move forward in directing live performance, we went out into other areas of the arts with a whole battery of skills we could not have acquired anywhere else.

My story goes that, at the end of my two years at Farnham, I was offered an associate director post, which would have been the next stepping stone on the way to running a building. After much consideration, I decided to turn it down, because I was pregnant with my daughter (who is now, ironically, an assistant theatre director on a BBC bursary in Bristol), and I couldn’t see how I could square a job that requires such total immersion with the way I wanted to be a mother. Other women have done it, and more and more are managing to run buildings and have families – I am in awe of the marvellous Orla O’Loughlin, for example, who has been firmly at the helm of The Traverse in Edinburgh while having her babies. But it just wasn’t for me; back then there were very few precedents, and I didn’t feel like being a trailblazer. I hope my daughter will feel able to make different choices, should she want to. I went on to direct freelance and write plays until my second child was born, when I decided to retrain in graphic design. But that is another story…

Of course, there are many alumni of the scheme who are still working in theatre today. They include Rupert Goold at the Almeida, Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, and Adrian Noble and Michael Boyd, both ex- artistic directors of  the RSC. The full list is here.

The scheme has now expanded from its original one-to-two year format, to open up possibilities to potential directors from backgrounds currently under represented in the theatre. These include the Introduction to Directing, for people (over 18 years of age) who are interested in finding out whether or not a career as a director is for them, a three month placement in a theatre company – for those with a little more experience – as well as the more traditional residency, which is now 18 months.

If anyone you know is interested in a career as a theatre director, do send them to the RTYDS site, which, alongside its own programmes, also lists a lot of other opportunities. You never know, there may be free theatre tickets of gratitude for you in the future…

EDIT: I should have mentioned that I was Julia Limer when I did the RTYDS, just in case anyone thinks this is yet more fiction from me.

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