Creative projects often rely heavily on connections made over the years but for those starting out making these connections can seem intimidating and the opportunities to do so sometimes elusive.
The Creative Careers: October Networking session had a great panel of theatre and film practitioners who each spoke about the way they work, how they collaborate with others and what they are working on now.
Gemma Weekes is a poet, musician, scriptwriter and author of the novel Love Me. She was recently published in the journal The Mechanics’ Institute Review.
Gemma works a lot in theatre because of the power the artform has to make people feel.
“How you get there is secondary to that. You have a transformational capacity in the theatre to bring people in and create a world.”
There is no linear route to being an interdisciplinary performer, and Gemma noted that it’s easy to feel untethered. She suggested surrounding yourself with other artists in a similar position, because “other people in the same boat as you make you feel sane.”
Putting yourself out there as a performer and pitching work or asking for gigs can be difficult. She said she still gets a “choking feeling that people are not going to take you seriously.” However, her advice was, “don’t be afraid to be ambitious and ask for what you want.”
When discussing funding applications, she suggested it is easy to write self-deprecating or dull applications because of the desire to look official. “But people want to know you’re passionate. They want to know you care.”
Bernie Whittle is an Assistant Producer for Theatre and Dance at the Barbican. Bernie joined the Liverpool Everyman Young Producers scheme while at University, where she helped put together a bi-monthly showcase. After graduating she applied for the Young Theatre Makers Ignition Fund, which allowed her to work on multiple performances including a Youth Show in-house.
This was followed by several “soul destroying” months with more than thirty interviews and almost as many rejections. She then went for an interview at the National Theatre Studio, the new development department, where she got a job as a New Work Assistant. “it’s the worst advice to receive at the time,” Bernie said, “but it will work out in the end.”
After two and a half years at the NT Studio, she moved to the Barbican, which has a very different focus to the National Theatre. It has a much heavier international outlook and produces shows of a wide variety of scales which Bernie said presents a “great opportunity to work with lots of different artists.”
For artists making new work, Bernie suggested exploring STAMP, a network of London-based theatre organisations dedicated to supporting artists, and Open Lab, which gives artists the chance to experiment in a working theatre environment. The Barbican also currently has applications open for the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award which helps the development of emerging practitioners engaged in innovative performance.
For more details about Open Lab, email email@example.com. For invites to shows, she suggested emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ola Ince is a freelance theatre director.
She accidentally discovered she loved directing after taking charge in a P.E lesson at school. She enjoyed facilitating so much that she tried directing in her drama class and found she enjoyed it far more than acting.
She joined the Polka Theatre Youth Group where the experience as an actor was important to her.
“As a director, I needed to understand what I was asking of my actors.”
She decided to transfer to Brit School, where she said “you get a real sense of what it is to be a theatre practitioner.”
As the youngest on her course at Rose Bruford, it taught her about grafting. “It gave me loads of muscles that I still use, and it got me a really good pathway into the industry.” Her employers “care who I’ve worked with more than what school I went to.”
The decision to study theatre or not is a difficult one. “There’s educational training and then there’s practising,” she said, “that’s why I did both because they support each other.”
As a result of her third year practical placement at the Young Vic, she got a job assisting Carrie Cracknell on a parallel production of Electra. Since then, she has worked as a Director, Associate Director and Assistant Director, learning that they are all huddled under the same umbrella but hold very different responsibilities.
She is currently winner of the Genesis Future Director Award and Artistic Associate at Lyric Hammersmith & Theatre Royal Stratford East. She acknowledged that achieving your goal takes patience and graft. “You don’t always get what you want there and then. It takes years.”
Keep updated with what Ola is up to through her website.
Toby Clark is a playwright, director, workshop facilitator and an acting coach. “I was going to be a doctor so something went really badly wrong”, he joked.
After studying acting where he said, “I fear I learnt nothing,” Toby started his own theatre company, where he fears he earned nothing. To cover the cost of running the company he also worked as a freelancer, ran the Ovalhouse youth department for three years and worked at the National Youth Theatre’s Playing Up course for two.
Having been through drama school himself, and teaching students in London, he has seen first hand how exclusive the industry is. In an attempt to alter this narrative, he has recently started an initiative called Alt, an actor training programme which is entirely free. “Alt is trying to remedy a serious issue in drama schools,” he said, “iIt’s elitist and not welcoming. There are too many barriers, especially to young actors from low arts engagement and low income backgrounds.” Alt offers a free showreel, a free headshot and a free showcase to an audience of agents and casting directors on the mainstage of Southwark Playhouse. In the first year of Alt the programme coached 15 students, 6 of whom got into prestigious drama schools. A second round of the programme started in October, with the showcase on 6 December .
And from film…
“I wasn’t that young person who was handed a camera when he was 4,” said filmmaker Sebastian Thiel. “I thought I was going to be a basketball player.”
Sebastian was at the airport ready to fly to a basketball camp when they were told that funding had been pulled. “In the end the people that could afford it went. I wasn’t able to go.”
He dropped out of college, took a gap year and instead started focusing on graphic design. “I didn’t know what to do after basketball, so just focused my efforts on things I liked.”
Channeling his energy into this new creative task, Sebastian created a series of t-shirts which were designed to cause a conversation, and he got emerging artists to wear them publically. But it wasn’t until he made an advert for the tshirts that he started to look at the power of film. “It gave me purpose, it was fulfilling.”
He did an apprenticeship which taught him how to edit, and then started to make sketches online, posting them to YouTube. “I started to collaborate with peers creating stuff.” As part of the YouTube generation, he learnt how to do each part of the filmmaking, and when it came to his first short film he had to be told what to do in the role of the director. Part of the reason he loves the role is that it allows you to be involved with “everything I like” such as the music, the actors, and even how posters look. Given his graphic design background, he notes, “I’m a bit fussy with that.”
His dreams were forced to change track early on, but with time he said he has learnt that a lot of career steps simply grow from people doing what they like.
“I speak on panels with people and you realise that a lot of people don’t know what they want to do or how they’re going to do it.”
Sebastian taught himself how to write for film because, “I don’t like waiting for anything so waiting for other people [to write it] was taking too long.” He created a web series which was then commissioned by BBC3 with Big Talk Productions who have done shows such as Hot Fuzz and Him and Her.
“Just go out there,” he advised, “create. YouTube gives you that opportunity. It’s allowed me to go through the back door.” He noted the lack of opportunities for young people, especially for young people of colour to get onto mainstream platforms. “So go out there and focus on doing things you love.”
Kate O’Hara is a Development and Production Executive. She works for Creative England and Entertainment One. Her main role is working with new and emerging film writers, directors and producers.
After doing a drama degree at the University of Bristol she “floundered a bit”. It’s a common feeling and she advised, “my god don’t worry if you feel like that.” After doing some temp work and moving back home, she got admin work with Walk Films. Through that she became an Office Manager, and then started reading scripts and giving notes.
Her advice to anyone keen on going into a creative career? “Read loads of scripts, watch loads of shorts, films and TV and theatre.” The more stories you consume, the better.
It wasn’t all easy sailing from there. She was made redundant and worked for a palette company. “These are life affirming things, you’ve got to work at these places to give you a kick up the arse.” From there she got a job in Bristol with iFeatures and has been there for five years, working her way up from an Assistant to her position today. “One thing leads to another.”
Networking has been a vital part of her career progression. “You have to be good, but a lot of it is being open to different people and having the time to talk to people,” she said.
iFeatures is for first time feature makers creating low budget films. Out of 400 applications, Kate develops 12 stories through to full scripts, with residencies and workshops. “Then it’s a bit like X factor where you re-pitch your project to funders, who choose 3 films to get made.”
“It’s about career progression, ” Kate noted, “getting into film festivals and getting agents. They’re not expecting to make millions of pounds. Recent films to have come out of the project include Lady Macbeth, The Levelling and Apostasy. One of the aims of the company is to encourage filmmakers to leave the capital, and all of these films have a strong sense of place. iFeatures is open for applications in January 2018.
Kate also works for Shortflix, a similar venture for short films. “We really wanted to find more diverse voices and stories,” she said. “We’re not seeing them coming through so we need to find them younger.” At Shortflix she works with 18-25 year olds not in full time education or employment. Applicants don’t need to have any film experience. Similarly to iFeatures, Kate oversees the development of a selection of the applications, then 5 of the shorts get made on £10,000 each. “Bold stories, that’s what we want.”
Isabel Moir always wanted to be a film programmer but never knew how to get into it. She tried to find work at film festivals and cinema exhibitions and now works as an assistant at the cinema department at the Barbican.
She noted that from each experience she gained valuable skills. At the Barbican she said she has the opportunity to get to make so many contacts, watch films and be around curators who have been in the industry for far longer. “It’s knackering but great.”
“If you’re going to work in a job that’s the field you want but not specifically the job you want, think how you can learn from it.”
She knew that she wanted to programme films, so she started taking films to a pub. It wasn’t always to large audiences, “It was like having a birthday and no one comes!”, but she persevered. She has since created the Overnight Film Festival, a weekend in a big hotel in Eastbourne where guests watch films, have breakfast and parties. For those getting started in film programming, she recommended Scalarama, a website full of resources for people wanting to put on their own screenings.
“The idea of networking is still really scary to me,” she said, “we wanted to create a space where you had a chance to meet fellow film fans. A lot of people stayed in the hotel all weekend, so people can sit together and hang out. At certain networking parties you want to talk to certain people and it’s over too fast.”
“We have guest curators, show films that have inspired them. Or films that haven’t been screened and haven’t. We wanted to give female programmers a platform.” The festival is going into its second year in February.
“If you want to get into film, go to film festivals. There are so film festivals around the UK that need help and they’re really passionate about what they do.”
She advised volunteering in roles you don’t know a lot about. “I worked in tech and met a lot of people. Try to get the most out of different roles rather than just thinking this isn’t my path. Make the most of it.”
Another volunteering option is watching submission, for festivals such as London Film Festival, Underwire, Open City Ducks Festival. “They rely on people watching their submissions. It’s a great way to learn about your tastes and the more you watch the more you know about what makes a good film. Good to see what other people are doing and what budgets they’re working with.”
On the topic of unpaid work, she suggested being selective, finding opportunities that fit around your paid work, and only doing things you’ll get something out of.
Isabel also said she was happy for anyone to get touch with her if they have any further questions through email@example.com
Sebastian Barker runs Automatik VFX, a visual effects company for feature films and TV.
“I was a bit of a nerd growing up, into computer animation, but I didn’t have much of an academic career.” Moving to London at 18, he got a job as a runner in a stop frame animation company. “I wasn’t very good.” His boss suggested that he did a short course in animation which Sebastian claims was a “very pleasant way of firing me.”
Eventually he got a job working as a Junior Visual Effects Artist on 28 Weeks Later, which got him a foothold in the industry. After five years in visual effects he became impatient at being at a computer all day, so started working on his own movies and ended up working with Vertigo Films. By then he was designing visual effects. “Then I did some films I won’t mention because they’re terrible.”
Then followed several more successful films such as Tom Green’s Monsters: Dark Continent and Fernando Coimbra’s Sand Castle. Sebastian and his business partner expanded their company, moving to Berlin, setting up another studio in Shoreditch and a third smaller outlet in Hamberg.
Visual effects have grown massively, and now account for significant proportions of film budgets. Like Isabel, Sebastian suggested “there are lots of ways to take yourself to areas in film that might not be the thing you necessarily think is what you want.” The skills you collect, he suggested, will find a way of making themselves useful in future projects.
Once each panellist had spoken about their experiences and shared their advice, the session led into open networking with drinks, nibbles and lots of exchanged Twitter handles.
Find out about the next Creative Career session here.
Blog post by Kate Wyver
Images © Faye Song