Our Head of School for Design, Management and Technical Arts, Nick Hunt, wrote an article for The Stage newspaper recently about the future of technical theatre training. Read the article below. 



‘As Yet Unknown’ – training performance technologists for the future

The one thing we know about the future is we can’t predict it. How can young people entering the theatre and live performance industries today with perhaps fifty years of professional life ahead of them choose the best education or training route, given this uncertainty? How can they prepare not just for their first job but for a sustained career over half a century?

It used to be simple – drama schools ran technical theatre courses that were broadly similar, and the theatre industry knew what it was getting from graduates, and employed them accordingly. Today things are much less straightforward. There is more and more crossover between theatre, live events, music concerts, corporate and the broadcast and recorded media sectors, and rapid technological change has brought new professional roles into being, such as lighting programmers, video designers and automation specialists. Student and industry expectations of education and training have changed and grown accordingly.

Meanwhile, there are far more courses in both further and higher education, with greater diversity and specialisation. For example, my own institution, Rose Bruford College, now has seven separate undergraduate degree courses across the technical and production areas.

Education and training providers are also working in a rapidly changing context. The Government is pushing apprenticeships as the way to fill skills gaps, especially in engineering and technology, and higher education has been shaken up by major changes to how it is funded, with students now paying tuition fees of up to £9000 a year through the student loan system.

For those trying decide on the most suitable training or education route into our industry, there are uncertainties with both apprenticeships (will it prepare me for a career, not just a first job? Will its value still be recognised in ten or twenty year’s time?) and degrees (will it pay back on my investment of time and money?). With all these difficult questions, it is tempting to fall into short-term thinking. New people coming into the industry want to start as soon as possible doing the work they have a passion for, and they may have only a hazy sense of how their career might unfold in the coming decades. Equally, the future is hard to predict and prepare for, so why try?

For both the industry as a whole, and those joining it, preparing for the longer-term future is vital, however. Those of us in education have a responsibility to help the next generation of professionals be as ready as possible to meet the as yet unknown challenges they will face over their working lifetime.

It is clear though we cannot teach the specific technical skills that will be required in fifty years. We need instead to think about the personal and professional qualities that will always be essential whatever the future brings. When I speak to employers, they tell me that the most important attribute they are looking for is having the right attitude: being adaptable, interested in the ‘bigger picture’ and ready to learn more.

These qualities cannot be directly taught, but they can be cultivated through a carefully designed, extended educational experience. Crucial to the development of these personal attributes is the role of the tutor or mentor, to ask questions and challenge assumptions: ‘why did you do it like that? How could it have been different? What was the impact of your choices on other people?’ Learning to reflect effectively requires expressing your thoughts to someone else, because you have to organise your ideas and justify your conclusions.

The ‘future-proof’ professional must also be able to research to find out new information and solve problems. However, coming to a clear definition of a problem is often harder than finding the solution, and that requires analysis and critical thinking to make judgements: is this better than that? Why? On what basis should I choose?

Together with gaining technical skills and knowledge, developing these abilities to research and reflect can form part of a structured cycle of planning, investigation, action and reflection that creates a learning spiral which once embedded will continue independently through a professional lifetime.

Government, industry and the media have made much of the ‘skills agenda’. It is vital we recognise that alongside technical skills training, any preparation for the theatre and live performance industries that will still be of value in fifty years must also develop the personal and professional qualities I have argued for here. As it happens, research, reflection and independence of thought and action are qualities that have been fundamental to higher education of all kinds for many years. The degree courses that I run with my colleagues at Rose Bruford College are absolutely focused on this combination of job-specific skills and broader attributes, as are many of the courses run at similar institutions elsewhere.

Anyone choosing a route into our industry, as well as employers, should look carefully at what education courses and training programmes are designed to deliver. What value do they offer, not just over the next five years, but the next fifty? Will they develop you as a reflective, enquiring and self-sustaining professional, ready for the as yet unknown?

Nick Hunt