Sonia Jalaly: Why young people need more information about careers in the arts

Sonia Jalaly works as a PA to Indhu Rubasingham, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, but it wasn’t until after university that she discovered stable jobs in the creative industries even existed

Tricycle Theatre
Tricycle Theatre

If you asked me what I wanted to be when I was 18 and leaving school to study drama I would have said drama teacher. And by that I meant I WANT TO BE IN ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS AND WIN 50 BAFTAS.

At the time, those of us in my class who loved theatre were aware of two possible career paths: actor or drama teacher. By the time I was at university, a few other options had presented themselves. I could be a stage manager, but their organisational skills were superhuman and they got excited about things like steel-capped boots. Or I could be a lighting designer, but you can’t climb a lighting tower with a hangover. Or I could be a producer, but what does that actually mean, please? No-one seemed to agree. Or I could be a director, but then you have to do all of the above and I’m tired.

I was reminded of this turmoil recently when a GCSE student came to the Tricycle Theatre for a week’s work experience. She arrived with dreams of being an actor (of course), spent a week learning what happens in a theatre (a lot of eating biscuits and singing ‘80s anthems), and left excited about a career in Development (theatre speak for ‘asking people for money’.)

I remember when I first left university and my best friend got a job as a development intern in a theatre. ‘What’s that?’ I said. ‘Is that like marketing?’ By this point I’d learnt about marketing and assumed that’s what everyone in offices did. Later, I discovered that these development departments are actually pretty important in theatres where money doesn’t exist and actors apparently need paying. Why, at the age of 21, was I only just learning what actually goes on behind the scenes? Partly because I was a lazy millennial who had never learnt anything about ‘existing in the real world’ (see Tea House Theatre’s job advert – it was written for me), but also because there was no whiff of arts administration as a career path when we were at school. Teachers were too busy getting us through the assault course that is UCAS whilst our careers advisors seemed to think only two types of people exist: people who liked the indoors – you should be a teacher – and people who liked the outdoors – you should be a PE teacher.

Sonia Jalaly
Sonia Jalaly

This is an even bigger problem in schools outside of London. If you don’t have a huge number of theatres where you live and no one comes to your school to tell you about stable job opportunities in the arts, then how would you know that a drama degree doesn’t have to lead to a life of destitution while you wait for Hollywood to call.

In a time where sky high tuition fees feel like an extravagant luxury aimed at people called Montague and Ophelia, this is all the more important. Young people considering university courses are making a huge financial investment in their future and I can see why these aspiring students and their parents might consider an arts degree to be too great a risk. Try searching ‘Bachelor of Arts’ and autocorrect will tell you everything you need to know about the general consensus: ‘is a Bachelor of Arts bad?’, ‘is a Bachelor of Arts useless?’, ‘Is a Bachelor of Arts a waste of time?’

*Cue existential crisis*

*Googles how to become a PE teacher*

Is this a sign that we should be doing more to inform young people about what goes on in the arts aside from the shiny, creative and often scarily unstable career paths? Not everyone can handle a future of job insecurity, particularly those who don’t have parents to bankroll them through the beginnings of a freelance career, and who can blame them. If we are ever going to have a genuinely diverse industry, young people who are faced with the prospect of unimaginable levels of student debt need to know that at the end of an arts degree there are rewarding and fulfilling options available – that also pay the bills.

Sonia Jalaly is a writer and actor and PA to Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre. Jalaly performed her first one woman show, Women of Tackley, at The John Thaw Studio in Manchester in 2011 before training at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Her one-woman show Happy Birthday without You ran at the Tricycle Theatre last year before touring the Edinburgh Fringe. It also picked up the Best Newcomer Award 2014 at the Manchester Fringe Festival.