I get asked quite a lot about how I first got started in theatre photography and how does one go about starting off. To help answer some of these questions I thought it would be a good idea to jot down some of my experiences and thoughts which might be helpful to others. Here goes...
Probably one of the most difficult things in the whole performing arts arena is getting a theatre or other establishment to actually allow you to photograph some of their shows. I've read several articles by other photographers about 'how to get started in Theatre Photography'. Many of them say similar things like go along to local theatres and amateur acting troupes etc. And although they are all right, it can be a very difficult thing to achieve.
Many theatres these days operate on a shoe string budget and usually don't have any excess to spend on photography. So one of the first things you need to ask yourself, especially if you are just starting off, is this, do I want to get paid. It's a hard hitting question I know, but addressing it at the outset could make all the difference in the future. If your answer is yes, then you have just made your task a hundred times more difficult. If your answer is no, then you've probably given yourself a chance of being able to get started. Sometimes you have to give to gain and sometimes you give and don't gain anything at all. The reason I mention this is to draw your attention to another question - Why do you want to do theatre photography? Once you take money out of the equation, what is left? Well, actually, quite a lot. One of the nice things about not getting paid is that you have complete creative control over your work. You can decide what to photograph, how to photograph it, the story you want to tell and what gets released to other people and what doesn't. In short it gives you the perfect opportunity to develop your style and your reputation.
So, how do you get started? Well, for me, I had got to the stage in my photography where I wanted to do something different. Something I hadn't done before but also something I would enjoy doing. It was early in the new year and I was looking for a new direction. I'd just watched the excellent video by Zack Arias called Transform. If you haven't seen it, then it's well worth doing so. After giving it some thought, I decided I wanted to get into theatre photography. I hadn't done anything like it before and I didn't have any kind of portfolio to show anyone. Also I had no experience or past exposure to anything like this and neither did I know anyone in the industry that might be able to help. I quickly realised this was not going to be an easy task. I was a complete outsider and had no idea of how I was going to achieve this. Photographically, I didn't have a problem. I knew this was something I could do. I just needed to get my foot in the door so to speak, then the rest was up to me.
Faced with this seemingly unsurmountable challenge, what do you do? One of the first things I did was to check out what was going on in the world of theatre photography. Who's doing what, where are they doing it, how are they doing it, what do people expect, what's currently out there, and most importantly of all, what I can bring to the table that is going to make me stand out and be recognised. In short, get to know the market you are going to be working in. Do your research. This will help when you finally do get a break.
Convincing someone to give me a chance was another problem. No previous experience and no portfolio were not exactly in my favour. However self- belief and determination were something I had in abundance.
Putting it all together I quickly realised a number of facts. 1. No one was going to pay me and to be honest it would probably be unrealistic to expect them to - an untried, untested, unknown photographer who just walks in off the street one day and says hey, I want to photograph your shows!! - Just wasn't going to work, and 2. I needed to convince someone to give me a chance. That was going to be difficult. As with so many things in life, there comes a point where you either have to run with your dreams or abandon them forever. I decided to run with them and see where they went.
I compiled a list of all the theatres, acting groups, music groups etc. within my local area and decided to contact them offering my services free of charge in the hope that if they didn't have to pay anything then really they didn't have anything to loose. That was the strategy. Over the coming few weeks I mailed each of them in turn and then waited for the replies. And waited and waited.
Eventually they started coming back. Every single one, very politely wrote back with a firm NO. Some were just not interested, others already had 'friends' who did the photography for them and others just said thanks but no thanks. All except one. A local theatre that had been closed for the past ten years but had now been refurbished under the direction of a new board of trustees invited me along to one of their informal open evenings. It was a stroke of immense good luck and just the break I needed. I knew I could do this, I just had to convince the rest of the world - well at least the people in the theatre - I'm still working on the rest of the world!!
During the informal get together I explained who I was, what I was trying to achieve and most importantly, what I was able to bring to the theatre. This last point really is an important one - you have to be of some use. The theatre in question did have a bit of a history. It had been closed for the past ten years and had fallen into a state of dis-repair until a group of local people decided to do something about it. A lot of hard work had gone in to restoring and refurbishing the theatre. Local volunteers, business people and even the local council backed the initiative and eventually the theatre was re-opened. Like many theatres in the UK it gained charity status and had a board of trustees. Everyone I met was so incredibly committed to making it a success. In so many ways it was admirable what these people had achieved, but to be honest, from a personal perspective, it was also a little scary. Here I was, a nobody in the world of theatre photography walking in off the street and saying, hey, I want to take photographs of your shows. Something I thought would never work. The enthusiasm and commitment of the people I met was and still is an amazing feature of the theatre. One of the things they were very keen to achieve was promoting the theatre both locally and nationally. And to do that they needed pictures.
The theatre, of course, is The Albany Theatre in Coventry.
A couple of weeks later I was contacted and asked to come in and photograph one of the shows - a ballet. I'll tell how that went in another article.
Well, that's how I got started in theatre photography.
I hope this little article is of help to someone. The main thing really is don't be put off by rejection. You will get them, many many times but you only need one acceptance to get you started. The rest is up to you. Good luck!