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Backstage learners

Stage technicians traditionally have stuck to one job, but the English National Opera aims to change things. Martin Whittaker reports

After nearly 30 years as a theatre stage technician Paddy Flanagan has found a new role - helping to support learning among fellow staff. He is one of an army of backstage workers behind each English National Opera production at the London Coliseum, in the heart of the West End.

While highly skilled in their own fields, many behind-the-scenes staff at London's top theatres are missing out on vital education and training, according to BECTU, the entertainment workers' union.

In response, the union and the opera house are organising courses in basic and key skills for backstage workers. The union has also appointed five learning representatives to support them.

The traditional route into a behind-the-scenes theatre job is to blame for the skills gap, says BECTU's training officer Trish Lavelle.

"You'll find some people who have degrees, and some who have absolutely no qualifications," she says. "That's because the routes in, particularly for technical and front-of-house staff, are very informal. People start off as a casual, maybe doing a few days' work, and if they fit in they may be invited back.

"People learn on the job. As a union we're keen on such training, but we'd also like to ensure that staff have the full range of skills that they need to move on and develop their careers."

BECTU has around 7,000 members in arts and entertainment, many of whom are theatre workers. The union hopes to encourage other major arts institutions to adopt the scheme, including the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Paddy Flanagan, aged 52, was virtually born into the theatre world. He is one of the ENO's 36 stage technicians who put up and take down the sets, sometimes twice a day.

"I would say anyone who's worked at the Coliseum for three or fouryears could probably go into any theatre in the world," he says. "My father was a stage-door keeper at Sadler's Wells, the home of the ENO until 1968. He got me a job there.

"In those days it was a closed shop. You wouldn't really need any outside training - the rest of the crew would look after you and train you on the job.

"But you do tend to just do one thing to the detriment of everything else.

"And it can be a very insular environment - people who work in theatres, all their friends and associates tend to be in theatres too because of the anti-social hours."

The learning reps at the ENO attended a five-day training course run by the College of North East London. The company allows them time off to give colleagues advice.

Staff are offered courses in information technology, communication skills, and basic maths and English.

Already a union shop steward, Paddy Flanagan became a learning rep after finding problems with his own spelling. He has enrolled on the basic English course, partly in a bid to encourage others.

"I think there's quite a need - especially on the basic level," he says. "If people want to move on they might be held back because they can't spell or their maths is not too good. So the whole idea is to improve one's lot."

Costume-maker Elaine Witt, 26, also volunteered to be a learning rep. "Most of the people we work with in the costume department have three to five years of college education. But the stage hands usually come straight from school.

"We're there to make sure all our colleagues are aware that they can take further education courses if they want to."

Mary Ormrod, ENO's personnel manager, says the company has 570 permanent employees but can employ 1,000 freelance staff during a season.

"Skills do change," she says, "and the ENO is changing rapidly. We need people with basic literacy and numeracy skills. It can hold them back if they don't have them."

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