I Graduated In Theatre and Now I Work In An Office, But That Doesn’t Make Me a Sell-Out

I began university with hopes of becoming a producer. Right now I work in an office, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on my dream.

I know that it’s OK to not get a job that is directly related to the industry you trained for; there are some great Law graduates out there who are now arranging flowers, and countless History degrees hanging on the walls of corporate London offices. But I thought I would be an exception, as I’m sure many people do. When I left university I really, passionately wanted to make the best possible career in the theatre that I could for myself. It’s taken two years to go from my shiny expectations of graduate life, through the muggier reality of independent living, to where I am now… and it’s not where I wanted to be when I graduated in July 2014.

Katie Harrison

photo provided

University life is often compared to living in a bubble. Mine was more of a sparkly, drama-infused snow globe, filled with parties and productions and all things pantomime. Everyone knew each other, everyone knew all the lyrics from Les Miserables and everyone was more than capable of bursting into song (or interpretive dance, depending on who you were talking to) at the drop of a hat. It was a wonderful, insulated little whirlwind while it lasted but, just like a snow globe, come graduation day this fragile world was going to shatter for good.

I resolved to work every day towards my creative goals and make my producing dreams a reality. 

As Avenue Q has taught us, no one really knows what to do with a Bachelor of Arts degree – particularly those who’ve actually got one. I chose to study Writing, Directing and Performance because of the endless possibilities it created: production management stood out to me, as it massively appealed to my aptitude for being organised and bossing people around. Being able to take a budget in a handful of weeks and create a sell-out show was one of the best experiences I had at university. I resolved to myself, and it’s still written in the first page of the new notebook I bought for myself that July, that I was going to work every day towards my creative goals and make my producing dreams a reality.

After graduation, I chose to stay in the same city I studied in (and if you’ve visited York you’ll understand why), which meant I had some pretty good contacts for starting new projects.  My housemate and I spent evenings excitedly discussing the company we were going to set up together, whilst I lovingly created portfolios on LinkedIn, ArtsJobs and the now-extinct IdeasTap. Alongside this, having all that free time – and we’re talking genuinely free time here, not the time you should have spent on your dissertation – meant I could get in touch with other companies and arrange to meet new people through friends of friends and word of mouth. It turns out that networking really does make the world go round. Sadly, so does money.

Katie Harrison

Photo credit: Greg Ebdon

My first year out of uni was worryingly similar to Joey from ‘Friends’: working interchangeable part-time jobs, while also doing countless unpaid projects with anyone that would take me on. Running 12-hour shifts at a bar alongside volunteer work with a youth theatre caused some logistical problems, but years of experience with production weeks fuelled by little-to-no sleep and endless junk food got me through. I kept telling myself that it was just a temporary solution, but twelve months later Facebook started bringing up the graduation pictures again and I was still working as a ‘Tutor/Waitress/Youth Leader’, with an embarrassingly large car insurance premium and no spare cash for the petrol. I was Stage Manager and Assistant Producer for one show, Director of a second and still applying for more – but all of these were unpaid. It felt like I was a failure.

Twelve months later Facebook started bringing up the graduation pictures again… it felt like I was a failure. 

Changing this outlook needed a reassessment of priorities. Of course, I wanted to do nothing but rehearse and build sets all day long, just as book-lovers would read themselves into a stupor if left to their own devices. My number one priority had to be finding an income to supplement the rent, taxes and monthly grocery fund: it was pragmatic, it was mature, it was not what I wanted to hear. I applied for an admin role in a school, which had nothing to do with my degree, but they loved that I had so many unusual projects under my belt and I got the job coordinating extracurricular activities for 1600 students. Before it started I took £1,000 out of my savings and disappeared to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a month – you can’t be too sensible, after all.

Katie Harrison

Katie Harrison

Working in a school was rather a culture shock: I spent countless hours sitting at meetings where the casual conversation centered around new grandkids and Weight Watchers, neither of which I could particularly relate or contribute to. It wasn’t a ‘normal’ job – we went scuba-diving, skiing and off-road motorcycling with the students, not many admin roles can claim that – but it most definitely wasn’t production management. Was I in the job of my dreams? No. Was I a failure? Certainly not.

For years, theatre was my life, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Moving away from this was a struggle, but I’ve found ways to use the same skills in different environments. This year I’ve finally left York and moved to Manchester, starting in an exciting new role developing, executing and analysing marketing campaigns for over 50 different clients. It’s like juggling every production I’ve ever taken on, all at the same time; if that isn’t a dream I don’t know what is.

I would never tell someone to give up on their dream – but sometimes you need to rethink your definition of ‘giving up’.

Yes, I work in an office. But it’s an office with a ping pong table, an open bar and a Chesterfield sofa on which I’m now writing this article, with no grey desk cubicles in sight. More importantly, I have direct creative input into the direction of the company, which can mean anything from Photoshopping images to writing emails seen by thousands – not to mention the occasional starring role in the short videos we make for students and graduates.

Outside of work, I’m reviewing for a national publisher, visiting as many shows as I can afford and keeping in touch with all my York contacts, while making new ones on this side of the Pennines. It’s not what two-years-ago-Katie expected to come from a drama degree – but I hope she’s pleased with me.