To work in the performing arts a genuine talent is essential, but on its own it isn't enough. We asked the experts about the skills you'll need to make a success of your career
The performing arts explained
Performing arts is the collective term for arts performed in front of an audience.
They primarily focus on dance, drama, music, opera and theatre. However, they also include less obvious performances such as magic, stand-up comedy and circus arts. This means there’s often overlap with film and media industries.
The performing arts are different from visual arts, which is all about the creation of static art using materials such as paint, oils and canvas.
Performing arts careers
Popular jobs in performing arts include:
In addition to the typical performance roles, design, production and management also falls under the umbrella of the performing arts industry.
Many universities and conservatoires offer performing arts courses in production lighting, stage and prop design, costume construction and stage management.
For instance, you could choose to work as a:
- lighting technician, broadcasting/film/video
- music producer
- production designer, theatre/television/film
- sound technician, broadcasting/film/video
- special effects technician
- theatre director
- theatre manager
- theatre stage manager
With the right experience and qualifications, moving into teaching and tutoring is also an option - for instance, by setting up as a private music teacher. You could also find work in health and social care as a dramatherapist or dance movement psychotherapist.
Remember that talent can only take you so far when attempting to make your name in this industry. As well as having the physical skills in drama or dance, or other technical performance skills, you'll also need to possess the right mix of soft skills. We spoke to Sarah Roe, course director for theatre and performance and performing arts, and her team at Leeds School of Arts, Leeds Beckett University to find out more.
1. Confidence and communication skills
Acting, dancing, playing or singing in front of other people can be an incredibly nerve-racking experience. Stepping onto a stage and performing in front of an audience requires a huge amount of confidence and self-esteem, as you're displaying your talent and inviting judgement.
In these situations, it's natural to feel apprehensive, but as a professional performing artist you need to harness and use these nerves to better your performance.
If your self-confidence needs a bit of a boost, there's plenty you can do. Volunteer to be the spokesperson or leader in group projects at university. Additionally join a club or society, or local groups such as choirs, orchestras, dance or amateur dramatics groups. You could also consider entering local or regional competitions or talent contests to build your confidence.
'You need to be prepared to stand up and talk confidently and clearly in front of people, whether that is performing, teaching, or pitching ideas,' adds Sarah. 'You need to be able to express yourself in an honest and intelligent way. It's about being confident in communicating who you are and what matters to you in the work you undertake.'
2. The ability to network and market yourself
Lots of people working in the performing arts are self-employed, and actors, dancers, singers and musicians all need to audition to find work, so it's vital that you're able to sell and market your abilities to potential employers.
To get your name recognised and to help secure future work, you'll need to employ your networking skills to make as many industry connections as possible.
'Even as a solo artist, writer or director your success will depend on the connections and collaborations you foster along the way,' says Sarah and her team. 'You need to be able to listen, engage in critical discussions and negotiate with others. If you can collaborate then you can extend your own skills base, becoming more versatile and able to work in multidisciplinary settings.'
Join professional associations and attend industry events, sign up for classes, workshops and short courses to meet like-minded people and follow relevant casting directors, dance companies, choreographers, musical directors and repertory and commercial theatres on social media.
'While the performing arts value the live moment when we get to be with people, it is so important to have excellent digital literacy skills,' says Sarah. 'From writing applications, pitching ideas, filling in online funding bids, securing a market audience for your work, or self-promotion, online is the way to do this.'
Many of the best jobs are attained through connections and knowing the right person at the right time can pay dividends.
3. Resilience, self-discipline and stamina
Due to the competitive and highly skilled nature of the industry, it's likely that those working within performing arts - even those in technical or managerial roles - will experience rejection at some point in their career. Similarly, they'll also receive criticism in some form.
To cope with these challenges, resilience and tenacity are essential. You need to be able to use these experiences to hone and develop your craft and bounce back better than before.
This is where self-discipline and stamina come in useful. Performing artists are required to work long hours during rehearsals and in the run up to a show and are expected to give 100% to every performance.
Much of your time will be spent practising and improving, and the work can take its toll both mentally and physically - especially on performers who work additional jobs to pay the bills.
4. An analytical mind and creative problem solving skills
Perhaps not the most obvious skill, but those working in the performing arts need an analytical mind.
If you're involved in drama, you'll need to be able to scrutinise and interpret a role and script, while dancers need to be able to break down and analyse choreography, and musicians need to be able to dissect and interpret a piece of music.
You also need to be able to apply these skills to your own work when critically analysing your performances.
This skill can be developed by reviewing university or professional productions, concerts and recitals for academic publications, local media or industry magazines.
'The performing arts industry is looking for creative people who can offer new perspectives, innovate solutions and be responsive to change,' advises Sarah. 'So can you look at a creative problem and offer a fresh new perspective or solution? The performing arts should be about innovation.'
Performers need to adapt and apply their skills and talent to a variety of roles, genres, techniques and styles.
'Within the performing arts it is very rare that you will begin with one focus and maintain that throughout your career,' explain Sarah and her team. 'Writers move on to be directors, performers may become lighting designers for the stage, it is the nature of the industry to shift and change and that is what is so exciting about it. Therefore, think about your own versatility, be aware of the skills and knowledge you have but say yes to opportunities to extend and expand your interests and skills.'
Flexibility is essentially about being able to multitask, and working part time during your studies will give you lots of practice as you seek to strike the right balance between your university, work and personal commitments.
Indeed, the majority of those working in performing arts also have portfolio careers, often subsidising their salary by taking a second or third job, typically in teaching, arts administration or other technical roles.
Not technically a skill but Sarah and her team at Leeds School of Arts point out the importance of a curious mind and a dedication to learning and developing.
'In the performing arts sector you need to foster your curiosity, seek out things that interest you and feed you creatively - this really is the key to a long and fruitful career. It is about sustaining passions and finding new ones that will feed your creativity.'
7. Global awareness
'The performing arts industry is ever evolving and it is important to have an awareness not only of what is happening within your own town, city or country but globally,' says Sarah.
'This is also about respect and appreciation of different cultures, beliefs, and creative backgrounds. As a writer, director or performer having a global outlook demands that you are sensitive to the materials you create and are presented with and that you do your best to celebrate and illuminate our differences as people. It is the diversity of the performing arts world that is so exciting in the 21st century.'
Find out more
- Search for postgraduate courses in performing arts.
- Discover what you can do with a degree in performing arts.
- Learn more about creative jobs.