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By Sarah Woods

Leah O’Connell is the Wigs, Hair and Makeup Apprentice at the National Theatre. She tells us how she came to this position and what the experience of being an apprentice has meant to her so far. 

Across her time at the NT Leah will learn hairdressing, barbering, wig-making, prosthetics, on-stage effects and cosmetic make-up skills, as well as collaboration and communication with respect to the creative design process. She came to the National this year from the Norwood School in South London.

Tell us about how you’ve come to be an apprentice at the National Theatre?

I think my story is usual in that I knew I didn’t want to go on to university and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to go on to next once I’d done my A-Levels. I was leaning towards childcare but I also loved fashion alongside it, and the school I was at was a performing arts school, so I used to help backstage there when they had performances.

My fashion teacher actually found this apprenticeship for me, and she said ‘Why not go for it?’. I got an interview and as I went through the stages and realised exactly what it was about, I went ‘OK, this is really interesting’, and I wanted it more and more. And when I finally got through to the final I thought ‘Right, this is mine, I’m going to get it’.

What news skills have you learned during your time at the National so far?

Being an apprentice is so good because I’m learning. I’m doing so much that I’ve never done before. I’m getting paid to do that, and I get qualifications and experience all in one. I had one main interview, another where I had to bring some work, then a skills test at college and a skills test here. I’d done the fashion, but I’d never done anything to do with hair and makeup before so I was treading on eggshells – wondering what I should do, what can I do to – before understanding from the panel that, OK, I can do this sort of thing.

What has been the most exciting show/project you’ve worked on?

I’ve done a couple of shows now, mainly in prosthetics work. Recently I’ve worked on dog bites, scratches, a scene with disembowelling..! These were all part of my role, my responsibility, which was big for me considering I’ve never done anything like this before – it was getting in at the deep end. But I liked it because it was a challenge and they’d trusted me to do it – I was going to prove them right.

For the guts, we made a prosthetic belly piece with Velcro and elastic at the back, with a slit in it. We made intestines from tissue paper and silicone, that went in with blood – we made blood bags, for stabbings…quite a lot of prep for the show. We got some good reactions online!

I also did hairstyling on Twelfth Night, basic pieces such as plaits, but picking up bits from the plot that weren’t able to be covered by the main two stylists. We have half an hour before the show, but for an NT Live we take a lot longer to get ready, we check everything, check that everything’s blended properly. No eyeliner out of shape, no lip-liner over lipped...

I think the next project might be Pinocchio, but in the meantime I start doing a hairdressing course, which is also funded by the NT through the apprenticeship scheme. When I come back I’ll be here full time until the end of my apprenticeship, and I’ll be able to practice and show what I've learnt, I’ll be able to email round and say ‘Who wants to come and get their hair styled for free, who wants to help me out?’

When I go home in the evenings, I want to practice and learn more, I involve my friends. I even bought myself a mannequin head to practice when I get some downtime.


What is it like working in the NT’s workshops?

The atmosphere in the workshops is great, really fun. And I pick up so much from so many different people; everyone can offer a different way of doing things. For example, when I was going to learn to weave weft for the first time, I learnt to do it one way and then someone said ‘Have you tried doing it like this?’ I’m learning from people who have more recently come into the industry and people who have been in the industry for years; it’s great to have all this input into what I’m doing and to learn to work differently with different people.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

I think my biggest challenge was actually doing the technical rehearsals for Common, because I really didn’t know what a ‘tech’ was until that point – but I was learning, in the moment, and it was a lot of fun. When you’re backstage on a show, you’re backstage for the whole show; it’s a really good vibe. When I’m scheduled on a show, sometimes I’ll be in for ten hours during the day, eleven hours. You come in, set your wigs, your prosthetics, whatever you need to do for the show in the evening and then do the show itself.

What do you think apprenticeships give to the National Theatre?

I think apprenticeships give the National a chance to interact with the younger generation. Before I did the apprenticeship, I didn’t go to the theatre, it wasn’t on my radar, it wasn’t part of what I was doing. But now that I’m in it, I’m watching more theatre and I’m getting my friends along to watch it and they’re more interested in what I'm doing. I’ve got a couple of friends who have gone for apprenticeships in other departments here off the back of what I’ve been doing.

Having apprenticeships in the workshops is really beneficial because I see people go back over what they haven’t looked at for years and they learn again. I bring in things that they learn, we bounce off each other.

How do you think your career will progress once you have finished your apprenticeship? What would you like your next step to be?

I would like to stay here, I enjoy it here. If I couldn’t stay then I’d like to do a bit of West End, see how that happens, because obviously they don’t have the hours that we do, but then they don’t have the workshop and making environment, they go in in the evening to do the same thing each night in running the show. I’d also like to do some film and tv because obviously they’re dealing in a lot more precise and intricate detail, so I’d like to see how that works.

I’d like to tread about a bit and see what’s out there for me and where I fit in most.

What advice would you give to the next set of apprentices to start working here?

I would say to the next set of apprentices, get as much out of it as you can. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, don’t be afraid to do anything, don’t be scared to say, ‘I want to try that’, don’t hold back – you’re here to learn and people are here to educate you. Take the chances – you’ve been given this great opportunity. In my case, I was lucky enough that the programme was here and to be the one chosen out of all those applicants, and I'm not going to waste that.

Apprenticeships are one of many National Theatre projects that support and inspire the next generation of theatre makers.

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