We were thrilled to connect with Bethany Gupwell, class of 2015, to recount her journey from the classroom to relishing in her dream career in West End and beyond.
Please also enjoy this article in our upcoming publication of Masonica (the RMS alumnae magazine) coming to a coffee table near you in March 2023.
I had never been at the top academically and simply thought I wasn’t very good at school. RMS really changed my view on that. Within my first year, one of the things that struck me was that it really put an emphasis on finding what my strengths were and encouraging me in those areas.
There were teachers who kept asking what I liked doing, rather than telling me I needed to work on particular aspects of the curriculum. I am grateful for that to this day because it is the only reason I am where I am now.
RMS let me be curious; that was such a blessing and it helped me to discover what I really wanted.
It was pretty obvious from a young age that I thrived in creative subjects. In my early years at RMS, I was always in the art studio at lunch and break times. My friends and I spent all of our spare time in the art department.
In Year 9, I started to work with the Performing Arts Department. I did LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) speaking exams which really helped me, and by the end of my time at RMS, I was doing a lot of public speaking. I knew there was something about acting and performing that I really enjoyed but it wasn’t necessarily the performing side of it.
At one stage, I thought it would be fun to do a school play and auditioned for a musical. I sang for the audition, but the truth is, I am not very good at singing! Mrs Isherwood, the drama teacher at the time, suggested I try working backstage, so I thought I’d give that a go. I knew I wasn’t a singer and thought working backstage would be fun.
As soon as I started working on the show, I loved it. I was involved in the performance world but without having to perform. I was the deputy stage manager which meant I called all the lighting and sound cues. There was a part-time teacher who came in and did the technical support for the shows and he said to me, ‘You’re really good, how long have you been doing this?’ When I explained it was the first time I had called a show, he was amazed and suggested I also try lighting. He taught me how it all worked.
One of the great things at RMS was that we did a show every two years at the Watersmeet Theatre in Rickmansworth; it was a big theatre with more equipment and more responsibility.
I got my first job in a local theatre while I was still at school, doing stage management, sweeping the stage and doing lighting.
I am so grateful that my teacher opened up that world for me. It was directly through school that I found a career I could pursue. The attitude of ‘you like this, how can we build on it?’ changed everything.
Midway through Year 11, I knew that lighting was what I wanted to do. I researched where you could study it and, in Year 12, applied to six drama schools. I managed to get into my first choice, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, where I studied lighting design for three years.
As I did my degree, I found out quite quickly that you have to be very good technically to be a lighting designer, so I basically spent three years learning how to be an electrician and had a few part time electrician jobs at different venues. I learnt most of what I know now at Sadler’s Wells and Hampstead Theatres.
During my third year at university, there was an opportunity to be an intern on Hamilton when it came to London. Hamilton had been really big in the States before it came to the Victoria Palace Theatre in London. The lighting department was huge. On a normal show there are three people in the lighting team; a designer, production electrician and a programmer, but on this show there were ten of us. I was the intern doing paperwork and happily learning from the room. Initially, I interned for six weeks but I was kept on for longer, they eventually put me on payroll and I officially became a lighting assistant.
Working on that show was invaluable and taught me the highest level of practice. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and I was able to learn from people who are at the top of the industry
I took everything I learned there and applied it to the smaller shows I worked on afterwards. Since then, I’ve continued doing assistant work for Hamilton.
In 2022, I was honoured when the UK designer from Hamilton asked me if I would like to do the show for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. The performance was planned for two audiences, both live and film, so there were two teams working on the production. I worked on the live performance side. We worked for two days on-site; putting up the rig on one day and then practicing on the next, followed by the performance day. It was amazing to be part of that historic day.
Looking ahead, I am going to be working on an opera in Strasburg. I’m working with a director called Katie Mitchell who has changed the face of theatre in the UK. Working with her has been a real career highlight and I have admired her work for a long time. It is amazing to think that I am now collaborating with her as the lighting designer on an opera.
Lighting is a very male-dominated career but RMS taught me that it doesn’t matter what you want to do if you are a woman.
I have never once questioned, ‘I’m the only woman in this room, is that okay? Does that mean I shouldn’t be here?’ RMS taught me that there isn’t a job for a woman or a man, but if you want to do it and you are good and talented, then you have as much of a right to be there as anyone else
There is a prestigious lighting award called the Knight of Illumination. Historically, 87% of the nominees for this award have been men, the remaining 13% are women but 9% of those nominations are for one woman! The female representation is very small and few women have broken the mould. I’m glad to be able to ride in their wake but it is a pretty harsh environment at times.
Looking back, I am really grateful that RMS taught me to be curious. This has been invaluable and I use it every day. I had major self-confidence issues when I first joined RMS and was cringingly shy, to the point where I almost wouldn’t talk to people. By the end of my time at RMS, I was deputy head girl. It’s a bizarre thing to say, but I also suffered really badly from eczema before I came to RMS. Within two weeks of joining, it completely cleared up and I have never had it again since. My body had obviously been reacting to stress and as soon as that was gone, the eczema went away. I found a place where I fitted.
I did lots of charity work and public speaking at RMS. Those things were in me all along but I had never been able to access them. I feel really lucky that I was in a place that nurtured the things that I was good at and developed them.
RMS taught me the meaning of success; it means being kind and happy and doing what you want to do
I feel very lucky to work doing something I love. When I was at school, I woke up every day feeling excited; now I am just as excited to go into work. RMS set a very high bar for that!