Archive for the ‘Professional Development’ Category

In for a penny, in for a pound

December 1, 2013

It’s the eve of the annual deadline for the Artist in Residence scheme I look after at the regional venue in which I work (Oxford Playhouse; views here obviously my own etc etc…), and I’ve just read this blog post by Amelia Bird suggesting venues abolish their artist development programmes in favour of paying higher fees for fully finished productions.

Here are a few thoughts on why I think differently.

Because it’s about value not cost.
We offer 3 artists £1,000 cash a year, plus access to the full resources of the Playhouse to use however they see fit. They don’t have to spend that cash on a production (though some choose to do so); they can spend it however they want to develop their practice – including train fares to go and see mentors, fees for taking part in masterclasses, coffee to make it all bearable, match funding to leverage other investment, subsistence costs to support themselves during R&D periods, whatever they want… The scheme has been deliberately and lovingly designed to be as un-top-down as possible; to be entirely and genuinely artist-led. We just invite artists to make a pitch to us encompassing what they’d like to do with that combination of time, cash and resources, and we let three of them do just that. And I know for sure that they, and our audiences, get a lot more than £3,000-worth of value for that cash investment. I also know that spending that £3,000 on marketing or paying 3 visiting artists an extra £1,000 on their fee wouldn’t yield anything like the same (tangible and intangible) return for any of us.

Because creative producing is about artists and audiences, not about one or the other.
Artist development is audience development in my book. Growing, developing and serving audiences includes doing our bit to grow, develop and serve artists. A few venues or producers are explicit about putting artists first (see David Jubb’s entry in The Producers for example), but for a lot of us, the two go hand in hand. They’re not mutually exclusive things, and our job is to bring them together as meaningfully and as congruently as we can. Investing in artists ensures we’re continuing to do our best for our audiences: sowing seeds, fledging ideas, starting up artistic romances which one day just might flourish into an extraordinary experience for our audiences.

Because it’s about the important rather than just the urgent.
About the future and not just the now.

Because it’s about being generous with what we have.
Mi casa su casa and all that. Because none of us has very much, or as much as we’d like, to do all the things we’d like to do. And because so often the exacting realities of the responsible stewardship of sizeable organisations mean we can’t muster up great big cheques free of strings. So what we do have, which we can offer generously and without strings, we should.

Because we have to be about breadth not depth.
Venues have a greater responsibility than artists to make an open invitation to a really broad cross-section of audiences. Artists have a responsibility to themselves and their work to focus in depth on their practice and on the materialisation of their ideas with as much integrity and authenticity as possible. Venues’ responsibility to offer a portfolio of experience includes seeking out a broad range of opportunities where a little can go a long way.

Because we need to take risks. And to manage those risks.
One of the most exciting things we do is to introduce a new artist to our audiences. But we can’t start at that point; we need to start somewhere long before that. We need to get to know an artist, and that artist who’s never had anybody invest anything in them needs someone to take a risk on them, by investing something which can start something more. Because if we only ever invest big bucks in artists we already know and trust, what happens to the artists nobody yet knows or trusts?

Because we should play a creative role in our place
Venues should have a sense of responsibility to the idea that a vibrant creative community should be able to thrive in their city, town, or region. If we don’t think that creative community is yet as fulsome and as productive and as supported as it might be, and as our city or town or region deserves it to be, then shouldn’t we, as a home to creativity in that place, do our bit to encourage more of it? To make more of something possible?

Because one size doesn’t fit all.
I’m thinking particularly about our Artist in Residence scheme this evening because that’s at the top of my inbox this coming week, but this is of course only one aspect of our artist development activity. It’s right for some artists; it’s not for others. There are other opportunities too, which suit other artists better. But just because this scheme isn’t right for everybody doesn’t mean it’s not really really right for somebody.

Because we want a relationship not a one-night stand.
And my best guess says that a lot of the 70 or so applications I’ll find from artists on my desk tomorrow morning will be saying the same thing.

The Love of the New

May 30, 2011

This weekend I found myself surveying the Belgian battlefields at Waterloo and soaking up the atmosphere of the annual Brussels Jazz Marathon. The continental mini-break wasn’t just any old weekend abroad, however: it was this week’s contribution to my New Year’s Resolution of 2011, given to me – as is becoming traditional – by my best friend. Knowing that I was facing a tough year ahead in my personal life she determined that I was to ensure that positivity and vibrancy featured in the coming year by commanding me to experience something new each and every week. Rules were established via an inevitable haggling process over what was allowable but variety was key: experiences might be grand or humble, planned or spontaneous, solitary or communal, significant or frivolous. Documentary evidence must be kept by way of witness to (and souvenir of) the tale of my year of All Things New.


The resolution is now nearly half-way through and I am beginning to see what this year of new experiences is teaching me, what it’s giving me, how it’s bringing me back to life and getting me through almost without me noticing.

All of which has got me thinking about the possibility of translating this healing and invigorating approach to my professional life. Having found myself in the position of needing to help steer a theatre company through its own ‘annus horribilis’, I wonder whether a similar approach could be adopted by a cultural organisation staring into the abyss, and, if so, whether it might yield similarly encouraging refreshment. It would of course be a brave company to embrace the experiment – as I’m myself finding, the levels of organisation, creativity and upfront expense required can be daunting and time-consuming, but if my own experience is anything to go by I can’t help but think that there’d be benefits to reap. When change is forced upon you, to dare to go one step further and invite yet more newness into life is an empowering move.

I love the idea that for a theatre company, say, this might mean changing the way you recruit your creative practitioners one week or trialling the use of Open Space technology for your staff meetings the next. For me, it’s the little things as much as the big things which are important in encouraging new habits of openness, positivity and forward momentum: sharing lunch together on a Friday, for instance, or changing to a supplier of Fair Trade paper. They’re helpful because they re-set patterns and re-calibrate norms without presenting too much of a painful challenge; they’re easy wins which give courage for embracing bigger changes.

That said, there’s no doubt a fine line between encouraging radical levels of openness to organisational change and welcoming in a damaging level of instability. And it probably takes a braver producer than I, or one in a better position to command buy-in from an entire organisation, to achieve this weekly schedule of new experiences. But what’s important is that experiments aren’t as scary as people think: their not working means nothing more than that they didn’t work. Trial of something new doesn’t have to equate to immediate wholesale change in the long-term, but I do think the process of habituating an organisation to change and newness can usefully reveal, and perhaps helpfully re-shape, its values.

IberoAmericano Festival de Teatro de Bogota

March 31, 2010

Something of a dream came true for me last week when I was able to attend the bi-ennial theatre festival in Bogota, Columbia. I had heard excited rumours about this festival for a while: South America’s Edinburgh, host to theatre companies from all over the Latin continent, started somewhat improbably in 1998 by the aging but much beloved Columbian soap star Fanny Mikey. This was the place I needed to be to continue pursuing the marriage of my personal passion for South America with my professional interest in theatre producing.

The 2010 festival was the first since the sad passing of its charismatic founder Fanny Mikey, and tributes to her larger-than-life presence were everywhere: theatres were named in her honour, her orange curls and wicked grin were plastered across billboards, and ebullient quotes from her life adorned theatre foyers, the most bullish of which read: “Everything in life is possible; the only thing impossible is war.”

Fanny Mikey, founder of the Bogota Theatre Festival

Clearly the international theatre world is beginning to take notice of this festival: about 50 international delegates from the professional theatre world attended the 2008 edition of the festival; this year, there were 100 of us, including 6 Brits – myself and 5 representatives of the newly established International Theatre Consortium. Bogota is an extraordinary and challenging place for a festival of this scale: at 2,640 metres above sea level, the city’s air is thinner than usual, and heavily polluted by the smog of traffic fumes that permanently clog the highways, enforcing strenuous aerobic exercise on us in our dashing from venue to venue. The city is immense, and the geographical layout of the grid system is frustratingly deceptive: streets called ‘carreras’ run in one direction and cross streets called ‘calles’ run at right angles. All are supposedly numbered, but given that absolutely no roadsigns exist, very few people, including taxi drivers, seem to know which street is which, with odd diagonal streets and occasional avenues adding to the confusion. Maps seemed to vary wildly in their accuracy, and taxis are almost always 40 minutes late, their passage constantly blocked by bumper-to-bumper traffic. Given that the festival included plenty of events at obscure venues – residential apartments, old crumbling theatres tucked away in courtyards up pedestrian sidestreets, school halls, parks, etc. – most delegates missed at least one show per day from their intended agenda, despite Columbian timekeeping meaning that most shows went up 30 minutes late, and waiting on the busy pavements of Bogota soon became a significant part of the experience.

Despite having to do battle with the city each day, it was an inspiring adventure, and on the occasions when we weren’t in a rush, a wander through the back streets offered up all sorts of surreal delights, from brightly coloured murals, to mountains of fresh strawberries sold by the scoop from a barrow, to dozens of tiny theatres hidden away between shops and houses.

I was of course delighted and secretly rather proud that Teatro de Los Andes’ new show – a South American version of The Odyssey – went down so well (rousing standing ovation from an almost full house) and am hoping that its warm reception might add momentum to my campaign to get this fabulous Bolivian company’s work to the UK (see my first ever blog post on the subject). Other highlights for me included work by Chilean company Teatro En El Blanco: they presented two shows in Bogota – Diciembre, which I didn’t manage to get to see but which is coming our way in the summer care of the Edinburgh International Festival, and Neva, a weirdly comic piece about the death of Anton Chekov. Los Santos Innocentes by Mapa Teatro was a powerful piece of work (using fantastic documentary film footage, two venerable marimba players and a team of actors) about the surreal annual festival in an isolated Columbian town in which King Herod’s slaughter of innocent children is commemorated by drag queens running through the streets whipping passing victims. The site-specific piece El Autor Intelectual from Colombian company La Maldita Vanidad was also worth a watch: we peered voyeuristically from an external courtyard through a living room window into an apartment where three siblings argued over whose turn it was to look after their ailing mother, with tragicomedy inevitably turning to tragedy as the stakes got higher and higher. And an honourable mention must be made of the enjoyably bonkers show A Dentro La Casa A Fuera from Colectivo Inedita: no one seemed to have much of an idea of what was going on in this piece but it certainly ticked the ‘memorable and delightfully bizarre’ box, and what attendance at a Latin American arts festival would be complete without just that?

I could have stayed twice as long and was sad to miss the Cien Dias trilogy in particular, in which three separate directors tackle the dystopian subject matter of a world in which no murders take place, except for the one assassination prescribed each 100 day period by the state, with the murderer and victim selected by public ballot. I have heard good things about part one of the trilogy from those lucky enough to have stayed a day or so longer than my schedule allowed.

As ever, I had to sit through my fair share of the bad during the week in return for the reward of the good – only a few theatrical frogs ever turn obligingly into princes upon kissing, I find – but I quite enjoy the gamble in pursuit of discovering something new and wonderful. I do admit, however, to being grateful for the occasional interval at which I could slip out discreetly in pursuit of a glass of Malbec when it all got too taxing.

So all in all, a stimulating, invigorating, delightful week; put it in your 2012 diaries now.

Leadership: Continuous Personal Development

January 23, 2010

One of the things I’ve been increasingly thinking about recently, in part as a specific focus of some of my Clore Fellowship training, is the personal nature of leadership. When I was asked to talk about my leadership perspective for a presentation a little while back, my first instinct was to look for examples or instances from my professional life which had influenced my understanding of leadership. But I quickly realised that it was much more personal than that – my perspective on leadership had begun to be formed much earlier on in my life through more personal encounters. So I felt a consideration of this topic would be dishonest of me if I didn’t direct my reflections to much more personal influences, foremost of which had to be my Mum.

My Mum and Dad - taken about 5 years ago

Mum has worked for about 30 years for an officially sexually discriminative organisation, an organisation whose male leaders have always forbidden female employees from rising to leadership roles. Even today, this discrimination is still enforced at the highest levels of the organisation.

As a child, I saw Mum challenge that situation every day through her work, and watched her play a very active part in the long fight against this discrimination. Eventually this culminated in a landmark court case in 1994 that, despite vociferous resistance from many colleagues, enabled her and other women finally to assume positions of leadership in the middle ranks of her organisation.

So I suppose I have to admit that something of the feminist was awoken in me from an early age, having become accustomed to seeing women struggle to assert their suitability for roles of leadership against the dominant male powers that be.

[I also now have a rather complicated and dysfunctional relationship with the church as a result, but that’s neither here nor there…]

Observing Mum’s working life at close quarters gave me a bird’s eye view on a very particular, unusual kind of leadership, and that is the leadership of voluntary communities. The kind of leadership role I saw her adopt was, I imagine, a very different one to had she been the boss of a profit-making corporation. There was nothing powerful or overtly impressive about it. In fact, as a slightly stroppy teenager it seemed to me that leadership was basically a total hassle: it seemed to involve dealing with eccentric, egomaniac nutters on a daily basis, being stuck at social gatherings for hours on end because everyone wanted to witter on at you about something or other, and you always always ended up really upsetting someone.

Leadership as I saw it through Mum’s experiences was tricky – it was something that had to be constantly negotiated with the community you were leading. There was something very politically complicated I learned from her about how to assert leadership from a position of being the only professional amongst a community of willing – sometimes overly willing – volunteers. It was, in effect, an example of what Julia Middleton has famously called ‘leadership beyond authority’ – leading from a position that doesn’t comprise hiring and firing authority over those persuaded to follow you.

Violin masterclass with Hugh Bean

As a child, the most important element of my education came in the form of one-on-one instrumental tuition: I played the violin a lot growing up and so my violin teachers were pretty significant people in my life. In a way, they were my leaders.

But, because of the nature of that sort of tuition, because of the intimacy and more familial relationship you develop with a teacher of that sort, their leadership was primarily facilitative. Of course I had my fair share of those who were dogmatic and dictatorial and frankly pretty terrifying about scale practice (or the lack of it), but in the main, my experience of their role was as leaders whose job it was to bring out the best in their pupils, so it was first and foremost a role of encouragement and support.

Incidentally, the wisest thing one of them ever said to me, and which I’ve never forgotten, was: “Don’t be afraid to get worse in order to get better.”

So if the point I’m making is that leadership is personal, that, although clear boundaries between the personal and the professional are useful, the two spheres are inextricably linked, then why have I allowed my thoughts to turn to a very public figure with whom I have no personal connection who holds the most conventionally powerful leadership role in the Western world? This man I think represents so many astonishing things about contemporary leadership because he manages to conflate the personal and the professional so apparently effortlessly.  Until he came along, I didn’t think it was possible in this day and age to revere political leaders. There’s too much spin, and therefore too much cynicism. There’s too much media exposure and interrogation, revealing all the disappointing flaws and human hypocrisies that in a former age might have remained hidden. I’ve always thought of my elders who idolised President Kennedy or Winston Churchill as somewhat naive – I thought that sort of reverence and respect for political leaders was a thing of the less sophisticated past, before citizens considered themselves journalists, publishers and opinion formers. I have become accustomed, ironically, never to finding admirable leadership qualities in those who occupy the most stereotypical positions of leadership.

And so, given the aggressive, non-stop media exposure of our current era, it is astonishing to me that this man has succeeded in making so many people fall in love with him, like teenage fans smitten with a rock star.

So how does that feed into my perspective on leadership in general? I think it has taught me that leadership can be different to what you have become accustomed to expect.

And that the most important thing about it is that it is utterly devoid of pretence. Or at least that it comes across as being so.

Leadership is as much about the person as the job title, meaning that professional development is impossible without personal development.

West Midlands theatrical goings on in 2010

January 1, 2010

I can’t claim credit for this brilliant picture – it was taken by a friend of mine on New Year’s Eve.

Following on from signing up to the West Midlands Theatre Pledge initiated by James Yarker from Stan’s Cafe (see earlier blog post), I have been thinking about what shows I’ll be attending in 2010 to fulfill this commitment. Turns out, it’s nothing like as hard as you’d think to find 12 regional shows that sound intriguing and exciting and I’ve been booking tickets like there’s no tomorrow. So, here’s what I’ll be showing up at over the coming months in the West Midlands area:

I kick off next week with the wacky sounding Ringside at Birmingham’s Town Hall, performed by Mem Morrison and presented by the brilliant triumverate of Fierce, Arts Admin and Birmingham Rep.

Following hard on its heels are two slightly alternative events: Foursight Theatre’s Education & Outreach department’s The Corner Shop Schools Project – a site-specific piece devised by Wolverhampton pupils and performed in their school; and a screening of You, The Living by a new arthouse and world cinema club in my home town of Worcester (not theatre, I know, but a cultural initiative I’m keen to support) at the city’s small subterranean Arts Workshop.

In late January I’ll be heading to Birmingham’s Custard Factory for a promenade performance of Measure for Measure by Rogue Play Theatre, a company I’ve been introduced to via the Stan’s Cafe’s blog. Never seen their work before so this one will be a first for me.

I then embark on a series of outings to Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre where I’m currently shadowing the Executive Director as part of my Clore fellowship. Their new season includes some promising shows, and on my hitlist is the trilogy of Neil LaBute plays in the studio, plus Medea (a Northern Broadsides production) and Behud on the main stage.

Also in Coventry, I’ll be heading down the road to the City Arcade shopping centre where Theatre Absolute are leaseholders of a streetside unit for the next year or so, in which they’ll be performing their new show Breathe in the spring.

My former colleagues at Foursight Theatre will be touring their co-production with the ever inventive and charismatic Talking Birds in the spring – a full tour list isn’t yet posted online anywhere that I can see, but I happen to know that West Midlands performances of the cabaret-style show, Forever In Your Debt, include outings at the Arena Theatre Wolverhampton, The Courtyard Hereford and Warwick Arts Centre, so I’ll definitely make it along to one of those.

Talking Birds have got a couple of other projects in the pipeline for 2010 which I’ve also made a note in my diary about: Project 42 at the soon-to-be-reopened mac looks great, as does We Love You City, their autumn show at the Belgrade Theatre about Coventry City Football Club’s winning of the FA Cup way back when.

At Warwick Arts Centre I’ll be taking in Filter’s production of The Three Sisters and attending the Bite Size Festival in March, at which I’m especially looking forward to the premiere of Untied Artists‘ show Al Bowlly’s Croon Manifesto.

Not strictly relevant to the pledge – as it’s taking place at London’s Hampstead Theatre – but care of the creative team at Stratford’s RSC, is the premiere of Dunsinane. Directed by another Clore fellow Roxana Silbert and written by David Greig, I’ll be going along to support.

Other highlights on my radar but slightly off-message as far as West Midlands’ work goes include Bristol Old Vic’s production Juliet and her Romeo, ENO’s production of Satyagraha, a brave and unusual collaboration with Improbable, and Trilogy at BAC, one of the hits of 2009’s Edinburgh Festival I didn’t manage to see.

So, that should keep me busy for a few months and get me started on fulfilling my pledge. Any other suggestions most welcome of course.

Anything of interest?

October 23, 2009

everything is interesting Postcard

The other day I picked up this Kelly Mark postcard from the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham – it caught my eye, it provoked a wry smile, it made me think. At first, I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. Some things I find utterly uninteresting: motor racing, accounts and conversations about walnut trees with my best friend’s ex-boyfriend among them. However, I do of course acknowledge that those same things are greatly interesting to others: my dad, chairmen of boards and the dreaded ex-boyfriend respectively. So in that sense I can accept the artist‘s proposition: one man’s tedium is another man’s thrill; interest is in the interestedness of the beholder, as it were.

This postcard seems particularly pertinent to me right now and its slogan serves as a cosy bedfellow to my Clore fellowship mantra: ‘Be brave. Stay open. Don’t stop learning.’ I have been really challenged over the last few weeks to examine my own learning process, my own surety or otherwise of judgement and my healthy (?) cynicism. When being repeatedly challenged in all sorts of ways, when being provoked as part of a process of encouraging my development, I am aware that my response to something needs to bear as much scrutiny as whatever I’m being asked to consider. So, in the spirit of being brave, open and keen to learn, when I encounter things I feel to be problematic, poorly done or simply missing the point, rather than feeling frustrated by and dismissive of them as I usually do, I’m enjoying calmly assessing my response to them and analysing why I feel that way. And sure enough, I’m learning as much from that self-interrogation as I would do from the more passive admiration of exemplary practices and inspirational experiences.

In place of my usual expressions of dissatisfaction, I’m trying to ask – and in fact finding it increasingly easy and instinctive to ask – questions such as: ‘Why am I disengaged / angered / frustrated / dissatisfied?’; ‘Why doesn’t this play / conference / event work?’; ‘Why am I bored by this format?’; ‘Why am I unable to engage with this speaker?’; ‘Why am I being resistant to this approach?’. All of which, after an appropriate amount of self-criticism-cum-soul-searching, leads to the reciting of a more positive catechism: ‘How might I approach this differently to feel more engaged / less frustrated?’; ‘How are others able to appreciate this and what am I missing to enable me to do so also?’; ‘How might I have organised this event / structured this format / contextualised this experience differently?’; ‘How might these pitfalls be avoided?’; ‘How can I ensure I am able to see the flaws in my own work as clearly?’; ‘How might I get more out of this?’.

Of course, what I am finding is that if I answer these questions honestly and with due pause for thought, once I have gone through the initial phase of frustration or disappointment with an experience, I then find I am able to learn more from it than had the experience been a success in the first place. I should stress that these experiences are in the minority: in the main I am finding inspiration, stimulation and delight all over the place. And while there is real value and joy in meeting and learning from experts and role models, and from engaging in intelligent conversation with stimulating peer groups and sophisticated thinkers, I am also learning that what I can learn from less satisfactory experiences can on occasion be more salient.

I cannot, for example, ever hope to emulate Tim Smit – I do not have his unorthodox combination of infectious passion and radicalism – or Michael Kaiser – I do not have his levels of self-discipline, blinkered determination and relentless single-mindedness. I have found listening to them both recently to be hugely memorable, utterly inspiring, refreshing and deeply significant experiences. But I know that I can never do what they do how they do it. So there is something reassuringly practical in the process of analysing less inspirational, less convincing, less good experiences and challenging myself to meet my own criticism square on and figure out how I might better it were I in a situation to do so.

I don’t of course always know the answers; on many occasions I only know that I don’t know. And even if I think I know, I don’t for one second presume I could execute the theory any better than others who I feel have failed. But what I do know is that I’m beginning to find it a very useful process of self-awareness and self-perception, and therein, I hope, it offers me some promise of self-improvement in the dim and distant future.

Beneath the labels

September 23, 2009

Today’s afternoon session on the Clore Leadership programme, led by Sandy Nairne and Gus Casely-Hayford, focussed on the issue of diversity in the arts. It’s a subject that I have thought on a lot over the last few years, having worked for companies whose work has stemmed from communities who often find themselves in a minority of one sort or another, but my response to the session was more complicated and more challenging than I had expected. So before my head hits the pillow for the night, I want to work through some of this complexity.

As expected, the discussion was relatively wide-ranging, although, as ever in time-limited conversations, only able to skim the surface of some intricate and deeply personal issues. Topics touched on included identity (both created by and in protest against imposed labels), concepts of the mainstream and the margins, of nationalism and interculturalism, and of reductiveness and homogeneity. Participants in the discussion included people of various nationalities, ethnicities, and sexualities.

Despite believing passionately in the importance and relevance of the conversation, I did not contribute, and felt increasingly uncomfortable about my inability to participate. I realised that, coming as I do from various communities which are all traditionally representative of the UK mainstream – white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class – I felt increasingly unable to enter the conversation, for fear of being seen to be an inappropriate spokesperson on the issue. I found myself very wary of errors of imposition, of assumption, of cultural ventriloquism: colonialism by another name. Whoever’s story it was to tell, or point to make, I certainly didn’t feel that it was mine.

And yet, through hesitancy on joining the discussion, I worried that I was guilty of the equal but opposite crime of appearing not to engage, not to acknowledge or admit the importance of the conversation. Something that couldn’t be further from the truth.

With my path through life having been inadvertently smoothed by belonging to multiple majorities, I now find it deeply difficult to know how to enter and support the conversation around diversity without, by default, reinforcing the voice of those already dominant majorities to the detriment of voices that have for too long gone unheard. I am rarely, if ever, referred to as white, heterosexual or able-bodied: they may be my labels, but they are ones that go largely unmentioned. My white, heterosexual, able-bodied experience is rarely remarked on in those terms. I pass under the radar, without having to live up to or shake off assumptions about or categorisations of my identity (/identities). Consequently, I do not want my voice in a conversation to strengthen a mainstream identity against which those who identify with minority indentities have to struggle to be heard in their own words.

In splendid isolation – Bore Place

September 15, 2009

So finally, after months of growing anticipation, my Clore Fellowship journey has officially begun, and I find myself at the fabled Bore Place – an organic farm cum retreat in the depths of Kent, where internet connection is gloriously temperamental and where mobile phone reception is non-existent. As the first chapter in our journey, all this year’s fellows – we are known as the Clore 6’s, being the sixth annual cohort – have gathered for a fortnight’s input, discussion, stimulation, debate, and, apparently, a lot of organic cake. It feels splendidly remote – our main connection with the outside world is the stack of newspapers on the breakfast table, although to be honest these in the main seem to be ignored in favour of unusually vivid and incisive morning conversation over toast and tea.
We are a group of 23 fellows, mostly strangers to each other – with the exception of the initial day conference in June – until 48 hours or so ago, but the combination of this provocative fortnight with the isolation of our temporary home is a heady one, and encourages boundaries to be broken down quicker than perhaps many of us would be used to. Something of a mantra for our experience was articulated by way of introduction on day one: “Be brave. Stay open. Don’t stop learning.” and already the conditions of our visit here certainly encourage, indeed almost necessitate, the first two of those. The sharing of ideas, abstracts, principles and aspirations with each other can feel surprisingly intimate and exposing, but since it is also clear that the rewards the programme has to offer are likely to be afforded in greatest abundance to those who give themselves to the experience entirely, it is also surprisingly easy to open yourself to the challenge of it in the safe space created amongst a group of formidably bright, interesting, sparky, like-minded colleagues.
Shortly before arriving here, all fellows were asked to submit – purely for the eyes of the rest of the cohort – a paragraph on what was most important to us. It dawned on me then that even a simple exercise like this could present a challenge of intimacy, of sharing, of exposure. It seemed to me that there was only really one way of answering this question: to answer it deeply, wholly, perhaps painfully, truthly; to give myself to the articulation of my most precious loves and trust in a group of near strangers to receive my answer openly, supportively, sensitively. It felt like a kind of nakedness.
I suspect this is only a gentle first exercise in a complex learning process that, in order to deliver its richest lessons, depends on my making myself vulnerable. But just now, with the first small hurdles behind me and an incipient trust in the community of my fellow fellows, that vulnerability doesn’t seem quite so challenging as it first did.

The Things That Matter To Me The Most
My husband, marriage, friends, family, and my home. Travelling, opening my eyes, learning, thinking. Memories, capturing and sharing them. Music. Doing my best, earning respect from those I respect. Being stimulated by what I do. Having the health and energy to live life to the full. The necklace my mum gave me on my wedding day. Old photos. Being able to believe that the future has exciting potential. Freedom and independence. Having the courage to be unconventional, but the integrity to be true and honest about it, not gratuitous. Having time to be frivolous. Sharing a bottle with old friends. Having private time and space to be myself. Tolerance, difference, fairness, intelligence. Books. Succeeding at challenges. Improving. Making the most of an opportunity. My violin. Perspective and passion, indulgence and discipline in equal measure.

Clore Fellowship research: from many acorns

July 31, 2009

A couple of days ago I arrived home from one of those wearisome days at work to be cheered by the post awaiting me on my doormat: for once there was no nuisance junk mail, no pesky bills even, just two delightful packages. One, a cd of the wonderful veteran Cuban guitarist / singer Eliades Ochoa – a present from my husband currently 8000 miles away on work – and the other, my contract for the Clore fellowship I’m about to embark on.

And the latter, of course, re-ignited my thinking about the Clore fellowship experience awaiting me just round the corner now. In a couple of weeks’ time, I have a meeting with the Clore staff to discuss ideas and plans for the year, and the combination of this appointment with a renewed awareness that the start of this journey is now very imminent has prompted me to turn my attention to articulating some of the rather vague thoughts that have been circling in my head for the last few months.

One of the elements of the fellowship I am particularly looking forward to is the research: fellows are asked to produce a 20,000 word paper on an aspect of cultural leadership that interests them in the course of their year, a process that is supervised by a university-based academic. I gather that mine might be a rather odd attraction to this part of the fellowship – I think it can be a daunting part of the programme, or for some people it can seem far too akin to ‘homework’ to be met with a groan. I, though, have to confess to missing the academic rigour and intellectual stimulant of that sort of process: I certainly feel my brain hasn’t worked in that way since university, and although my working life has most definitely not been short on challenges, they’ve been of a very different kind and haven’t stretched the old grey matter in anything like the same cerebral way. I am well aware that my brain doesn’t currently feel capable of the sorts of academic gymnastics it enjoyed in my precocious student years, so I am looking forward to once again grappling with thoughts, ideas, concepts, principles, abstracts and hypotheticals. Although, this time, with hopefully less precociousness and more professional experience to rough the neat abstract theories up a little, and bring a bit of realistic grit and profanity to the holiness of thinking.

I don’t feel anything like ready to settle on a particular topic to research as yet, but I have got as far as collating some half-articulated thoughts on various areas I’m interested in. My hope is that one or other of these little acorns might sprout some shoots which hold enough promise for developing into a full paper in due course. My embryonic subjects in need of much further thought are as follows:

1. Presenting international theatre
What is the role of the cultural leader in creating a context for international work? Whose story is it to tell? What foundations need to be laid – and how? – in order for it to communicate with an audience / reach its widest audience? What are the effects of globalisation on the creation and development of cultural voices? Does the international reach of these voices mean they are being diluted or strengthened? Does the internationalisation of theatre benefit audiences and what role needs playing in order to best serve audiences with this globalised cultural offer?

2. The non-creative creative
What is the role of a ‘non-creative’ cultural leader (i.e. someone not defined by that term ‘creative’, usually referring to directors, designers, choreographers, etc.)? How can a ‘non-creative’ leader be creative? Is there a place for ‘non-creative’ creativity in the cultural sector? How can they grow a creative space / organisation? What is the relationship between ‘creatives’ and ‘non-creatives’? Is there a creativity in the silent space between them, in the tension?

[And, by way of a sub-question: how can I be a ‘non-creative’ when my best thinking is done at 1am?]

3. Autocracy versus democracy in the arts sector
Leadership versus collaboration; hierarchy versus non-hierarchy; leadership versus democracy? Are these things in conflict with each other within arts organisations? Are they mutually exclusive, complementary, co-existential or symbiotic? Is there room for strength of artistic vision and principles of collaboration to co-exist? Is there a benefit to this? Where do autocratic and democratic models of cultural leadership serve the arts best?

4. Leadership and risk
What potential is there for risk and failure within cultural leadership in the current climate? How can leadership allow for, encourage, and embrace failure brought about by risk? How much is leadership actually about being the one who takes the risk, who leads the failure? Can failing be leading? In fact, if an arts scene without failure is a stultified and stagnant one, does the success of our arts sector depend upon its failures? Failure breeds success; it defines excellence through being a foil, through being a motivation to do better, to tell the truth more truthfully, to speak more powerfully, more honestly. Failure is our drinking water – what if there weren’t any?
[Some of these thoughts came to me during a Metapod Connect session this afternoon in which Pete Ashton mentioned the Failcamp scheduled to take place in Birmingham in October – a glorious celebration and sharing of spectacular failures and the lessons resulting from these experiences.]

5. Only Connect: touring companies and their audiences
How do non-building-based touring companies grow and maintain a relationship with a nationally disparate audience? Can a touring company lay claim to an audience as their own rather than borrowing them from a receiving house? What chance is there for cultural leadership to create the conditions for growing that audience from afar?

I think at the moment the ones that seem like the choicest pick of the bunch are the thoughts about presenting international work and about risk and failure. Two topics that perhaps are related, and perhaps they seem the most interesting because they raise the most – or the most difficult – questions.

I genuinely want to challenge myself to research questions I don’t already think I know how to approach, or about which I’ve already made up my mind. I want to scare myself. I want to open up a void and dive in to its surprises.


Leadership vs Leaderlessness

June 9, 2009

‘Blind leading the blind’, ‘herding cats’, ‘led up the garden path’, ‘you can lead a horse to water’, ‘led by the nose’… the idioms on leadership go on. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of my acceptance on the Clore leadership programme, my thoughts have recently turned to the issue of leadership, both in the general and in the specific. In the general: what makes good arts leadership? is essentially the question at the heart of the matter. In the specific: what sort of arts sector leader do I want to be, or do I have the most potential to be, and how do I go about getting there?
Given that this is very early days in my Clore process – so early that I haven’t technically started my fellowship yet, although I can’t help thinking about it most waking moments and some sleeping ones as well – all I can do here is set down some of the many questions that are flooding my mind and hope that, over the course of the next year, some answers fall into place. Perhaps not definitive answers, perhaps only assurances that they are the right questions to be asking. I’m not expecting my Clore experience to provide me necessarily with magic answers; just an understanding of the best way to investigate the questions, a deeper understanding of the context within which these questions should be explored, and a more sophisticated understanding of the impact of that context on the questions themselves.
What I find particularly interesting is that, while I’m scouring Amazon for second-hand copies of the most enticing-sounding books on my Clore fellowship reading list, all of which are provoking a flood of questions about arts leadership, I am also currently engrossed by an equal but opposite flood of questions around the concept of leaderlessness. On account of my participation in Fierce Earth’s Metapod Connect course on social media, I’m simultaneously being encouraged to think about the benefits, potential and impact of leaderless organisations, or of unconventionally-powered organisations; organisations that embrace the power of the massed community and empower it.
The serendipitous coinciding of the two courses – Clore and Metapod – has encouraged a particularly inquisitive attitude in me: the combination of both sets of questions feels like a nicely comprehensive interrogation of some big abstract principles, and I feel that the one set sheds some light on the other.
The social media course has so far introduced me to the case study of the troubled gold-mining company who dispensed with the secrecy around its corporate intellectual copyright, published hitherto closely-guarded geological data and received accurate suggestions of future mining sites from the general public. The memorable idea here is of a relinquishing of traditional control, of sharing control for mutual benefit (the proponents of correct suggestions were rewarded with a half a million dollar prize), of allowing a mass to identify and drive an organisation’s activity, rather than an individual. Similarly, the ‘many-heads-is-better-than-one’ school of thought – the social leadership school – is introducing me to concepts of the spider or starfish organisations, a metaphor for top-down, traditionally-led organisations (that die when they lose their head, as would a spider) versus decentralised organisations (that grow a new leg when one is lost, which might in itself grow into a whole new entity, just like a starfish that loses a limb). The implication here, of course, is: starfish good, spider bad, or, to paraphrase George Orwell most cruelly: 5 self-renewing legs good, 8 head-dependent legs bad.
As a counter-balance, the Clore leadership programme, which will I think encourage the examination of many forms of leadership, no doubt among them the facilitative, implied, or collective leadership cited above, is also encouraging me to assess the role, place, need for and real value of pro-active, buck-stopping, decision-bearing leadership. Cultural leadership isn’t just something that kicks in when creative consensus breaks down, but is an active, ongoing and driving force behind many organisations whose success – in its broadest sense – is contingent upon good leadership. A bite-sized chunk of food for thought on this subject comes from Barbara Kellerman, author of Bad Leadership: What it is, how it happens, why it matters (2004), with her contention that ‘good’ leaders and ‘bad’ leaders share the same fundamental character traits: intelligence, energy, drive for power and achievement, decisiveness, and determination. The common denominator in cases of bad leadership, Kellerman contests, is that the followers are as important as the leaders, i.e. there is no bad leadership without bad followership.
So, whether the ‘spider’ model of leadership so mistrusted by the fans of social, leaderless organisations has simply been confused with poorly-led – and, by Kellerman’s contention, poorly-followed – organisations for me remains to be seen. It may, of course, not be a straight-forward choice between subscribing to the concept of leadership or leaderlessness, of one leader or of many co-leaders, like declaring forever whether you be Catholic or Protestant, but rather a question of learning to discriminate between models to find the most appropriate for a certain organisation, project, moment, group of people, or context. Much to explore, chew over and think on as I continue this very open process of questioning, re-questioning and counter-questioning.