So my commitment to a monthly blog lasted just two issues, as the post-Edinburgh glow dispersed and September became really busy. This, then, is quite a short one to get me back on track.
I’d promised myself not to take on too much in my sabbatical year but when really great people ask you do to very interesting things it’s hard to say no.
This week I submitted quite a substantial piece of work for Edinburgh International Festival - contributing to the organisation's strategic thinking for 2020-24 - and finished an advisory piece for Phoenix Dance Theatre on international partnerships as they approach their 40th anniversary in 2021. Last weekend a London Borough of Culture bid on which I was leading was submitted and last month I had a really nice afternoon facilitating a meeting for the trustees and senior staff team at Shoreditch Town Hall.
So I’m coming up for air today but need to knuckle down again next week as I start working with Chris Goode and Company, the National Theatre of Parramatta in Western Sydney and Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod on their strategic plans from 2020. I couldn’t have asked for more variety and richness of opportunity. These three take me through - in stages - to next March.
Meanwhile I’m supporting an MA in collaborative theatre-making at Rose Bruford College. The 11 students on the course are from six countries and it has been fascinating to see them arrive, adjust and gel as a group. I am introducing them, over these first few months, to sector experiences and folk.
On the evening of their very first day we went to the Yard Theatre in Hackney to see Oona Doherty’s quite extraordinary The Ascension into Lazarus as part of Dance Umbrella. What a way to begin. This week they had a session with West End and Broadway movement director - and Frantic Assembly co-founder - Steven Hoggett, next week will see a work in progress by Irish writer and performer Fionnuala Gygax that I saw at Dublin Fringe Festival, and in December they’ll spend an evening in the studio with Mavin Khoo and Akram Khan.
Oona Doherty in The Ascension into Lazarus at Dance Umbrella. Photo © Simon Harrison
It’s 20 years since I completed my own MA at City University and useful though it was, I emerged with lots to find out about how the world worked. So to help this group a bit I’ve organised a ‘producers’ panel’ so they can get a sense of the kind of questions they might be asked as they start to seek out opportunities to create and present work, and the programming thinking and decision-making that happens at festivals and venues they may want to work with.
Two members of the panel will be Stella Kanu, executive director at LIFT and Shawab Iqbal, currently at Boy Blue Entertainment and the Bush Theatre and soon to be executive producer at Eclipse Theatre.
Stella is chair of Eclipse and I am a trustee. I worked with her on the recruitment of Shawab as executive producer and Amanda Huxtable as artistic director and CEO. I’ve been recruiting individuals and teams for more than 20 years and I learnt more from this process than from any I have previously been involved with.
It seems to me that however well-meaning we are as people whose job it is to find excellent people for the organisations we work for or support, we generally set up an uncomfortable, stilted environment into which a practical stranger is invited, with no warm-up, to jump through hoops. We’re holding the hoops of course and they keep changing height. And then (‘Any questions for us?’) we expect the exhausted person to finish up with a big - but not too ostentatious - walk-down.
The atmosphere Stella created for the Eclipse interviews was more generous. She opened by asking each candidate to ‘tell us more, not less. We are really interested in your answers’. Panel members had questions to guide us through a process of rigourous interrogation - our responsibility as trustees of a publicly funded company - but Stella’s invitation was for the candidates themselves to steer the conversation. As a result it was more personal to them, more accommodating of the individual views and ideas they wanted to express and more ‘permitting’ of any challenges they wanted to raise. As a result we all found out more.
It was a fascinating and - for me - revelatory process which I really enjoyed. I never want to be involved in one of those stilted, hoop-jumping processes again.
So in Amanda and Shawab we have the Eclipse dream team - with a wealth of experience, understanding and creative vision - and I cannot wait to see what happens once they get started together early next year.
I’ve taken on a chairing role myself. The British Council’s new (female) board lead Stevie Spring prefers the term chairman, and while I have studiously avoided it for years she makes it feel strangely neutral. But I think I’ll stick to ‘chair’ and post news on who it is that will be ‘round the table with me next week.
Stella Kanu (centre) with Amanda Huxtable and Shawab Iqbal of Eclipse Theatre. Photo © Sharron Wallace