Louise Jeffreys: ‘I have never been shy on responsibility’
Despite having moved into performing arts management 20 years ago, Louise Jeffreys, chair of the Association of British Theatre Technicians, says she is still a theatre technician at heart. “The main reason I said yes to the ABTT role was that I felt I had a familiarity with that world, having spent roughly half my career in some technical role,” Jeffreys explains in her office at the Barbican Centre, where she is director of arts.
Leaving Manchester University with a drama degree, she worked as an assistant stage manager at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, under Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald. “There was a lot of international touring, a real sense of us doing something special in terms of scale and space. It was a real powerhouse atmosphere.”
Jeffreys joined the English National Opera in 1984 as props production manager, rising to stage controller in charge of all the running teams, and then technical director. “It was my first important management role. I loved that job, representing the technical team which is so key to delivering a positive experience, but I felt I didn’t want to do it forever.”
Jeffreys felt she had two choices for her future career – administration or programming. She took a job with the Bavarian State Opera in Germany for a year, but found it very hard being in a key management role without being fluent in the language.
Returning to the UK, she became administrative director of Nottingham Playhouse, working alongside co-artistic directors Ruth Mackenzie and Martin Duncan, and taking responsibility for the technical team, front of house and marketing departments.
From there she joined the Barbican in 1999 to run the newly created Barbican International Theatre Events, later becoming head of theatre.
“I’ve never been shy of taking on responsibility,” says Jeffreys when asked the secret of her success. “I did some management training at ENO and I found that immensely useful. You need time to develop management skills and your own personal management style, time to think it through.
“I’ve stayed quite a long time in three or four key jobs so I enjoy working in an environment where I get to know people well. I enjoy seeing people flourish and reach their best. It’s a mixture of motivating people, making sure they feel good about themselves, but also challenging them because most people want to be challenged, don’t they?
“It is also about creating a team made up of different characters, so that your strength is in your differences.”
For Jeffreys, her early backstage years formed the foundation of her career. “I call on the skills I learned in that period of my life every day,” she says.
Those skills – principally teamwork, balancing vision, practicalities and budgets, supporting the creative process – are bound to be helpful in her new role as the guiding light of the ABTT.
“At the heart of ABTT is promoting good practice and advancing education in technical skills. I’m so impressed by the time and energy people give to ABTT. The commitment shown by the members in developing technical skills and safety standards is incredible. We don’t call them volunteers but that’s effectively what they are.”
In the spring issue of Sightline, Jeffreys sets out her stall, citing safety, fundraising and a more diverse membership as areas in need of development.
“There is a need to expand the profile of our membership so our representatives of the range of people working in technical theatre truly reflects the diversity of contemporary Britain,” she writes. “We need to find ways to attract more young people, more women, more people from black, Asian and minority backgrounds, and more people from outside the capital.
“There is no getting away from the fact that the majority of people working in the sound, backstage and lighting departments are male, but more and more women are coming into those jobs. There are no barriers. You have to be quite robust but you don’t necessarily have to be big and strong.
“We’ve already taken on two young advisers to attend ABTT council meetings, Megan Sheeran and Zoe Cotton.”
Stage management is a great place to have come from – it gives you an equal sense of what is right for audiences and what is right for artists
Jeffreys is also very much aware of the two major safety issues currently hanging over the ABTT – plaster ceilings and the enforcement of CDM (construction, design and management) regulations.
“This is a slow and meticulous process, involving a lot of other stakeholders, and our hope is that the guidance we produce helps everybody manage these new regulations. The outcome could not be more important – a safer workplace and a safer environment for audiences,” she says.
On the education and training front, Jeffreys is in favour of a closer alignment of training and assessment to provide meaningful accredited qualifications. She believes it is essential to find a framework that satisfies the industry while providing “an easily navigable landscape for those who wish to develop their skills and knowledge”.
She expresses surprise that an organisation dedicated to nurturing and safeguarding technical skills is in itself so low-tech. There are opportunities to make greater use of social media and online representation to communicate with members, she says.
There is also a need to find other income streams, such as increasing the membership, developing the trade show, and the dissemination of guidance and advice. “I think we should also be more nationwide, reach out to the regions and make sure that not all our events happen in the capital. Another opportunity we could look into is the amateur sector which I think would find our guidance very useful. I’d have thought there was subscription potential there too.”
Working as she has done in the subsidised sector for so long, Jeffreys is acutely aware of the financial hardships afflicting many companies and individuals. “For many members the reality is that more needs to be achieved in less time, with less money and often with fewer people, and all at a time when technological innovations mean that the sector needs to continually enhance its skills and embrace the new,” she says.
There seems little doubt that Jeffreys will give to the ABTT the same commitment and rigour she brings to her job as director of arts at the Barbican. By her way of thinking, one job informs the other. “Stage management is a great place to have come from because you really understand the creative process. You’ve watched it, you’ve seen it, you know what directors, designers, actors want. It is really useful to have had first-hand experience of that in all the jobs I’ve done. It gives you an equal sense of what is right for audiences and what is right for artists.”
With so many demands on her time, you wonder if Jeffreys ever has any time to herself? “I enjoy walking and gardening,” she says. “I find as I get older that it is easier to switch off. I think I work better after I’ve had a rest. If I didn’t, I don’t think I would do a good job. In myself and others, I see taking time off as a positive thing, rather than a sign of not being committed.”