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Why mentors are crucial to the progress of British theatre

Following the success of its show Queens of Sheba, Nouveau Riche has announced a new development pro
Following the success of its show Queens of Sheba, Nouveau Riche has announced a new development pro

Key industry figures tell Lyn Gardner why nurturing diverse new voices has never been so necessary: to rejuvenate and transform the theatre world, and prevent young talent dropping out while attracting new audiences

New Diorama artistic director David Byrne believes theatre is a bit like sex in that “every generation think that they have invented it”. Yet, when it comes to theatre, rather than sex, Byrne is adamant that experienced professionals who have seen it all before are crucial to act as mentors to develop the tyros coming through.

New Diorama artistic director David Byrne: ‘If we don’t take risks, there’s no point in us existing’

“Having access to someone who has been there and done it and made all the mistakes before you is unbelievably helpful,” he says. “I wouldn’t be running a building today if it wasn’t for the Pleasance’s Anthony Alderson, who has been my mentor since I was a 21-year-old boy who didn’t even know how to put a budget together. Whenever I am going to make a new show, he is the first person I talk to about it.”

That professional relationship with Alderson has never had any official footing, and it is a long way from formal high-end arts mentoring schemes such as the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative in which directors including Robert Lepage and Julie Taymor are paid thousands of Swiss francs to mentor rising industry stars.

Byrne and Alderson’s exchanges are more likely to take place over a cup of tea, but have developed into one of the New Diorama chief’s most enduring and rewarding professional relationships. “If it had been a more formal relationship, would it have had the same longevity and stickiness?” Byrne wonders. What he does know is that the relationship has been crucial in his development as an artist and his ability to run a venue successfully.

There are plenty in the industry who now look to Byrne for advice and mentorship, often in a more formalised context through the New Diorama’s support of early-career artists and companies. These include Improbable, the company that runs Devoted and Disgruntled, which often operates as an informal mentoring forum.

Given his own positive experience of being mentored, Byrne is adamant that the industry should find ways to offer support not just to those who ask for it, but those who don’t have the confidence to do so. In some cases, not getting help at the right time can lead to artists abandoning the theatre altogether. “So many people just give up so early on, when, with the support of a good mentor, they might have persevered and built successful careers.”

‘So many people just give up so early on, when, with the support of a good mentor, they might have persevered and built successful careers’ New Diorama Theatre’s David Byrne (above. left), with mentor Anthony Alderson

Mentoring has always been part of the industry, with older theatremakers often taking younger colleagues under their wing. But many of those informal relationships are formed because the mentor recognises something of their younger self in the emerging artist. That leads to many of these relationships being between a mentor and mentee who come from similar backgrounds, and look and sound similar. And this is where it runs into problems.

When theatre is dominated by the same people, it perpetuates the idea of the industry as an old boys’ network in which it is not talent that engenders success but who you know and where you come from. At a time when the industry faces serious questions about its diversity, and how to encourage those from different backgrounds to participate, mentoring has never been more necessary. It’s time for those with successful careers in the industry to give others the benefit of their experience and contact, preferably through schemes that offer much wider access rather than just to their friends’ children.

Director David Loumgair set up Common, an organisation aimed at supporting the UK theatre industry to achieve greater socio-economic diversity and open up access to those from working-class backgrounds in 2017. He says: “The Garrick Club is the physical manifestation of everything that is wrong in the arts. You have to be invited to be in the room.

“Lots of people in the industry have a sense of entitlement and a confidence which means they expect to be invited. But those from less privileged backgrounds often suffer from imposter syndrome. I didn’t even know who Ibsen and Chekhov were when I started university.”

Loumgair says he has benefited enormously from informal mentoring relationships with directors Lyndsey Turner and Ellen McDougall – two women who, along with Katie Mitchell, were frequently cited to me as being generous when it comes to connecting with the rising generation over a cup of tea.

He thinks that, in an industry notorious for young artists firing off thousands of emails asking for advice and never getting any response, formalised mentoring schemes are essential. “Formalisation makes the whole process much more transparent and less about an individual’s ability to articulate themselves really well.”

Neil Griffiths, who, along with comedian Josie Long, co-founded Arts Emergency, which describes itself as “the alternative old boy network”, agrees. Over the past seven years, Arts Emergency has been working with 16 and 17-year-olds and targeting schools with a 40% pupil premium – additional funding for publicly funded schools designed to help disadvantaged pupils perform better – and students with little or no access to the arts who may not think that university and a liberal arts degree is for them.

One of Arts Emergency’s first acts was to put the now notorious David Cameron picture of the Bullingdon Club on the wall and ask: Why did these people fall so far upwards in life? “Privilege makes life a buffet from which you can pick and choose what you want,” says Griffiths. “But if you don’t have those networks it is meagre pickings. We are not middle-class missionaries, but we do recognise that there are gatekeepers to culture, and it is less accessible than ever to many at a time of rising tuition fees and when social mobility has bottomed out. Hardly anyone turns up saying they want to go to RADA, but by pairing young people with the right mentor over a year, we are offering them short cuts and initiation into our professional and creative networks. We open eyes to possibility.”

Arts Emergency, which is always looking for new mentors and offers free training and support for them, makes up to 150 pairings a year. “We spend 80% of our time getting the match right,” Griffiths says.

Theatremaker Javaad Alipoor, creator of the international hit show The Believers Are But Brothers, and until recently resident associate director at Sheffield Theatres, reckons that finding the right match is crucial. For him, Madani Younis, recently of the Bush and now creative director of the Southbank Centre, has been an inspiration.

Photos: Alex Brenner/Richard Davenport

‘Finding a mentor who doesn’t feel miles away from where you are is particularly helpful. I tend to click with people who push me hard, and Madani does that’ Theatremaker Javaad Alipoor (above, left), on mentor Madani Younis (right)

“I think a mentor who doesn’t feel miles away from where you are, who occupies a position you feel that you might realistically be able to get to, is particularly helpful,” says Alipoor. He adds that connecting with Younis – “Someone who, like me, had a regional accent, didn’t know anyone in the arts when he was starting out and was also of mixed heritage” – was an important step in thinking that making theatre might be possible for him. “I tend to click with people who push me hard, and Madani does that.”

So, what makes a good mentor? Not being prescriptive seems fundamental, or shaping young talent in the mentor’s own image. “It’s not our job as mentors to tell mentees what to do,” Byrne says. “We can’t be backseat drivers.” The New Diorama has helped mentor emerging companies including Nouveau Riche, Breach Theatre and This Egg through its Untapped Awards in conjunction with Underbelly.

Underbelly and New Diorama reveal winners of Untapped Edinburgh competition

Sarah Brigham, artistic director of Derby Theatre, has made it her mission to support and mentor a raft of emerging theatremakers. She says: “You mustn’t try to turn them into yourself. A good mentor recognises an artist for who they are. A good mentor asks questions and helps a mentee get to their own conclusion. Often what you are helping them with isn’t about art, it’s about having a tricky conversation with a venue or knowing what they are allowed to ask for in a negotiation.”

Most of all, Brigham thinks that part of the job of a good mentor is to help open doors that might otherwise remain shut. She is not alone. Loumgair says the importance of a mentor offering access to a venue director that a young artist has been emailing fruitlessly for months cannot be underestimated. That feeling of being denied access and needing help to get in is a common one. Jack McNamara, who heads up national touring company New Perspectives, which now runs mentoring initiatives, recalls a time earlier in his career when it felt as if “every door had an iron lock on it to keep you out”.

‘You mustn’t try to turn mentees into yourself. A good mentor recognises an artist for who they are’ Sarah Brigham, Derby Theatre

That may be why he and Brigham are so eager to help others get through the door. As a female theatremaker from a working-class background, Brigham sometimes felt early in her career that some above her in the hierarchy – the very people who should have been helping her advance – were more intent “on keeping me in my box – the advice they gave me worked to keep the glass ceiling intact”.

When Brigham got the job at Derby she decided to pay for some high-quality independent mentorship for herself. “I saw it as an investment in myself. I was scared, I felt that maybe I didn’t know what I should be doing and I didn’t have the networks, the friends of friends I could ask. I needed someone who I could talk to not just about my directing practice but also about the business side.” It’s not that unusual; there are several others running buildings who have paid or still pay for mentorship, and all of the ones I know of come from diverse backgrounds. Does that reflect that these informal relationships largely develop between those from more privileged circumstances, and point to the lack of diversity higher up the chain?

Jack McNamara. Photo: Pamela Raith
Photo: Pamela Raith

‘At the start of the relationship you need to spell out what you can and can’t do’ Jack McNamara, New Perspectives

Increasingly, more sustained schemes such as the Clore Fellowships or Artistic Directors of the Future include mentoring as a standard part of their programme. The National Theatre offers mentorships as part of its NT Apprenticeships schemes, Accelerate – a development programme for disabled and black, Asian and minority ethnic employees at the NT, the Royal Opera and the Southbank Centre, and for seven years it has run a programme called Step Change in which 100 participants – mostly in producing and admin roles – have benefited from mentoring, coaching and masterclasses. The scheme is currently on hold while its impact is being evaluated.

There is also a growing number of theatre companies that are joining Improbable, which has developed ‘elder status’ in this area, long pioneering mentoring ‘fetes’ connecting experienced theatremakers with those looking for advice.

Sheffield-based Third Angel is one such company, offering both artistic and administrative mentoring for those wanting to make a career in theatre, whether as artists, producers or general managers. It was something it had been doing for a long time on an informal basis, but which has now become one of the planks of the company’s national portfolio organisation funding.

“We’re not setting ourselves up as experts, but we do have a lot of experience and it’s good to share it,” says Hilary Foster, executive producer at Third Angel. The company has long-term, informal relationships with artists including Action Hero, but formalising its mentoring programme means the company has widened the scope of those who apply – “Rather than developing relationships with those we just happened to trip over” – and also ensures that the company has the available capacity to give mentees what they really want and need.

Matching the reality of what such a relationship brings to the expectation of the young artist is a crucial part of the mentor/mentee relationship. There is often a gap, whether it’s the expectation that the mentor will provide a direct conduit to National Theatre director Rufus Norris, or the hope that the company will drop everything else it is doing to produce the mentee’s project.

“At the start of the relationship you need to spell out what you can and can’t do,” says McNamara of New Perspectives, “otherwise everyone ends up feeling frustrated.” Then, once the rules of engagement are outlined, the relationship can be enormously rewarding, not just for those being mentored by also for those doing it. And each one should be individually tailored as each mentor and mentee is different. It’s why Third Angel is so keen on creating bespoke mentoring relationships. One size does not fit all.

“We make the work we are interested in making,” says Third Angel’s co-artistic director Alexander Kelly, “so it challenges us when working with someone else on their show to think how we might make that work. Being in other people’s processes keeps us match fit. There is also an awful lot of job satisfaction, particularly when someone goes on to have a success with the show, and it reminds you that you do actually know some stuff.”

Inevitably, long-term mentoring relationships shift and change as careers progress. What began as a mentoring relationship with Action Hero has now developed into a friendship, and one in which it is sometimes Third Angel asking for the advice. “Action Hero is massively successful at international touring,” says Kelly, “so sometimes we are the ones doing the asking.”

Alexander Kelly in Third Angel’s 600 People. Photo: Richard Kenworthy

‘There’s a lot of job satisfaction when someone goes on to have success – it reminds you that you do actually know some stuff’ Alexander Kelly, Third Angel

Byrne believes that one of the reasons for the success and longevity of his relationship with Alderson is that right from the start and even when the experience gap between them was huge, the older theatremaker “never made me feel I was just starting out and knew nothing. It was always an adult to adult relationship. Too often such relationships replicate an adult/child relationship and that is much more difficult to negotiate as careers take off.”

“He’s never said don’t do it, and he seldom gives direct advice, but he throws an idea around with you and makes you interrogate it,” he adds. “That’s one of the things that a good mentor does.”

At whatever stage of a career, Byrne believes it is useful to have someone outside of a theatremaker’s circle of collaborators who “you can talk frankly to about the challenges you are facing, and about things that you may feel you can’t immediately share with your board or staff”. And Third Angel’s Kelly agrees. “We do a lot of mentoring but sometimes even now I think it would be useful for us to have a mentor.”

Several people, who would not be named but were all older and well established in their careers, told me they were suspicious about the growth of mentoring in theatre. One implied that the demand for more formalised mentoring relationships reflected a neediness on the part of young theatremakers.

Third Angel’s Foster disputes the charge. “When I look back to the challenges we faced 20 years ago when we were starting out, the landscape has changed dramatically, and it’s much tougher out there now than it was for us.

“They arrive in theatre already burdened by student debt and it is so much harder to earn a living with funding pots greatly reduced and venues so risk adverse. I don’t think these young artists think the world owes them anything, and they work very hard. If mentoring is the helping hand they need to push doors open and make things a little easier, then it’s up to us to extend it.”

Early in the new year, when a lot of people are re-evaluating their careers and looking at ways to develop, becoming a mentor or a mentee may well prove fruitful. New Diorama’s Byrne adds: “There is a real joy to helping other people succeed. Sometimes you enjoy other people’s success more than your own.”

A selection of Industry mentors

Devoted and Disgruntled

New Diorama Theatre


Arts Emergency

Derby Theatre

New Perspectives

Clore Fellowships

Artistic Directors of the Future

NT Apprenticeships

Step Change

Third Angel

Action Hero

Related to this article

Lyn Gardner: Finding a good mentor is crucial  for a successful theatre careerLyn Gardner: Finding a good mentor is crucial for a successful theatre career

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