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Emma Stenning: Leadership should be joyful and important

Gemma Bodinetz and Deborah Aydon, artistic director and executive director of Liverpool Everyman: Emma Stenning applauds the Everyman's new rep model. Photo: Dan Kenyon
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On press nights at Bristol Old Vic, I like to spend a few moments invoking the memory of Sarah Macready, our general manager in 1832.

She saw the theatre through some tough times, and fiercely defended its creative programme in the face of growing competition from newer spaces in the posher parts of town. She is said to haunt our house right slips, and I often wonder if she’s there on those special nights when we’re packed to the rafters in celebration of a new show.

I find a connection to Sarah, because 185 years ago she did a version of the job that I do now. I enjoy that sense of historical empathy, and the feeling that, somehow, I might have an echo in our theatre’s illustrious history. And I enjoy imagining the sense of wonder and bafflement she would have, if she were ever to peek in on the day-to-day life of her 21st-century counterpart.

Stenning’s 19th-century equivalent Sarah Macready

Because, my goodness, these jobs have changed. No more the theatre manager with the ancient bunch of keys, tossing out tired patrons after last orders, and no more the silent administrator, calculator at the ready, doing the sums but with little creative connection to what goes on stage.

Today’s executive leadership in regional theatre is complex and thrilling. It’s also rarely visible, and often not very well understood.

I’d really like that to change, partly because I look around at my peers and I see brilliant, entrepreneurial visions that should be celebrated from the rafters (bravo Deborah Aydon and Liverpool Everyman’s brilliant new rep model! Bravo Martin Sutherland and Royal and Derngate’s bold ventures into cinema!) but mainly because I want there to be a clearer career path to these roles, so that we can be sure to develop the next generation of leaders.

We’ve long understood the leadership role of our extra-ordinary artistic directors, and I’ve yet to meet an executive director or chief executive (as we increasingly commonly are) who wasn’t driven by the determination to support their AD’s vision, to back their creative voice and to see it permeate every area of their organisation’s life.

Ultimately, it’s about partnership. Because along with that bright inspiration that only an artist can give, we need true business leadership that is financially literate, socially invested and civically minded. In truth, the job of leading a theatre, which was previously held by one person (conventionally the artistic director) is now so complex and time consuming that it is best spread between two. Get that partnership right, and it’s like rocket fuel for the organisation in question.

Today’s Bristol Old Vic is busily transforming itself into a set of collegiate business endeavours; a journey already trod by many of our peers.

We’re a theatre first and foremost, while steadily emerging as a commercially trading catering and events company, a lively heritage destination, and a broad outreach programme that is engaging in issues ranging from literacy to refugees. That’s not to mention a £25 million capital programme and some bold steps into the digital realm. We’re also a proud Bristol business, actively engaging in the issues that matter to Bristol businesses, such as transport links, graduate retention and tourism.

Bristol Old Vic isn’t unique in this regard; most regional theatres are embracing this breadth of responsibility, taking real leadership roles in the communities they serve, and understanding, with increasing confidence, the agency at their command when it comes to the challenges facing our modern cities.

To provide executive leadership for a regional theatre, therefore, is to hold an increasingly broad portfolio. The traditional skills of producing and operational understanding remain at the core and are still vital; there is just too much that is illogical about a theatre business for the key decision maker not to have an instinctive understanding of theatremaking, and theatremakers. Plus, of course, it’s the theatre’s creative programme that remains the most volatile and financially vulnerable area of activity – let that get out of your grasp, and you’re in real trouble.

But, alongside these producing skills are a set of competencies that we might not have listed even a decade ago: an aptitude for political engagement at a local, regional and national level; a passion for urban community building that stretches across the education, health and social sectors; an ability to sit across numerous investment relationships, understanding each funders’ priorities while pre-empting their likely shifts in long-term strategy; and some serious financial nous that can deliver a community project, a commercial transfer and a capital development without being knocked off course by a catering franchise and declining subsidy.

We need to think carefully about succession planning, because these jobs are increasingly hard to recruit to. I’m concerned that we’re not clear enough on the skills set needed, nor do we really know what kind of training and mentoring to give potential future leaders so they’re not completely in at the deep end when they get there. And we’ve a long, long way to go when it comes to shifting the diversity of those applying for those jobs in the first place, which is the only way to stay inspired by new ideas, perspectives and opportunities.

More than anything, I want to spread the word that these are joyful and important leadership roles that can stretch, inspire and fulfil you on a daily basis. The big problems land on your desk, yes, but if you’re a big thinker then there really is nothing better than sitting at the heart of a creative organisation, surrounded by practising artists and arts professionals, working out how to maintain momentum, deliver impact and demonstrate value for the city you serve.

It’s not about who’s in charge and who’s boss of whom; it’s about acknowledging that the best cultural organisations are a brilliant combination of creative power and business savvy. So, along with celebrating the inspiration that we all draw from our artistic figureheads, let’s give a little more recognition to the executive leadership that keeps the whole show on the road, pushing it ever forwards in these increasingly uncertain times.

In doing so, we might just illuminate the path for the next generation of Sarah Macreadys.

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