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Mark Shenton: New leaders will usher in an era of change in 2019

Lynette Linton, Madani Younis and Tamara Harvey. Photos: Bronwen Sharp/Richard Davenport/Eliza Power
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The publication of The Stage 100 last week provided an opportunity to consider the changing nature of artistic influence in British theatre.

Sometimes, this means new faces at the top of our leading institutions. But the list is not limited to artistic directors, who are often the most visible and obvious leadership figures in British theatre: it also includes those that effect change in different ways. While some are changing theatre infrastructure, such as architect Steve Tompkins, who topped this year’s list, others are transforming working practices – like actor Charlene Ford, who successfully campaigned for the right to job-share in West End musical 42nd Street.

A similar feat is being realised by Theatr Clwyd artistic director Tamara Harvey, whose #workingmum tweets brilliantly capture, in Stephanie Street’s words, “the workaday mess, the inevitable guilt and persistent sense of failing someone, somewhere that comes of trying to keep all the plates spinning”.

Last week, Harvey found yet another plate to spin, when one of the cast of Theatr Clwyd’s panto twisted her knee and was unable to carry on. Harvey, who was at home with her children at the time, was drafted in to replace her and – after a 25-minute delay – she was in costume and ready to make sure the show went on.

She follows in the footsteps of National Theatre director Rufus Norris, who – when Harvey’s production of Home, I’m Darling transferred from Theatr Clwyd to the National – also stepped in to save a performance when the lead actor couldn’t go on. Both demonstrated they were true leaders by stepping up to the challenge.

Leadership comes in many different forms, whether visible or behind the scenes. Some people lead industry conversations: Vicky Featherstone, artistic director at London’s Royal Court, rocketed to the top of The Stage 100 last year for leading theatre’s response to the repercussions of #MeToo, helping draw up and publish a code of behaviour for the industry.

She also displayed another important characteristic of leadership: she was ready to acknowledge when she got it wrong, reversing her initial decision to cancel the run of Rita, Sue and Bob Too at the Royal Court, after the show’s director Max Stafford-Clark became embroiled in accusations of historic inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

In different circumstances, Hampstead artistic director Edward Hall answered criticisms of his programming decisions by making a conscientious effort to improve representation of female writers at the theatre.

In west London, Madani Younis (now creative director at the Southbank Centre) provoked a serious change of culture by showcasing artists of colour during his time at the Bush. Now Lynette Linton, who is taking over from Younis there, will continue to act as a lightning rod of change. She is about to direct Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe, for which the cast and crew are all women of colour. As she told the Guardian: “There are incredible women of colour stage managers, choreographers, fight directors, designers, photographers, [and] we’ve got them all. But also it’s like someone tweeted about Beyonce – if she can find 50 black women violinists, why can’t everyone?”

The pace of change is accelerating: Younis became the first person of colour at any major London theatre in 2012. Today, there’s also Kwame Kwei-Armah at the Young Vic, Indhu Rubasingham at the Kiln, Nadia Fall at Theatre Royal Stratford East and Justin Audibert at the Unicorn. As Younis commented in an interview with the Evening Standard, it is important “to have power looking different”.

His new role will place him at the heart of the cultural establishment and conversation. The doors have finally been prised open, and even bigger changes can now happen. As the guardians at the gate change, so will those who are let through. Right now, Natasha Gordon is – astonishingly – the only black British female playwright to have had a play on in the commercial West End with Nine Night. Everything has to start somewhere, but as she said in an interview in the Independent: “It wasn’t something I could celebrate, because I was looking at Winsome Pinnock, Debbie Tucker Green, Bola Agbaje, all these brilliant talented playwrights who, as an actor, when I have learned they’ve got a new play on, immediately I’ve thought I might work this year. It didn’t occur to me that it hadn’t happened before; I felt sad and angry that that is the case.”

I’m reminded of something Clint Dyer told me, when in 2005 he became the first black British director to direct a musical in the West End with his production of The Big Life: “The wonderful thing about being black in this country is that you have an amazing opportunity to be the first at a lot of things.” Hopefully, that will soon no longer be the case.

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