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Stephanie Street: Leadership is not just about vision and skill – it’s about listening and learning

Seasoned director Kwame Kwei-Armah directing Nikki Amuka-Bird and Helena Wilson in rehearsals for The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Manuel Harlan Seasoned director Kwame Kwei-Armah directing Nikki Amuka-Bird and Helena Wilson in rehearsals for The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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I had the fortune to spend this week in the company of many theatre directors, some established, some at the start of their careers. It has been enormously instructive, teaching me some valuable lessons.

I met the younger talents during interviews for a job opportunity aimed at early-mid career directors. It was striking how different, and yet how similar, these young creatives were. They were a fairly diverse bunch, taking into consideration their gender, race, place of origin, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. It was heartening to see that the next generation of theatre leaders will be more representative of the wider world than they were when my career started 18 years ago.

An interesting refrain emerged over the course of the interviews. The candidates were asked to talk about something they had seen recently that had impressed and affected them; more than half responded with the same show, for almost the same reasons each time. Summer and Smoke seemed to speak loudly and profoundly to these young directors, for how it brought modernity – with fantasy – to a classical text. I know this was a widely well-received production but nonetheless I was really struck by how it seemed to embody something important for the next generation.

‘It’s heartening to see the next generation will be more representative’

Equally consistent, in terms of the directors’ answers, were the responses to the  question: What quality makes a good director? Some spoke of creative vision, technical skill and the ability to manage actors. The ones that really impressed though, were those who spoke of the need to be a good listener, a listener who hears not only words and ideas, but also hears energy levels, needs and emotions.

Which brings me to the seasoned directors I met. This was in the course of training and development work for Act for Change, about shifting mindset and language around diversity. This lot were confident in the power of their creative muscles. They knew unequivocally what ‘theatre’ means to them, but they were caught slightly adrift in changing times.

They told us they were used to talking about race, age, disability (or any of the markers we place around ‘difference’) in a certain way, using certain language they had grown accustomed to. But they were aware that language and semantics are shifting. They were struggling in a world that sees, for example, gender in a much more nuanced way than they do, in a way that seems revolutionary to them. What was thrilling is how they wanted to learn this new language, learn how to listen more, respond and therefore collaborate better.

I was reminded in those interviews and workshops that excellent leadership – this applies to anything, but above all to a creative venture – requires collaboration, openness and listening. A good way to start the year.

Stephanie Street is an actor and playwright

Marianne Elliott: ‘I’ve thought about giving up because I don’t find directing easy’

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