In discussion with a writer recently, it was fascinating to hear their puzzlement at how someone could direct work while developing new work. To them, the two tasks seemed incongruous. So, it got me thinking about different models of artistic leadership.
Of course, not all artistic directors direct. David Lan began his tenure at the Young Vic directing but soon concentrated solely on producing; the Menier Chocolate Factory’s David Babani directs very seldom; the Edinburgh Lyceum’s David Greig and Tamasha’s Fin Kennedy are writer-artistic directors; while the Globe’s Michelle Terry is a rare example of a modern actor-manager (a role that was once standard practice).
However, the vast majority of artistic leaders of subsidised theatres across the country are theatre directors, whereas the majority of commercial companies tend to be led by producers. Though, the newest commercial companies on the block – such as the Bridge Theatre or Elliott-Harper – are jointly led by an artist and a producer.
Interestingly, Clean Break has appointed joint-artistic directors: Roisin McBrinn and Anna Herrmann. The former leads on the main stage work, while the latter leads on the participation and engagement programme – but jointly they take responsibility for providing Clean Break with a holistic artistic vision. The National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have deputy artistic directors, a relatively new development in our national companies’ staffing structure.
I needed to acquire new knowledge and skills
One can understand the puzzlement I observed from the writer. The leap from being a freelance theatre director to artistic director can be daunting. It was even more so for me, as my directing career was still very nascent when the board of Sheffield Theatres took a punt on me. But I soon realised many of the skills of leading a rehearsal process are immediately transferable: keeping people buoyant through clear communication, collaboration, listening and empowering. However, I quickly realised I needed to acquire new knowledge and skills – from HR processes to reading annual management accounts.
One of the benefits of directing at one’s own organisation is the opportunity to experience life on the shop floor – to collaborate in a practical way, with most departments, on the process of making a production. It means you get to experience the process from conception to final performance – and, crucially, spot where the support system could improve so that future theatremakers might benefit from the ongoing refinements. You also get to meet the audience in an immediate and intimate way. And after all, we exist to serve audiences.