“It’s time to bugger off and let someone else have a go,” said David Jubb last Friday announcing his departure from Battersea Arts Centre after 20 years at the Lavender Hill venue, 15 of them as artistic director.
His typically understated wording, with its lack of ego, made me smile. Knowing when it is time to leave a theatre you love, and have dedicated a large part of your career to, is an art in itself. Many artistic directors can’t let go; they keep their fingers in the pie for too long, when what the pie really needs is an infusion of new ingredients and flavours.
Jubb’s announcement framed his departure not as a leave-taking, but as an amazing opportunity for someone else to take the BAC forward. And the announcement wasn’t just about him. It also revealed the departures of artistic associate Shelley Hastings and associate artistic director Sarah Golding, both of whom have been enormously important players in the venue’s evolving journey over the past 15 years.
On that journey, the organisation has weathered numerous crises from the negotiation of the lease with Wandsworth Council to the devastating fire in the grand hall. But even during the tough times it has always been ahead of the curve in constantly questioning how it operates, how its public space may be best used and what its purpose is, not just for the wider theatre ecology but for the community in which it immediately sits.
For Jubb and his colleagues, setting up the Agency – to support social enterprises imagined by young people – has been as important as nurturing the careers of companies such as 1927, Little Bulb, Punchdrunk and Kneehigh.
In Jubb’s early days on Lavender Hill he saw the mission as “creating the future of theatre” but he has come to understand much faster than many running our theatre buildings, that the purpose was to create, support and commit to those beyond theatre using the same creative tools and devising and scratch processes that are used in it.
It’s why Battersea is as likely to be nurturing the development of a board game about the choices you might make growing up on a Wandsworth housing estate as a new theatre piece. They are not mutually exclusive enterprises but inform each other. We need more thinking like this in theatre.
While other venues focus inwards on themselves and wring their hands about how they can diversify and increase audiences for their programme, Jubb has understood that change happens when you look outwards, work from the ground up and address the needs of those around you.
People want to join in when they are supported and are invited to genuinely connect and collaborate in the way that they want to, not in the way the artistic director of a theatre thinks they should.
But to work this way, artistic directors need to let go of their own egos and beyond that, work against the ego of the organisation they lead, which often places a higher value on itself than on those its serves and should be serving.
Jubb has done that magnificently at the BAC, with enormous grace, and in the process he and his colleagues have given us a glimpse of the evolving role of a building in providing support for all types of creative activity and not just theatre.
He leaves to raise children and vegetables – a case of both raising the future and nourishing it. That is effectively what he has done at BAC for the past 15 years. I, along with many, will miss his passion, his quiet self-deprecating wit and his hats. But we won’t forget how he helped show a way that the arts might operate in the 21st century not just for the benefit of a few but the many.