The Artistic Director Leadership Programme has made significant progress in encouraging diversity among arts leaders since it began in 2017, says co-founder Natalie Ibu – but ideally such schemes wouldn’t need to exist
It is highly unusual for someone who has benefited from two long-term residencies and countless leadership programmes, is currently in leadership and on the board of an organisation that specialises in residences and has led one of Arts Council England’s Sustain Theatre programmes to declare: please, no more programmes, schemes and initiatives. They’re a distraction — what we need is immediate, effective and lasting change.
But schemes are better than nothing and if we are going to continue to devise them to chip away at the gasp-inducing disparity between the population of England and our arts leaders, they should be designed and delivered by the people they wish to engage.
The Artistic Director Leadership Programme was designed in 2016; the world that this programme was born into was very different. At the time, there were only five people of colour leading regularly funded theatre buildings and nine people of colour leading regularly funded theatre companies.
Academically, I was interested in what theatremaker Javaad Alipoor calls the “racialisation of risk”. Why, in 2016, when boards decided to appoint first-time leaders, were they never of colour? They were mostly white men, sometimes white women.
Perceived risk is mitigated, it seems, when the candidate looks and sounds like those doing the appointing; they’re easier to imagine in the role. So if black, Asian and other peoples of colour were seen as a greater risk, we wanted to equip them with a strategic overview. Boards would need to find different excuses for not appointing people of colour.
Practically, it felt as though all investment – amplified if you’re a person of colour – is aimed at entry-level, with the assumption being that it’s a fair race once you’re in. That’s not true. The sector in 2016 was using people of colour in entry-level roles and in delivering programmes, but keeping us out of strategy, management and leadership.
The organisation I lead, Tiata Fahodzi, was founded 23 years ago, but when recruiting an artistic director in 2010 and 2014, its board members realised they may need to consider closing; the sector was not preparing people of colour with the skills needed to run a small company. We heard this time and again from other companies too.
So we designed a programme to diversify the leadership in theatre buildings. One that would help sustain the existing company by securing opportunities to be promoted and create new companies so that there were more than four funded black theatre companies, more than four funded Asian theatres companies.
It felt like funders were talking over our heads to large companies to solve the problem of diversity
It felt vital that small companies – where inclusion and representation sits in our DNA and in our vision – were the ones to lead the change. For so long it felt like funders were talking over our heads to large companies to solve the problem of diversity.
We know that long-term engagement with companies through residencies do work. When we look at the brilliant leaders of colour who exist, they’ve often had the opportunity to take up space and make a home at a company early(ish) in their career. My organisation was founded by Femi Elufowoju Jr when he was on a residency at Theatre Royal Stratford East through the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme; I am an artistic director because of a transformative residency at London’s Royal Court through the RTYDS and, before that, at New Perspectives.
Matthew Xia was at Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse through RTYDS in 2012, Lynette Linton at the Gate in London, Roy Alexander Weise was at the Royal Court as trainee director and the Bush and Lyric Hammersmith as BBC Theatre Fellow, and Indhu Rubasingham at Theatre Royal Stratford East. There are exceptions, but those are good odds.
The programme was inspired by our academic and practical concerns. It had two strands: four two-year trainee artistic director residencies hosted by the partner organisations (20 Stories High, Freedom Studios, Talawa and Tiata Fahodzi) and Leaders of Tomorrow bringing together 24 theatremakers, writers, producers, actors, administrators, designers, and movement directors to engage in a curated leadership toolkit.
Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t get everything right but we did consult, listen and respond. We designed it from experience of being inside a system that excludes you. We held a Devoted and Disgruntled open space to talk about the language of diversity and representation to ask: “If not ‘BAME’, then what?” We heard loudly that acronyms oversimplify something vast and complex and so remain oppressive. We took note and tried to move on from ‘BAME’ to ‘people of colour’. We didn’t solve everything, but we did insist on change.
Over the three years, we experienced births, deaths, illnesses, relocations and job changes. It was professional, political and personal. The programme had an impact on the organisations as much as it did the 28 engaged leaders.
I’m most proud of the community our leaders built around each other. Our sector is built on people and relationships; that’s not the problem — it’s a problem when you only know one kind of people and they’re like you. The programme introduced 28 people of colour to buildings and employers across England and also introduced us to each other, creating a network and community who will rise together.
We close ADLP in a completely different landscape — we’re only talking about 10 (versus five in 2016) artistic directors of colour of regularly funded theatre buildings and 11 (versus nine) running regularly funded companies, but it feels like a radical new world where anything and everything is possible.
I’d rather there was no longer any need for schemes and programmes but if we have to, how about we put existing leaders on residencies of no longer than five years to encourage the churn that will make space for the leaders of today who are waiting? The thing with programmes, as the brilliant Tobi Kyeremateng points out, is that you have to determine when tomorrow is. When are we all going to get out of the way and hand over the power?
Natalie Ibu is the artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi. Seeds, produced by the company, tours until April 11. Details: seedstheplay.co.uk