Arts Work podcast
Arts Work is a podcast exploring different roles in the creative industries and how to find your way in
Brought to you by Sadler’s Wells in association with Barclays Dance Pass, Arts Work features interviews with eight inspiring professionals under the age of 40. Each of them has successfully navigated their way into creative industries—the worlds of dance, theatre, museums, and more.
Interviewed by Sadler’s Wells colleagues Ankur Bahl and Phoebe Reith, guests include a stage manager who worked on the London 2012 Olympics, a choreographer who collaborated with Beyoncé and an educator who got her job by rapping in her interview. Each guest shares their unique story, tells us about their work, and how they got in.
Episode 1 - Shay D: rap artist, mentor and educator
Ankur Bahl 0:07
Hi, I’m Ankur.
Phoebe Reith 0:08
And I’m Phoebe,
Ankur Bahl 0:09
And this is Arts Work.
Phoebe Reith 0:12
We work at Sadler’s Wells, a leading dance organisation.
Ankur Bahl 0:15
And this is a podcast where we look at different roles in the creative industries and how you could find your way in. So Phoebe, tell me, who were you speaking to for this episode?
Phoebe Reith 0:27
I was speaking to Shay D who is a totally divine, effervescent, amazingly inspiring woman who you know already-
Ankur Bahl 0:36
She’s a colleague of ours.
Phoebe Reith 0:37
She is a colleague. So Shay D describes herself as a rapper first and foremost, she’s an artist, she’s also an education coordinator at Sadler’s Wells Breakin’ Convention, our hip hop arm, where she project-manages lots of youth work, she mentors young people. She’s also a radio presenter on Represent, and she manages live events, so tonnes of cool things.
Ankur Bahl 0:55
And she is brilliant at managing all of those different things, isn’t she?
Phoebe Reith 0:59
She is. Oh, it was such a pleasure to spend some time with her. She and I used to work in the same building over the road, and she would just come in every morning that she was there when she wasn’t on tour or doing something else cool, just looking totally glam like she just rolled straight out of a music video- which she probably had.
Ankur Bahl 1:14
Yeah. Well, that is not how I look at the morning.
Phoebe Reith 1:16
No, not how I look in the morning either, as you- as you see on a regular basis.
Ankur Bahl 1:20
So why did you think it was important to talk about education in our first episode?
Phoebe Reith 1:24
This is about the creative industries, and if you’re thinking about, ‘Well, what’s any person’s first experience of a creative subject matter?’ You might have been taken to something as a child, perhaps, if you’re lucky, but most people go through school, and they have some kind of education, and hopefully some sort of arts education. When you say the word education that looks a certain way, that is someone probably standing in front of a whiteboard, or like, telling you how to hold your recorder or whatever it might be.
Ankur Bahl 1:50
Sometimes it can be really easy to go, ‘Oh, you’re an artist, so you must be able to teach?’ They’re different things, aren’t they?
Phoebe Reith 1:56
Yeah, they’re totally different. Like, we all know what it’s like to have a terrible teacher. And we also know what it’s like to have an amazing teacher, you know, you can all think back to like, being young or even now, you know, with people you work with, who, if they are amazing at conveying something and you think I just want to be around this person, I’m learning from them. But they are different, you know, because we’ve also seen, there are amazing artists that might not be fabulous at imparting that knowledge with other people. So I think Shay is a brilliant example of someone who does both. And actually also, she finds the teaching side of what she does the most rewarding.
Ankur Bahl 2:30
It feels to me like Shay is also filling a need in communities where that provision isn’t there.
Phoebe Reith 2:36
Totally. And I mean, you know, arts education in this country wildly varies depending on, you know, who you are, where you’re raised, what your school is or isn’t going to prioritise. And it also depends on what your parents are interested in or not. Whereas the kind of education work that Shay does really cuts through to the communities who, who might not have had the brilliant school that has all of the funding or has all of the time. Shay knows how to walk into a room and really command the respect of young people and give them a brilliant time and show them that they can engage with creative subjects, you know, use that as a cathartic moment to express themselves and talk about what they’re going through, and just have a great time with their friends.
Ankur Bahl 3:15
It also feels brilliant to speak to an educator, because up and down the country arts organisations all have ‘learning and engagement’ or ‘learning and participation’ programmes depending on what they call them. So there are jobs, there are roles out there that you can go after.
Phoebe Reith 3:27
Exactly. So if you’re scrolling around on Arts Jobs, you will see ‘education coordinator’, ‘engagement officer’; Shay is the kind of person who’s doing those jobs. We’re gonna get into it, and first Shay is gonna tell you about where she grew up.
Shay D 3:44
I was born and bred in North London, and I’m still in North London. I don’t have anything against South London, but I have lived there a bit and I will never do it again. We moved like, eleven times before my dad basically put me and my mom in Hornsey, and left us there, when I was like seven, and we’ve like basically been there ever since. My mum was a single mum, so my mum brought me up and then my grandparents came over from Iran. My mum was like, into actual art, like painting art, but my granddad was like the more musical and poetic one. Like, we would have dinner and he would just start reciting Rumi-
Phoebe Reith 4:26
Shay D 4:26
Like, cos, we’re Persian, we’re Iranian. So yeah, he would just- I don’t know why he like, knew so many poems off by heart, I guess it’s how we know like rap songs. But he would just like recite stuff, and I’d be like, ‘What’s that?’ like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And then my mum would have to like, translate fully like what- what the poem means. And I really, really got interested in rhyme and like poetry from him. I think that was like, my very first initiation into poetry. And I got into spoken word poetry, but I very, very soon discovered hip hop and rap. We had a satellite dish that would get some Iranian channels for my grandparents to watch. And at night there was like a German music channel and they would play American rap, like at night. So I would be like, ‘Oh my God, who’s this and what’s this, and Jay Z and Foxy Brown and Salt-N-Pepa’, and I started discovering everything from that and I really like, took to it straight away, especially like- I grew up such a tomboy, I only really got more feminine like later in life, but I really identified with a lot of the girls in the 90s that would rap because they were all in like baggy tracksuit dungarees, they didn’t care what they looked like, and they were like, so feisty and just audacious and I loved it. Yeah, I think that was how I really got initiated into like, art.
Phoebe Reith 5:45
Mm. At what point did you think ‘Oh maybe I would perform’ or, you know, did the performing element- where did that come from?
Shay D 5:52
I was the only child for my mum, I was the only child till I was about twelve, thirteen. And then my dad had two kids with someone else and then a kid with someone else again after that. While I I was an only child, I think I would have to keep myself busy a lot, so- this sounds really weird, but I would kind of like, act things out by playing different characters myself, cos you’ve only got yourself really to like, entertain yourself, right? I would just like, write poems or raps and stuff and just perform them in my room. And then sometimes my grandparents would be like, ‘What are you doing in there? What are you saying in there?’ So I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m like making a show for you guys’, so then I would go into the living room after I’ve done stuff and I would perform to like my grandparents and my mum, I would make- literally make them sit down and watch me. And I will never forget, one time I like, wanted to perform, I think it was a Destiny’s Child song and then I’d written a rap to it as well, and I basically said to them that I didn’t want to look at them. So I was like ‘I’m gonna turn my back’ because I was shy. I turned my back to them and not only that I had put headphones into the hi-fi so they couldn’t even hear the music, all they could hear was me, right-
Phoebe Reith 7:07
Were you facing a wall?
Shay D 7:07
I was facing the hi fi, so my back was to them. So they’re all three sitting there, I swear to God, I like performed with all my might, and then when I turned around to bow no one was there. Like, they had all gone. And I was like, ‘What?’ I literally went into, like, the corridor and they were all standing behind the door like, laughing their heads off. And honestly, like I think after that I could never be as ever embarrassed as that when I would ever perform. It could never be worse than that time that my own family parred me and did not want to see me perform. Yeah, it wasn’t something I wanted to do. So I knew when I later in school, all the boys were like MCing to grime and garage and I was joining in and it was from- more from late teenage-hood that I started doing it more.
Phoebe Reith 7:53
And were there other- you say that the boys were MCing at school?
Shay D 7:56
Phoebe Reith 7:57
Were there other- were there other girls on the scene as well? Or did you feel like, were you on your own with that?
Shay D 8:01
Yeah, no, in- in my school, like a really big group of boys used to MC, I was literally the only girl that was rapping with them. And it was only like much, much later that- when you would find another female rapper, you’d be like, ‘Oh, my god, you MC, yes!’ like, and you’d be really happy. Yeah, it was pretty lonely, like at the beginning.
Phoebe Reith 8:20
If you think back to Shay rapping with or MCing with the boys in school, you know, at that time did you know that the kinds of work you’re doing now existed? Or could you visualise other people five, ten years older than you who were doing things you’d think, ‘Oh, yeah, I’d like to- I’d like to be like them, or I’d like to have their job’?
Shay D 8:37
I only remembered recently that I went to a project myself, I had actually forgotten that I did this. One of the very first performances, which wasn’t my grandparents running away from me, like a real performance, was somewhere called Logan Hall, and it was a showcase. Now I understand that it was a young people’s showcase that all the adults had put on, which would have been our artists mentors. And now because I run that I can totally see what was going on. And one of my friends was like, ‘Oh, there’s a workshop thing happening.’ I don’t even think it was called a workshop then, I think she was just like, ‘There’s something going on’, kind of thing in West London in Acton, and we went, like for quite a few Saturdays, we wrote lyrics, we recorded stuff, they made us a little CD. And it was like raising money for a Muslim youth- like a child line, but for like Muslim young people at the time. And then we performed at Logan Hall and I remember my mum, my stepdad, my cousins,like, everyone came to see us perform. And the workshop tutor, the rap tutor, was a girl called Renee- really recently, I was thinking back and I saw photos of that first performance and stuff and I was like, oh my god, this was a project and these were our artists, mentors, and she was a rapper. She used to do battle rap. And she was mentoring us. So I don’t know if subconsciously that actually went into like my mind, and I ended up basically fulfilling that role that she did with us. So yeah, that’s really interesting, because at the time, I didn’t really know about that as a career, and it’s only till recently that I look back and I understood what that job was.
Phoebe Reith 10:20
Yeah, but clearly, whoever was doing that job was doing it well, and it was having an impact on these young people.
Shay D 10:28
100%, yeah. 100%.
Phoebe Reith 10:29
Yeah, with the education work you do with Sadler’s Wells, can you just describe that in a couple of sentences?
Shay D 10:34
For Sadler’s Wells, I run youth projects for Breakin’ Convention, which is to mentor and develop young people who are interested in becoming performing artists or developing and exploring a career in the arts.
Phoebe Reith 10:51
Is that a job title, if you like, that you knew existed?
Shay D 10:55
Yeah no, I did, because I was doing loads of youth work and managing youth projects for about eight years before this job. So I initially started running rap workshops for an organisation called The Complete Works, and they were based in Brick Lane, and we were running a 3-4 day hip hop theatre projects in Thurrock, for the schools there. So we would go into schools, perform at an assembly, get the young people to sign up to do the workshops, and then we would run these three day workshops with them and put showcases on. And then I met a lot of other artists mentors on that, and then they would kind of like recommend us to do something for another organisation. And on the estate that I grew up on, there used to be a little van that would drive down into the estate, and then the back doors of the van would open and then these DJ decks would be pulled out, and then basically all the kids would come around the van and take the mic and perform, and they were doing outreach. And I kept seeing them and I kept wanting to go up to the van and talk to the people on it, but I didn’t. I was really shy, which is strange. But I was really shy, and I kept seeing them, and then funnily enough, one of my friends said to me, ‘Oh, I saw a van with some decks duh duh duh duh in- outside one of the shopping centres in London, I took their number for you, should call them’, and I realised it was the same people and I was like, this is a sign, maybe I should ring these people. So I called and there’s an MC called Lady MC, she’s a drum and bass MC, her name is Kerry, she runs this, kind of MC and DJ Academy, and she invited me down and I started volunteering with them and working with them and stuff, and then I eventually got a job as an artist mentor with them.
And also a community centre in my area- there was a lot of like youth violence happening around, there was a lot of like, stabbings and fights and stuff like that, and I just started going to different places and saying ‘Hi, I do this’, and you know, ‘We work with young people and rap’ and a lot of like that kind of area, a lot of the kids were into that music so it would engage them straight away. And yeah, I just literally from word of mouth started running loads of projects in schools with like, Hackney Youth Offending teams, Lambeth Youth Offending teams, I was working in referral units, and then sometimes just general school and colleges and stuff. And I did that for about eight years.
And then I saw the Breakin’ Convention vacancy and just kind of came down to the interview- I had a flight to catch, I came with my suitcase, I was going on holiday with my best friend. And I literally came with my suitcase, and- it sounds a bit mad, I didn’t need the job because I was like, really busy with all my other like, youth work jobs that I was doing and with music, but I loved Breakin’ Convention, I’d come down, I’ve been to Park Jam, I loved what they stood for, I loved what they do, and I was like, oh, this would be nice to like, bring my connections and networks here as well, as well as be part of Breakin’ Convention, it would be such an honour that would be sick to do. So I literally came down and, I feel like we had a conversation rather than an interview because I was like, ‘Oh I do this and- or do you do this I can introduce you to this person actually, whether I get the job or not we should do something anyway’, blah blah blah, and I think Pete who worked here at the time, he was like, ‘Oh you rap like, so rap for us then’, and I was like ‘Now?’-
Phoebe Reith 14:30
In the interview?
Shay D 14:31
Yeah, it was like ‘Now’, so Jonzi started beatboxing and I just rapped, so we were just rapping back and forth, and we were like okay, that was a great interview, cool, okay. I was like this- what is going on? And then I was like, ‘Guys, I really need to go because I’ve got a flight, sorry.’ I think it was like a few days later, I was on holiday and then I got a call and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, you got the job,’ and I was like ‘Oh my god! Jumped in the pool, gassed. And it’s just been like that ever since, it’s really organic. My manager Michelle, like, she’s one of my best friends. We’re like a family and I really love working here, and I’ve been able to bring all my connections with other partners and brands on board, like our Royal Opera House- I was working with them for like three years before I kind of took Breakin’ Convention onto the catalogue instead of myself. The young people have developed so much, they’re really long term, like, attendees, and they go from this project to a project my friend might run or they might refer kids to us. I’ve loved it.
Phoebe Reith 15:28
Amazing. Yeah, I think not many, not many people would find themselves generally, in a job interview being asked to rap on the spot.
Shay D 15:37
But I think that’s like, such the spirit of Breakin’ Convention, they do, like actually break conventions, like it’s- what I really love about it is that I don’t think anyone has to be there, it’s just, everyone wants to be there and loves to be there, you know, and I think that makes a really big difference in what you’re doing. And we’re like, really human about everything. Like if something doesn’t make sense, or you need to speak your mind about something, you just say it because it’s like, everyone’s equal. Everyone’s a human being. We’re just here. It’s not that deep, it’s just music and theatre, it’s like, it’s really not that deep, we’re not like doing heart surgery. I always look at things like that, I’m like, it’s- yeah, if it doesn’t make sense, we don’t need to do it.
Phoebe Reith 16:21
So, Breakin’ Convention is the Sadler’s Wells annual hip hop theatre festival, which is always on the bank holiday weekend in May. It’s the one time of the year where the whole building is used, and people are front of house, they’re, you know, outside, they’re everywhere. I’d love you to describe what Breakin’ Convention is and what it means.
Shay D 16:40
Yeah, I think that’s a really good description of it. In the sense of what it is as a festival, I think it’s grown from being a festival in the bank holiday to now being a really big artist development programme. It’s a youth project and youth development programme, it’s leading on to creating a unique curriculum of being a hip hop theatre academy, that’s going to be opening at the East Bank site. It’s a company because it’s like- it tours other companies, but also it’s produced its own shows, so it’s also like a production company as well. And it’s also now branched out into film and digital, and they’ve made really profound, like, moving film, you know, like moving images. So I think that the festival is kind of like the foundation of what it is, but I think we’ve adapted to current times. And I always like to work backwards from what the needs of our audience is, and work backwards to then create for it.
Whereas I know a lot of theatre or kind of, companies create work, and they present it to an audience and the right audience will come to it or not. But for me the way I work because it’s in the youth project field, I asked my young people, ‘What do you want to do? What’s your goals? What do you need? What do you need from us? What’s your head start?’ and then I work backwards to design and build the project to deliver that for them so that it’s useful, especially with networking in the music industry around like rap, grime drill, hip hop, which is kind of like the genre of music even that our theatre pieces work around, they want help, because it’s a very hard scene and industry to navigate. And it’s our job to deliver that for them.
Phoebe Reith 18:49
In terms of the hip hop theatre academy, so Jonzi D, the artistic director of Breakin’ Convention taught me the. kind of ‘Each one, teach one’ phrase and how important that is in the kind of lexicon of hip hop theatre. Can you tell us a little bit more about the need for the hip hop theatre academy and what that could do?
Shay D 19:06
I think a lot of the time when we leave school, and we need to go to college to do like A-Levels or a BTEC, or whether someone’s gonna do an apprentice, so the kind of usual options for a 16 to 18 year old, a lot of them at that age, they already kind of know that they want to go into Performing Arts. But what we found and a lot of the feedback we had from all the young people we spoke to and worked with in the focus groups and going into schools was that they were kind of not forced, but restricted, to doing Performing Arts which was around a lot of genres that they weren’t interested in or they for sure knew they weren’t going to go down, whether it was like ballet or musical etc. There wasn’t a specific course that covered hip hop theatre. So we were like, okay, there’s a gap in the market. And it is free for 16 to 18 year olds to come and do this, and so we’re basically writing the curriculum from scratch, which is a UAL course, so it is advanced, like Level 3 kind of diploma, but actually in the field that they want to study.
Phoebe Reith 20:15
And what I love about it from what I’ve been hearing from you guys so far is that, certainly in the first year, it will have, you know, all those elements that that feed into hip hop theatre, so music and lyrics, and graphics, movement, and you know, it’s all there and that broad base, and just like, ‘How on earth do you put on a show?’, you know.
Shay D 20:35
Phoebe Reith 20:35
So that broad base. And actually, if you think about the options for a young person, or anyone who’s gone through that breadth of understanding, you could go into all kinds of things. It exposes young people at a moment in their life, when they can really sort of understand like, I guess, the breadth of options. It’s a much more kind of tangible step in a way, to sort of bridge the gap between being a young person in school to where you are right now.
Shay D 21:01
Yeah, some of the young people we work with, they say to me, and some of the artist mentors are like, ‘Oh, like, how do we get into what you’re doing? Because like, you get to do music, but then like, you get to come here, and like you work with us and we’re in studio and we’re in a rehearsal room, or you’re taking us to BBC to be interviewed, like, how do we do what you do?’ So another thing we’ve started to do is also allow that kind of the ‘elders’, 19 to 21 to like peer mentor the younger ones as well. A project that I worked on last half term at Tramshed, it was really cute, because you had like a 19 year old- like, if someone was busy with something, they would like engineer for one of the 14 year olds and record them and like, help them. And then you would have like, the 14 year old was helping a 12 year old with his lyrics. And it was just the cutest thing to watch. But it’s actually such a beautiful space, because you’re just seeing all of them help each other. And I feel like that’s going to be the epitome of like, the hip hop theatre academy. I feel like once it has its own actual hub and space and name and they’re going to come there, it’s going to be like that.
Phoebe Reith 22:06
I’ve heard that you have six mentees, although having heard you speak for a bit longer, I’m sure there are probably another fifty-five you could add to that list!
Shay D 22:15
Yeah, no, there are. So yeah, it’s not like actually, like exactly six young people, but there’s, at the moment, I can just think of exactly six young people that constantly like, are messaging, or I’m sending them somewhere, I’m sending them opportunities and stuff like that. IAnd also because I work at Breakin’ Convention part-time, and I work on other projects with other people, what tends to happen is the young people, like follow us around between projects. So there’ll be young people at Tramshed that will come here, there’ll be Breakin’ Convention young people going to Young Urban Arts Academy, and then they’ll be going to SoapBox, and then SoapBox are coming to Breakin’ Convention, like there’ll be that mix. So whenever there’s an opportunity that we can, you know, guide them to something that’s relevant for them, like, I will do that. But yeah, I’ll have messages like at random times going, ‘Hi Shay, I just recorded this track, can you listen to it now and give me some feedback now, please now!’ and I’m just like, I’m literally in the middle of dinner, but okay. But there’s like, moments like that, and then there’s also times where I’ll see- like, the radio station might have an opportunity for some, like shadowing. So I’ll send that and we’ll take like- two of the girls that I know want to be presenters will like go on a visit and make sure they’re safe and take them there and then kind of hand them over and stuff like that. So it’s kind of like ongoing, and so it’s not like a set amount of kids, they’re just always there. Just there!
Phoebe Reith 23:52
Tell me about the things you teach?
Shay D 23:56
It’s so interesting, because it feels like there’s so much that happens like, even in one project. So predominantly, I teach as- okay, as a facilitator I teach rap, so I run rap and spoken word poetry workshops. So, it’s like the foundations of rap would be for example, counting bars, rhyme, multi-syllable rhymes, how to construct verses and hooks and then how to record, how to deliver, how to perform, like all of the aspects of being an MC. As a youth project manager, like coordinating and managing the courses, I will be booking artists, designing the week, finding the space, doing the timetable, registering the young people, doing the risk assessments, safeguarding, doing the evaluations and being present at the project and making sure everything runs.
But a lot of the time during the projects that I’m managing, they might be doing dance, they might be doing rap, they might be doing beatboxing, and because I rapped they’ll ask me to come into the studio to help with that side, even though I might have an artist mentor that I’ve booked to do that, but you kind of just naturally end up helping. So, my role is as a rap or poetry workshop leader, but as an educator, now I’ve gone into more of the role of like managing the project, but I’m always on the ground doing the work, like, it’s my favourite part of what I do.
Phoebe Reith 25:25
We’re going to talk a little bit about routine, what does a great day look like for you?
Shay D 25:29
That’s a really interesting question, and not a great one for me in the sense that I don’t have a routine at all. And I think the reason that I’m able to do my work so well with Breakin’ Convention is because even at the beginning, I was really honest about this, and I said that I need to be able to work flexibly. If I know my task, and my objective, I’ll do it. I go to bed at like 4:30am- actually, literally last night and the night before between 2 and 4am I was doing an Islington Giving funding form. So I’m literally like, I just work around the times I can work. So let’s take yesterday, for example, I’ll wake up and speak to Mich really briefly about what I’m doing for the day. So I spent the night before, like I said, till 4am, I was doing a funding form. And then I had a meeting for a brand, kind of like an urban clothing store, but they have an exhibition and studio space in Bethnal Green.
So I was on my way there to book something for an all female event I was doing but when I arrived there, I was like, ‘I also work at Breakin’ Convention and we do youth projects’. So then after our meeting, we ended up talking about the youth project, and if they could give us some space in kind and access to their studio. So we ended up having a whole chat about that, I saw the space and then I was able to like video it, send it to our Breakin’ Convention Whatsapp group, and I was like, ‘Oh, they’ve given us the space and they loved what we do’, so they’ve like now given us budget and space to use that- it’s very like that, you know, and there is no routine, youth work and music is my life. So it’s just happening 24 hours, whenever is possible for something to happen. So I might not be working on Monday, but if something comes up that’s relevant for Breakin’ Convention and the young people, I’ll just do it because it’s just in my fibres of what I do, you know.
Phoebe Reith 27:24
You mentioned earlier about working with an all-female collective, I know that you do a lot of work with women, or you’re very passionate about promoting women in this space.
Shay D 27:32
Phoebe Reith 27:33
Can you tell me a bit more?
Shay D 27:34
I feel really strongly and I have from very young that there’s such a, imbalance of the presence of women in hip hop. And that’s in hip hop theatre, in dance, and especially in rap, even in DJing, and music production. Actually, all of the elements of hip hop-
Phoebe Reith 27:52
Everywhere. The world.
Shay D 27:54
Yeah, and you know, generally, I think we know that and we can see that in entertainment. I don’t want to blast any names on your podcast, but there’s a very well known London music festival that announced their lineup yesterday. And they literally got backlash for the exact same thing two years ago that Lily Allen tweeted about, and they literally repeated it again yesterday. There’s forty-four men on the lineup, and there’s five women, and someone has removed all the male names from the flyer, leaving just the women who are booked performing. And it just is so ridiculous, because they have already been addressed about this. A lot of the work I do, I run youth projects for women in hip hop. So there’s a specific workshop that I run, which explores and analyses women on covers of magazines, women and how they’re presented in music videos, how there is such a massive part of festival stages and concerts that don’t book women, and even how they’re advertised on like retail and shopping websites, like what they wear, there might be a male wearing exactly the same garment, but women are often so sexualised in how they’re sold something.
And misogyny in hip hop has got so much better, but it still exists. In everything I do, I just try to highlight this and actually do something about it. So I will always try and book more women to interview or- the reason I did the all female hip hop tour was to show that in every single city, big city, in the UK, there’s all these incredible performers in your in your town, so come out and see them and support them and witness them on stage. I’m just kind of fed up as women, being used as props in like, men’s entertainment.
Phoebe Reith 29:46
The active work you can do or you have been doing, that’s that’s really clear. What can others be doing or what are the things that you would, I don’t know request of the industry of society. And as you said, it has got better-
Shay D 30:00
Phoebe Reith 30:01
But there’s still a way to go.
Shay D 30:02
I think it’s important with like theatre, or the technical side of stuff, or the production side of stuff, I think it’s important that we run more projects and more having more internships and work experience where we’re inviting women to come and see those roles, and to show them that it’s something they can do, rather than just be on the performance side. But yeah, having artist mentors that are girls and, and running more projects that are purely for women, so they feel like they’re in a safe space. Although I have recently I realised- and I want to try this, that I haven’t- is the women in hip hop project that I was talking about where we analyse how women are presented, etc. I want to run that with boys and girls mixed, because actually, it’s almost like preaching to the choir, or like having a bit of an echo chamber. Girls are aware of it already and we’re talking about it, which is great, because they have a space to vent. But actually, I want to run the exact project but with boys, so they actually get to see how women are treated and presented, and I think that’s going to be more effective, and it’s something that I’ve only just recently thought about.
Phoebe Reith 31:12
You said something earlier about, young people come to these things because they chose to.
Shay D 31:18
Phoebe Reith 31:18
And they probably chose to do that because they knew it was going to be in a space that they were going to be respected, and also because it’s fun. Is there a story about, I don’t know, the fun and the friendship of the world of hip hop theatre.
Shay D 31:32
There’s so many funny moments and fun moments and stuff that we have. One of the times that was really funny is when we took them to BBC Radio London for an on-air interview. I mean, they’re really funny, they’re just characters, and they’re really lairy, and they’re just like, singing and rapping and like, showing off and on Snapchat, that they’re at the BBC building, and they were like, super loud. And then they got to like the door of the studio, and then the presenters came out and we’re like, ‘Hello’, and they literally went quiet, and they were like, ‘Hello’, like, they’re like- suddenly, like changed their voice, I was looking at them going, why are you talking like that? Just talk like yourself, like, what are you doing?
And then they went in, they sat down quietly. And just- like for me and the other mentor, it was so funny, because they literally changed. They weren’t intimidated, but they just became really professional, when the presenter was interviewing them, they just, they articulated themselves so beautifully, and so well. And then she set them a really hard challenge, she was like, ‘We’re going to give you ten minutes, we’re going to play a beat and we want you to write a rap and perform live’ and it was live on air. I was like God, I wouldn’t- I don’t think I’d want to do this, like as a actual artist. And they wrote, they all performed, they like, backed each other up. Like it was amazing, and I that’s a really good memory for me. And then when we came out, we were like, just like bullying them a bit, and we were just like-
Phoebe Reith 33:03
Shay D 33:03
Yeah, we were like, ‘What were you doing, why did you change? Why were you talking like that, what?’ But it was really amazing, and just seeing them in different environments it’s like, really special to me. So it’s something that I just want to, like, do more of. Yeah.
Phoebe Reith 33:23
I love that story.
Ankur Bahl 33:26
What a legend! Shay’s a legend.
Phoebe Reith 33:29
Ankur Bahl 33:31
I love how it started with her talking about Persian poet Rumi, to rap. Like, that’s how it happens, isn’t it?
Phoebe Reith 33:36
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ankur Bahl 33:37
For so many people. It’s brilliant how your influences can be so varied and they can bring you to so many different places.
Phoebe Reith 33:44
Was there anything that really stood out for you?
Ankur Bahl 33:46
I think one of the big things that really popped out for me was this notion of starting from what the young people need and working your way back. Going ‘What is it that you need?’ That’s almost any job, any problem solving, going ‘What is it that exists that is needed, and how can I help fill that need?’, right? And so she goes, what is it that you want, you want to be a graffiti artist, you want to write rap, you want to record music? How can I share with you what I know about that, how can I create opportunities for you, how can I design a programme that might help you navigate that? And I love that, as opposed to so often you, think ‘There’s a curriculum, I’m going to deliver that’, and that’s what education looks like.
Phoebe Reith 34:27
Yeah, it doesn’t feel forced because those kids are there because they have chosen to be there. And there is that mutual respect from the moment they get into the room. So by definition, as those kids are in a good headspace, they are feeling respected, they’re feeling creative, and therefore, you know, they’re going to learn way more than they would do otherwise, if they had felt as though it had been kind of done unto them.
Ankur Bahl 34:50
What I really found useful advice is that Shay’s approached this in two ways that are very normal for people who are getting into education careers, right? There’s the traditional like, I see a job posting, I interview- now she might’ve had to rap in her interview, not not everybody has to do that- but, she interviewed for her job at Breakin’ Convention, got that job. And then there’s other jobs where she’s like, I was creating these programmes, and that led to other work. And very much, most people who I talked to who work in that space, it happens in both ways.
Phoebe Reith 35:16
Ankur Bahl 25:16
And to be able to navigate both ways is kind of the game, it’s the hustle, isn’t it?
Phoebe Reith 35:20
Completely. And I think that the reality is is that you’ve got to flex in both directions, but you might not be starting from a place with a network. So as soon as you have got your foot in the door somewhere, you then need to look after that network and keep coming back to them, and see that as like your starting place. She said at some point, she was clear from the get go as soon as she was offered the job at Sadler’s Wells that she would need to work flexibly. Obviously, in the last year, a lot of people have done that anyway, we’ve all had to work from our bedrooms, that kind of thing. But I think that’s a really good example of how you can work in an education department of an organisation and that does not need to mean that three days a week you are clocking in 9-5. It’s just really important to kind of verbalise that if you’re working within a, you know, an established medium sized NPO funded arts organisation like Sadler’s Wells, it doesn’t mean that you are just in a kind of clocking in, clocking out kind of job.
So big thanks to Shay D for coming on to our podcast this week to talk about education. You can check her out on Instagram and you can listen to her music.
Arts Work is brought to you by Sadler’s Wells, in association with Barclays Dance Pass
Ankur Bahl 36:30
Your hosts are Ankur Bahl and Phoebe Reith. The producer is Hester Cant, and the series is mixed by Paul Brogden.
Phoebe Reith 36:37
We really hope you enjoyed this and we hope you found it useful.
Ankur Bahl 36:41
And if you did, please share it.
Phoebe Reith 36:43
Who did you think of? Them, WhatsApp them right now, send it!
Ankur Bahl 36:46
Also if you could leave a review that would be super helpful to get the word out, to increase the impact of what we’re trying to do.
Episode 2 - Helen Comerford: stage manager
Ankur Bahl 0:07
Hi, I’m Ankur.
Phoebe Reith 0:08
And I’m Phoebe.
Ankur Bahl 0:09
And this is Arts Work.
Phoebe Reith 0:12
We work at Sadler’s Wells, a leading dance organisation.
Ankur Bahl 0:15
And this is a podcast where we look at different roles in the creative industries and how you could find your way in.
Phoebe Reith 0:23
Okay, Mr. Bahl, who are we talking to you today?
Ankur Bahl 0:25
For this episode, I got to speak to Helen Comerford, who right now is the participation producer at Wise Children, which is a theatre company in the southwest of England that both Helen and I have worked for in different guises throughout the years. What we got to speak about today was specifically the majority of her career which has been spent as a stage manager working on theatre productions up and down the country, which is where I met her, when I was an actor before Sadler’s Wells, and she was a stage manager and we worked on shows together. What I’m so excited for you to hear about is all of the specific things that happen behind the scenes to get a show on the road. How beautifully Helen describes being a stage manager as being an integral part of a company and making things happen all the time, just constant troubleshooting, constant problem solving.
Phoebe Reith 1:11
Totally, and so I guess it’s her job to freak out when something goes wrong.
Ankur Bahl 1:14
It’s exactly her job. And she talks about those moments. What I love about Helen is she’s- she talks about when it’s hard, she talks about when it’s really great. And she talks about mechanisms that you can use to navigate that. I hope you get a really great picture of what it takes to do that job, what kind of person really loves that kind of job, and the satisfaction that comes with that. But also a real life picture. There’s no rose tinted glasses on how she’s talking about it, which I think is exactly what we need,
Phoebe Reith 1:42
Sitting in this very theatre there? I know there are so many people that it takes to get every show happening every night, you know, in the technical roles, but then it’s not just here, it is up and down the country around the world.
Ankur Bahl 1:54
And there are jobs, there are loads of jobs and loads of ways in and that’s super exciting to hear about. And also in the episode, we asked Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Stage Management course if they had questions for Helen, and so we’ve picked one of those and you’ll hear from Kat asking her question.
Phoebe Reith 2:10
Ankur Bahl 2:11
Shall we do it?
Phoebe Reith 2:12
Let’s do it.
Ankur Bahl 2:12
We started the conversation with “Where did you grow up?”
Helen Comerford 2:20
I live in Bristol at the minute. But I’m an army brat, so I grew up on army bases around Germany, around the UK, I went to military school, which was a little bit different because I was one of, I think eight people who didn’t have white skin there. It’s strange, isn’t it because you only know what you grow up with. So I moved from place to place, like sometimes 18 months and go to a new school, make new friends. And that’s what you did. So I’ve always been quite good at making friends quickly. So that’s a good life skill as a stage manager, I think. And the military life is a very strange thing looking from the outside, where like, there are very tight communities. It’s a really interesting place. And I almost joined the army. Well, when I was 14, I was like, “I’m going to join the army”, because it runs in families, the military. And then I was like, “No, I’m not, I’m going to be an actress”. I think lots of people do, don’t they, you know you love theatre-
Ankur Bahl 3:16
Helen Comerford 3:17
Well, of course you did.
Ankur Bahl 3:20
How did you go from going, “I’m 14, I want to be an actor”, to actually working as a stage manager on some of Britain’s biggest stages.
Helen Comerford 3:28
I- Yep, woke up one day and was like, I’m not going to join the army. It’s raining, I would have to jog in this and kind of be on stage. And then I decided to get a degree first. So I went to the University of Glasgow and got a history degree. But while I was there, I just spent all of my time in the student theatre group and kind of, as a member of student theatre, you’re just friends with everyone and you put on shows and like sometimes you direct and sometimes you write and sometimes you act, and I discovered that I hated being on stage. But I was very good at organising things and being in charge of things and kind of found stage management, this is a way I can earn money and work in theatre, and went to Mountview drama school and did a postgraduate and then went out into the world and my first job was- it was really weird, I went and I worked for Alton Towers in their theatre, and did ‘The Wonderful, Wonderful, Wonderful World of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Ankur Bahl 4:28
Helen Comerford 4:29
Yep, three ‘wonderful’s, and we did four shows a day or something, so you’re constantly getting the actors ready, you were constantly running the show, without time to think or worry really, then you were resetting and then you were doing it again. And you were also communicating with front of house. So it was this kind of microcosm theatre where you did everything over and over and over again so fast that you couldn’t get scared. And so like I could, by the end of that I could run shows in my sleep without- yeah, without getting nervous. It was a strange job, but it was like the perfect first job.
Ankur Bahl 5:04
Did you apply for that out of Mountview then?
Helen Comerford 5:11
So there was like a call out and you fill out an application. And yeah,it was Scarefest, it was the Halloween season, and they needed extra stage managers to come in and support. So did that, and I just yeah, ended up in their little theatre for a few months.
Ankur Bahl 5:23
Then your path was through university. So you went to university, did university theatre and then you’ve got a post grad. Somebody who’s looking to be a stage manager, do they need to take that route, or are there other routes in?
Helen Comerford 5:32
You don’t have to take that route. If you’ve got a good relationship with your local theatre, you could start stage crewing, and as a stage crew, you might make friends with companies or go on to the productions that your theatre is producing as a stage manager. So there’s kind of the theatre route, if you’re near a producing house, or some companies where you go stage crew, assistant stage manager, and onwards. And I think that also happens quite a lot in the West End. So I’ve got a friend who switched to stage management after working in a theatre office, and she has all the transferable skills, so she’s got got communication, organisation, and she’s kind of had to start a little bit at the bottom and then break in, it’s tricky because it’s all about the network and the amount of experience you have. So if you’re coming out of a general theatre course, and you have the contacts, and maybe you’ve been on a placement with a theatre, and they’re willing to offer you a job, and you start as an assistant stage manager then quids in, like, the assistant stage manager is an entry level role.
Ankur Bahl 6:36
It’s interesting, right? Because we’re going to talk to a lot of people in this series, who have very amorphous paths in and out but like it sounds like stage management has sort of two very clear routes. Either go through a university circuit that ends you up at being assistant stage manager ASM–
Helen Comerford 5:53
Ankur Bahl 5:53
Or start stage crewing, you don’t need a degree to do that and then go from stage crewing into ASM-ing.
Helen Comerford 6:59
Yeah, that’s definitely right.
Kat (student from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Stage Management course) 7:03
Hi, Helen, I’m Kat, and I’m in the final year of training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I was wondering if you could talk about your early career in stage management, and how it felt going into an industry that’s notoriously white and middle class. I’m an aspiring stage manager from a working class background, and I don’t really see a lot of people like me. It would be interesting to hear about the challenges you faced, and if you think diversity is increasing. Thank you.
I found as a stage manager of colour, it hasn’t been a barrier, for me, I haven’t seen very many other stage managers of colour to kind of emulate.
Ankur Bahl 7:54
Yeah, or follow.
Helen Comerford 7:56
Or follow. This one time I can remember quite clearly, I was on a show, so I was the stage manager. And it was- I think almost everyone else in my surrounding area was white, like everyone else I worked with. And I heard someone from, kind of, the site, from the venue, refer to me as the black girl, and not the stage manager or not- not even the black lady, which would have been okay.
Ankur Bahl 8:23
Helen Comerford 8:23
And factual, exactly, factual. But like, kind of tone, “Oh, yeah, the black girl”. And I was like, oh, yeah, I remember.
Ankur Bahl 8:33
It’s amazing when it catches you unawares, and then when it doesn’t catch you- when it just happens, I mean, like, yeah I expected that to happen.
Helen Comerford 8:38
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ankur Bahl 8:40
Both of them.
Helen Comerford 8:41
But where you’re like, I’m doing a really good job. I’ve just called this show and it was like, spot on, I’m having a drink with my friends- and then that happens, and you’re like, okay, yeah. Yeah, okay.
Ankur Bahl 8:52
And what did you do in that situation?
Helen Comerford 8:53
Okay, I didn’t do anything, which is just- you just accept it and move on. And just, I think it all get a bit normalised for me, certainly, like I’ve not shouted nearly enough at people.
Ankur Bahl 9:05
Yeah, I feel that way sometimes, too. But I feel like we’re getting better at shouting about it.
Helen Comerford 9:09
Yeah. And I think stage management, especially, you work within your core teams. So if you’re starting out as an assistant stage manager, you’ll have a stage manager with, like, loads more industry experience, who’s looking after you and they’re mentoring you, and so you see them, and maybe you’re maybe not looking at the industry as a whole.
Ankur Bahl 9:27
It’s personal relationships.
Helen Comerford 9:28
Personal relationships, yeah. In terms of working class, I think that the technical side of theatre has a much bigger diversity. And I think acting- because acting you have to then struggle to get jobs, maybe it’s helpful if your parents can support you. But with technical students, you’re able to come out and if you’re willing to do stage crew, or load ins, there’s quite a few avenues open to you, I think like you’re very employable as a technical student,
Ankur Bahl 10:02
So, I’m going to do quick-fire, put a word at you, you describe it. ASM.
Helen Comerford 10:06
Assistant stage manager will look after the props, they’ll also look after backstage during the show. So if we lose an actor, if an actor gets locked in the bathroom, to the running of the show, literally running a lot of the time, like running around, that’s the assistant stage manager.
Ankur Bahl 10:24
Yeah, I’m thinking of the assistant stage manager on Wise Children when we worked together, for example, like anything and everything from “Oh, you know, that pen that has that weird ostrich feather on it? The feather is not plumed enough”.
Helen Comerford 10:39
Ankur Bahl 10:39
You know, things like that.
Helen Comerford 10:40
“Could you make the puppet’s crease slightly more central?”.
Ankur Bahl 10:46
Helen Comerford 10:47
The book is a script that gets created during rehearsals. The actual script page is on the left, and then on the right, you’ve got a column where all the lighting cues and sound cues go-
Ankur Bahl 11:01
That you’ve handwritten in.
Helen Comerford 11:03
I have a column of notes, so I could leave myself reminders, or you might have a column for actor calls, so you can be like, you’d be like “Mr. Bahl to the stage, please, it’s your call to the stage, Mr. Bahl”, and you’d know when to do that.
Ankur Bahl 11:15
And I promptly arrive.
Helen Comerford 11:16
And he promptly arrives every time.
Ankur Bahl 11:17
Helen Comerford 11:19
Always on time.
Ankur Bahl 11:20
Never late. DSM.
Helen Comerford 11:21
Deputy stage manager runs the rehearsal room, creates the prompt copy, which is the script with all the cues and the movements in it. And then they call the show, which is telling lights, and sometimes sound, when to go, and coordinating any other bits of like flying set or automation. During rehearsals it’s really interesting because they sit next to the director, and when the director says something like, “And I want this scene to zhoozh”, for example, the DSM will write down “scene to zhoozh”, we’ll try and get a little bit more information out of the director, and then send it on to the lighting designer and the sound designer. And during the show itself, the deputy stage manager show calls, so they call the lighting cues, and any other technical aspect that’s coming.
Ankur Bahl 12:10
I remember there was one show that I did where one of those cues was where an actor had to swim under the stage to come out of the water. And so it was one of those cue light situations where there’s a light that the DSM has that they turn on, that then turns a green light on where the actor is, so the actor knows to jump into this pool, swim and emerge the other side.
Helen Comerford 12:34
That must have been tricky to time as well, because in your in your copy, you must be like, so I know that the actor will take 15 seconds to swim under, and if I want him to emerge at this point, then I need to give him the ‘go’ on this line up here, near the top of the page.
Ankur Bahl 12:50
That’s the DSM.
Helen Comerford 11:51
That’s the DSM, yeah.
Ankur Bahl 12:53
So when you say LX 1, for example, ‘1’ is cue one.
Helen Comerford 11:57
Ankur Bahl 11:58
How many cues could you get?
Helen Comerford 12:59
Hundreds. Or more. I think the most lighting cues I’ve ever had is something like 500 in a two hour show. But as a deputy state manager, I was always like, bring ‘em, the more cues the better. Love it when you don’t have time to breathe, “LX go, LX 41 go, LX 42 go”.
Ankur Bahl 13:21
Why did you love this job so much? Why did- what is it about you and the job that fits?
Helen Comerford 13:27
With deputy stage managing in particular, it’s the adrenaline because I didn’t like being on stage but I loved being an integral part of the show. So calling cues and making sure that everything is running smoothly and everything is happening and kind of the natural rhythm of the show is still going, it’s like being an extra person in the dance, in a way. Extremely fun.
Ankur Bahl 13:48
What’s the most complex show you’ve worked on as a stage manager?
Helen Comerford 13:52
Do you know what, it was actually panto. I cut my teeth as a deputy stage manager on Dick Whittington, the pantomime, and some people are a little bit snobby about working on panto, and it is gruelling, it’s a 12 show a week schedule, which is- yeah, it’s hard. But in terms of show calling, it’s everything. You’ve got lights, you’ve got sound, you’ve got scenery flying in and out. You’ve got- you might have ponies, you’ve got pyrotechnics, you’ve got massive casts. Yeah, in terms of show calling-
Ankur Bahl 14:28
You’ve got screaming children in the audience.
Helen Comerford 14:30
You’ve got screaming children. Oh my gosh, if you’re doing Peter Pan, you’ve got actual flying. And we had the storm sequence in Dick Whittington, which was so complicated, I had to call cues, I had to say cue numbers whilst pressing buttons, cue light buttons at a slightly different time. And I just had to rehearse it like a dance, that-
Ankur Bahl 14:55
It’s coordination. It’s like rubbing your tummy and hitting your head, or the other way ‘round, whatever it is.
Helen Comerford 15:01
Exactly, whilst speaking, like saying really long numbers really quickly. On stage, there was this ultraviolet sequence where there were fish swimming, and there was a ship sinking, and there was lightning and there was thunder, and there was a load of tiny children wearing black carrying lightup guppies and sharks and octopuses. It was brilliant.
Ankur Bahl 15:27
It’s theatre magic.
Helen Comerford 15:29
It’s theatre magic. Rehearsing that took a very long time, because it was hard for me, it was hard for everyone. And there was one little girl who just couldn’t get the octopus, right. So we’d be going through things and then you just hear the choreographer going, “Mikaela! No!”
Ankur Bahl 15:53
What skills make someone good at being a stage manager?
Helen Comerford 15:56
Being organised. Being approachable, because you want people to come to you with their problems before the problems grow. If an actor is not happy, then you want them to feel like they can come and talk to you about it, because it could be something tiny, it could be that when they pick up a prop, it digs into their hand, like something really tiny that you can fix in no time at all, but if you leave it, it’s going to turn into this big horrible thing. So you want to be approachable, and kind and understanding, because sometimes people aren’t their best selves when they’re under a lot of stress, which goes for everyone, which also goes for stage managers. Because if someone is not happy, then there’s a reason and you can probably help. I’ve said be organised, but be organised and be receptive and open to things, don’t immediately say no. There’s something that happens, I think as time goes on, people get tired and people get cynical. And like I’m talking about time as in career time, and maybe it becomes easier to see the problems that an idea is going to cause and to say no. Whereas I would recommend, especially to young stage managers, if someone, if a director has an idea, like, “I would like to use treacle on this white floor”, then write it down, and have time to think about it and have time to talk to the people who could make it happen, instead of going, “No, that’s ridiculous.” Because maybe it isn’t ridiculous, and maybe it’s the one thing that’s going to make the show really work.
Ankur Bahl 17:29
What’s the best day as a stage manager?
Helen Comerford 17:32
Well, I might use a day on the Wise Children tour that we did together. I think the day would start. I’m going to say not in the theatre, I’m going to say the day starts with me doing something nice for myself, like going for a walk, because then you spend the rest of the day in the theatre and you don’t get downtime at the end. So that’s a key piece of advice, I think, to stage managers is to be kind to yourself and to take time for yourself before the day starts because you don’t get a chance at the end. So I’ve gone for my lovely walk, and then I’ve come in and- company stage manager, I’ve checked my emails and seen- made sure there’s nothing that’s about to sneak up on the company like a press call or an after show talk. And then perhaps it’s someone’s birthday, so we’ve all arranged a cake, and we’d have parish notices which the company stage manager does and they tell the company what’s happening that day. And then with Wise Children, we always play a game. I think one of our favourite games is ‘Where were you, Dave?’
Ankur Bahl 18:34
Helen Comerford 18:34
Which is- Ankur’s laughing- which is volleyball in the stalls of a theatre.
Ankur Bahl 18:41
Yeah, playing volleyball or playing ball games is about keeping the ball up between the company right?
Helen Comerford 18:45
Yeah, and it also lets everyone get a little bit of silliness and a little bit of energy out. And there is something about theatre, I think you can quite easily come into a theatre and not talk to anyone, really, and just do your job and, and not make eye contact with anyone. And that is a depressing place to be when you work every evening. So the game is a really great way of just making everyone connect at the start of a day, and just checking in with everyone in a way and just being a little bit silly together. And it was always really fun.
Ankur Bahl 19:15
So you’ve played ‘Where were you, Dave?’, what’s next?
Helen Comerford 19:16
Another thing we did on Wise Children was group warmups, which the stage managers also joined in on I remember you ran like a bhangra warm-up which was amazing. So we’d all do our bhangra warm-up, and then we get into show calls. So a company stage manager on book might do this, kind of at different points, they’ll remind everyone how close we are to the show. So 35 minutes before the show, they’ll give everyone their half hour call, and then they’ll get a 15 minute call, then a five minute call, then beginners, which is five minutes before the start of the show. And that’s when all the actors promptly, promptly promptly, come to stage.
Ankur Bahl 19:52
Finish their coffee.
Helen Comerford 19:53
Finish their coffee.
Ankur Bahl 19:56
Drag their ass down.
Helen Comerford 19:59
The show runs brilliantly, every-
Ankur Bahl 20:03
Because you’ve called it brilliantly.
Helen Comerford 20:04
Because I’ve called it brilliantly. But also, there are certain shows which everyone just enjoys more, and you can see the cast on stage, just having a lovely time. And not being, or maybe being a little bit naughty, but not to the detriment of the show. So the audience is also having a lovely time, which is key. So we do a show, which is great, and everyone enjoys it. And then we go for a lovely glass of wine, before going home and doing it all again tomorrow.
Ankur Bahl 20:30
What makes it hard? What should somebody be aware of that makes the job hard that they have to be able to put up with to do it?
Helen Comerford 20:38
I think, and this might say more about me than it does about the role. But there’s something about stage management, which means that almost everything is your fault. Like whenever something goes wrong, if something goes wrong with the props, the assistant stage manager feels like it’s their fault. If something goes wrong with the show calling, then it falls on the deputy stage manager. If anything goes wrong at all, at any point with the show, then it’s the stage managers fault. So there’s a lot of responsibility, and sometimes sometimes things really are your fault. For example, when I was the assistant stage manager on Midsummer Night’s Dream, I forgot to set a key prop, I forgot to set the ass’s head. So the character playing Bottom goes went under a rolling table, and he was supposed to emerge comedically and victoriously with the ass’s head, and-
Ankur Bahl 21:28
A literal donkey head on his head.
Helen Comerford 21:29
A donkey’s head, on his head. And like something went wrong backstage, and I forgot to set it, and that is a disaster, and I beat myself up about it so much. But one of the- Katy Mary Owen who is a superstar, actor, fixed it. And the show went on, and life went on, and as much as I was like, “Ahh I made this huge mistake, my life is over, my career is over, oh, my god!”, it wasn’t. And the show goes on, and the kind of- the people in that audience went, “Oh, what was? Ohhh”, and then continued watching the show and having a lovely time. So for any stage managers listening, try your hardest and try not to make mistakes, but you’re going to if you do a show over and over and over and over again. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t be too hard on other people, you will also make mistakes. And the audience love it. The audience love it when stuff goes wrong.
Ankur Bahl 22:30
So we’ve talked about networking.
Helen Comerford 22:33
Ankur Bahl 22:33
What’s your advice for people who are trying to meet people and build relationships early on?
Helen Comerford 22:37
I think local is important. So if you’re not in London, and you have a local theatre who you can ask for experience, that’s a really good way to get your foot in the door. If you have a local theatre company who you really admire, then definitely send them your CV. And this is kind of advice for later on in your career, but you could ask a producer out for a coffee, for a chat and see what they’ve got coming up, or one of their other stage managers. And then I have had jobs come to me because of other stage managers. It’s about keeping in touch with your- I’m gonna say “Keep in touch with your network”, and you’re like, “But you don’t have a network”.
Ankur Bahl 23:20
Helen Comerford 23:20
But if you’re coming out of drama school, then you have a network, you have the other students who have come out with you, and you can share opportunities. If you’re at a local theatre, then you have a network there. Keep an eye on Stage Jobs, Stage Jobs Pro, which is now called Mandy, The Stage Theatre because there’s a there’s a drive now, which is really great, to make the industry lesson nepotistic and to help people get in, because I think I’ve said before, assistant stage manager is an entry level role, like, you shouldn’t need five years experience. Follow the companies that you admire and see what they’re doing. Don’t offer to work for free, because it devalues your work, and it devalues everyone else’s work, and that it’s so difficult because everyone else is doing it or everyone else is asking for it, but responsible companies now won’t let you. I know that Wise Children, we- no one’s gonna come and work for free. We might let students shadow as part of a course but no free labour.
Ankur Bahl 24:22
So don’t hesitate to reach out to people and be like, I’m interested.
Helen Comerford 24:25
Yeah. Don’t be upset if you don’t get a response, and don’t take it personally.
Ankur Bahl 24:29
Would you say that people who have stuck with it, continue to meet people, at some point it will land won’t it?
Unknown Speaker 24:36
Ankur Bahl 24:37
What’s the plethora of types of things that you could go into working in that aren’t British theatre necessarily? What might that look like?
Helen Comerford 24:44
I don’t know how the pandemic will have affected this, but there’s cruise ships. If you’re thinking of that- and I’ve got friends that did it and had a great time just sailing around the world and they’ve got some of the best theatres in the world, on like, Royal Caribbean cruise ships. But double check because some cruise ships don’t treat you well. So talk to people before you take a cruise ship job, but do do it, like it looks amazing. I’ve mentioned working at a theme park, theme parks have theatres, theme parks have big seasonal festivals like Scarefest at Halloween, all of which need props and management. As a stage manager coming out, you can manage people and you can manage time, and you can schedule, you can communicate, you can organise, and all of these things can be applied to different roles. You also have skills in props, so you could segue into TV.
If you’re a new stage manager, you might want to look at running jobs, like be a runner, or prop buying, prop making jobs if you love props, and then events because you can coordinate big things quickly and work under pressure. So, I hadn’t done that many events, but I did do the London 2012 Olympics.
Ankur Bahl 25:52
Helen Comerford 25:53
Yes, which was extremely fun. I was a Victory Ceremonies Coordinator. So the medal ceremonies mostly had stage managers working on them to make sure they ran to time, and to look after the volunteers, who were if you remember wearing the very pretty purple costumes and carrying the trays with the flowers and the medals. I was a Victory Ceremonies Coordinator, I worked with a producer who was kind of in charge of the aesthetic, and then I was scheduling and communicating, making sure the athletes were briefed, which is very fun. We had to brief Andy Murray because we did the Wimbledon medal ceremonies, we did Wimbledon and we did beach volleyball for the Olympics. And then my team also did Paralympic swimming, which was incredible, because for the Olympic tennis we had maybe seven medal ceremonies so we’d sit around all day, we’d watch Usain Bolt run on the telly, and then we get ready and we’d go and do a medal ceremony. For the Paralympics it was race, race, race, medal ceremony, race, race, race medal ceremony, so you were constantly going and chasing athletes and making sure they were ready. And one of the, kind of scariest moments of my career happened on the Olympic tennis, where- and this wasn’t in the news, and I’m sure I’m allowed to talk about it now, but do you remember Serena Williams won the ladies singles?
Ankur Bahl 27:23
Helen Comerford 27:23
So Serena Williams won the gold. And the stages were built, it’s all ready, the athletes have been briefed, they all go on, the volunteers have handed over the medals and the flowers and the national anthem is playing, the American national anthem is playing and the flags are on a trapeze. So this kind of long pole where they’ve been slotted on, each one has a different pole, flags are slotted on and the trapeze is being raised up into the roof of Wimbledon, as the national anthem is playing. And it’s quite windy. And at the crescendo of the American national anthem, the American flag flew off.
Ankur Bahl 28:01
Helen Comerford 28:02
Yeah, that’s what the audience said. I shouldn’t laugh, it was awful, but the flag flew off. And what, 20,000 people in Wimbledon? Centrecourt went [gasps].
Ankur Bahl 28:17
Helen Comerford 28:18
Gasp, and the flag just floated slowly to the ground. And it was extremely bad, and it should have been on the news, but it happened on ‘Super Saturday’, when Britain won every everything-
Ankur Bahl 28:32
Helen Comerford 18:33
Like, everything. So, got away with it, but oh, god, yes. Awful.
Ankur Bahl 28:38
What did Serena Williams say?
Helen Comerford 28:40
She said something like, “Why does this always happen to me?”
Ankur Bahl 28:44
Oh, poor Serena!
Helen Comerford 28:45
She was really, really sweet about it. Luckily, I didn’t have to talk to her.
Ankur Bahl 28:50
Helen Comerford 28:52
Ankur Bahl 28:52
Poor Serena. I mean, we won’t feel too bad for Serena ‘cause she is amazing.
Helen Comerford 28:57
Ankur Bahl 28:57
And has the most epic life. So it’s fine.
Helen Comerford 28:59
Yeah, yeah. But yeah, that is sad. Win Wimbledon gold-
Ankur Bahl 29:05
For your country-
Helen Comerford 29:06
For your country-
Ankur Bahl 29:05
Helen Comerford 29:07
Phoebe Reith 29:17
Whoa, Serena Williams.
Ankur Bahl 29:20
Can you imagine?
Phoebe Reith 29:22
I can’t even begin, also just- look I will get into Helen in a second. But Ankur, as an American, like, the significance of the flag-
Ankur Bahl 29:29
You heard it, I gasped, I actually gasped.
Phoebe Reith 29:30
Yeah, we’re going on almost 10 years ago now. But I mean, it just sounds as though she handled it in such a kind of calm, professional way, in the best way she could have at the time. But I mean, it must have been mortifying.
Ankur Bahl 29:43
But that’s exactly what a stage manager is, and that’s what Helen is right? Like problem solving, in the moment. And that’s what theatre is right? It’s live so things are always going to go wrong and you just solve them in the most human, generous way you can. What really stood out for you?
Phoebe Reith 29:58
You know what I really loved about it is the line where she said something like that you have to be good at dealing with people when they aren’t their best. And I think for me, I knew that to be true, I don’t think I appreciated it to be true. I think sometimes it’s easy to not think of that as actually being such a key important part of what they’re doing. It’s not just that they know that the prop has to be in this particular place, or that they have programmed their 500 cues perfectly, and this is just the front end of their interaction with you and them just saying, oh, you know, it’s going to be here and there and what would you need? But actually, that for them to do their job really well, they need to be able to be kind of above the weather and you know, the sort of calm within everything else that is the storm around them.
Ankur Bahl 30:39
Having been an actor or having been in an audience, a lot of times, that’s what you see, that’s the front facing thing of the theatrical production. All of it falls apart without these folks, hair, makeup, wigs, stage management, lighting, I’m missing out loads, but without them, you’ve got a hollow shell of a production. And I think, and also, oftentimes there are more of these roles in the theatre than there are the roles on stage. And that’s something that’s very easy to not know.
Phoebe Reith 31:11
The other thing that really stood out for me, which I know is super basic, and we always bang on about this and you and I, I know, really care about this is the ‘Don’t work for free’ thing. Because there are so many examples- and it’s getting better- of where people are working for free. And I actually think that, you know, if you are someone who has the ability to work for free, you know, if you do have somewhere to live and you can intern a bit or something, if you- where you can don’t do that. Charge for your time, because if you work for free, you’re devaluing the whole marketplace and you are perpetuating this issue.
Ankur Bahl 31:47
That’s not just for stage management, that entire industry. Listening back to it with you, what also sticks out for me is how specific she is about skills and those skills being super transferable. Being organised, being a good communicator, being able to bring people together, having empathy, these things are really important not just to stage managing, but so many different jobs. And it made me go, oh yeah, most of the stage managers I know are eminently employable in so many other different ways.
I want to thank Helen Comerford for joining us and sharing her knowledge and experience on one of these really important roles in technical theatre. Arts Work is brought to you by Sadler’s Wells, in association with Barclays Dance Pass,
Phoebe Reith 32:29
Your hosts are Ankur Bahl and Phoebe Reith. The producer is Hester Kant. The series is mixed by Paul Brogden.
Ankur Bahl 32:37
If you loved it, if you thought the stories were inspiring, share it. Call someone you love and tell them about it.
Phoebe Reith 32:43
Who did you think of just now? WhatsApp them immediately.
Ankur Bahl 32:47
Leave us a review where you found your podcast, that’s super helpful to get the word out, and subscribe so that you get the next episode.
Phoebe Reith 32:53
We’ll see you next week.
Episode 3 - Edilia Gänz: arts fundraiser
Ankur Bahl 0:07
Hi, I’m Ankur.
Phoebe Reith 0:08
And I’m Phoebe,
Ankur Bahl 0:09
And this is Arts Work.
Phoebe Reith 0:12
We work at Sadler’s Wells, a leading dance organisation.
Ankur Bahl 0:15
And this is a podcast where we look at different roles in the creative industries and how you could find your way in.
Phoebe Reith 0:22
Today, we’re gonna be talking about money, and money in a serious sense, because this is all about fundraising. And that is what it takes quite often to get shows from an idea to the stage.
Ankur Bahl 0:34
Lots and lots of fundraising.
Phoebe Reith 10:36
lots and lots of fundraising.
Ankur Bahl 0:37
This is your area!
Phoebe Reith 0:38
This is my area.
Ankur Bahl 0:39
You work in fundraising at Sadler’s Wells.
Phoebe Reith 0:41
Certainly do. I went into fundraising deliberately because I really wanted to be a part of making these things come to fruition, and I knew that raising money was always going to be really crucial to that.
Ankur Bahl 0:50
You know, it’s really jargony actually, your area of the world because at Sadler’s Wells we don’t call it fundraising, we call it development. What are the other terms?
Phoebe Reith 0:58
It might be called advancement.
Ankur Bahl 0:59
Phoebe Reith 1:00
Or just philanthropy? Have you ever done any fundraising in your time?
Ankur Bahl 1:04
I’ve done a crowd fund. I mostly watch you at work, fundraise.
Phoebe Reith 1:11
In the context of say Sadler’s Wells, 80% of our organisation’s revenue comes from ticket sales, which is amazing. So it almost makes us a commercial entity. But that 20% comes from a mixture of government funding, but also philanthropic income as well, and events and bars and that sort of thing.
Ankur Bahl 1:28
And I know in the US, that would be the reverse, right? The majority of an arts organisation’s money would come from fundraising.
Phoebe Reith 1:33
Exactly. I’m very fortunate in that, you know, my kind of fundraising journey- as a fundraiser I’ve worked with a lot of Americans who really taught me how to say the words and say, “So would you like to support something?” And then, “Would you consider an amount of X or Y?” and really say the number and make the ask, because quite often that is the thing, when you ask someone, “Why did you give to this organisation?” Aside from the fact that they might really believe in the cause, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s because somebody asked me”, so most of the time, you’ve just got to do it.
Ankur Bahl 2:02
So will you describe to me the different ways in which fundraising happens?
Phoebe Reith 2:05
Yeah, so there’s three income streams, usually; there’s corporate, individual giving, and trust and foundations. Okay, actually, let’s talk about trusts and foundations first off, because they’re the only ones that exist to give their money away. They expect to be written to, to have a kind of grant form filled out, and they will say on their website, you know, here are the areas that we’re interested in, this is how you can get in touch with us, we are open to applications at the moment or not.
Ankur Bahl 2:30
So there are trusts and foundations who are super interested in giving to the arts or the creative industry, specifically, charities in those sectors?
Phoebe Reith 2:35
Yes, exactly, yes, there are. So corporate giving, that could be anything from you know, a really big business or even like a restaurant down the road that wants to, you know, give your organisation some kind of deal or promo. But generally speaking, when we’re talking about corporate giving it’s- think big businesses that are either interested in engaging you on a kind of branding or marketing perspective, and they say, “Hi, we really love what you’re doing, we would like to pay for this particular event”, or this season, or whatever it might be. Or you might be speaking to the corporate social responsibility side of their organisation who are particularly interested in say, I don’t know, sponsoring or underwriting the cost of some work in the communities, with schools or something like that. And then there’s individual giving, which is anything from someone who is giving five pounds through a ‘text to donate’ all the way through to a really generous individual who might give you many multiple millions of pounds to create something really transformative for your organisation.
Ankur Bahl 3:29
So who did you talk to this week?
Phoebe Reith 3:30
This week, I spoke to Edilia Gänz. Edilia runs an organisation called Fedora which is really pushing the boundaries in fundraising, they’re combining crowdfunding, corporate, individual giving, and trust and foundations really in a unique way, that awards prizes to shows that have not yet been made. But it allows all kinds of people to contribute to that and to, kind of, be part of that process in terms of giving to the projects before they’ve even been made.
Ankur Bahl 3:55
Can you tell me a little bit about that? Because I would have thought that if I want to give my money, I should be able to give my money to anybody, right, like at any time? And you’re saying to me actually, the way that things are set up, it isn’t always that way.
Phoebe Reith 4:08
You can always give to an organisation in that way, yes, so anyone could give to Sadler’s Wells tomorrow, at any amount-
Ankur Bahl 4:15
Phoebe Reith 4:17
You can donate in an unrestricted way and it just goes to supporting us in all that we do. But when an artist thinks of an idea and speaks to a creative partner and says, “I want to dream up this incredible show”, usually that is not the point at which you know, just anyone can chip in and make it happen. It’s often that there is a conversation with a theatre or a producer, and they go and find funding from a very small group of either people or trusts or corporates or whatever it might be. Now what Fedora is doing, it is opening up that avenue right at the beginning of the process for anyone to be a part of that. And not only anyone, but anyone in the world, in even a tax efficient way you’ll be pleased to hear that.
Ankur Bahl 4:49
Phoebe Reith 5:00
Ankur Bahl 5:01
I’m excited to hear what that means.
Phoebe Reith 5:02
Ankur Bahl 5:02
Let’s do it!
Edilia Gänz 5:07
Let’s put it this way, I always was very much drawn to the performing arts and music, and thanks to my family, we always enjoyed going to concerts together to see performances, and I was especially interested in ballet and took classical ballet lessons for quite a while, never with the ambition to do this professionally, but just enjoyed dancing, and especially the art form, the discipline, the commitment that comes with all of that. And when it eventually came to deciding what to major in in studies, I went for the business strand, but promised myself to apply all that knowledge and accumulated skills to the cultural sector. Yeah, here I am.
Phoebe Reith 5:50
I remember you told me once that I think of your business school Master’s programme, how many of you were in the cohort, and I think one or two of you have ended up in the arts or wanted to end up in the arts.
Edilia Gänz 5:59
I remember we were, yeah, like you said, 300 in our cohort, and not many venture into the arts. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no interest. It’s just that it’s maybe not the most straightforward way of getting into the cultural sector, after coming out of business. However, that is changing. And I’ve seen also that there are more and more specialised master programmes, also, preparing people to go into the performing arts as managers, that now over the last 10 years have developed more and more. So I’m really happy to see that for young graduates who are going into the performing arts world to that venue. That’s really good.
Phoebe Reith 6:34
Why do you think fundraising is a topic that we don’t hear about very often, say compared to marketing or about branding, but fundraising and philanthropy within this context is something that a lot of people are just like, how do you do that? How do you ask someone for money?
Edilia Gänz 6:49
Although there is all this notion about, you know, if you’re dealing with sponsorship, for instance, where there’s visibility for partners and logo visibility. On the other side, there’s also a lot of philanthropy that happens where you’re really working hand in hand with a philanthropist to see together how you can have the greatest impact with their generosity. And there’s this notion of trust and discretion in that dialogue, and it’s not necessarily something that goes beyond that conversation, because people give because they want to make a difference and not because they want the entire world to know that they’re going to make that difference. So sometimes, that can also lead to the fact that there’s maybe not a lot of visibility about how it actually works, because it really comes down to- each give is different, each donation is different, and the way it comes about is different. And sometimes it takes years, sometimes before someone actually makes a donation.
And I think it’s also all about, you know, timing, and, how you say- in French, we say it’s broderie fine, it’s like fine embroidery of each donation, and each story is so unique, and it so much depends on the project, on the fundraiser, on the donor, that there is not like, one voice talking about how it should be done, and that’s what makes it also sort of challenging as well, and also stimulating, because there’s never, you know, the way to do it, it always changes every time and it takes a lot of, you know- it’s really intellectually stimulating as well, like how you go about it and timing. I would say that’s why maybe it’s not so easy to just say, this is the sector and this is how it works.
Phoebe Reith 8:21
One of my favourite parts of the job I do, which is thinking about a person, having spent time with them, and you really have to think about, what is it that we could put together within our context of, you know, whether it’s Sadler’s Wells, or wherever it might be, that would really make this person tick and go, yes, I want to be a part of that, I want to associate myself with that I want to see the impact that my support will have. On that note, I wonder what you think Edilia about, what are the kinds of skills needed to work in this industry?
Edilia Gänz 10:00
A fundraiser should be a very, very good listener. It really starts with that, really having this interest in understanding the person you’re talking to, and being interested in understanding what matters, what is relevant, why. You know, understanding the ‘why’ behind everyone, you know, why do we exist in this world, what kind of difference do we want to make, what motivates you. And it’s so beautiful because it really allows you to be very conscious of the person you’re speaking to, and understanding, and by doing that you’re actually able to then match it with a project, or an artist, or an initiative that makes sense. Because I see the profession so much about creating value by connecting dots and by building bridges between two entities, I would say, and we’re helping them to find each other and bring them together. And so, listening is so, so key in that process, to get it right, to understand and to really grasp what a donor’s interest is.
I would then also say you need a lot of patience and perseverance because timing is always so key in this profession, and the linking of events or the- to making, also, sense of what is now relevant and what can maybe wait, so there’s a sense of prioritisation, that’s also very key. Curiosity is very key, and creativity as well, because you have to come up with maybe, ideas how you can maybe create a value together that might not be evident at a first glance. Being driven by what you do, being really passionate about what you do. I mean, that gives you so much energy, gives you so much motivation and think if you don’t believe in what you do, you just, you know, shouldn’t do it or should reconsider. And I think that authenticity in your work and in your attitude comes across and being genuine is so important in this, and it’s not about trying to sell something or trying to force someone to do something. It’s really about creating value and and connecting the dots, I would say, so yeah; listening, being passionate and being patient, I would say.
Phoebe Reith 11:02
Not to generalise too much, but to what extent would you say there are any cultural sensitivities that inform how effective fundraising might be in one place to another? For performing arts specifically I think, is what I mean.
Edilia Gänz 11:15
You can definitely see that certain organisations depending on where they are based in terms of location in terms of city, if it’s rural areas, or if it’s more- also, if it’s a festival, if it’s once a year, or throughout the year, there are different ways and reasons for donors to give. And then it also changes depending on their culture as well. There are many reasons why people give and why people want to make a difference through giving to the performing arts, and there can be different elements that play into that equation. So of course, there’s a tax cut, of course there are perks that come with why people want to maybe give to something because you know, you benefit from special access to you know, the artist, the performance, etc. But then there’s also a lot about the impact that that donor wants to have with his or her donation, and the outcome of that project or the impact it might have on the community.
Phoebe Reith 12:14
So you are the director of Fedora. Can you summarise in a sentence or two what Fedora is and also how it came about?
Edilia Gänz 12:21
Yes, so Fedora is the European Circle of Philanthropists of Opera and Ballet. It was created by our president in 2014, Jérôme-François Zieseniss, as a tribute to the first president of the organisation around 30 years ago now, Rolf Lieberman, the great composer and Opera House director, who, at the time had always encouraged collaboration across Europe and to support new work and emerging artists. So as a tribute to him, our president initiated a prizes competition to support new work by emerging artists, that are realised in the form of co-productions. And over the last years this is what we’ve been building, and what our mission is, is to encourage opera houses to give artists the chance to create new work for today for the audience of tomorrow, that also will draw in the next generation of audiences and donors to build the future of this art form in society.
Phoebe Reith 13:18
I once heard you refer to it as, it’s about honouring work in progress.
Edilia Gӓnz 13:21
Yes, that’s a way of putting it yes-
Phoebe Reith 13:24
Which is- I think we could all do with a bit of that.
Edilia Gänz 13:27
Exactly. And because it comes with, you know- to make something happen, you need the initial boost. And so we see it a lot as enabling things to come to life with the trust and encouragement that it takes.
Phoebe Reith 13:39
So how did you get involved with Fedora?
Edilia Gänz 13:41
I think it was all about timing, maybe serendipity. When I finished my studies, I did my stage de fin d’étude, as it’s called in France, the end of my business school studies, I did it in the philanthropy department of the Friends Association of the Paris Opera, and so that was my first immersion into the opera world. I had volunteered before for two years in the performing arts world, but this was like the first time in the philanthropy department. During that internship, there was this conversation going on about, okay, let’s launch Fedora, bring together opera houses, private donors and set this up. And I was very fortunate to be there at the right time and helped drop the plan and speak also with the different stakeholders to have an understanding for the needs in the market at the time. And at the end of my internship, the thing was supposed to take off and I was there, I was finished with my studies and motivated to take on the challenge, and that’s how it came together, and they have been incredible mentors along the way, and that’s how it happened. It’s been seven years and I didn’t see them go by.
Phoebe Reith 14:42
Wow. Can you just tell us a little bit about those prizes and what they seek to do.
Edilia Gänz 14:45
So when our president created the Fedora prizes, his vision was really to offer venture philanthropy to opera houses and ballet companies to encourage them to build new work, to reach the stage and to co-produce and tour this kind of work. And what we realised when receiving applications was this incredible richness of ideas and creativity, and bold, also cutting edge productions that artists are working on for tomorrow’s stage. And what’s so beautiful about this competition is that it does not support things that already exist. But it’s all about investing in things that have the potential to become grand. And so that’s why we allow our jury to completely make that decision on our behalf, and the jury is, of course, composed of the who’s who in opera and ballet, and they are the ones who detect the potential, the quality, feasability of those projects.
Edilia Gänz 15:45
And what’s always so striking when we receive those applications, when you read through them and you see what kind of topics the artists are actually thinking about and talking about in their work, it’s so onpoint, and so much revealing about how opera and ballet are so relevant today, because they’re offering this new perspective, and an alternative view on big topics that are all on our minds right now; about the planet, about rights, about technical innovation, and artificial intelligence, and how that is going to coexist with people, how we are treating our planet, the responsibility we have towards people from different countries or cultures- all of these elements are basically delivered in a conceptual format on paper, and then we present them on our platform. And that’s what makes it so special when you come to that platform, because you basically see what will reach the stage in two years time, once then the performances come to life. And when you think about, wow, this is how it was described on paper several years ago, and then you actually see it, it’s always mind blowing, and one of the greatest highlights in the year when we have those opening nights. Also to then go there with the donors who backed it initially and believed in it is such a special experience and giving them the opportunity also to speak with the choreographers and stage directors, composers, it’s a great experience because you’re basically taking part in that journey. And I think that’s also what’s so important in the performing arts, because it’s all about, you know, delivering the perfect version of the project on stage and to be magical, to really be so enticing and everyone is at its best.
And, and what’s more, in order to build a relationship, is also taking people along through what it takes to actually build that opera. And because that is not always done, that’s why there’s sometimes also this misunderstanding of, you know, what does it actually take to put together a show? And because of sometimes that lack of understanding, there’s lack of knowledge that actually funds are needed to do that, then the understanding that there’s coordinating so many people from so many departments and disciplines to actually make this happen. And that’s what we really try to do is to say, okay, this is the perfect product at the end, but come explore with us that entire journey and be one of the first initial investors who believe in it.
Phoebe Reith 18:06
One of the things I love most about Fedora, Edilia, is that you have not only enabled that kind of, honouring the potential of the future and of future productions and things like that, and connecting donors to that stage of the journey, but you have democratised that. It’s not only the big major donors, or whoever it might be that is sort of at that early stage of the project, you then have this voting stage where people can vote for- anyone can go online and vote for which project they think is great and should win in a particular category. And indeed, they can also support through crowdfunding as well.
Edilia Gänz 18:39
Yeah, and it’s also very important to us to build that ecosystem, because, again, philanthropy, like you just said, it’s not just the big donations, everyone can be part of it, and it’s about also making everyone feel comfortable being part and have their role in that puzzle. And what’s beautiful also to see in this voting and crowdfunding phase is that we are trying to actively also convert people who are interested, through a vote, to actually help them care and actually, in a second step, donate and even if it’s as a five euros, you know, it can also be a bit more, but maybe that is the generation of people who will in maybe, you know, one or two decades be the next generation of major donors. And it’s about planting those seeds today for the sector to renew itself, also from the financial point of view, in the next decades to come.
Phoebe Reith 19:36
Fedora is essentially a startup and it was incubated, almost, in the office that you were working in, and then you’ve taken it out and you’ve grown it over the last seven years. So what was it like in the early days? How did you find your team?
Edilia Gänz 19:48
Absolutely an entrepreneurial journey, and there was a lot of hard work in the beginning to actually set it up and to get everyone around the table. And of course, because it had this European scope it was, you know, speaking with all opera houses and philanthropists across Europe and getting, also, their take on it, sort of, to find how we would position and define the organisation, and you cannot run such an organisation without an amazing team, and I’m really happy to have incredible team members on my side who are so committed, so devoted to the cause and brings so much talent also to the table, and everyone is welcome to give feedback or to share their opinion because we believe that diversity and more ideas can make the outcome more, you know, rich, and also appeal also, to the scope of audiences that we’re speaking to across Europe, cultural differences are so so crucial to capture within the team.
Phoebe Reith 20:42
So sometimes when people say, “oh what do you do?” I say I work in fundraising, and everyone’s like, oh, people who give to things, that’s because of the tax breaks, right? So it’s what I’m often met with when people are talking about donating, but actually we both know, it’s so much more than that. However, there is an element of tax which comes into this, and you’ve been working on a really exciting project around transnational giving. And I wondered if you could just outline that, for us?
Edilia Gänz 21:04
Being a network organisation of philanthropists and dealing with philanthropy across borders on a daily basis, for us at Fedora It was very key to team up with an expert partner in this field, which is the Transnational Giving Europe Network. Why am I saying this, is because we live in a Europe where the concept of free flow of money, goods and people is a given. However, that principle, unfortunately, does not apply yet to the free flow of donations across borders, because of all the different legal and fiscal implications of each country. The challenge is always that if you want to support a cause in your country, that is possible, and you get your tax relief on that donation, and obviously this completely depends on the national laws and where you’re based. However, once you want to support a cause that is outside of your country of fiscal residence, that donation is not accepted by local authorities as a donation because it is a donation to another country that has different laws about nonprofits, etc.
And we helped as a nonprofit organisation to co-design that platform so that it would facilitate the process of online cross border giving. So we were working on that together with another non-profit organisation, Common Goal in Berlin which is in the soccer world, so completely different world. And we worked with, especially with the Swiss Philanthropy Foundation in Geneva and the King Baudouin Foundation in Belgium, to create this architecture of that solution. And we were the first non-profit organisation to embed it and link it to our website platform, so that people who came to our platform since last year were able to benefit from you know, you make a donation, you say where you’re from, and you get your tax receipt, that kind of transparency is so key, and is really what donors are looking for today. Almost 80 non-profit organisations are now using that system to raise funds across Europe for their causes, including the World Health Organisation that last year definitely needed a boost of donations in order to fight COVID.
Phoebe Reith 23:04
Thinking about some of the issues that I know Fedora are thinking about, which is the sustainability, equality and digital transformation, can you tell us a little bit about those issues, because that’s something which I know is in your next phase.
Edilia Gänz 23:15
Especially last year, in the year of lockdown and COVID, we conducted a lot of conversations with our members across Europe and give- on the funding side and also on the performing arts side, and followed a lot about the policymaking that was coming out from the European Commission. And so we believed that it’s really important that the opera and ballet sector who were so badly hit by COVID, that there is really a reinvention that is going to be necessary going forward, and to position and to secure, safeguard also, that industry for the 21st century in terms of relevance and sustainability from you know, ecological but also from a business point of view. We came up with this idea of saying, okay, before policymakers come to organisations, maybe to give directives on how to maybe change an operation, organisations should be the ones to make that choice for themselves and proactively decide how they want to set up their organisations in order to survive and thrive in the future. In order to drive this change opera houses should become like a beacon of hope and an example, a role model, since they’re always you know, such physically visible centres that people can look towards in all these city centres, to drive that change and to have a stake in that future that is going to be developed by all of the stakeholders in Europe and our world, you know, it’s our lives, it’s our next generation is going to be living in that world, and what kind of world do we want?
All these opera houses defined together that around the areas of sustainability, green initiatives, diversity and inclusivity and digital transformation, were three core areas that need to be tackled within the next upcoming years. Rethinking how we source, produce and disseminate content, it’s really that holistic sustainability approach that we’re trying to drive through those three areas; green, equal and digital.
Phoebe Reith 25:09
It’s so inspiring, and you’re so right, and Fedora is really well placed to do that, because of the network that you have and your member organisations. We should be proud and hold ourselves accountable to the best standards across diversity and inclusion, sustainability and digital, because we hold ourselves to such high standards in the art that we produce.
Edilia Gänz 25:29
I also wanted to say that when embarking on this journey, we are not alone in this, because we’re really happy to build this together with Opera Europa. So Fedora and Opera Europa are driving this, and we’re going to just actually start out with the market survey, to have a clear understanding of where the opera and ballet sectors stand today in these areas, and then to identify together, what the challenges are, and what also the strategic plans are of different opera houses that they want to reach in the upcoming years. And we both of our organisations, Opera Europa who has an extremely strong network across Europe with 200 opera houses, we’re really, really happy that this is coming at this moment, and together with you know, our efforts on the philanthropy side and their expertise, we want to really, you know, boost this, and we’re really happy that already 45 companies in 17 countries have committed to this initiative.
Phoebe Reith 26:22
It’s a huge task. But I’m a big believer that it’s not- this sounds ironic on a podcast that’s talking about fundraising, it’s not always about the money, it’s not always just about the lack of resource to make that change. Some of it’s just about adjusting your criteria, perhaps. What else do you think it might be about?
Edilia Gänz 26:38
I think it’s going to be a lot also about capacity building and knowledge sharing. And so one of the aspects of this initiative is also about bringing in experts from outside the performing arts fields who have done these kinds of transformational works in their own organisations, that maybe are not at all related to the performing arts, but there’s so many parallels that can be drawn up between industries, and this cross learning and cross sharing can be extremely valuable for both sides. Really investing in knowledge and capacity building and general awareness also in communications is going to be really important as well, so that the general audience also understands that opera houses are not being passive, but are actually really proactive on certain topics. And it’s remarkable to see also, certain organisations what they’re pushing forward already today in these areas, and to create more awareness around that, and that’s what we want to try to support with obviously, financial means, but also, of course, with with the network and visibility activities that we’re going to be rolling out soon.
Phoebe Reith 27:39
You know, exactly as you said, you know, Fedora and the way that it’s operating at the moment is positioning itself to kind of reinforce the value of the performing arts and of the arts sector. And actually, that it is a place of innovation and sustainability and diversity and inclusion and all of these areas, and it is as important and should be considered alongside someone’s portfolio of philanthropic giving
Phoebe Reith 28:06
Of course all are welcome, but who else would you hope to see working in our field in the future?
Edilia Gänz 28:10
It would be really interesting to speak with more people who have knowledge on tech and data mining, and help behind the scenes in organisations to really, really drive efficiency there and harness also the intelligence of data. And I think there’s so much potential there, so much information that opera companies have also about, you know, ticket buyers, donors, etc. But it’s also about knowing how to make sense of all of that, and to have great systems that integrate all of that and give everyone access to work with as well is really, really key, and there’s some excellent organisations already building this. But in the long term, I think that dialogue between tech and culture is going to be more and more relevant. Not meaning that tech will take over, it’s more about saying, how can we mutually benefit from the two sides of the brain in a way, you know.
Phoebe Reith 29:04
And that’s the art and the science, for me, it’s the relationships and then it’s all of the clever databases that sit underneath everything that remind us what conversation we might have had with someone you know, six months ago or something. Fundraising is a quite a good career if you want to future proof your career, because actually, people will always- let’s hope- want to be generous in some way or other you know, it’s not- this isn’t a profession that’s going to be, whilst we will rely on tech and I really hope there are more innovations in the future, it’s going to always require that kind of human touch if you like, because it’s about relationships.
Edilia Gänz 29:38
I couldn’t agree more. Social emotional intelligence is so key in fundraising, and a human relationship, it’s what it is about. And that’s how you also build value in terms of getting commitment and the energy that goes into it and comes out of it, it’s trifold, actually.
Phoebe Reith 29:52
It really is, it’s very- it’s full of a lot of very meaningful things. However, one of the phrases that I was always given very early in my career from someone was: “There’s no such thing as a fundraising emergency, we are not separating twins at birth”. But sometimes it can feel that way it goes really, when you are trying to get everything to line up to be able to close that gift or catch that person or speak to this individual at the right time in the right place, and you’re trying to line everything up to make it work. It goes back to that building trust, making it all feel very personal, but also not taking anything too, too personally.
Edilia Gänz 30:30
Yeah, not at all. Because it’s the thing is it’s not it’s not it’s not about us fundraisers, it’s about the causes, it’s about the people who want to make a difference, who want to have an impact, and it’s about seeing those projects happen. We fundraisers are building the bridge between those two worlds and are trying to connect the dots and the more efficiently we can do that the better we can, you know, contribute to that value. Absolutely, it’s not at all personal, there’s so many reasons why things happen and why they don’t happen.
Phoebe Reith 30:57
How have the events of the last year impacted what you do?
Edilia Gänz 31:00
We were able to adapt very, very quickly, so basically, within 48 hours, we were all working remotely from our homes, and really reinvented everything that we did in terms of, you know, still delivering on our commitments towards, for instance, the European Commission and our donors, and you know, sourcing talent, going through the competition cycle, but obviously doing everything in a digital format. And that, of course, was a huge challenge, because we’re not- we don’t have an expertise in that area. But I was so impressed by the entire team, of how quickly they were coming up with solutions and actually gaining knowledge, building skills themselves out of curiosity, and coming up with ideas of how to do things differently, and now we reinvented new formats that we want to actually keep going forward. That was one side, so there’s always a silver lining in things, and the other side is, how do you cope with something that goes on plan? So because of COVID, for instance, we couldn’t transfer funds from the European Commission to opera houses that were dedicated to events and performances. But we wanted to absolutely transfer those funds that were on hold for the performing arts sector in a context of crisis. So what we were able to do within a very short period, is to come up with the amendment proposal to actually redirect all those funds towards digital activities that opera houses were now putting together. And this was literally the only thing that opera houses could do in this time period, so it was also trying to then work that need into a legal framework that is accepted by the European Commission, so that they would release the funds and that we could forward them to the sector.
And I think that’s again, comes back to when you’re aligned with your donor and you’re working towards a specific objective, you come together and you find a solution, and that I think at the end of the day makes you survive, also, those kind of difficult periods and creates value for everyone who’s involved.
Phoebe Reith 32:47
And exactly, I mean, we were so- I remember speaking to you on the phone in the middle of the year last year, Edilia-
Edilia Gänz 32:53
Phoebe Reith 32:53
And we were saying, “yes, okay, I don’t know how we’re going- okay, we’ll have to just reconfigure this thing?” and “what about if we did it this way?” and “what do you need me to do now? How can we make it work?”, in terms of our participation in the Fedora prizes last year.
Edilia Gänz 33:05
Phoebe Reith 33:06
And, um- but we were both, you know, we’re kind of in it together on different continents, you know, supporting teams, working remotely, you know, one of my team organised these amazing virtual events for donors, and a couple of them recently also organised one that was a kind of immersive back to Sadler’s Wells tour that was all virtual, and, you know, donors were ‘going into studios’ in inverted commas and talking to artists and things like that. And if you’d asked me 18 months ago, would we be doing things like that? I’d think, no way, we’d just invite people to come and watch a beautiful performance and maybe have a glass of wine, and we’d talk to them about the work, but no, it’s all become so much more informal, and close actually, and also very effective.
Edilia Gänz 33:47
Yes, it’s definitely brought us all closer. It’s also made things more human, people are much more comprehensive, understanding, willing to find, you know, alternative ways and also in terms of speed, there has been a huge boost in the quickness in which now organisations are able to react or find also intermediary solutions, that are maybe not completely perfect, but you know, kind of work. And also this trial and error thing of, you know, trying- you know, test and learn mentality, has really been also a lifesaver in this period.
Phoebe Reith 34:23
Okay. So I’m going to ask you to find a question here. So what does a great day look like for you? You know, I mean, I’m picturing you waking up in Paris and having the most gorgeous walk to work, rather than spending an hour on the tube.
Edilia Gänz 34:37
Well, I must say, Paris is a wonderful city to wake up in. I would say there are multiple ingredients; having reason to smile and being happy because of all kinds of good news, seeing a team being super motivated, coming up with an amazing idea and then we all are just really happy to just work it out, and that’s super encouraging. And then, very special calls are also- when you inform people about good news, and you’re actually the deliverer of good news, that’s also really fun. And in the sense of what you do and what you put so much energy and into is having an impact and you see things building, and having thought about something and then you see it materialising is just such a great experience and being able to build that with people that you very much appreciate and value, and being also accompanied by mentors who believe in you and believe in the organisation, and are around to give advice and trust you is such a such an incredible experience and gives you wings. Yeah, feeling that you have wings is a great, great encouragement. And yeah, happy days.
Ankur Bahl 36:02
Happy days, indeed. I mean, it is happy days when you get a massive cheque from somebody to be like, “now go make this dance, go make this opera, go make this play”!
Phoebe Reith 36:11
Yeah, no, it is amazing. And I know you’ve asked me before, like what happens when you get that cheque, do you really, you know, celebrate and things? And honestly, of course you do. But it just so often you’re thinking, okay, how do we make it happen? And how do we find more money for the next project?
Ankur Bahl 36:25
One of the things I really loved hearing her talk about is this mixing between, connecting the dots going, this is what we want to do and these are humans who care about these things, how do I connect those dots? And then knowing what motivates someone, it felt like a real masterclass in human psychology and about bringing pieces together.
Phoebe Reith 36:47
Yeah, it’s that whole left left side of the brain, right side of the brain. It is about building really personal relationships with people, especially on the individual giving side. But you know what, even in corporate giving, or in trusts and foundations, in the end, you’re dealing with humans every single day who you need to keep onside and you just want them to think, oh, you know, Phoebe’s calling me, I’m sure she’s got something fun to say! Rather than, ugh Phoebe’s calling me.
Ankur Bahl 37:11
Arts organisations, charities, up and down the country, have fundraising departments, they need them, that’s part of the bread and butter. And so there are jobs.
Phoebe Reith 37:27
Loads of jobs, totally, if you want to work anywhere, be a fundraiser because pretty much so you can always find a job, And the thing is, is that the kinds of jobs there are really do suit all different types of skill sets and personalities. So if you’re amazing with numbers, you can work in maybe a slightly more operational role within a fundraising team. If you’re amazing at building relationships, you could work in a more front-facing role, whether it’s an individual giving job or a manager or something like that. And if you’re someone who is amazing at putting together beautiful events, that’s also a really crucial part of fundraising.
Ankur Bahl 38:01
So when I’m looking for those jobs, what are they called?
Phoebe Reith 38:04
Development Officer, Development Manager, Development Assistant, that kind of thing. Generally, the word ‘development’ in the fundraising landscape of this country is what you’re looking for.
Ankur Bahl 38:29
What else could you do with that experience or that skill set?
Phoebe Reith 38:32
Oh, you can go anywhere with it. You can take it anywhere in the world because everywhere needs fundraisers, for a start. If you don’t want to stay in fundraising, it’s the same skill set as sales or marketing really, to a certain extent, with a bit of difference for sure. It’s a combination of a, kind of, creative art of storytelling and financial rigour and business understanding, which is invaluable wherever you go.
Ankur Bahl 38:54
Yeah, I could put that on a CV and feel pretty confident I think.
Phoebe Reith 38:57
Phoebe Reith 39:00
So I want to say a big thank you to a Edilia for dialling in to speak to us all the way from Paris, would have loved to have done it in person, but-
Ankur Bahl 39:06
That’s just because you wanted to go to Paris.
Phoebe Reith 39:08
That’s of course what I wanted, I wanted to go to Paris. So go to the Fedora platform and find out more about what they do. Arts Work is brought to you by Sadler’s Wells in association with Barclays Dance Pass.
Ankur Bahl 39:18
Your hosts are Ankur Bahl and Phoebe Reith. The producer is Hester Cant, and the series is mixed by Paul Brogden. If you enjoyed this episode or found it interesting or informative, and you can think of somebody else that you think would like this, make sure to share it with them.
Phoebe Reith 39:32
If you could leave us a review that would be amazing, it helps other people find it, it would mean so much to us as well.
Ankur Bahl 39:38
Join us next time
Episode 4 - Adam Koszary: social media content manager
Ankur Bahl 0:07
Hi, I’m Ankur.
Phoebe Reith 0:08
And I’m Phoebe.
Ankur Bahl 0:09
And this is Arts Work.
Phoebe Reith 0:12
We work at Sadler’s Wells, a leading dance organisation.
Ankur Bahl 0:15
And this is a podcast where we look at different roles in the creative industries and how you could find your way in.
Phoebe Reith 0:22
Okay, Ankur: so who are we hearing from this week?
Ankur Bahl 0:25
So this week, I had the great pleasure of speaking to Adam Koszary, who is a social media guru. He focuses on telling the stories of museums in the social media space. Adam came to real public attention for a tweet he put out about an enormous sheep, who he called an “absolute unit”. And this tweet then led to this sort of meme storm that came out of it. And what I love about Adam is he’s passionate about museums, he loves working with old historic objects. But what he also loves is storytelling, and what he’s able to convey really compellingly is how working in social media for museums brings those two things together in a really meaningful way.
Phoebe Reith 1:09
Doing social media for yourself is different to doing it on behalf of an organisation.
Ankur Bahl 1:13
Totally. At Sadler’s Wells, part of my role is working with our folks who run our social media and then also doing digital content. In this episode, you’ll hear us talk about this really interesting cross section of working in social media for an organisation where you can bring the skills that you have in your personal social media presence, or what you know from working on TikTok for yourself or from your own blog, but actually thinking about that for an organisation and in a lot of ways becoming the voice of that organisation. And that has a lot of power, it has a lot of influence, it has a lot of possibility, but it also has a lot of responsibility. And we’ll hear a really interesting set of stories that take Adam from the Museum of English Rural Life – called MERL for short – to having an online exchange with Elon Musk, who’s the chief executive of Tesla, the American car manufacturer. And then back to the Royal Academy where he is now and how he navigated working in social media, but in a lot of different contexts. In the episode, you’ll hear a question from Tasha, who works at Sadler’s Wells in our social media. She had a question for Adam about well-being in these types of roles.
Phoebe Reith 2:20
Well, that sounds brilliant. So where do we start?
Ankur Bahl 2:22
We start by hearing about how Adam grew up loving video games and how that led him to a career in social media for museums.
Adam Koszary 2:35
I grew up in the Black Country. It’s a weird place, it’s like it’s a mixture of post-Thatcherite decline and industry in the Black Country. So it’s a kind of strange place to grow up because there wasn’t really industries left, it was quite unclear what to do for a job near Birmingham. But going to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s was always part of my childhood, it’s quite lucky to have that.
Ankur Bahl 2:57
Why did you have that?
Adam Koszary 2:59
Something to do. There’s nothing to do, so you go to museums and art galleries. Like what do you do with your kids – throw them in there, see what happens.
Ankur Bahl 3:05
And what did happen?
Adam Koszary 3:07
Well, actually, it does- I don’t think it had much of a bearing on, like, my choice for university, because I don’t know about you, but I grew up in the Blair years, where they were like, “follow your passions and you’ll get a job, and it will be fine, because the economy’s fine”. So I decided to go for ancient history because of a video game. I played ‘Rome: Total War’-
Ankur Bahl 3:26
Adam Koszary 3:26
-as a teenager, and I was like, this is fun, I’ll just dig into that for a bit.
Ankur Bahl 3:31
So you went into ancient history as opposed to computer programming, or- like that was the lesson from the video game.
Adam Koszary 3:36
Well like, ICT in secondary school was literally “here’s how to use Google, and here’s how to use a Word document”. I think it’s much better now, but they didn’t really open up the opportunities, so I was like, oh, working in computers is spreadsheets, who wants to do that? I mean, social media wasn’t even a thing until I was properly in university, I guess, because I think 2009 was when it started kicking off, I’d say, that’s when most people seem to have joined Facebook as lik,e institutions. Some of them might have gone on a bit earlier. I don’t think digital was even then seen as like, a career path in museums. So they were still telling us like, “do a Museum Studies master’s, get yourself over into debt, spend another year studying, see whether this economic crisis will just go over our heads or something”. It did not. Yeah, I managed to get a scholarship to do that because Careers Service were saying, “yeah, that’s what you need to do to get into museums”. And without that scholarship, I don’t think I would have been able to do it.
Ankur Bahl 4:26
You go into history because you were interested in those stories from the video games. How do you go from that moment to going, “I want to work in museums”?
Adam Koszary 4:33
I think it was a classic careers talk. So, University of Manchester, I think it was the curator of Anthropology at the university is tied to the museum, basically, I think he said like my job is- I think he used the example, he got to go to China to work on an exhibition, and he spent all of his day working with history, working with objects, working with community groups. I was like, that sounds like a way of carrying on my passion and getting paid for it.
Ankur Bahl 4:56
You got an MA, that was your path into museums, but you saying that’s not necessary?
Adam Koszary 5:01
No. A lot of people were saying it was back then, and I think the sector, and people in general, have moved on pretty well since then. Not completely, so there are still pockets where it hasn’t moved along. But most of the people I talk to are way more interested in just, transferrable skills, and actually what you’ve done. So you don’t have to go through this academic route, basically. Because we need people with new ideas, because the ivory tower has been crumbling for decades, and we really need just to completely knock it down. And we need people to help us do that.
Ankur Bahl 5:33
Adam Koszary 5:34
Yeah. It’s exciting, but it’s a very slow process.
Ankur Bahl 5:37
Yeah, I think I think we all share this sort of feeling, that change is slow.
Adam Koszary 5:40
Ankur Bahl 5:41
Let’s speed it up!
And please apply for jobs to help us speed it up. I think you’d be surprised, the jobs you can get, even if you don’t think you would fit into like, museums and galleries like mine, or the Royal Academy of Arts. But if you have good ideas, and you have the right experience, even if you don’t have like a background in the arts, or history or universities, that’s fine. We need more people like that.
Ankur Bahl 6:03
Were are you thinking about the jobs you’re doing now when you were studying for the MA?
Adam Koszary 6:06
I started studying my MA without any real idea of what I wanted to do in museums. I think there was a vague idea that I wanted to work with collections. I think most people, if they even have the spark of wanting to work in museums, without knowing the variety of roles they’re just like, I like working with history, I like working with objects. We did a little bit of exhibitions work, a little bit of community work, a little bit of like, why museums exist and their role in society. And part of that involves doing things on social media, but it wasn’t at that point that I thought, yeah, this is what I want to do. But it did make me start writing a blog, which I think helped me land my first job.
Ankur Bahl 6:42
What was the blog?
Adam Koszary 6:43
Talking about going to museums, exhibition reviews, kind of boring stuff like that. But even then not many people were doing it I don’t think.
Ankur Bahl 6:50
You’re showing what you want to do off your own back.
Adam Koszary 6:51
Yeah, essentially, and I think the modern version of that is having your own social media presence. And a blog I think always helps, because obviously, content comes in 50 different forms. Whereas now we might even be looking for people doing like presenter-led TikToks on their own time, which I’m not saying you need to do that to get a job, but it would help.
Ankur Bahl 7:10
Tell us about the first job then. You see a job posting? How did that happen, what did you do?
Adam Koszary 7:13
Well I think it’s probably worth saying first that I think I’d applied to about 50 jobs before I even landed this first one. So, it was a project officer with the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading. They were doing a Heritage Lottery funded project to redo the entire museum and they needed someone to, you know, help with the grunt work. It was actually a really nice job to start with because it was so open ended, and they gave me a lot of freedom to just pitch in with things I wanted to do after I’d got the main job done.
Ankur Bahl 7:41
How do you go from there to then running their social media?
Adam Koszary 7:46
Part of it was just, the opportunity was there. There was an amazing marketing manager and she got them on all the channels, was doing the usual stuff, or she was always struggling to get other people in the museum to contribute. She knew that social media was more than marketing, that we needed collection stories, they needed stories from the learning groups, we needed stories about the day to day, so that people could see the museum had a personality, had all these things to offer. I wouldn’t say social media is a level playing field, but it allows small museums to punch above their weight. It is a fascinating museum, an amazing collection, and it’s just like, getting that enthusiasm across like, “forget your preconceptions, come here, you will learn something really interesting”. As I was working on the interpretation of a museum gallery- so all the text labels, deciding the stories, it was really fascinating work but I was really frustrated with the pace of it. And what I found was I loved telling these stories on social media more, because it gave me that freedom to tell it in a much more personal way without having to worry about it lasting five years, because tweets just go. And the more I was doing that, the more people were talking back. I loved having these conversations, you can mix and match images and stories and audio and video, and tell stories in just much more dynamic ways. I absolutely loved it, and I kind of pursued it when the contracts were a bit iffy, taking a part time job at the Bodleian Libraries at University of Oxford. Sometimes I wish I could just drop everything and go back to that job, I love that- everyone should go to the Bodleian, they’ve got amazing exhibitions all the time as well. It’s also where I first started realising that we could not be serious all the time. And actually being able to do that at the University of Oxford was a revelation, where we started playing around with tone. So yeah, that really helped me decide social media was something I just want to pursue, but it was waiting for the right opportunity.
Ankur Bahl 9:34
And then you’re at MERL.
Adam Koszary 9:35
Yeah, I went back to MERL for an Arts Council-funded project, which was about digital transformation. We started with this problem statement, which I think was, the museum’s visitors weren’t as diverse as we would have liked, we weren’t taking advantage of new ways of talking to people digitally, which we thought would lead to irrelevance and fewer visitors in the long run.
Ankur Bahl 9:56
You as an organisation are training yourself up to make yourself relevant, what did you do?
Adam Koszary 10:00
Anyone that works in content knows that you need content in the first place, you need something to make a story out of. And the most annoying thing about galleries and museums is that we sit on mountains of content, we literally have store rooms full of content with objects and their stories. But it’s not necessarily very easy to know what to pick, because you need to work with a collection, you need all that knowledge. We agreed red lines within- where we said we wouldn’t take the piss out of living people, and kind of also historical people, so we tried to keep it safe, stick to animals, stick to history, stick to that kind of thing. So there’s a lot of trust building, it’s not just being let loose on the collection, it’s working with people. We were dabbling with memes as a way of making the collections relevant to a new audience, trying to show that if you’ve been to the countryside, if you’ve met people that live in the countryside, they will tell you that the countryside is this very- there’s a lot of humour there. And one day I did this tweet from the collection of this big ram. It was an Exmoor Horn ram, and I just said, “look at this absolute unit” on it, and it was kind of like, just dashed off because I had that phrase in my head from seeing it on Twitter before.
Ankur Bahl 11:12
Adam Koszary 11:12
And when I found this sheep in the collection because, I think it was international unicorn day and I was trying to find a sheep with a horn growing out of it’s head, because I’d seen that happening.
Ankur Bahl 11:21
Of course you were.
Adam Koszary 11:22
Yeah, of course I was. Which is like, the worst way of doing content, and which I still do.
Ankur Bahl 11:26.
Which we all still do.
Adam Koszary 11:29
But instead I found the sheep and I was like, that’s a really impressive sheep, and tweeted it. And-
Ankur Bahl 11:34
I mean, the sheep is huge.
Adam Koszary 11:35
It is huge. And there’s a reason it’s huge, it’s because it was bred as a sheep for mutton and for its wool. So it’s like a dual purpose sheep, you can share it and you can eat it. And as our taste in mutton has declined that sheep breed is now a lot leaner actually, and they just use it for the wall.
Ankur Bahl 11:50
It’s a real shame because mutton biryani is a delight.
Ankur Bahl 11:53
Ankur Bahl 11:54
I make it all the time.
Adam Koszary 11:55
That kicked off, I think it ended up with about 30,000 retweets, and over 130,000 likes I think, and kind of catapulted us into this- I think the meme played around for like two or three days of people just remixing it into other memes, sending us funny remarks, and we were just replying to them making new memes off the back of it as well. But also, again, going back to that reputation building, making sure that we’re telling the deeper story of rural history and like why the sheep was so impressive, telling the story of the museum to all these people who are new to it. It allowed us to have this tone which I think everyone knows works on social media, where it’s very personal, it’s relatable, we can have conversations. It’s not like an institution voice, it’s like talking to a person, which is what I was trying to say to people, like, you need to talk to people like you talk to people in the galleries to get that enthusiasm across when you’re saying, “this is an amazing museum, look at this thing, hear the story”, which I don’t think you can really get away with in bigger institutions with longer histories. So it’s very much like a mix of right time, right place, and just the right collection and-
Ankur Bahl 12:59
Being able to build a persona for something that didn’t have something so established in the public consciousness, almost.
Adam Koszary 13:04
Yeah, it’s almost like starting with a blank slate.
Ankur Bahl 13:06
It’s not a one-off, right? Like it’s not this one-off a viral number, you have a history of animal Twitter that works.
Adam Koszary 13:14
I was terrified it was going to be a one-off, because it really could have been, like it did really well. We got roughly 25,000 new followers, so we went from like 10,000, on Twitter to 35,000. But I think it’s on around 157,000 now, and we built that up because it was really just getting into that groove of, the rest of the museum now were like, okay, social media might actually be a good thing, it might actually be a powerful way of telling stories, and it led to people telling me more things that happened day to day, and things I found in the collections, things happening around the museum. One example was a bat which we found in the archives. So the archives are meant to be fortresses of environmental conditioning and protection so that things don’t deteriorate. But-
Ankur Bahl 13:58
I’ve watched The Da Vinci Code. I know what it’s meant to be like.
Adam Koszary 14:02
This bat that was tiny, I don’t know what the parallel would be in the Da Vinci Code, but-
Ankur Bahl 14:07
The bat itself was small?
Adam Koszary 14:08
Yeah, which is how it got in.
Ankur Bahl 14:10
Golf ball size?
Adam Koszary 14:12
Roughly, yeah, it could fit in the palm of your hand, which is why we didn’t find it for a few days, we just found a chilling above the fire escape. And again, this could have been something that we were just like, “oh that’s cool”, and then we just get rid of the bat.
Ankur Bahl 14:21
Or you could have said, we don’t want to talk about this bat because we don’t want people to know things are getting into the museum.
Adam Koszary 14:25
Yeah, like a lot of professional angst of saying, oh, this shouldn’t have happened. But luckily, we knew it was an opportunity. And actually one of our volunteers was she- worked for the Bat Conservation Trust-
Ankur Bahl 14:37
Adam Koszary 14:38
So she took it home and she has this room in her house with cages of bats, and she nursed it back to health, and they eventually released it, and we charted that entire journey of like them feeding the bat milk and like just how cute it was. And they also managed to give us all this information about, it’s a pipistrelle that usually comes from Russia down to France, and it’s started coming to the UK because of climate change, they think, and we can tell this whole story of migration and climate change, as well as educate people about bats and why they’re protected, why we have to care for it and release it in a certain way. Make sure there weren’t any other bats roosting in the building, etc, but we also managed to be cheeky with it and like, talk to the university itself and ask whether we could get the bat a library card. And we got it one called Merlin the Bat, I think, because Museum of English Rural Life’s acronym is the MERL.
Ankur Bahl 15:29
We, as in, as a creative sector, are thinking about social media very differently to how we might have done 10 years ago, for example. 10 years ago, an institution like Sadler’s Wells would have gone, great, tomorrow, we need to sell X number of tickets, so we’re gonna tell everybody about the show and tell them to buy tickets, and, you know, “link in bio to buy”. Audiences don’t want that anymore, and actually, that’s not the biggest value you can get from social media. Can you explain how doing social media for a museum, or a gallery or an archive is different to doing social media in your personal life?
Adam Koszary 15:59
It’s weird, isn’t it? Because, I think why all museums started with that kind of marketing frame of mind, and it’s because social media is essentially a tool for getting adverts in front of people’s faces.
Ankur Bahl 16:10
Adam Koszary 16:11
So it’s an opportunity to say “here’s what’s going on”. It’s like having a leaflet through your door, having an advert on the tube. But people’s motivations for being on social media are genuinely to be entertained, to connect with friends, to learn new things. And if we keep talking in the same way that we did in our marketing, which is, “here’s a thing”, we’re not having a conversation, it’s just really, really dull, and no one cares. We’re not a person, or we don’t usually have a personal relationship with people. But we’re trying to still talk on that same level without looking disingenuous, and trying to pretend that we’re a nice person, which actually some brands are doing really well, like fast food places. What’s that one? Wendy’s? Where I mean, a lot of people know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They’re being funny, they’re telling stories, but they’re only doing it to sell burgers. The person who originally started doing that, for Wendy’s, the whole reason it kicked off was because she let a little bit of herself through into the social media, actually.
Ankur Bahl 17:06
You’re trying to personify the organisation, give it relatability.
Adam Koszary 17:09
And people are always talking about, in the sense of building the ‘brand identity’, which is a disgusting way of putting it.
Ankur Bahl 17:16
What is it for you then?
Adam Koszary 17:17
For me it’s trying to be as honest and engaging a window onto the organisation as possible. And I think we get a little bit more slack because museums and galleries generally are for nice things. We’re not an evil corporation. Usually. There are exceptions. We’re here to educate people, we’re also here for debates. Social media is- it’s the museum mission writ large.
Ankur Bahl 17:41
That’s a good statement.
Adam Koszary 17:43
Is it? But it’s tricky, because it’s difficult, because people are terrified of social media, it’s a lot of training, it’s a lot of finding ways of getting that conversation online. It’s dealing with trolls, which you don’t usually get in a museum because people are a little bit- people don’t shout at you too much in a museum, front of house people will tell me I’m definitely wrong about that. But you don’t necessarily get the same sort of vitriol.
Ankur Bahl 18:04
All the nastiest sides of humanity also come out on social media and how we, as humans, who represent the organisation, can face that trolling can face that abuse online, not necessarily directed at us personally, but either at the organisation or the people we work with how you manage that as a human is quite difficult.
Adam Koszary 18:24
I mean, there’s a lot more talk about mental health within the job at the moment I think, it’s the social media person who sees it and has to deal with it. And it’s very difficult sometimes to like, detach yourself, and realise people are saying it about the institution and not necessarily about you. But it’s also a very powerful tool, because very often people working in their offices might not realise what’s happening in the world. That might be a disservice to a lot of people. But people are having the culture war debates online and on social media, and you could miss it entirely if you’re not on social media. And when people are replying to museums and galleries and saying, “why aren’t you platforming more diverse artists? Why are you not facing up to all of the dodgy ways the British Empire like, looted and stole from across the world? And how that impacts how we tell the stories of these objects to all of our children across the country and just saying, yes, the British Empire got this and isn’t it lovely? And now you get to look at it, and we’re a museum for the world.” Actually, it’s a way of sparking those debates within the institution, and we can’t just reply to people and like stick a plaster over and say, “oh, we’re sorry, we’re going to look into it”, without actually looking into it, because people will, they will hold you to account and we saw that a lot with Black Lives Matter. And a lot of places still haven’t fully faced up to it, or started really doing the work to kind of honestly say, we’re making change in that area, but it’s because it’s an institutional change, and it’s actually like that immediate visitor feedback driving change within museums and galleries, which is interesting going back to the MERL, because all of that was just quite nice, funny, light hearted stuff and there wasn’t too much controversy. But a lot of museums and galleries can’t fall back on that, they have to do both. They have to be engaging and relatable where it makes sense, but also honest and actually critical, where it makes sense.
Ankur Bahl 20:24
The conversations on social media can lead to change within the institutions.
Adam Koszary 20:29
Just because being funny and relatable works on social media doesn’t mean that’s all we have to do.
Hiya, I’m Tasha, from South London. The nature of working in social media means that the lines between your work life and personal life can get blurred. How do you protect your personal time and keep these two separate?
Adam Koszary 20:52
It’s been a challenge to separate it over the years, I think everyone struggles with it. I think a lot of people struggle with work-life balance anyway, it was particularly difficult in my old job, the Museum of English Rural Life, because I didn’t have a work phone as well. So all of the organisational social media was just coming straight through to my personal phone. So sitting in the evening it’s replying to people, it’s dealing with issues, it’s trying to do fun things as well, which actually was alright for a bit because I was really enjoying it. But it did start to take its toll, I think. Eventually, we settled into a rhythm where we just wouldn’t reply on weekends, and trying to set up more of like a parameter of what we do and don’t reply to, and trying to stick to that, but it’s a lot of self-policing, because there was no one really around me saying, don’t do this, or do do this. At the Academy it’s a bit different because I have a work phone, which is like- I feel like that’s- I’ve moved to a big institution, I get a work phone, oh, my god. So the Royal Academy, we’re looking into things like, can we segment some of the queries, can we make front of house their responsibility to reply to certain messages? I’ve also got a lot better at actually just not looking at my phone, like I put my work phone down and I don’t touch it after 5, 5:30, whenever I stop working, and don’t come to it until the next day. And then that’s when I do the replies and everything else. But it’s really just a process of setting your own boundaries. Because even if boundaries are written down in a policy piece of paper, it’s very often up to you, or if you’re the manager, like actually taking that, being really proactive about saying “stop looking at your phone”. If you can get stick from above saying, people replied to us at like 7pm last night, why haven’t you replied yet? It’s making sure that you’re getting that kind of policy in place. Like we have work hours, and if you want people to work in the evenings then you even need to find a way of renumerating that, or having a rota. And I think it’s just taken experience of years and knowing my own limits to just know when to turn off. I think I’ve seen places like the Barbican may even have in their Twitter bios where they say, like, we just don’t reply on weekends, this is how we’re going to respond to you, and this is almost like our contract with you as a follower.
Ankur Bahl 23:08
It’s creating expectations for the audience. You have personal social media and work social media, do you still do personal social media? Or are you like, I’m not gonna do social media, because I do that for a living.
Adam Koszary 23:16
When I was starting out in the sector, really trying to find things out, have conversations, build my network, I used Twitter primarily, because most museum professionals seem to use Twitter to talk, there’s #museumhour every week and there’s usually similar things or different organisations, I think I’ve seen a theatre one knocking about. I was using that really heavily for the first few years of my career. And it was incredibly helpful because you go to conferences, and they’d say, “I know you off Twitter”. A really good way of breaking the ice, but also really good personal development, or just being like, I’m doing this thing, does it work? I was still blogging, so I was showing people my blogs. And I did very honest blogs about like, my learning process, as I’ve gradually like, figured things out, like I documented the whole tweet saga, how we dealt with post-mortems on our projects, that kind of thing. I have this incredible network and platform, which I always feel like I’m not using well enough to celebrate other people’s work, and to talk about my work. But I really want to get back into actually giving something back to the sector by giving them more of an insight into how we do stuff at a big institution, and actually demystifying it a bit. Because when I worked in a small institution, I thought big institutions, like, ran like clockwork, knew everything they were doing, and everything was just perfect, there’s loads of money, and yeah, it’ll be great. And now that I’m here, some of those things that are true to an extent, but actually, I think it would help people to know that very often we’re tackling the same issues.
Ankur Bahl 24:51
And making it up as we go.
Adam Koszary 24:53
Very often making it up as we go.
Ankur Bahl 24:59
Doing social media in the creative industries is part of what you do and have done. It can also have so many other implications and so many other- it can open up so many other opportunities. You have a particular story that I want to hear,
Adam Koszary 25:11
I do. I think it comes back to how, actually museums and galleries aren’t unique in struggling how to be relatable and do well on social media. Like so many big organisations are screaming out for someone to make them relatable, to have those viral moments, which are as much a product of luck as like, building a community and a- like a consistency of tone and what we’re for. And I can talk about what’s probably on the public record, and not much else. But I did get a job at Tesla off the back of the tweet at the Museum of English Rural Life and like, how that dissipated into the world.
Ankur Bahl 25:45
The sheep tweet.
Adam Koszary 25:47
The sheep tweet, which now has its own page on knowyourmeme.com and that kind of thing, which is how it got picked up one day by the king of memes and Bond villain-esque billionaire- is he a billionaire?
Ankur Bahl 25:58
Adam Koszary 25:59
Ankur Bahl 26:00
CEO of Tesla.
Adam Koszary 26:01
CEO of Tesla. He retweeted something from MIT, I think, which is about, look at this absolute unit of a plane. And I think he replied to using the sheep, and saying, “‘look at this absolute unit”, I actually can’t fully remember how that happened. He changed his profile picture to the sheep, and then when I got wind of it I changed the Museum of English Rural Life’s Twitter picture to his face, and changed the museum’s name to the ‘Musk-eum of Elon-glish Rural Life’. I even got into a little conversation with him through the museum account. And yeah, to skip the details that ended up with a job offer to work as Tesla’s Social Media Manager, which was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity, which I couldn’t not take up, and actually I’d already accepted a job at the Royal Academy at that point, which I had to turn down just because I felt this isn’t ever going to happen again. And I had I had expectations of- particularly about how this job offer had even come up in the first place through just a stupid Twitter conversation, how it might be to work at Tesla- but I realised after a few months, it just wasn’t particularly for me. Amazingly, the job at the Royal Academy of Arts was still being advertised and I went back and applied again, grovelled a bit- I bought them a cake on my first day. But you know that Drake meme where he’s like, shaking his head at one thing, and is like nodding his head at one thing- he’s like shaking his head at Elon Musk and nodding his head at the Royal Academy. Yeah, so that was a really strange period of my life.
Ankur Bahl 27:32
So now at the Royal Academy you’re recruiting for people who are starting out in their career. What jobs exist? And then also, what works really well and what doesn’t work so well, for people who are trying to break in?
Adam Koszary 27:45
Well, at the moment we’re- we’re right in the middle of recruiting for a digital content officer. And their job within the team is, they’ll be mainly line-managed by me, but they’ll be kind of half line-managed by the website content manager as well. Because it’s a job that really needs to help just get content out, because it’s a constant machine, it’s like- this is my ancient history coming into play- Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill for all eternity and it rolls back down the same day, for the next day, and he just pushed up again, rolls back down. Content is just relentless. It’s every day, you need something, you need stories, you need things coming up in advance, you need to react to things that are happening day to day. So the job that we’re recruiting for now, it’s helping just keep that rhythm up, like, working with other teams, getting formats sorted, and making sure we have content on our Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. And we have a Pinterest account, which is actually- god we need to do something with that.
Ankur Bahl 28:42
I think every organisation has one of those accounts where they’re like, oh that one, what am I gonna do with that account?
Adam Koszary 28:48
But the annoying thing is actually it’s really powerful, but it’s that thing, we need- it’s all about resource. Yeah, it’s a ton of work. And it’s a lot more than just pressing the button at the end, we need someone who can both help us push out the content, but we also want someone who could challenge us with new ideas. Because actually, I mean, part of the job description is we need these nuts and bolts of skills, like you need to know how social media works, you need to know how the platforms work, you need to have some idea of how to measure success and equally how that success carries through into fuzzier objectives like the mission. So younger people have grown up in this digital environment where they’re using social media everyday in their lives, usually, and they know the kind of conversations people have, how people talk on the different channels. They might not necessarily know how to do the analytic side. But they kind of have this almost instinct of what is good and what isn’t. If they’re looking into this kind of job, hopefully they’ve also done content personally, or maybe they’ve kind of branched out into exploring their interests on social media as well. And what we’re really looking for is someone who can push us because I’m 31 now and TikTok is as terrifying to me as it probably would have been to my grandma, if she were still alive. I do go on TikTok and I do use it, but it’s not a skill set that I’ve grown up with. You’ve got kids who are basically video editors in their own right now, because they’ve used TikTok in their day to day lives. TikTok might not be appropriate for the academy yet, we need people who know those trends and know how to apply them to galleries and museums. We don’t want someone who can just do a tweet about an event, we want someone who can say, here’s how to take that event and here’s how to turn it into something almost new and suited to these channels, which is really easy to say out loud, but it’s an incredibly difficult thing to find.
And I feel really bad about saying, yeah, you have to be this amazingly imaginative person, because usually the best ideas come from brainstorming and talking to people. If people are coming into this sector and want this kind of job, it really helps if you’ve used your passion in digital content already in some way, whether it’s on your personal accounts or talking about your passion, as an example of their creativity. I’m not saying that you have to have this incredible idea that you could imagine like an ad agency doing, because it sounds very intimidating to just be like, “be creative”, it’s like having that command “be funny”. It just completely shuts you down. You’re like oh my god, I’m so boring.
Ankur Bahl 31:19
Adam Koszary 31:20
But it’s like maybe if you’re going to an interview, you could look at what the museum or gallery is planning, look at its programme, you can look at what other places are doing, kind of like keep notes and track of campaigns you’ve really enjoyed and like dig into why you’ve enjoyed them. Like a recent example was, in the sector that I’ve seen, it’s something as simple as like your museums ‘curator battle’, I don’t know if you’ve seen that. People love it when organisations talk to each other in a human way, and York museum realised that and during the pandemic started trying to set off curator battles between museums, like who’s got the best object relating to this. And like they did one-
Ankur Bahl 31:56
It’s very niche.
Adam Koszary 31:58
It’s niche but it really broke out of that bubble of just people who follow museums.
Ankur Bahl 32:04
Adam Koszary 32:04
Because it was getting people to share their most interesting stuff, and seeing a wide variety of it at the same time. Everybody loves a battle, and they really, like, played into that, like it had that element of competition, but also you’re finding out something new, something very unique from history that you wouldn’t have known about. And yeah, just managed to reach way more people than just saying, here’s an object. It’s looking at the gaps of what people are doing as well. And I’m like, incredibly self critical, so I know the Royal Academy of Arts has a ton of gaps. It’s even at the very simplest of saying, at the moment you are just saying too many things that just don’t end anywhere. Like, you need to find ways of being more interactive. You’re not fully taking full advantage of Instagram stories and all the different ways you can get people to interact with you. Or, I’ve seen the Uffizi doing this thing on TikTok, and here’s how you could apply that to this thing you’re doing at the Academy. So it’s not like saying you need to come up with the silver bullet creative idea, it’s just like, being open seeing the opportunities, I think?
Ankur Bahl 33:04
How would you describe what you do now?
Adam Koszary 33:06
So my job is described as Social Media and Editorial Content Manager.
Ankur Bahl 33:12
It’s a big title.
Adam Koszary 33:13
It’s a big title.
Ankur Bahl 33:14
It’s a lot of words.
Adam Koszary 33:15
There’s a lot of words. And we’re- I feel like I’m still in the process of trying to figure out what that is. But I feel like everyone is in their jobs to be honest, most of the time. But practically, day to day, it’s managing the day to day, the social media, it’s replying to people, getting that content calendar filled. It’s also working on longer term projects, like we have exhibitions coming up, who can we commission to write for us? What kind of content can we create from this, what kind of stories can we tell? And it’s also managing our news and blog section of the website, so what formats are we doing? Do we have one for learning? How do we talk about the collection in an interesting way, how do we keep on the tab of what’s happening in the art world? I feel like it’s a job that’s got the potential to almost decide the public voice at the Royal Academy. But that means essentially collaborating with everyone to figure out that voice and how it comes through in content, not doing it just by myself. I see it evolving into a much more collaborative, facilitating role. Where we do the legwork of saying this is what works, here’s what our expertise says we should be doing with content. But it’s really finding the stories and empowering other people in the organisation to then be a part of that. Online content is becoming part of everyone’s jobs, and we need to bring them with us rather than just say, no, we’re the only ones that can do it.
Ankur Bahl 34:36
What’s the best day look like, and what’s the worst day look like, in your job?
Adam Koszary 34:39
On a bad day I have back to back meetings, which are actually really essential as part of building this wider mission of what we’re doing with content. It means I don’t have the time that I really want to give to talk to people and keep that conversation going, because we do a daily doodle every day on our Twitter. And it’s built up what is gold dust for people on social media where we have people responding to us every day, here’s a picture I’ve drawn based on your challenge. And I feel like if I was working at a small museum, and we had 30 people sending us their drawings every day, it would be something I’d talk about conferences. It’s just, imagining someone seeing my tweet, drawing something on their kitchen table, taking a picture and sending it to the Academy, and then I don’t reply. It gets me down, like, that’s what I want to do. Actually, the best days recently, we’re all on furlough for Fridays, but I’ve been brought back to work on Fridays, and actually, my Fridays are my favourite day, because it’s a day of no meetings. And it’s a day where I can just concentrate on maybe, editing a blog from our learning team about why we should take child art seriously in art history. I could also be working on a more like list-article-blog about an upcoming exhibition. And it actually gives me the space to do what I think I still love about this job, which is replying to people and starting conversations on social media and actually having the time and space to do community management, which is the core of the job.
Ankur Bahl 36:08
He’s so right, community management is at the heart of the job, and it’s really nice to hear him talk about that.
Phoebe Reith 36:13
I’m curious, because he touched on this, actually, if you are that first port of call, if you like, you know, that is where when people are happy about something, they will say it and if they’re not happy about something, they will say it.
Ankur Bahl 36:24
A lot of extreme emotions on social media, isn’t it?
Phoebe Reith 36:26
Yes, it’s all about outrage in one way or another. The team members who are having to read all of this every single day on behalf of the organisation, yes it’s addressed to the organisation, but they are still individuals that are potentially having to read anything from really positive things, but then a lot of negative things, and sometimes, to the extent of trolling or hate speech, or that kind of thing. You manage a team that have to interact with the public on that on behalf of our organisation, you know, and how do you support them with that?
Ankur Bahl 36:53
I think you’re right, that well-being when you work in social media, like Adam talks about, comes in different guises. So one is about, how do you separate out your personal and professional, right, whether that’s having a separate work phone, so that actually, when I’m on Twitter for Sadler’s Wells that’s over there. And on my own personal time, it’s here, right, so that’s part of it. But then the really hard thing that you’re talking about is how do you think about well-being in relationship to sometimes very difficult conversations online, when you, and this is the power of social media, but you are the voice of the organisation on a day to day basis. So it comes with a lot of responsibility. And we’ve been having a lot of conversations and I know Adam has been having conversations, but the sector has been having a lot of conversations about how do we support people? Create time and space for what we call ‘emotional TOIL’, time off in lieu; going, if I know that actually at this time I’m going to have to monitor our Twitter thread, and I know that there’s a conversation that’s happening, I’m going to schedule periods of time in for myself to recover from that. But then also knowing that you have your colleagues, but you should also, if you need, have professional support available to you to be able to deal with that, that type of interaction online that that unfortunately is part and parcel of the job. But doesn’t mean it should just be brushed away going, It’s your job so just sort it out and deal with it. And how we balance those things is a really live important conversation in the industry. And one we’re getting better at dealing with but I wouldn’t claim to have all the answers at all.
Phoebe Reith 38:25
So community management is huge. And last summer, in the arts across- in every sector, for example, with Black Lives Matter, there was a huge pressure on organisations to not only publicly respond, but also publish what actions they were taking. It’s this really interesting point around how social media can be the kind of pressure, the campaigning tool, to affect real change.
Ankur Bahl 38:46
I think it’s really about where the conversation’s happening, right? Most people if they want to talk to you about an issue, and you’re an organisation, the quickest, simplest way to do that is through social media. And so social media becomes the coalface of the conversation with your audiences, with your customers, with your visitors, right, with anyone who you’re interacting with. That conversation you have on social media can instigate the really important questions and force organisations to make change, to be thinking about things in a different way than they might have done or at a pace that’s faster than they might have done. Because the conversation is live and it’s public. And that’s why it’s really exciting that, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, or it’s the response to Coronavirus, or its public funding for the arts, all of these big questions that are affecting our sector, actually a lot of changes bubbling up from conversations that are being had on social media. The flip side of that is, how do you as an organisation harness that for positive change and actually not just let it be a conversation on social media, like Adam’s saying, but really go, that conversation can then lead us to change and to changing who we are and how we do things.
Phoebe Reith 39:56
And decent change as well, not just quick fixes.
Ankur Bahl 39:59
Meaningful, impactful change.
Phoebe Reith 40:00
So I loved the Elon Musk Tesla anecdote, its great. And I love also that, you know, someone who had been working in museums then went and worked for a corporate, albeit for, you know, not the longest period of time. But still, that would have been incredible experience for him. And then he was able to take that back to the Royal Academy, and I just think it’s a fantastic example of someone taking a risk.
Ankur Bahl 40:21
And I think also an example of, the skills required to work in these industries in most of the jobs that we’re talking about on this podcast can be transferred, those skills are transferable to any number of other industries.
Phoebe Reith 40:33
Absolutely. Not only are your skills transferable, but you can take those risks and you can go and dip your toe in elsewhere. But then, you know, like Adam did, he thought, you know what, this isn’t really for me, and it was fine. That was great. He would have learnt so much more from having gambled something and you know, stepped outside of his comfort zone because that’s where our learnings really begin, I think.
Ankur Bahl 40:52
I think it’s quite an inspiring story.
Phoebe Reith 40:54
Ankur Bahl 40:55
Also larger than life, which we love as well.
Phoebe Reith 40:57
Yeah, of course we do. Also, I mean, come on, a curator battle? How much fun is that? Can we- how can we do that? Can we have a dance battle, because we need to pick another organisation… I’m gonna throw it out there- The Joyce, across the Atlantic, are they interested?
Ankur Bahl 41:13
Phoebe, our social media colleagues are gonna kill you. I think the more important thing about that is what he was talking about in terms of organisations speaking to each other, right? So you’ve developed this tone of voice for the organisation, and it has a personality.
Phoebe Reith 41:24
Ankur Bahl 41:24
And the organisation’s personality can interact with another organisation’s personality in the same way that it can interact with individuals. And we love that conversation in social media.
Phoebe Reith 41:32
Ankur Bahl 41:33
And I think the more organisations like ours can encourage that, the more you create entryways for people into the stuff that you do.
Phoebe Reith 41:39
Well it’s humour, isn’t it?
Ankur Bahl 41:42
It’s humour, it’s just being human- why should I care about your organisation, and why should I care about what you do? If you can bring these stories to life and go, this is why you might care, and this is the personality of this object, or this person, or this dance or this artist.
Phoebe Reith 41:56
Ankur Bahl 41:56
Then what you’re doing is creating an ecosystem that lets people in, and that’s meaningful.
Ankur Bahl 42:05
So I want to thank Adam for joining us on Arts Work, it was really interesting to chat to him and if you want to know about all of his viral animal tweets and memes check out the show description, they’re all there. You can follow him online, especially on Twitter.
Phoebe Reith 42:19
Arts Work is brought to you by Sadler’s Wells in association with Barclays Dance Pass,
Ankur Bahl 42:23
Your hosts are Ankur Bahl and Phoebe Reith. The producer is Hester Cant, and the series is mixed by Paul Brogden.
Phoebe Reith 42:30
So if you can think of anyone who would really enjoy this and you want to send it to them please do, it would make us really happy, and please give us some stars or reviews. It really helps other people find it.
Ankur Bahl 42:39
You’ve got to know somebody who works in social media, wants to work in social media or is just on TikTok all the time. Send them this episode.
Episode 5 - Morayo Sodipo: marketing and communications specialist
Ankur Bahl 0:07
Hi, I’m Ankur.
Phoebe Reith 0:09
And I’m Phoebe
Ankur Bahl 0:09
And this is Arts Work.
Phoebe Reith 0:12
We work at Sadler’s Wells, a leading dance organisation.
Ankur Bahl 0:15
And this is a podcast where we look at different roles in the creative industries and how you could find your way in. So Phoebe, what’s up? Who are we talking to?
Phoebe Reith 0:25
This week we’re talking to Morayo Sodipo, or Mo for short, and she works in Marketing and Communications at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.
Ankur Bahl 0:33
So it makes sense to do an episode on communications and marketing, right? Because organisations up and down the country, they all have these types of roles.
Phoebe Reith 0:41
Ankur Bahl 0:41
But why Mo? Why Mo specifically?
Phoebe Reith 0:42
So exactly, we wanted to speak to someone who had a communications and a marketing background. But one of the types of things we really wanted to feature as part of this series was someone who had been in a totally different industry, or a totally different world, and had made a transition into the world of creative arts. And Mo could not be a better example of that, because she trained as a chemical engineer, did that for five years after university, and then had a really strategic plan about how she was then gonna get into arts marketing. There is so much to be learned from this conversation and I can’t wait for you to hear it because the way she went about it, she didn’t just quit her job on the spot and decide that, you know, she wanted to just rethink everything- and of course, there is always that as an option. She had a dedicated plan, she essentially moonlighted in the kind of, writing reviews and going from blogging to kind of getting to know the arts and cultural landscape in her local community, and then eventually that led to her being able to, kind of, secure a job. It’s fascinating, and it was such a joy to speak to her.
Ankur Bahl 1:41
So when I think of marketing and communications, I obviously bring it back to Sadler’s Wells, right. And for us, we have a marketing and sales function where those people really think about building campaigns to sell tickets to specific shows, but also work on Sadler’s Wells’ overall brand and how people resonate with that. That could be advertising, that could be media, that could be any number of things. The communications side is storytelling, it’s about making sure that you’re using the tone of voice of the organisation, it’s about press, it’s about social media, it’s about all these other things. In the conversation that you have with Mo, which bits of that is she talking about, or she talking about all of it?
Phoebe Reith 2:16
She goes into all of it. After the world of chemical engineering, she then went more into the marketing aspects and more on the sales side, and now she is more in a broader comms role, but still liaising with the marketing team all the time. And in a lot of theatres or organisations, you’ll find that there are plenty of examples where somebody is expected to do a little bit of everything, or they have to kind of liaise or work across both. So it’s really useful to get that kind of broader understanding.
Ankur Bahl 2:39
Also, for me, what’s really interesting about these roles is, you know, a lot of people will come to a theatre or to a museum, or read the jacket on an old fashioned CD, or, you know, now on iTunes, right, somebody wrote that and was able to tell that story about that artist or that piece of work. And these are all communications and marketing people who are doing that work in really important creative ways.
Phoebe Reith 3:01
Mm. So Mo has always been a prolific writer, and it really is her love of writing that has, in the end, led to her working in the world that she’s in now, and what I really loved about this conversation is that I think, you know, great communication can come in so many different forms. So if you’re really good at verbalising things, there’s a job for you. Or if you’re really good with the written word, and you think really carefully about how to craft things, there is a job for you. So we start with Mo’s love of storytelling and how that came from a really early age.
Morayo Sodipo 3:33
I grew up in Scotland until I was about nine. It was cold, I loved it, quite hilly, quite idyllic. And then I moved to Nigeria when I was nine. I was in Rivers State, so the city of Port Harcourt, and that was very hot, quite different to Scotland, was a nice little polar opposite thing going on there. And again, loved it, loved the food, loved the energy, it was- is still vibrant. I was a kid who was always living in her head, so my worlds were so huge, even though I might not necessarily be travelling to many places. I just- I loved stories. I loved watching films, that sort of took up most of my time. My parents did not like that, they tried to use cable as a way to make sure that I studied and got the grades I needed, and it worked because I was like there’s no way I’m losing, you know, access to Sister, Sister or you know, Kenan & Kel.
Phoebe Reith 4:29
Tia and Tamera, if I remember right?
Morayo Sodipo 4:31
Exactly, yeah. No, there’s just no way. So that was a very good incentive for me to, you know, knuckle down.
Phoebe Reith 4:37
Tell us a little bit about your relationship, if any, to the creative arts from a young age. I mean, you know, popular culture, TV shows, for sure. But beyond that?
Morayo Sodipo 4:45
Again, loved films, loved watching TV, that is sort of like what really got me going. Reading books, I was an avid reader, and then it got to a point where my mum- she was working quite a bit and she would get me, my brother and my sister to write down what happened in the day, and that is sort of, like, how I got into writing and like wanting to write my own stories, and I guess that is sort of like where it started. And then when I got to about high school, I started thinking, okay, yeah, I definitely want to be a writer, I think this is sort of like where I’m heading towards. But then I was actually quite good in the sciences when I was in secondary school. When you got to senior you had to specialise, you had to choose about eight subjects. And I initially submitted subjects that were more favourable to the arts, and that was rejected, because they said I was a science student, I was very good at it. So they allowed me to keep English literature and that is sort of like where I started to make my decisions of, am I going towards the arts or am I going towards sciences?
Phoebe Reith 5:51
How did you end up choosing to go with the chemical engineering degree?
Morayo Sodipo 5:55
My dad is a chemical engineer so he was adamant that I shouldn’t be a chemical engineer, and he wanted me to actually look at all the other different types of, sort of like, professions within the engineering realm. And then I settled on chemical engineering, because it felt like that was the one role that was at the centre of everything. You have to have a deep understanding of all the various professions in order for it to be correct, because, as we all know, anything can go wrong. And I liked it. But yeah, I did get feedback quite regularly that my reports were too flowery, and that’s when I knew, I was like, I don’t think I could ever write in the way that you want me to, I’m so sorry, it’s gonna be too boring for me to write it.
Phoebe Reith 6:34
Amazing. So how long did you work in the chemical engineering world after you graduated?
Morayo Sodipo 6:40
So I was like a graduate process engineer, and that was fun. And then I finished my internship and got a job as a graduate corrosion engineer, and I worked as a corrosion engineer for five years.
Phoebe Reith 6:50
So you’ve had a really interesting pathway from five years in chemical engineering. At what point did you think, I’m no longer interested in thinking about corrosion every day?
Morayo Sodipo 6:58
So my lightbulb moment, was probably after about, I think, two years, if not a year, and I was just thinking, if this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, I genuinely don’t think that this is it. This is not what I had imagined. Because the thing was, it’s not that I didn’t love chemical engineering, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it at all. It just wasn’t something that I was really passionate about, I wasn’t reading about things when I was at home, I was blogging on the side and sort of seeping into that world of theatre and film. And I was just like, I think I’m more interested in this. But it didn’t really happen for me until three years later, after that initial spark, I guess. I started to try and find out other ways I could really flex that muscle, I guess, in terms of like, writing, and play in that area whilst I was working, because I was like, okay, it’s not some, it’s not like I have to switch now. Let’s see what I could do. I didn’t know that much about what it was I was trying to explore, and so I started going to more Q&A sessions at HOME– which is like an independent cinema, art gallery type space in Manchester- were throwing, I started networking with local artists and local writers, and sort of getting into writers rooms, because I was like, “oh, that’s really cool”, and sort of like really trying to understand that part of it, before I made my jump, because I was just like, I’m a chemical engineer, I’m a corrosion engineer, and I feel like I want to work in the arts but I’ve got no actual tangible experience doing that, how can I make that jump? And so that’s what I spent the next three years doing. But I also made a pact with a friend of mine saying that I would leave after five years, I couldn’t stay much longer than that, and I think that’s what sort of like, gave me a nice sort of deadline. I mean, no one was really holding me to it but it was something that I could focus on. And then thankfully, it did sort of happen for me in that fifth year.
Phoebe Reith 8:59
There’s a creativity and a discipline there that you gave yourself, whereby setting yourself a bit of a, it wasn’t like a kind of, oh, my goodness, I’ve got to get out. I’m going to quit my job tomorrow. And lots of people do that, and that’s great, that’s another way to do it, to just pull the rug out and jump. But you spent time inhabiting that world a little bit in all the hours that- of your day that weren’t nine to five.
Morayo Sodipo 9:21
Yeah, yeah, that is pretty much what I did, because I am not someone who does that. I love certainty, so in order for me to be confident in myself, and putting myself into that room, I guess, I wanted to know that I at least appreciated what it would be like working in theatre or what it would be like working on a film set, and actually understanding the terminology and the sort of working hours, or the expectations one might have. Thankfully, I didn’t really have that many things that I was committed to in a way that would prevent me from making that jump. So I was like, this is a nice moment to make sure that I have no regrets, because there’s no point me being 40 and being really annoyed, and I’ve wasted even more time than I had already. But I mean, okay, that’s not right, because the time I had, it wasn’t a waste, I experienced it and I tried it out, I knew for certain that it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue in that particular way. I mean, I could write an amazing play about a chemical engineer. That’s cool. That will be cool, I will make it cool.
Phoebe Reith 10:24
I’m sure you would. When you were in that three year period of moonlighting in the creative world, it sounds like both environments were ones that you were quite happy in. But you know, what was the difference, I suppose?
Morayo Sodipo 10:35
Where I’d worked as an engineer, things were sort of- I don’t want to say rigid, there might be a different word for it but it did feel like that, it felt quite repetitive. But within the arts, I think things for me anyway- there was a freedom in that, where my world was just bigger. Every time I was doing something I was learning more, I was feeding that need that I had. Yeah, people were just so generous with their time, I think that’s one thing I truly appreciate, at that time, was a q&a with a film director, aAnd we ended up having drinks with her afterwards, and after that, we just swapped numbers, and we’re like, oh, we’ll keep in touch. And then a year later, she got back in touch with me, saying that she was going to be making a film and she remembered that I was interested in that, and she was like, do you want to be a runner? And I was like, cool, yeah, that’s that thing ticked off. Because for me, it’s not like I wanted to be on the film set of a Marvel film, I just wanted to be on a film set. And I think it was making those connections that just really, I was just like, okay, things can be happening at any time, things can be really, really flexible, and not necessarily linear, nd I quite enjoyed that aspect of it.
Phoebe Reith 11:39
Okay, so you were already pretty qualified. You’d done five years in a very, you know, kind of prestigious graduate job, and then you pivoted over to being an assistant in an arts role. So what was that like?
Morayo Sodipo 11:54
Initially, it was- [laughs] not that it was hard, because I’d made the decision, I knew I wanted to leave the sort of, like, science engineering world. I was just like, okay, we’re starting from the bottom, we’re going to fully understand what it takes to market a show, I’ll be in touch with everybody. Because that’s what in my head, I was like, well, an assistant is going to be doing most things, and I was like, this is going to be quite varied, It’s going to be different. Who knows what I’ll be- I might be serving tea to, I don’t know some hotshot director, I have absolutely no idea. I was just like, I’m just, this is my window in and I was gonna take that jump, and I don’t regret it was fun.
Phoebe Reith 12:28
Definitely, it would have given you all the exposure because you’re the first port of call. So why marketing and why that particular role?
Morayo Sodipo 12:34
It came to me quite late. But, I always got really annoyed whenever I’d come across a TV show that I fell in love with, and then it got cancelled, because ratings ,and I’m like, I never heard about it. You didn’t tell me. This is really annoying and I’ve like, you know, I’m really attached to these characters, and now they’re gone because you said I wasn’t watching it but I didn’t hear about it. I was just like, how, how do, how does one amplify these things? Like how do you tell people about them, what are the various channels? I think it was that alongside the fact that I was reviewing theatre shows that I was just like, okay, the whole purpose is to tell people about these things I’m falling in love with, how can I do that on a bigger scale? And I knew that whilst I was blogging, in order for me to try and grow my readership I had to be putting myself out there. And that was, I was just like ooh, I’m not quite sure about that. But working for a company and putting them out there that’s absolutely different, that is, that’s a great field to sort of like play in because little old me doesn’t need doesn’t need the exposure, but the work does. I’d started reviewing the film q&as and stuff that the Cornerhouse was doing in Manchester, and when the Cornerhouse merged with the Manchester Library Theatre to become HOME, they’d also got this sort of like, theatre arm to it. Because I was reviewing for the courthouse for a time my name got passed on to their comms team. And so they invited me to come and review their theatre shows, and I was just like, oh, I don’t know about that because the last time I saw a theatre show was probably when I was like, eight, and it was, you know, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and then prior to that it was The Singing Kettle, so my sort of, like, knowledge of it isn’t that extensive, I felt really cautious about it. And that was also quite hesitant because I was like, I can’t afford it, like theatre to me just seems really, really expensive. And they were like, no, they’re trying to make it more accessible, that I should just come along and see what it’s like. And because they hadn’t actually opened yet, they were doing three site specific productions to warm up to their opening. And the one I went to go and see was Romeo and Juliet at the Victoria Baths in Manchester, just like an old timey swimming pool, and I was just like, you can do theatre in a swimming pool? What is this? And it just blew my mind, I was like, I didn’t know. It wasn’t something that I was aware of, I was just like, wow okay, this has really changed my idea of what theatre can be, and that is sort of like how I continued to review theatre.
Phoebe Reith 15:11
Was there anyone who inspired you, either while growing up, or when you were thinking about making that career change?
Morayo Sodipo 15:17
I don’t know. My timeline is so all over the place that really it was like, my friends and my family that convinced me to do it. Like my brother and my sister were just like, no, you’ve worked as an engineer for so long, I think it’s time for you to try and do something that you’re interested in. And there was, like, my best friend Rachel, who was just like, I’m giving you five years and then you’ve got- you’ve just got to make that jump. But externally, I guess it was just seeing people in the films, TV shows, theatre shows, that I was getting to know. And also reviewing the theatre shows and interviewing playwrights and directors, that was just like people are doing it and I can see it now, it’s not some abstract thing. That is sort of like what spurred me on.
Phoebe Reith 16:01
So how do you define your job as you do it now?
Morayo Sodipo 16:03
I’m a Communications and Creative Media Partner at the Royal Exchange Theatre, and I guess my role involves still supporting the marketing and communication activities, so part of it is, you know, looking into the tone of voice of the Exchange, it’s writing, reviewing copy, it’s supporting any sort of like press campaigns, it might be also leading on my own press campaigns as well for shows. So that involves, you know, reaching out to journalists, writing press releases, but also, I manage the social media accounts, our editorial calendar, but basically just everything that’s related to comms, both internal and external, I do have like a hand in it.
Phoebe Reith 16:44
What does a typical day look like for you?
Morayo Sodipo 16:46
A typical day would involve me probably looking at the- looking at our social media accounts, and just checking for any messages, looking at our calendar, seeing what we’ve got coming up, scheduling anything, checking in with the rest of the marketing team to see where we are on various campaigns for various shows that we might be working on or various projects and events.
Phoebe Reith 17:09
What are the best parts about it, when- what are the bits that you really enjoy?
Morayo Sodipo 17:12
Now, it’s probably reading scripts before anyone else- well, the public gets to, because before- I’m someone who, I don’t like spoilers, and so that was really hard working in the marketing department because I was just like, I really don’t want to know what happens at the end, I want to be with the audience and get to know what this show is about. But no, now I love reading the scripts, I love chatting about it with the rest of the team, I love hearing about what our artistic directors have in store for the rest of the year, and then talking to the various creatives that are on board. So the directors, and if they are living, playwrights, and hearing again what they envisage. Going through a sort of S.C.O.T, so looking at the strengths of the show, looking at what the challenges might be, looking at where the opportunities are, and then the threats that might be involved. That is what I enjoy. It’s that whole process of getting that story, getting details of it, and then playing with that information. Because at that point we still haven’t seen the show, and we’re just like, okay, you just need to keep on telling us what you think it’s going to be about. And then I let my imagination run wild as well, and I’m just like, okay, great, that’s, it’s fine, it’s still not- I’ve still not got any spoilers, really, because I haven’t seen it yet. So at least that is going to [laughs] wow me.
Phoebe Reith 18:36
Yeah. But it’s still, you’re having to sell something when you’ve not seen it at all, and you’re just relying on what the creatives have relayed to you or what you’ve read. But you still don’t know what it’s going to be like for an audience member sitting there.
Morayo Sodipo 18:49
Phoebe Reith 18:50
Some would say that this is the perfect job for somebody who wants to use maths and English, because you’re- in your campaign planning there’s also a lot of data analysis and thinking about who’s the audience, what audiences have come to shows like this in the past, can we predict how many people are going to come? Tell us a little bit about that.
Morayo Sodipo 19:06
It is that, so basically I guess, for me, marketing is about, you’ve got your message and how you’re going to share that, right. So it’s identifying what you think the show is about, who you think the target audience is, both as a team but also from the creative team’s point of view, as well, knowing who they’re trying to speak to. And then it’s trying to fully understand what that target audience like, where they are, trying to figure out how you can engage with them, identifying all your various channels, so that could be you know, print, so you might be sending them your brochure with all that information in, it could be you know, social media which we all love, advertising on social media, as well as another thing, understanding all of that but then also trying to follow the journey not just from the person physically coming through to your building, but also what their journey is like online. And then gathering all that information to inform what you do next, either with this same show or something else completely. But yes, I think it is definitely a good place for someone who is interested in maths and English.
Phoebe Reith 20:14
What do you think you have to be good at to be able to do a marketing role, and you know, what are the kind of skills you’ve got to pull out of the bag every day?
Morayo Sodipo 20:22
Essentially, you have to be curious about people. That is just it. Curious enough to always want to understand what is relevant to them, the people that you’re trying to communicate with, and then also how best to get that information to them. So in terms of like skills, it is communication and understanding people, it’s analytical skills as well, could tie into sort of like your data analysis aspect of marketing. But yeah, I think at the core of it, it is just being curious about people and knowing that you don’t necessarily have to rely just solely on, like, stats that you’re getting either from your box office, seeing how people buy tickets, but it’s also actually speaking to people as well, like, that is a huge part of it. And so depending on what the, sort of, organisation that you’re working in, or the environment that you’re- that you find yourself in, speaking directly to people is always the best way.
Phoebe Reith 21:20
So it’s a combination of looking at- analysing the data, but then making it come alive and going and having conversations with either the people who’ve helped to pull that together, or, or the audiences themselves.
Morayo Sodipo 21:31
Phoebe Reith 21:31
How strategic do you think you can be in this area?
Morayo Sodipo 21:35
You can be quite strategic about it in terms of pulling on past data, I guess, for me who I’m working in a theatre that’s been there for quite some time so we do have information on ticket bookers who might have come to see a similar show that we might want to market, and so we can understand sort of, like people’s behaviours, in terms of that. There are, sort of, key things that you should be doing, so it’s, you know, you’re writing a press release, and you’re sending that out to relevant journalists who might be interested in that particular theme. It’s, are you going to do posters? Yes, you’re going to do posters, yes you’re going to have brochures, yes you’re going to do social media. And you can sort of like try and plan that out and see where it sort of all falls in terms of like timelines, and then it’s sort of trying to see how that’s going to sit on your website. So I think you can be strategic but you should also allow room for flexibility within that, because you never know what you’re going to learn, be it you know, something could happen in this script development stage that it might have changed from what you originally read. And that thing could then spark a different idea as to some content that you could be creating down the line.
Phoebe Reith 22:40
How creative do you think you can be, what lengths have you gone to for marketing purposes? Is there a story you can tell?
Morayo Sodipo 22:47
I run a creative agency that’s community led with my brother and my sister called Vague. Now, part of that involves either creating our own stuff- my brother is a photographer, my sister is very much into fashion, so the productions tend to be sort of like, fashion related. A couple years ago I got the opportunity to work on the regional marketing campaign for Queen & Slim. It’s a film that was directed by Melina Matsoukas, it starred Daniel Kaluuya, and Jodie Turner-Smith, it’s a film that is about two people falling in love, and the sort of chaos that ensues when they come across a police officer.
Phoebe Reith 23:26
So you were on the regional marketing team?
Morayo Sodipo 23:28
I was on the regional marketing team for that. And it was so good, because I was like, okay, finally, again, a film, woohoo! But I didn’t necessarily have organisation, really, to fall back on. It was me and two other people and we were trying to think of, okay, so how would we get this story out there? We were thinking about workshops, competitions, flyering, putting stuff up on social media, but then again, like, trying to figure out who we could network to also help spread that word. How Vague came into it was I was like, okay, what could we do that is creative, that could get the young people involved in this particular film? There was an element of them wanting to commemorate where they were. So I was okay, wouldn’t it be great if we could do like a photo competition, and try and get people to figure out who the ‘Queen’ to their ‘Slim’ would be, and then take a picture of where they are. And so I think it was the- I can’t even remember what was called either the, ‘You were here’ campaign. And so I got Vague to sort of do like a trailer, and it was great, and then we sort of shared that and people got involved in this competition. I was like, oh, my god, this is great. I mean, it’s not necessarily anything novel, but it was something that really took the young community to make and I think I quite enjoyed that because it involved talking to people in person as well as online.
Phoebe Reith 24:52
Could you describe the Royal Exchange for somebody who’s never been there?
Morayo Sodipo 24:55
So the Royal Exchange Theatre, my goodness, it is- it blows my mind every single time. So basically outside, it kind of looks like a bank. But inside it’s- you’ve got a spaceship. It’s a theatre that’s in the round, so you’ve got this stage that’s in the centre, and everyone else is just sat around it, it is a very sort of like, intimate space, very grand but you could also be very, very vulnerable in there. That’s sort of like, the great thing about it, it pulls people together in that sort of like, intimate environment, and fosters conversations, both in the theatre and outside of it. It’s not necessarily just solely about the shows, I mean, most theatres as well, you’ve got your creative learning and engagement aspects. So we’ve got our Young Company, and the Elders Company, and it’s sort of like getting to see what they’re cooking up as well, ensuring that all that creative energy within the city is being fostered, that is sort of like what the exchange is, to me personally. My favourite show… Guys and Dolls, I saw that multiple times, and that was a co-production with Tower Theatre. And it was just, it was great, it was fantastic. The music, the energy, the costumes, how the stage was rotating, I think I’ve quite enjoyed, like the movement within it. And then also in what was our studio space, there was a theatre show called Mountains, and that was very sort of like, intimate but it involved the characters cooking on stage and like, for the first time was like, finally someone who sees the sense of smell-
Phoebe Reith 26:31[Text Wrapping Break]Yes!
Morayo Sodipo 26:32
in this live space, and I’m like, come on! But it was great, ‘causeI was like there instead of because I was meant to be reviewing it, and I was there just like, trying to take down the recipe. I was like, oh, my god, this just smells amazing. For me, like, those are two shows that come to mind that I really genuinely enjoyed.
Phoebe Reith 26:47
You’re so passionate about where you work. What is it that’s so special about theatre specifically for you?
Morayo Sodipo 26:52
What I loved- or love, about theatre, is the fact that it’s right there in the city. It is so accessible. Because like for me, working in film, it’s not to say that people shouldn’t work in film or anything like that. But I guess for me, it was like, it was so out of the way, I have absolutely no idea where a film set might be, I can’t just rock up and be like, hey, BAFTA, get me a meeting with x, y, z, or, you know, go up to Penguin, and just, you know, try and figure out what’s happening in there. But you can walk into a theatre and you can see the shows, you can ask questions. If you’ve seen something and you’re just like, oh, who designed that? You can ask someone and they’ll be able to give you that information. If you’re lucky enough, you know, there might be a q&a session that they will have, and you can actually ask your question directly, and I think that’s what I love about it, it is just right close to you.
Phoebe Reith 27:46
And the door is open.
Morayo Sodipo 27:47
Exactly. Always. Apart from after 11pm [laughs]
Phoebe Reith 27:56
In the role you’re doing at the moment, do you have to wear many hats or- and how has that changed to what you’ve been doing in the past?
Morayo Sodipo 28:02
In terms of like- yes, I can slide between sort of like the marketing aspects to comms as well. It very much is that sort of like, digital marketing. So looking at social media, sort of trying to build that campaign with the rest of the team, I think that’s the one thing that I quite like is that everyone is sort of involved. My role sits up in the air, it’s very much like a sliding scale that incorporates a bit of marketing, bit of like, paid advertising, a bit of internal, external comms.
Phoebe Reith 28:29
So you’re talking to a lot of people. And as you said earlier, it’s like, it’s all about being curious.
Morayo Sodipo 28:33
Yeah, genuinely, I think that’s one thing that I really miss from my days as a marketing and comms assistant is like, putting up the posters and like stacking racks in the theatre, because that would involve me going out into like, the great hall, and you’d come across so many different people, and it could be people asking, you know, “Where’s the toilet?” or, “I’m not quite sure about this show?” or “What do you suggest?” or, “is there a place that I could you know, maybe learn how to write here?” Yeah, you’re just with people, it’s just- that’s what I love about it, it’s just chatting to people, even though I do genuinely believe I struggle with communications, which I’m just like, this is not the role for that.
Phoebe Reith 29:12
Really? In what way do you think you struggle?
Morayo Sodipo 29:13
For me, I feel like I always trip up on words and things just don’t flow properly, which is why I feel very comfortable writing things. But in terms of actually speaking to people, sometimes I just feel like, ugh, I could do better, or I could be clearer here. The way that I go about it, when I try to, again, kick out the imposter syndrome is to just believe that my questions or me engaging with this person is coming from a genuine place, and just going with that, and hoping to god that they understand what I’m trying to say [laughs]
Phoebe Reith 29:45
If you’re looking at a lot of applications that might be coming in to a more junior role in the team that you work in, what are you looking for?
Morayo Sodipo 29:52
For me, I guess it’s like, what are you doing outside of what you’re doing now? How interested in marketing are you? What is it that you’re trying to do to support that passion of yours? Are you studying marketing, or are you studying a different particular strand? They’re both great, but it’s like, how are you applying that? For me, that is sort of like what really drives it home. But it could literally just be you’ve got your own blog, and you’re just doing things on your side, and the only two people follow you, that doesn’t really matter to me. For me, it’s just like, how are you applying what it is that you’re saying that you’re going to do for us if you were to join our team? I genuinely want to hear your voice, I think for me, that’s sort of like what I’m looking for, that authenticity in your own way.
Phoebe Reith 30:33
Are there any marketing TED talks or podcasts or anything you’ve listened to that you’ve found inspiring?
Morayo Sodipo 30:37
Oh, okay. So, I-
Phoebe Reith 30:38
Recommendations time now.
Morayo Sodipo 30:41
I mean, my ‘mecca’ in terms of marketing is actually a person. So her name is Bozoma Saint John, CMO at Netflix, she is- I just love her energy in terms of like, how she talks about her journey in terms of marketing, then also in terms of like actual details. Subscribing to The Drum, they send out really cool sort of like, collated articles that they’ve written based off of various ad campaigns that people have done. Campaign is another place that you can sort of subscribe to, but I get most of my stuff from social media, like there’s a, social strategist I think she calls herself, called Skylar Marshai. She has like a newsletter series that she shares, various ideas, and how to really try and get your word out there. But then I also just look at Netflix, I just look at other people and what they’re doing, how- the thing that I love the most, “how did I hear about it?”, that’s how I try and track what’s going on. And then in terms of like, what’s going on, specifically in marketing, that could help me within the arts, the AMA, which is the Arts Marketing Association, that sort of like supports marketers that work in the arts, they have various webinars and conferences that you can attend that try and make sure that you’re keeping up to date with what’s happening, marketing wise. And then there’s also the Digital Culture Network, which is an amazing sort of like, organisation that just puts out information on like, how to understand you know, Twitter, or make the best use of Twitter or Facebook, what does Google Analytics mean? Oh, speaking about Google, Google Digital Garage, I mean, go through- if it’s not marketing, it might just be digital marketing, but that’s still part of marketing. It’s free as well, really breaks it down to really lovely, easy to digest chunks of information, and walks you through the entire process of, even if you’re just like a solo person trying to make your own business come alive, it supports you.
Ankur Bahl 32:51
What a great list of recommendations from Mo.
Phoebe Reith 32:54
Ankur Bahl 32:55
And it’s not a surprise that somebody who really charted their pivot into the arts and specifically in marketing and communications in the arts, has a really clear set of recommendations on where you can go to learn.
Phoebe Reith 33:06
Exactly. Well, she needed them.
Ankur Bahl 33:08
I’ve pivoted into the industry-
Phoebe Reith 33:10
More than once.
Ankur Bahl 33:11
More than once, in and out of the industry more than once, in a lot of different ways. And I think her approach, being really methodical, building her knowledge base, her network, but also starting at an entry level position so that she could get a lay of the land, do all sorts of things, was really clever.
Phoebe Reith 33:27
Yeah. It’s down to the individual, right. So for some people, that approach wouldn’t feel, that wouldn’t be right.
Ankur Bahl 33:33
And Mo says she was in a privileged position, right? She didn’t have responsibilities that she had to, to maintain while she was trying to do that, so that- it’s a specific way.
Phoebe Reith 33:43
Yeah, I think hearing about how she planned for that was really inspiring, actually. Because I think sometimes when we want to make a big leap, or a big sort of decision, you know, either we end up talking to everybody about it all the time, and never actually do anything, or we don’t speak to anyone, and then maybe one day we just quit, and oh my goodness, it’s all gone up in flames.
Ankur Bahl 34:01
And sometimes it doesn’t go up in flames. I’m still standing here having done it that way.
Phoebe Reith 34:06
Ankur Bahl 34:06
I also think something that came to mind is, when I was transitioning into the industry, I didn’t really understand the positions. So she started as what she describes as administrator and you know, that administrator or coordinator role is an entry level position in a lot of organisations in the UK. And then it goes up to the manager level, and then it goes up to the head of level and then it goes up to director level. And that sort of ladder, if you will, is very common. So for people who are looking for these entry level positions, administrator or coordinator, the way that Moe did, it is a very good place to start.
Phoebe Reith 34:38
And the thing is, though, in a lot of organisations, you get a lot of exposure at that level to a lot of different things. And as she said, you know, you meet people from all over the building, you can usually take a bit of extra responsibility or work on projects that might interest you if you show willing and if you build your relationships quickly. Yeah, it’s a wonderful way to get that breadth early on.
Ankur Bahl 34:58
What I love is that she never really talked about like, ticket sales.
Phoebe Reith 35:03
Ankur Bahl 35:03
She works in the theatre and they need to sell tickets. What she talked about a lot was, I have to- I have to be curious about other people, what makes them tick, and I have to be able to communicate to them why they should care about this thing and get them to do something about that caring, right? That might be ‘buy a ticket’, that might be ‘become a subscriber to our YouTube channel’, that might be ‘recommend this to a friend’. And that’s at the heart of communications and marketing. All the rest of it is just enabling that
Phoebe Reith 35:30
And it needs to try not to be too salesy, you know, it’s- the authenticity has to be there.
Ankur Bahl 35:35
Well, we live in a capitalist world, and I can tell you when I’m being sold, right? And like Mo is a classic example, when she talked about the Royal Exchange Theatre, I got goosebumps, because I didn’t feel like she was selling me a theatre, she was sharing her love of that theatre with me, and I was therefore more likely to fall in love with it. And that’s what you need in marketing and communications roles.
Phoebe Reith 35:54
Yeah. And I think she’s also just an example of, if there’s something you really love doing and have always done a little bit of on the side, or even if you haven’t, you can do that, you can nurture that side of yourself, and who knows where it will take you. You don’t have to quit your job, but maybe you will, in a few years time.
Ankur Bahl 36:09
I love that she came to theatre later in her life and in her career, and that’s now the core of her job, and so many people think you have to grow up going to museums, or always have loved the theatre, to be able to work in these fields. And that is not true.
Phoebe Reith 36:23
Ankur Bahl 36:23
And Mo is a great example of that, so come join us. I also really found it marvellous that the way she came into marketing was the fact that she fell in love with a television series, and then was angry when they were cancelled, because nobody bothered to tell her about them earlier. And I love this idea that like, I’m going to be a marketer, so you, or I, or nobody else ever misses something fantastic because I’m going to tell you about it and I’m going to tell you why you’re going to love it.
Phoebe Reith 36:51
So I’d like to thank Mo for coming down and having such a wonderful conversation with me, you know, it’s great to hear about her experience in marketing and communications. And if you want to find the resources she mentioned they are in the show notes. Arts Work is brought to you by Sadler’s Wells in association with Barclays Dance Pass,
Ankur Bahl 37:06
Your hosts are Ankur Bahl and Phoebe Reith. The producer is Hester Cant, and the series is mixed by Paul Brogden.
Phoebe Reith 37:13
So if you know anyone who wants to work in communications or marketing, or even if they’re a great storyteller or a fantastic writer, please send it to them.
Ankur Bahl 37:20
I think also if they like Sister, Sister, they will enjoy this episode.
Phoebe Reith 37:23
If you could leave us a review that would be amazing. It helps other people find it, it would mean so much to us as well.
Ankur Bahl 37:29
We would also love to hear what you think and be in conversation with you. So tweet us at Sadler’s Wells and share your thoughts.
Phoebe Reith 37:34
Join us next time
Episode 6 - Ivan Blackstock: multidisciplinary artist
Phoebe Reith 0:03
So this week it’s Ivan.
Ankur Bahl 0:05
That’s right. It’s Ivan Blackstock, who’s a multidisciplinary artist working across hip hop street culture. His initial practice was in dance, and we know him in that context at Sadler’s Wells, as a dancer who’s come up through Breakin’ Convention, which is our hip hop theatre arm. But then also, has experienced things in the Lilian Baylis Studio which is our studio space. And then sort of blossomed into a choreographer, director, movement director, filmmaker- you put all the hats on Ivan Blackstock, and all of them will fit in some really interesting way. We wanted to talk to Ivan because not only is he making moves in the creative sector as an artist with a very developing and interesting practice, but he’s also opening doors for a lot of other artists to find their voices and to find their way in. Another thing about Ivan is he’s started a number of different projects that are making a real difference in the hip hop and street culture scene today. So one of these is CRXSS PLATFXRM. It’s a platform, as the name would imply, but there are nights where you have performances, there’s a zine, there’s all sorts of stuff that comes out that profiles street culture.
Phoebe Reith 0:13
So it’s interdisciplinary.
Ankur Bahl 0:14
Super interdisciplinary, but that also brings in other elements, it brings in music, it brings in brands, so, like, Nike has been involved. It brings in performers, it brings in makers, it brings in painters. So these nights are like- they’re like these really cool happenings. The most recent one I attended was in Peckham where he’s from, and you just get this sense where you move from room to room, and you experience different things. And that’s what he really does, is he cross-pollinates, he talks about it.
Phoebe Reith 1:40
Ankur Bahl 0:40
Cross-pollinating lots of different art, bringing it together. But then also, he’s working on his own production at the moment called Traplord, and this is an investigation of black masculinity, and one of the key elements of this theatrical, filmic production, is also he’s working with a bunch of young people young up and coming artists, filmmakers, who have gathered together for an eight week internship where they get to meet mentors with him, and take classes and develop their skills so that they can follow, almost, in his footsteps in their own authentic ways.
Phoebe Reith 2:15
Didn’t he work with Beyoncé?
Ankur Bahl 2:18
[laughs] Yes, he did work with Beyoncé. So he was the choreographer on ‘Brown Skin Girl’, and we talk a little bit about that as well. But I think throughout the whole conversation, what’s really compelling about listening to Ivan and getting to speak to Ivan is that he’s so thoughtful about the approach he takes, and how he not only lives his life, but lives his practice as an artist, which is about being authentic, being true to himself, giving himself the space to listen, to learn, to develop, and through that make meaningful choices and meaningful interventions that are really changing the face of dance and art in this country today.
Phoebe Reith 2:59
Wow. I can’t wait to hear that, and, you know, it sounds like he does such a lot, so how does he- how does he fit it all in?
Ankur Bahl 3:05
He’s a busy man. He’s a very, very busy man so I’m really pleased he made time for us. But at the same time, the way he fits it all in is it’s part of a whole. It’s Ivan Blackstock, multidisciplinary artist, and all these things he’s doing are part of one holistic vision of what he’s trying to make.
Phoebe Reith 3:23
And that’s so- it’s inspiring, isn’t it? Because actually, I speak to a lot of people who say, I want to be this but I’m also interested in that. And I think there is a real pressure, isn’t there, to feel like you can have a job title that you articulate, and people get it straight away. And actually, this sort of multi-hyphenate way of working is becoming so much more, not only accepted, but possible and encouraged, in fact, and actually, all of those things inform each other and help you to be better as a whole.
Ankur Bahl 3:51
I think that’s entirely right. In the episode, you’ll also hear a question from a dancer at Artistry Youth Dance here in London who had a particular question for Ivan.
Ankur Bahl 4:05
For someone who’s never been there, where did you grow up? What does that place feel like, what does it look like? And how did you feel growing up?
Ivan Blackstock 4:11
I grew up in South London. I grew up in a single parent household with my mum. You know, I used to live in Old Kent Road, and there was a lot of, kind of, National Front people there, and you know, the way they used to treat people of colour was horrible and I’ve seen it happen to my friends, and luckily I managed to avoid, you know, having any of those confrontations but I see when someone has, like, a bloody head and you know, people, young kids dealing with stuff at home, being- having alcoholic mothers or whatever. Did I have that in my home? No. I had a moment in my life, where it was great until I had a stepfather living with me, and then things changed. And also I think I was going through a change, a metamorphosis, understanding who I am as a young man, a teenager, masculinity, and there was now a male figure in the home, you look at that as, this is what masculinity means and this is how you navigate through that. I was always looking at both sides, so I was never always kind of fully convinced by this thing. I was like, okay that’s that, but then I see you have this inside of you, and sometimes you- externally they’re like, “ah”, you know, they look like monsters, inside, ugh see that thing, or vice versa. And that’s why I think I floated around different groups of people from, kind of, the typical young boys on the block, you know, kind of trying to understand what life is trying to fend for themselves, they’re trying to make money for themselves, entrepreneurship, street entrepreneurship, street language, you know, looking at other young men that were somewhat successful in whatever they’re doing, if it was on Blue Peter, Nickelodeon, and, that looks quite interesting to me. Having male figures and, and female figures as well, across the seas in America, I’m like, okay, this is what black excellence looks like, this is what we can do if we hold down into our art. It was, at one point stepping outside my house, it looked like mayhem; coming in my home, it felt like peace, and then at some point, home wasn’t peace anymore, outside was peace. And I think that’s a natural, sometimes, transition of young people. I think the more I’m trying to get to is not trying to be a victim of certain circumstances. I’m trying to find a way in to- if I am expressing or talking about it, finding a way to communicate it that is not harmful for the other person. And I think the safest way is doing that through art. I try to keep that thing for myself, and give you a piece of it.
Ankur Bahl 6:59
And you say you do that through your art.
Ivan Blackstock 7:01
I do that through my art. And what I’m trying to do is, this art thing, trying to pull it into who I am, the way I dress, the way I talk, the way I do things, the way I do my business. That’s I think the next level of dance if you- okay, you can be a dancer, but how can you be it, you know? That’s what I’m trying to do. It’s a hard one to explain, because it’s- I feel that real true art is something, you can’t explain it. We can put structures and things inside of it, and even what goes deeper is, we are unexplainable. We’re trying to explain ourselves all the time, and we allow us to just figure it out, because we can only figure it out. So that’s where I’m trying to cultivate, I don’t understand what it is. Same as that growth I saw here at Lilian Bayliss- I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m learning to not put all that pressure on myself. Because that’s the internal thing, because that’s what it is, imposter syndrome. I’m not good enough, dah dah dah, you know, I failed my GCSEs, I come from this place, dah dah dah, I’m black, I’m a male, you know, you know, all of these things. I’m a dancer, I’m not getting paid enough, dah dah dah. And some people, we forget how to dream and we’re just not creating anything. We’re just doing- copying these patterns out here, but you haven’t created your own pattern or reprogrammed yourself, you know, because we have all the answers here, you know, and that’s where for me when I was trying to go in as, oh, I’m not just a black boy from South London, I’m not just a, you know, a dancer record from this. I’m just- I have feelings and ideas and I manifest them.
Ankur Bahl 8:45
It’s really inspiring to hear you say that because I think it- we all feel like imposters at different times. I certainly do. And I think hearing you go, you know, I don’t know what I’m doing all the time, but I’m gonna try it and I’m going to trust the vibes is really powerful. But then also when I hear you speak and when you talk about yourself, you- a lot of people go, “I’m a choreographer”. You’re a man of many hats and you describe yourself as a man of many hats. Can you talk me through the hats, what- how would you describe what you do?
Ivan Blackstock 9:12
My journey has been, kid- “I wanna be everything, ah!” You know? “Oh, I’m gonna be a rapper! Music, big artist, stage,” you know, “crowd!” Then it was actually, dance is the thing that I really enjoy, I get this response. Then you go into conservatoires, joining dance groups, let’s make some money. You’re like, oh, okay. And then you kind of see yourself positioning behind an artist or doing on this stage. And then you’re like, ah but dancers don’t really get paid that much over here or you don’t feel respected over here, or valued. So maybe if I levelled up to be a choreographer, people will look at me different and I can say, no, I want this. Then you do the same journey or you put pieces in and you’re like, oh, so choreographer is still at the back and they’re not really paying the choreographers that much, and actually the- maybe the director or artistic director. So that was the journey I’ve been on. Really think about it, there was a few things; leverage, how can I get people to see that I believe in myself, I think my stuff is, as we say, lit, you know, it’s fire. So I felt like I had to put my voice in these different areas. So, yes, I was doing the dancing thing, but I did throw, like, seeds over here, and try these different things, put on charity events, parties, art curation here, dabbled in fashion; learning to build relationships, hold on to relationships, not even feel like it’s business, having a drink. And then, I think you plant those seeds, and you nurture relationships, and you can nurture ideas through a collective, and those things birth into another event, or some funding, or some sort of opportunity, and actually, the way it kind of grew is, now I’m all of those things. I’m a dancer, choreographer, artistic director, curator, mentor, but it’s also because I enjoy it. I love teaching people, you know, I love sharing because for so long, up until like nearly I was 30, I thought I was just slow and I didn’t know anything, you know, I failed all my schooling, you know, because I felt that there was systems in place that couldn’t understand how I express myself, my art. The way I’ve gotten certain things is because I try to build relationships, you know. Does all the relationships work? Nah, it doesn’t, you know, because we’re different people, we have different experiences, we like different things, and that’s okay, learning to let it go, you know. But you will find your tribe, you know, and I think part of it is always I spin many plates, because I was trying to find my tribe. I didn’t feel like dancers kind of got how I was dreaming the halls thinking.
Amari Woodmartin 12:01
Hello, my name is Amari, and my question for you is, what are your top tips for networking?
Ivan Blackstock 12:07
Sometimes investigating yourself, and sometimes, like, you’re sitting there just waiting. I think it’s sometimes being brave enough to make the first move. That’s how some of the connections have happened, you know.
Ankur Bahl 12:19
The first move is just expressing you’re interested in somebody’s work, what they’re thinking about?
Ivan Blackstock 12:22
Yeah, just like I like I think, you know, the beautiful thing with the internet and social media, because you can just message someone on Clubhouse and speak to the director of this thing, or this artist, or Instagram, and I don’t think people do that enough. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know, and sometimes I have to humble myself and just keep my mouth shut, and like, you know it, I don’t know it. You have these codes, I have these codes, let’s build a bridge, or let’s find a way to exchange, and that’s what it is, I think it’s, it’s a lot more on exchange, I go for. Some exchanges I don’t need, so I don’t go out and search or entertain it. So I’m trying to feed a inner space for me, you know, this is where, if I nourish this then everything else feels great. When I don’t nourish that, and I do it for something else, then it feels off, you know, where I know that I shouldn’t have done that thing or done that job, or, why did I- that person said don’t vibe with this person that I went to go in there, and then, you know, they’ve cancelled on me and then- or they’ve taken this pot of money, and I’ve been hurt. If I think about through, you know, in a sense hurt through certain relationships I thought I was cultivating, I might not say it’s a good thing if I, if I’m feeling very emotional at some point, but today I’m feeling alright, it’s a good thing. Now, where I’m at in my work it’s harder to do, sometimes, things on the ground as much, you know, ‘cause there’s a lot of admin, spending phone calls going here, dah dah dah, they’re doing this thing. But I can activate these other people, it trickles down, you know, and help people, even just hold the door open. And that’s one thing I’ve learned is like, even with this tribe thing, sometimes you feel that, oh yeah, they’ll come through this door, and they’re just looking at the door and not coming through it, you know. So is it about a tribe? Yeah, but I think that tribe sometimes comes and goes also. They should be building their own village themselves, their own empire. So it’s about, ‘giving you how to fish and not just giving you a fish’, that kind of concept. Ideally, you know, we can exchange, if I don’t have any fish, you can give me some fish, you know!
Ankur Bahl 14:44
How would you describe your training or your skills development, coming up to become the number of different things you are, what did you do? Or what experiences did you have that built you to be where you are?
Ivan Blackstock 14:56
Some people have pushed me; I didn’t want it. “You fill out this funding application.” “I don’t want to do it.” “Well, if we don’t fill out the funding application, we’re not getting funded.” “Cool. I need to write this out.” Finding other ways in doing that, you know, and allowing yourself to like, okay, maybe I’m not the best at writing stuff, but maybe if I say it over a dictaphone or something, or something that transcribes it, maybe that could be a step. Diving deeper into my interests, I stay actually quiet very much in my world, and that is culture, you know, emerging culture, new ideas. So I tried to find new ideas in tech, in dance, in film, in anything. So when it comes to training and schooling, I- even just calculating numbers, I always kind of went around the block. The way I used to speak, I used to stutter a lot when I was a kid so I had to find my own system of how I speak. I procrastinate and watch really interesting educational stuff. YouTube has been my school, Instagram, social media has been my school. This person looks interesting, who’s their friends? Dah dah dah- I just go into these portals and learn what I want to learn, so I stay in that world, try to do my training and education through that way. When I give myself time to process, I realise oh, I’ve unlocked something, you know. Okay, so there’s the Da Vinci ‘Vitruvian Man’, and how does it relate to b-boying? Okay, so b-boying, we have a, we call it our ‘tops’, our top rock, our dance, then you have the floor work, then you also have, you know, midair, okay, that’s interesting of where things are aligned in space. Okay, so we also can take this shape, and go upside down. Okay, we can also go here on our side. Also, if we can spin on this axis here, and it’s still connected to this thing, okay, that’s interesting. Okay, what about if I retracted that shape, or made a shape smaller? Make it bigger? How about- what does it look like if I put it from this point here, to this point over here, you know, so that’s how I kind of, I play, I kind of like to look at all things I do from different angles.
Ankur Bahl 17:15
It sounds like you describe your training as, curiosity takes you down a rabbit hole to then bring it back, to further develop or understand what it means for you to be informed by that thing.
Ivan Blackstock 17:30
Yeah, it is very much like that. And I think that’s- it’s very much both places, you know, this internal space have so much information, but out here, connection has so much, you know, and I think it is this kind of weird looping thing of information. For a very long time as I said, I thought I wasn’t good enough, stupid, failed my GCSEs. When I have people around me, that energy that passes, like, “You’re great”, you know, “You’re dope”, “Oh, thank you”. I have to hold on to that because that keeps me going, you know, but sometimes I have amnesia, and I forget, “Oh, I’m not good enough, why’ve I got this job, why’ve I got this position, I don’t know what I’m doing?” It’s like, oh, you remember when you did that thing? You did it like this, oh, yeah. But I think it’s like, yeah, reprogramming myself, having my own system in place that reminds me. Like, we have show bibles when we make shows so if we forget we go back to this point, you know, continuity things in film, so it’s just like, how can you make it continuous, you know, this practice, this yoga. That’s- yeah, that’s what someone said to me, “Who said you can’t do that?” Oh yeah, me?
Ankur Bahl 18:46
I think a lot of people would think the way you come up as a choreographer, as an artist, is there are certain systems in place-
Ivan Blackstock 18:52
Ankur Bahl 18:53
And you kind of become an associate artist at an organisation, or you get commissioned by this place. And you describe yourself as working- you do work in those spaces, but you’ve also created, you found the right dance partner for you, or you vibed outside of those spaces. Can you talk about how you made those things happen, how you set up systems outside of the systems, as they are?
Ivan Blackstock 19:12
Make an idea and start to formalise it. I had an associateship in late 2014 to 2015, I left that associateship, and the next journey was creating a platform called CRXSS PLATFXRM. And at the time, it was showcasing new directions, new approaches to street culture. Because for me, it was very clear that this is where we’re going. Film, fashion, music, art technology- hip hop is very much there. But also, it was- with that platform, it was trying to show the spectrum of how people create work and what space they’re in. So we had artists that were working from their bedroom, doing stuff from that level, to people who were working with Kojey Radical or Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar. One of the struggles was, for me- is, I didn’t feel people believed in my ideas. So I was just like, you know what, you guys keep it over here. I’m gonna build something here. I’m just gonna plant this thing and you can come and see it, if you want to, you are invited. It became CRXSS PLATFXRM, and we collaborated with, you know, Nike, Red Bull, Greenwich Peninsula, Southbank Centre. What I was doing, I hope very well, is giving artists a voice, other artists, not just me, it became less selfish. It came from many different journeys, of doing house parties, you know, just cultivating people in a room and just catching the vibe, to putting on charitable events. I had an event called Poverty Kickz, and it was a dance workshop that lasted for two days, and we had different choreographers, from Kenrick Sandy to MaMSoN from Wanted Posse, that performed at Breakin’ Convention. It was £3, donate a pair of trainers, and you’re getring a masterclass from, you know, these amazing choreographers, and then all the proceeds will go to a nominated charity. And people saw what I was doing in the community, so I think that’s part of it, it’s that out of sight, out of mind, isn’t it? So if people aren’t seeing you, what you’re doing, how are people gonna know? So it’s also, yeah, just allowing people, inviting people in, so I allowed people in the space. So even to this day I tell people what I’m doing- if I’m allowed to, if I haven’t signed an NDA or anything like that- I was like, this is what I’m doing, because I put it into your head and you- it might not happen now, it might happen in five years time, but at least you know what i’m on.
Ankur Bahl 21:54
Traplord. Project about masculinity, as you describe it. You’re bringing together a collective of creatives.
Ivan Blackstock 22:00
Ankur Bahl 22:00
And you’re creating space for them, and- or enabling them to find their own space. I’d be curious to hear how you describe what that is, but also, how you think that represents things that you wish you had, or things that really worked for you when you were coming up?
Ivan Blackstock 22:14
Yeah. So I was part of a dance company called Bird Gang Dance Company, and I left in 2015, when I decided to make CRXSS PLATFXRM and Traplord. And I found it difficult, because I was so used to, you know, it was 10 years working with a team, choreographing, making ideas, and then it was like, okay, now you’re by yourself. It was like, ooh, yeah, but this is what you do, you do it by yourself independent dah, dah, dah, dah, and it was like, oh, you can’t do this by yourself. This is crazy, who’s been saying this nonsense, you know? And yes, there is still that level, you have to do it by yourself and make that choice, but I think over time, that’s what I was starting to want to do, is cultivate a tribe. It was about having this interesting hive mind, this interesting think tank on ideas. So the way I’ve learnt is, I need them in that space, I need to have these dialogues, I need to have that energy. This person studied classical music but he knows how to really execute hip hop beats very well, why is that? Because he has a level of understanding in structure on this level, but oh, but he hasn’t got this thing in how he puts music together because he didn’t come from that part of the culture. So having these culture- different types of culture and minds is I think this is the way the internet works, isn’t it. So I think it’s like, how can I create an online space of that and an offline space of that? So having even what I’m doing now, this kind of eight week incubation period, I’ve taken a collective of artists and creatives into my production company, Altruviolet, and we incubate them for eight weeks, and we’ve got different workshop guests, that’s going to be upscaling them in marketing and communications, production, cinematography, so then they know how to present their work interestingly, and how to get funding and how to pitch for it in a digital space. We need authentic stories, and especially the young people I’ve brought in, you know, they come from many different backgrounds from, you know, some of- they’re all black creatives, but some of them have been based in Wales, and lived in, grew up in, Dublin. And it’s been interesting of hearing that black experience in those parts of, you know, the UK. And, you know, at first it was just males, because the work is very talking- looking at masculinity, but having a conversation with someone who submitted, is like, we women deal with masculinity too. And that was like, oh, I need to open this up, hat am I doing? You know, so sometimes you, you know, you might think, okay, this is great, this is like this, and then you realise, oh, this is- it needs to be more, more open, open source. So yeah, having these different points of view, and people who were just maybe cisgendered, straight, having this point of view, and that was very much a focus early doors ‘cause that’s- you know, I’m a straight male, and it was very much looking through that lens. But actually I need this point of view, because actually, I do want my work to resonate with other people and different types of people.
Ankur Bahl 25:28
You’re bringing these people together, and you talk about it as, I need to bring them together to inform me, to inform the work. What are you hoping they’re getting out of it for their development in ways that you talked about. It’s an exchange: what is the exchange for them, do you think? What are they getting?
Ivan Blackstock 25:41
For some of the young people, some of them have been trying to look for access into certain, you know, spaces, and, you know, how do I speak to Sadler’s Wells? You know, sometimes, you know, we might be inviting inside, but people who are coming from outside it’s like, “Whoa!”, you know, so I can be that bridge. I have a certain experience that I’ve gone through, and I believe that I’m living proof of- that it’s possible. Because the more they come into the space, the more I open up, because I think that’s what we need to do, open up and be a flower. So that’s what happens, it’s like, okay, so this is the code, this is how I done it. I can only give you a bite size of how I think, and how I went about it, and the journeys, yeah, and things that overcome. Certain things that we need, we need the energy of money, sometimes, to activate things. I’ve got an idea, I can activate this idea with a grand, or I can activate it with £100,000, you know, and giving people those codes, you know, me sharing some of that money with them is a thing, you know? So yeah, it’s very much an exchange, in a sense of, these are the things that we set out. But when you go down that road, you realise, oh, there’s more stuff that we’re sharing.
Ankur Bahl 27:08
I want to go from this project of masculinities to a project you did recently all about femininity, or a lot about femininity at least. Beyoncé.
Ivan Blackstock 27:17
Ankur Bahl 27:17
Of course we’re going to talk about Beyoncé. A lot of people would look at you and be like, of course, Ivan Blackstocks choreographing ‘Brown Skin Girl’ for Beyonce. I don’t think it’s as apparent as that, necessarily, how did that come to be?
Ivan Blackstock 27:32
I’ll say, I’ve been in a hip hop dance scene since I was 8. I had my first commercial job at 16, first tour at 19. Even though these- I’m saying these things, I’ve got a commission, I’ve done Beyoncé, it doesn’t mean it was back to back, you know. I have certain dancers who I’ve hired that it’s like, you know, you’ve choreographed more commercial jobs than me? You know, you’ve danced on more jobs than me, you’ve danced with Janet, you’ve danced with this person. I’ve only danced with dah dah dah dah dah. But I think what got me to that point is staying true to my artistic voice and expression, because that’s what they really want. I mean, I was speaking to my partner today, my fiance and she works in cabaret and stuff like that, but within that world it’s like, they will pay you for your thing, you know, and usually, sometimes you see these Vegas shows or whatever, so it’s like the dancers are getting paid, but the person that’s had that speciality act, they’re paying them bucks, you know, you have- they have that moment. So I think it’s like, cultivating your thing, you know, and believing what that is and dreaming of what that could become. Not that, oh, yeah, I just want it to, again, to be on this stage, or be the most- even for me, I wouldn’t be a resident artist or associate artist somewhere. Now it’s bigger than that; and allowing yourself to graduate to that next step. I want to create the next MTV, why not? I want dance to be as big as music, and getting paid or blown up, I want to change how people perceive breaking, for instance, in education. I want to- you know, we can dream those things, because everything that we’re doing now, that house, that shoe, everything is a dream.
Ankur Bahl 29:24
It’s within a dream state, and manifesting it.
Ivan Blackstock 29:24
Ankur Bahl 29:24
I love that. There’s a lot out there about you making the work, you collaborating with people. One of the questions we’ve had submitted is really about, how do you work in that really commercial, fast paced environment, manage all the things that are happening, and still stay true to an artistic vision.
Ivan Blackstock 29:45
You don’t have to change what you do in that space. And I think that’s what people think they have to do. I did it for many years, until I had people around me that said, do you. I had training from running a dance company, being a dancer. That’s the amazing thing with being a dancer. And I think that’s what music artists don’t get, and certain photographers or whatever, because we are most of the time, especially from the hip hop culture, making the music, doing the lights, choreographing the thing, people management, budget. So you’re doing everything already, so when you are in certain spaces it is like, oh, this is what I do, you know. And if I’m being honest, it doesn’t change. If you get, we say ‘gassed up’, and be like, “oh my god!”, you might lose your grounding, ‘cause you kind of start to fly up, “oh yeah, I’m doing this job!”, and then it’s like- it feels like something out of Willy Wonka, maybe, I don’t know if there is something like that. But it’s just flying up, like “Ahhhh, I’m huge!”. But it’s just like, for me, it felt the same. It felt the same as I- when I’m approaching Traplord or approaching any work because I know what I’m giving, you know, and I stay in that space. Yes, there is people like, “Okay, we have a costume malfunction, you have 15 minutes to reset this whole choreography, dah dah dah”, in a work, and doing that thing, then you’re just like, okay, just do it, deep breath. Because again, in certain places, there is no choice. “Nah, I don’t feel like doing- resetting the choreography.” In certain places, you can’t do that, or you lose your job- you just have to be- accept that, okay, I’ve lost the job. So there is a level of, sometimes, jumping in the fire or being pushed in the fire. And you just have to deal with it, you know, so that’s part of it. Sometimes you have to jump in the fire to find out what happens on the other side, you know.
Phoebe Reith 32:01
So that was fascinating to listen to. I mean, I can’t wait to see Traplord when it’s out later in the year, hopefully, maybe.
Ankur Bahl 32:08
It promises to be really spectacular, like a moving evening of theatre.
Phoebe Reith 32:12
One of the things which stood out for me is about this idea of progression. And I think this is true for all kinds of industries, people, wherever you are.
Ankur Bahl 32:22
Careers in general.
Phoebe Reith 32:23
Careers in general. It’s this kind of, I climb to the top of a mountain and I get to the top and then I say, oh, no, there’s another peak over there I want to go climb. And he spoke about, I was a good dancer so that led to me having dance as my thing. So then I was, you know, at the conservatoire, and then I was a dancer that wanted to make money, so then I went into more of a commercial dance context, and then I wanted to level up more and be the choreographer.
Ankur Bahl 32:45
And now he wants to be the next MTV.
Phoebe Reith 32:47
Exactly. And it’s true for so many people who- when you’re working towards a goal, as soon as you get there, sometimes you don’t even notice that you’ve got there, because you’re already thinking about the next one.
Ankur Bahl 32:57
And at the other end of that, he talks about enormous moments of self doubt.
Phoebe Reith 33:02
Yeah. And imposter syndrome at every stage.
Ankur Bahl 33:04
And how you build a tribe, how you build people who support you, who have your back, who understand what you’re about, and can make you go, yes, you can do this thing that you talked about, and now that you’ve reached this mountain, as you describe it, Phoebe, I’m going to support you get to the next
Phoebe Reith 33:21
And so practically though, I mean, his tribe is everyone from his production company, to his collaborators, or-
To his mum!
Phoebe Reith 33:29
Ankur Bahl 33:29
To his mates, right? And I think that’s the thing is you’ve got, when he talks about his tribe, or your village or your empire, as it were, it’s basically folks that you can create opportunities for through employment, you know, your collaborators who might be filmmakers, lighting designers, set designers, costume designers, producers, right, that’s your sort of professional tribe that might be with you with your company, but also could be with you project by project. One of the things I loved about the conversation was this notion of, YouTube is my school, social media is my school. And what we might describe as being, like, in this black hole of like, gymnastics videos, actually, where he’s spending his time is looking up artists that he’s super interested in, or who he thinks inspires him or inform his work. And then he goes into what he calls these portals, right, where he’s like, in these spaces, checking out these artists, following that where it might lead and then bringing it back to inform himself. It’s this constant development, constant training, constant questioning that informs why he’s such a good artist.
Phoebe Reith 34:28
So clearly, you know, the Beyoncé anecdote would always have stood out. And the bit that I really liked is this idea of, you don’t have to change what you do if you’re in the commercial space. And really what that’s about is actually as an artist, or even as any anyone really, you’ve got to be authentic to yourself and have a true- have a true north that you stick to.
Ankur Bahl 34:46
And I think that’s absolutely true, that Ivan would be the same on the ‘Brown Skin Girl’ set working with Beyoncé, to working on Traplord with artists who are his collaborators, to having a conversation with me. And that authenticity is what draws people to him as an artist, going, I get who you are, I get what you’re about, and I’m interested. That said, he knows what he’s not good at, finds opportunities to develop the skills he needs to push things in different ways and invent new ways to make things happen. He’s not expecting the existing systems to just be like, yep, it’ll all work. Instead, he’s inventing those systems, building the teams of people to get behind them, and then going, I’m going to be really flexible in my approach, because on one day, it might be a music video. And on the next day, it might be an exhibition in a gallery.
Phoebe Reith 35:35
So if there’s any part of you that has any imposter syndrome, you should be reaching out to those people who make you feel that way and saying, well, how are you managing to do that? And, do you know an accountant that could help me? Or you know, any of those things, and some of them will be extremely practical, and some of them will take time.
Ankur Bahl 35:50
Yeah. And I think that’s the most clear takeaway from Ivan. Reach out to people and ask for help, because more often than not, they’ll say yes.
Ankur Bahl 36:01
So I want to thank Ivan for joining me and for having this really deep conversation that felt meaningful and authentic, and had so many little takeaways and big takeaways for me and hopefully, for you listening.
Phoebe Reith 36:12
And you’ll find links to some of the organisations that Ivan’s mentioned as well in the show notes.
Ankur Bahl 36:17
And some of those really great artists as well.
Phoebe Reith 36:19
Arts Work is brought to you by Sadler’s Wells, in association with Barclays Dance Pass.
Ankur Bahl 36:23
Your hosts are Ankur Bahl and Phoebe Reith. The producer is Hester Cant, and the series is mixed by Paul Brogden.
Phoebe Reith 36:31
So if you know someone who you think would really enjoy this, perhaps they want to work across lots of different art forms, send it on to them,
Ankur Bahl 36:36
Drop it in a DM to them with a question about how they got to where they are today.
Phoebe Reith 36:41
If there was a part of this you really enjoyed, please tweet us at Sadler’s Wells, tell us what you think.
Ankur Bahl 36:45
Until next time.
Episode 7 - Phil Douglas: arts producer
Ankur Bahl 0:07
Hi, I’m Ankur.
Phoebe Reith 0:09
And I’m Phoebe.
Ankur Bahl 0:09
And this is Arts Work.
Phoebe Reith 0:12
We work at Sadler’s Wells, a leading dance organisation.
Ankur Bahl 0:15
And this is a podcast where we look at different roles in the creative industries and how you could find your way in.
Phoebe Reith 0:23
Hello, how are you?
Ankur Bahl 0:24
I’m well, how are you?
Phoebe Reith 0:25
I’m good, not bad. So who are we speaking to this week?
Ankur Bahl 0:26
This week we’re speaking to Phil Douglas, who is the founder of Curious Arts, which is an organisation in the northeast of England that celebrates LGBTQIA+ arts in the northeast, and they run the Curious Festival which has become one of the biggest queer arts festivals in the whole country. And we wanted to speak to Phil this week because we wanted to talk to somebody who had identified a need within his community, who had gone, how can I meet that need? And then was able to start with a kernel of an idea, take it from there and scale it up into something really big and meaningful,
Phoebe Reith 1:03
Incredible. So he’s a- he’s an entrepreneur, I suppose?
Ankur Bahl 1:06
He’s an entrepreneur, and he describes himself as a producer, and the way he thinks about being a producer, is somebody who takes an idea and makes it happen. Everybody needs that don’t they?
Phoebe Reith 1:17
I want one of those.
Ankur Bahl 1:20
You and me both, Phoebe. What Phil talks about is how this whole journey for him started by going, there aren’t enough queer nights in my local area, and there are in other areas, so why don’t I throw a queer club night. And he throws one club night, and from that he grows new propositions and new ideas and it becomes, essentially, this movement, through which he’s serving so many different needs. But what I love is he also gives a real set of practical tips on the steps you can take, the skills you can build, where you can get them, how you can do it, even if you don’t identify as a producer yet, it’s- for a lot of people that’s a big word, a big title, and he goes, these are just simple skills, simple jobs, that add up to being a producer, and he lays out how he does that.
Phoebe Reith 2:06
Great. I love that it started with a disco.
Ankur Bahl 2:09
All great things start with a disco.
Ankur Bahl 2:18
Can you introduce yourself the way you’d like to be introduced?
Phil Douglas 2:22
Hi, my name is Phil and my pronouns are he/him. I’ve come from Newcastle, today. I am a proud, kind of, queer, soft speaking northerner who’s passionate about dance and arts, particularly queer and outdoor arts. I’m originally from Stockton, so that’s Teesside, near Middlesbrough, people are familiar with that.
Ankur Bahl 2:42
Let’s start Teesside. What was that like, what does it feel like growing up there? What did it feel like for you?
Phil Douglas 2:46
Stockton is like a small, gritty but glorious northern town. It’s famous for a few things. I think I lived on the largest housing estate in Europe for a while, I’m sure it’s been- there’s bigger ones now elsewhere. It was interesting and challenging, and not necessarily the warmest place to grow up as an awkward, neurodiverse little queer person who didn’t know what they were. So I think it’s- it’s in my heart, and I think we all have two homes: the home that we make when we settle somewhere, and the home that we hail from, and we’re definitely a person formed from both of those two parts of the spectrum, but everything in between. I cut my teeth kind of in my craft as, like, a nightclub promoter or, or an arts professional as project manager at Middlesbrough Council. So working with quite interesting and challenging communities, who’ve probably, you know, had years and years of social deprivation, if we, you know- you would never say, “I live in a socially deprived area”, but this is the terminology that is drummed into you, isn’t it? But yeah, I think people who are hungry for more, and entrepreneurial and frustrated, but yeah, creative Teesside is definitely in my blood.
Ankur Bahl 4:01
How would you describe what you do?
Phil Douglas 4:03
For me, I would use the word producer, because I didn’t have- find comfort with that until I was about 30. I was a development officer, I was a festivals coordinator, I was a
something manager. And I think that when I really drilled down into what was the consistent thing, that that drove me and was my passion, it was, like, making something happen. So from idea, from a conversation or identifying a bit of a gap or an opportunity, to kind of fleshing that out with people and thinking, what do we do about that, what’s the response? So then, yeah, kind of forming an idea or response to a situation, and then fundraising for that, building the partners, finding the stakeholders, charming people or begging them to give stuff, money or resource, or time, or space. So I would say I said, that’s my understanding of what a producer does, they support or enable the response or development of an idea.
Ankur Bahl 5:06
And growing up in Teesside, did you know this role- producer- existed? Or that that’s something you might want to do?
Phil Douglas 5:13
I would say absolutely not, you know, you see it on the credits of a film or something, ‘Producer’, then you kind of think, oh, that was my only reference to producing or what a producer was- executive producer, assistant producer, I was like, oh, there’s lots of people who are involved in producing this, this thing. But um, no, I think that all the language around jobs, job titles, roles, and how people describe themselves wasn’t really visible about these words like producer or director, it felt alien to me, it definitely didn’t resonate or make sense to me, I definitely didn’t see any connection with it.
Ankur Bahl 5:51
So how did you go from being, to use your words, a young, awkward kid in Stockton, who didn’t really necessarily know what a producer is or does or looks like, to being exactly that role in a really meaningful way in your community,
Phil Douglas 5:59
Finding yourself- and you find yourself in many ways, in many times, but I think I acknowledged to myself mid teens, so secondary school, that I did feel a bit different, a little bit sat at the back withdrawn, trying to find out who you are, and not necessarily just complying and joining in. So I definitely pretended to have a skin infection for the most of secondary school and my mum was up for it, she was up for signing this letter that got me out of PE, so I didn’t feel really awkward in what I felt was quite a hyper masculine kind of situation, it was sporty, I was a bit more quiet and wanted to be creative, I’d go to chess club or whatever. Didn’t really do too well at school because I didn’t enjoy it, so I kind of- I was that kid who used to buy the all day bus ticket and just stay on the bus and not go to school. So I didn’t do well in my GCSEs, and then I ended up on a course in computing for about six months in a college, and I was doing that because I felt like the work- I had to do something, you know, I know the system and the game. Your parents or whoever expect you to go to college and progress, and you have to commit to these grades and things like that, or subjects. But I couldn’t do it, so I kind of, like, quit that IT, spreadsheets and computers, and I was like who’s chatting, what’s going on? So anyway, I quit college and ended up working at Pizza Hut, House of Fraser which is like a department store, and also in a nightclub. So this is like 16 and a half years old, I just knew I had to work, and then the one thing that I’d found myself enjoying was going into, like a couple of nights a week, a dance class with my friend. So when it got round to that time of applying to college again, I was like, I need to get back in this system thing, I need to do something. I applied to do Dance at Middleborough College and it went from there, really, I decided to go to Northumbria and study at Dance City in Newcastle, because it was still in the northeast, it was still familiar with like, you know, an hour and a half bus journey home if something went wrong. And then in my second year at university while I was studying choreography, I started like a business idea I guess. So I started a nightclub night in Middlesbrough, just a one off Sunday night, because me and some friends had realised that, you know, maybe the scene there wasn’t that fun or funky or inclusive. It was pretty stale. So we put on a one off night, you know, there was hula hoopers and podium dancers, and flame throwers and flame eaters and stilt walkers, and it felt like, gosh, no one’s doing this in Middlesbrough. And then the the, kind of, the gay or the queer night was like, the fun or the funky one. Anyway, 400 people turned up out of nowhere on a Sunday night and it was amazing. But the challenge was at the end of the night, they were like leaving going, when’s the next one? And we hadn’t really thought about it, we were just like responding to something that we thought wasn’t that good. So anyway, that evolved into a monthly night, and then we got a weekly night and the weekly night was called ‘Satur-gay’. And then that evolved and we had a Friday night called ‘Pout’, and we had a monthly Friday called ‘Funky Stiletto’, we went around charity shops and got the odd stilettos that people have donated that you can’t sell, and we made them- we glittered them up and hung them from the ceiling and people stole them. It was great. Yeah, things happened, like financial crashes and things like that, so it was time to get out of nightclub life. But I was- the meantime I was doing that, I was still working at Middlesbrough Council, I worked at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle for a while, so I was like a bit of a workaholic, but it wasn’t healthy. I was working all the time. But I was working on things that I loved and that I was deeply invested in, so that was what kind of fed me and if it gave me that creative energy, but it also replaced the spaces in your life that you might have had a hobby and I also found a lot of friends in the work that I did. So it felt quite, quite comfortable and wholesome, despite very tiring, yeah.
Ankur Bahl 9:37
That’s a lot of different hats that you’re wearing through your 18-30 period as you describe it, and how did you go about navigating that and going, this is the collection of things that I want to do?
Phil Douglas 9:48
I think it snowballs as well, so I think once you start to get in the habit of giving yourself permission. So that’s what I think, I think somebody, somewhere, gave me permission and said why not? And that’s where it came from. I’d been working as a glass collector, and then a bar- somebody on the bar at this nightclub for a few years, and then I said, you know, what about doing a queer night? And the person who owned the bar, who was probably thinking money, you know, which is fine.
Ankur Bahl 10:17
Phil Douglas 10:17
Was like, why not? And I was like, oh, so somebody has given me the green light here, and also, there’s no rules here, I can do what I think is best. So obviously, I overly researched it, and I, you know, fliered, and it probably didn’t break even or anything for months because I was just flying everywhere from like Northallerton and North Yorkshire and Durham and Newcastle. I mean, people did come from those places, but it was mainly a Teesside crowd. I think strong female presences in my life like my mum, my sister, the college tutor, my first manager at Middlesbrough Council, women who were just like, you can do this, keep going, or, I believe in you. Like, I applied for the job at Middlesbrough Council and I left the Theatre Royal Newcastle, which was my first job after uni. And I didn’t get the job at Middlesbrough Council, but then I got offered a freelance job there. So I think sometimes it’s like, even if you don’t think you’re gonna get the job, applying for it, because that is an opportunity where someone in the organisation is going to read about what you can do or what you’ve done. And it’s not always about that job, it’s about, is that the best chance of an introduction you can get with that organisation. I was juggling all those jobs, but I was developing Middlesbrough Council as a arts and events and festivals development officer, running big festivals.
Ankur Bahl 11:31
Was that during university, after university, how did you end up at Middlesbrough council?
Phil Douglas 11:35
First job I got was at Newcastle Theatre Royal as a learning officer, and then I applied for a job at Middlesbrough Council and I didn’t get it. So then they asked me to work on this dance project and it just grew from there, and then when another job came up, which was a formal job, I applied for that and was the assistant arts officer for a few years before progressing. I guess it comes back to this theme of giving yourself permission to ask someone like, hi there, do you know of any jobs? or, hi there, can I shadow you? Can I watch this, can I come to this? Can I help you out? You have this- you obviously need to have a little bit of time you can give to that. But I think looking back I did put quite a bit of time into building a network or just being visible within, like, a local creative community. This is one particular moment that stands out to me, but with my work with Middlesbrough Mela, kind of advocated that we joined a national mela network, and it was run by Ajay Chhabra who is based in London at Nutkhut.
Ankur Bahl 12:26
What is a mela?
Phil Douglas 12:27
It’s a gathering. It’s- it means gathering coming together. It’s a celebration within South Asian communities. It’s just an incredible kind of community celebration that happens. It’s kind of unwillingly inviting, you know, the noise or the buzz, or the colour of clothing, or the fashion styles just draws people in whether it’s in a public park or in a town centre.
Ankur Bahl 12:50
Growing up in an Indian community, my local mela was the first time I realised I wasn’t the only Asian queer in the village.
Phil Douglas 12:59
Ankur Bahl 13:00
Because there was a parade in which the gay asian community was marching. And I saw gay asian queers. It was a revelation. And that was so powerful for me.
Phil Douglas 13:12
You know, that’s an incredible moment isn’t it, of representation and, and just acknowledgement and validation that there’s other people like you, you’re part of a community. Yeah, a conversation that happened after an event with that was this- Ajay said to me, you know, what you do is producing, you produce projects, ideas, you’re supporting artists to realise their ideas. You’re fundraising, you’re evaluating, and it kind of just sat with me, and I was like, maybe that is what I do. And then coupled with, kind of, really challenging times that councils you know, budget cuts, local authority cuts, and also, you know- give credit to great cultural champions in councils, but there’s also shifts in politics all the time, and then there’s a lack of understanding of the value of what arts and culture can do to support initiatives, public health, local civic pride. I left but I didn’t leave with too much bravery, because I went to a different council. So I went to Gateshead Council and I moved there, and that was, that was also really interesting, you know, my job was ‘Cultural Delivery Officer’- I mean, what does that mean? I’m delivering culture to the people of Gateshead? That doesn’t make sense to me, those titles, but anyway, I took it, it was full time and I quickly negotiated it down so I could do all that other stuff. But yeah, I did everything from sorting out the graffiti on the bottom of the Angel of the North’s feet, to, you know, contributing to managing the Great North Run, or a big light festival, or the Great Exhibition of the North. So it’s really interesting how the broad spectrum of things that cultural officers and teams and councils have to deal with.
Ankur Bahl 14:47
Which is essentially producing, it’s the same as what you do now, but within a council setting, isn’t it?
Phil Douglas 14:53
Absolutely, yeah, but they don’t use that language. So that’s, I mean, it feels like that’s part of what creates the distance between freelancers and arts organisations and councils, because there’s just a different language, and also definitely a different pace of energy.
Ankur Bahl 15:13
Public art, public happenings, are so important to individuals and communities. Tell us about Curious.
Phil Douglas 15:22
Curious is something that I probably care for more than everything except for my partner. So it- it came from that experience that we’ve just talked about, about, you know, lots of different jobs and working and local authority. And I got to the ripe age of 30 and for some people, that’s nothing, and I thought, for me, it was nothing as well, it was gonna be nothing. But what happened before that was I came out of working in the nightclub side of things, and a long term relationship ended. So I was kind of like, who am I? So there’s a time for me, I needed to unpick who I was on my own, and what do I want to do. So I realised that I’d fallen out of love with my job, and for me, I have to love my job. So I just started asking myself, what do I want to do, and that drew me all to that kind of focus point of LGBTQ arts, outdoor arts, communities. I was accepted onto a project at Dance City, they ran it for artists, but they let a few producers on which was great. And about that time, I was- me feeling comfortable with the word producer, and it was about, kind of, developing your ideas or your practice. So it was great just to have that time to- it was, like, about one day a month for a year. And from that thinking, and from kind of looking at where the gaps are, or what do I want to do, Curious was born, because I was looking at the northeast and thinking, where’s our- well, London Pride Festival- pride art, sorry, Queer Contact Festival in Manchester, Homotopia in Liverpool, Glasgay! and Glasgow. And I was like, hang on, we’re a whole region in the northeast- we might be the smallest, but we’re a whole region and we don’t seem to have this infrastructure. What I saw looking back, was that there was arts projects that underpinned this and were the part of how people came together, but there wasn’t much at the time. I also looked to the cultural venues that I knew from my work, and I was, to be honest, personally disappointed and frustrated, because I looked at what was happening and how I describe it was ‘pink fringing’, I call it, pink fringing. So the venues or the organisations, some of them did some great stuff but a lot of it was, oh, it’s coming up to Pride Month, let’s email our existing database, put a pink banner around it, and we’ll do one event. It felt, even though it may not have been intended, tokenistic. It then had no development to it, it was like, once a year activity, and I understand that that comes from, there’s no lived experience in the team that are curating and marketing it. They- when you speak to venues they go, oh there’s no audience, and you go, there’s no audience because you don’t programme it. So it’s chicken and egg. With that project at Dance City, we were given a little bit of money and I put on a one night event at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead in these office blocks that have been turned into artists studios called Breeze Creatives in Newcastle. And yeah, we had a costume sale, we had a cabaret floor, we had a film floor with Nando Messias’s films, we had two exhibitions. And it was so interesting because people from the scene came, drag acts from the scene came and performed, artists who don’t go on the scene, but don’t really connect with the mainstream cultural venues came, the cultural venues programmers came, the independent, kind of, scene came, it was like this really blended community that all came together and kind of engaged with each other in a different way and on different terms, and I thought, oh, there’s definitely something here. It’s grown and grown and grown, and in 2019 we were the largest queer arts festival in the country, there was like 19 days, and we ended that with a stage at Northern Pride in Newcastle, and we had a really beautiful stage with queer artists of colour, queer disabled artists, local artists who wouldn’t call themselves artists. So that was a real kind of moment in 2019. But we’ve also shifted to having much more year round relationships. So with venues, so which- we don’t want to just be the arts fringe to pride either. So we’ve got ongoing relationships with venues, competitions around programming, we also seem to be a really useful resource to artists who are trying to get into venues, for access to space rehearsals, small commissioning amounts of money. So we kind of champion our queer artists to get their slice of the pie, so to speak, it’s very much about trying to open up access to that resource and ensuring that there’s an understanding as well in those venues about how to work with and consider what queer communities might might need considering. Yeah, and we also do some training and stuff like that so that, you know, marketing teams feel a bit more confident by using the word queer or understanding why all the communities don’t resonate with that word.
Ankur Bahl 20:08
You get some sort of support from Dance City to explore this idea.
Phil Douglas 20:13
Ankur Bahl 20:13
Can you talk to us about what that support looked like, what you did with it, so if somebody is thinking, I’ve identified this need in my community, I’m going to build something, they could see how you might have done that.
Phil Douglas 20:25
As I say, I was on this course with Dance City, and there was like a development bursary at the end, it was like £1000 or something. So with that £1000, I went away and made a bigger project. And with Arts Council funding, you can apply as an individual. And I think we applied for about- I applied for about £12,000, so it made a £13,000 total. I made sure that I’d researched things and I wasn’t saying, “There’s nothing on,” because there is stuff on, I made sure that I made a clear case about why this offer was going to be different or pilot something or test something with the idea. Before I put my Arts Council bid in, I emailed lots of venues, no one got back to me because I was quite well known in Tees Valley but I wasn’t necessarily well known in the kind of Newcastle, Gateshead area. But I just kind of went to people that I knew. So there’s a dance organisation, dance company called Ballet Lorent in Newcastle, and I was friendly with one of their dancers and I said, oh, do you think Liv Lorent will help? And he said, just ask her for a drink or, or a chat. So I did that, and then what came of that was she was like, well, we’ve got loads of costumes that we don’t need any more and we also need to raise money, so they ended up doing a costume sale at the event. So I think it’s about inviting people in to support your idea, no matter how big or small it is. And I would have done something without Arts Council funding, but we were very lucky to get Arts Council funding. It also allowed us to make it bigger than the space we were going to be given at Dance City. So if anything, the project was kind of supported by Dance City’s development programme, but it kind of moved out and could be a much more free and queer and- take what form it needed to take. And then just inviting people, yeah, so like, we invited a few performers, that existing film curator that was based in the region. So I think you’re building a team of support around your idea, and then whether you have to apply three or four times to the Arts Council, or not just Arts Council, there’s other smaller grants, there’s projects, there’s people who are just willing to give their time, which is- I think that once you come out about your idea, I think that’s the bravest thing you can do, but then people go, I love that I’ll just help, like, there’s so much generosity out there. But I guess you have to come out about your idea and that is quite exposing, because it’s a personal thing and it’s yours and something you’re super nervous about. But yeah, I think that’s the thing to do. I think it goes back to the permission thing as well, of like, just asking people for permission. So the first time we did a project with Curious, I’d emailed the Baltic about five, six times, and no one got back to me. And then somebody got back to me, and you know, I wasn’t trying to put on an exhibition, I wasn’t trying to hire a space, I had no money to hire space, I was trying to do this thing that they didn’t necessarily have a process for. So I kind of got like, shut down a few times, but I thought surely they must want to be involved in this. They’d just got a new director, so I sent an email at like 1am in the morning, which was a begging email. It was also really direct and slightly aspergic, I was just really annoyed that I’d been kind of pooh-poohed a few times, or they just didn’t understand me, or that they didn’t make time to have a meeting with me so I could explain the idea, and I sent this really direct email. And at 7:01 in the morning, the director of the Baltic who’d been there about a month replied on her bus journey to work and was like, yeah, this sounds great, and copied in three people and said, let’s have a meeting about it. So sometimes it’s like, what you ask, who you ask it to, how you ask it, and when! Some London producers that I met when I was shadowing Artichoke for London Lumiere a few years ago, they called me a ‘midnight producer’, they we’re like, oh, you do all this arts, this queer arts stuff, on- after you’ve done your day job. And I’m like, yeah, I do ‘cause of my bills I’ve gotta pay, my day job. And they called me a midnight producer, but then we were looking at, what’s the benefits of that, like, if you can manage it and self manage it, and you haven’t got you know, or you can manage your care responsibilities, or if you’ve got a child or a dog or anything like that, that you need to deal with, even if it’s an hour a night before you go to bed, you can build an amazing project on that. Just caring for yourself and doing it how you need to do it. And I thought to myself, there’s a real perk of being a midnight producer. If you email at midnight, you’re top of the inbox in the morning, and that has definitely worked for me in many ways.
Ankur Bahl 24:46
What do you have to be good at to do this kind of job?
Phil Douglas 24:48
I’m really conscious that I might say what I think are big words, but I feel like it’s softer than that. So for example, I think that negotiating, or influencing people, they sound a little bit loaded, you know?
Ankur Bahl 25:02
Mm. There’s power in there.
Phil Douglas 25:04
There is power in there, and I think I applied for a job at Arts Council a few years ago and never got it, which was the best thing ever, because I wouldn’t have done Curious. But you know, there’s a personality test that I had to do, and it was trying to work out how good I was at influencing people and things like that, and there was all these words that as- I describe them as loaded, but I think what that comes down to is, you have to be good at explaining and listening, and communicating with people and trying to find an outcome or benefit. ‘Cause that’s what negotiating is, or influencing, influencing. You want something from them, they’ll need something from you, if they’re an organisation or they have to report on giving money or space away. And I think there’s something about, you know, bringing it down to its basics, which is, knowing how to make an ask, knowing how to win someone’s support even in a soft way. I’ve made mistakes before where I’ve been a bit like, you don’t do anything, your organisation’s terrible, you know. That- sometimes banging does achieve something, but it’s not the warmest intro. So what I noticed, after the first Curious event, which was a pilot and I was really lucky to achieve it, I organised this event in December called a Queer Breakfast Brunch, actually I did call it that even though that’s really confusing, but that’s- I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just winging it. So I invited about 10 organisations locally, and people were like, oh, we heard a bit about Curious, we don’t know much about it, yeah we’ll come, oh what’s this meeting about? And I was like, you’re invited to a brunch, tell you about what we’ve done. Baltic luckily gave us a room, and they paid for the brunch. Brilliant, charm offensive worked on them. But the others that came, including the Arts Council, so you’ll say if Arts Council are coming so people might turn up, it’s good. Or just put the sexiest person’s name in the invite and some people might turn up.
Ankur Bahl 26:48
I think the Arts Council would be flattered that you think they’re sexy.
Phil Douglas 26:51
I didn’t necessarily think they’re sexy, but other people might think, well they’re going, we should be seen to be in this room. So I thought,I know that- I’m trying to work out the game that everyone’s trying to play, and they want to be seen to be having this conversation about diverse work or intersectional work. So I understood what I was trying to facilitate there. And then what I did is I just opened the floor after I told them how Curious had gone, and what I think I might want to do in the future with it. And I said, “Can you all share maybe like examples of how you’ve worked with queer artists before and what’s gone well, what hasn’t gone well, or projects where you’ve, you know, focused on engaging LGBTQ communities or young people?” The silence was deafening. But it was also- it was not my discomfort. I didn’t know they hadn’t done that much, or that the people in the room weren’t the ones that had been involved in the project that had happened. So I think that was like a moment where I had ultimately stumbled upon facilitating collective awkwardness and acknowledgement of a gap. And then everybody who’s in the room was already there, not everyone turned up. But then it was like, oh, well, you know, we’re interested in doing something, because then the first response is, oh, we need to do something, or we should offer something, and then from that came quite a few key partners who have kept coming back every year. But also I wasn’t shaming them, I wasn’t shouting at them, I wasn’t trolling them on social media saying, you’re terrible, or you’ve booked this show and no one came, like, I was trying to say, maybe Curious, or maybe I could be an authentic resource bridging, bridging this gap between your intention to engage great queer artists or communities, and actually having the confidence to do it. But also being- I don’t like this word either- a genuine, kind of, critical friend of like, you have to invite honesty in our conversation otherwise it is all just performative.
Ankur Bahl 28:38
What’s a great day look like for you as a producer?
Phil Douglas 28:42
There’s many. One might be when you have a project, and the project begins to meet people. So when an artist’s idea finds its way, whether it’s its first iteration, or it’s the final product, to meeting the public. So whether it’s a sharing, or it’s an end product, for me that’s what drives, I understand sometimes there’s r&d projects and they don’t need to see people. But for me, I just think I’m in this game to affect change and that’s what Curious is about. It’s about inviting people to be curious in queer culture, it’s why we came up with our name. But yeah, it’s about developing artists and audiences and participation, so for me, it’s people centred. Yeah, having people experience something, whether they enjoy it or not, like a response is positive. It’s great if you don’t enjoy it, but tell us why or express about it so that we can respond to that or learn from it. There’s also another great day is when you bring a creative team together, and there’s one or a few parts of that which are new, because that’s just lovely. It’s great to work with the same collaborators, but it’s really great to open a space up and see how that lands when you throw it all up in the air together. And that- there’s a sense of like, the world is a big place, but in that moment, there’s a creative team together with a focus, and they’re all bringing who they are into the room. And the same on show day, like, there’s a moment where, whether it’s in a theatre or out in the public realm, people are all together experiencing something. Or online.
Ankur Bahl 30:14
It feels like success as a producer in your world looks like identifying a need, coming up with a solution to that need, delivering it- is what I’m hearing. But I’d really love to hear in your words, what success would look like for you.
Phil Douglas 30:30
I think personally, on a super, super personal level, it’s got to be being in love with what you are doing. So like, I have to believe in it. I did jobs for money before and I know sometimes we have to do that. And there’s parts of my other job that I don’t love. But I think if you can find more happiness than frustration in what you’re probably wedding yourself to, as the job or the activity that you’ll spend most of your life doing. Find a hook in it, it is for me, so success is unquestionably believing in the project you’re doing and the artists you’re working with. I just feel like that is a solid foundation, so whatever happens from that it will be successful in some form, or for some end recipient, you know, audience member, participant, that’s why I think success is,
Ankur Bahl 31:21
I love that it’s a personal answer. Instead of a, “5000 people come and see the show, and they love it, and they pay £10 for a ticket”, which is what we hear so often in our industry.
Phil Douglas 31:32
That is probably what we’ve been prescribed as success. I’m not diminishing other people’s perspective of it, but it’s just- that’s success in a moment, isn’t it?
Ankur Bahl 31:43
And how did you go about learning the skills you needed, along the way?
Phil Douglas 31:47
I think it came from, like, being a bit of a business-y and entrepreneur person, you know, an idea, a budget, testing something. But I think a lot of listening and watching of other people. I learned a lot from being a trainer at Pizza Hut, you know, how to encourage someone to change their behaviour, remember something, planting an idea. I still remember now Pizza Hut, it was- the mantra was “2 million smiles” and you had to greet somebody at the front door within 20 seconds otherwise, you know, you could get a mark down for that. And upsale the cheese on garlic bread, you know, these things are embedded into your brain so what imprint do you want to leave on other people? You know, whether it’s just a key message about the stats of something about the community or the artists that you’re working with. What is that thing? And I know people say, oh, you should boil everything down to a nugget, an elevator pitch. And you should if you can, but also sometimes, like, it’s not possible to do that. So if your way of developing your idea is having a little card about it that’ll signpost people to your website, just give someone a card, you know, you don’t have to be this really confident three sentence pitch and then straight out of a lift as if you’ve just you know, been in the lift with the boss of some big venue. It’s not reality.
Ankur Bahl 33:06
One of the things that can be really hard is this feeling of cold calling, cold emailing, cold reaching out. What works, what has worked for you and what hasn’t worked for you? Or is it just, throw a lot out there and see what lands?
Phil Douglas 33:19
I think people are kinder than we think. We get in our heads and we think, I don’t know that person, why would they help me? But somebody probably helped them. So you might not know somebody but you know someone who knows them, so you can also just ask other people to introduce you. People are generally pretty generous with their time, like will have a coffee or a zoom these days or whatever it is. More, more access to networks online, I think now there’s lots of Facebook groups like for UK theatre producers, or there’s one in the northeast called ‘Tyne and Wear Cultural Freelancers’, and it really is, like, quite a democratic thing and you can just post a question, well I hope people can feel- feel they can, post a question, and it’s okay to feel silly if it’s a really obvious question, because you don’t know something. I mean, I also battle my own demons with that, because I’m like, I should know this, people might think I know this, people are gonna think I’m terrible if I posted this really obvious question that I should know in there.
Ankur Bahl 34:12
We’re all making it up as we go.
Phil Douglas 34:14
We’re all winging it, and I think the thing is, you look at the high salary, high level jobs and they’re making up, it’s just because they have a status of power that no one challenges it. Like, they’re all winging it, we’re all winging it. I mean, what a year to reflect on, everyone has been winging it. So it’s just acknowledging that and being like, I bet that person was absolutely winging it and pretending for the first few years of their career as well. And people just forget that because they haven’t done it for 25 years. But yeah, I think the thing is just being polite, asking to be involved in stuff and, you know, I guess not being precious, like I went to a lot of things that I was interested in and just tidied up afterwards or did the sign-in sheet like, I didn’t really care, as long as I got to see what was happening and, you know, if you’re the sign-in person, then you get to meet everybody.
Ankur Bahl 35:05
Can you describe a moment where you were like, “oh my god”. Like, pinch yourself, this is really what I get to do, and I’ve arrived. Have you had a moment?
Phil Douglas 35:16
There’s been a few, I guess. I kind of managed at an area in London Lumiere at Kings Cross.
Ankur Bahl 35:23
Which is this huge outdoor light festival, isn’t it?
Phil Douglas 35:25
It is, yeah. And what was hilarious about that was, I had that moment of wow, this is really great I’m like, supervising this whole area, and then it got shut down within an hour because it was too busy. So that’s, you know, just funny looking back. But I guess the moment for me was probably in, in a previous Curious festival when people had told me that something couldn’t happen and I chose not to believe them and keep going with it. And it was two things in that year. One was the booking of Liz Aggiss in NewcastleGateshead. I’d never get a venue, no one will support you, you won’t get the match funding, she’s you know, she’s established she won’t come, all these things. But I just kind of sent a cheeky email, I was like, oh, hi, Liz, I saw you perform at something nine years ago, do you fancy coming into this thing, I’ve only got this much money? And she was one of the most kind and supportive people ever, and she came and she rocked it, and she did life drawing the day before- she was a model for life drawing. And that was hilarious because that weekend, we also put an inflatable church of love on the quayside of Newcastle. Again, some of the council folk were like, oh you’ll never get it, there’s been so many issues with inflatables, this, that and the other. But we realised there- we were stood there on the Tyne River next to the Sage Gateshead, Liz I guess was posing with a voguer being life drawn, with David Hoyle, as well. And then on the lower square called Baltic Square outside the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. We had this big inflatable church with performers, and whoever was walking across the Millennium Bridge was walking into this space and you could marry your dog or your bike or your best friend, and it was just about a big theatrical performance in a big inflatable church of love. And it was playful and queer and inviting and family friendly. And that was a moment we were like these two things that we got told would not happen have happened. And yeah, you kind of cry because you’re exhausted, but yeah, it’s like, you know what? Sometimes the “no” is because you’re asking the wrong person, or it’s just an extra thing that puts fire in your belly.
Ankur Bahl 37:31
What did you say to yourself in that moment?
Phil Douglas 37:33
I think I did cry. But I gave my colleague- my colleague. She’s my friend now, but she joined Curious few years ago, so she’s the other producer, Ellie, she’s great. We kind of had a hug moment. We were like, can we actually believe this happened, you know, because there’s so many random things. The lorry bringing the inflatable truck was going to be late, it got broke down. When it was like, yeah, we pulled this off, like all those late nights or all those endless meetings were worth it. So yeah, I think it was just seeing that acknowledgement with each other was really powerful.
Phoebe Reith 38:06
I know a lot of people that would marry their dogs.
Ankur Bahl 38:09
Especially after the year that we’ve had.
Phoebe Reith 38:12
Ankur Bahl 38:13
Can you imagine this inflatable house of love, like, how beautiful would that be?
Phoebe Reith 38:17
So lovely. I love this concept of the midnight producer and kind of working the hours that really suit your kind of energy levels, your way of working that kind of thing. And that actually, whoever you are, and whatever time of day you might operate best, there will be lots of other pros that can- or things that can really work for you as a result of that, and so-
Ankur Bahl 38:36
I don’t think he would say that you should work all hours, he talks about sustainability of a career and working himself to burn out early on in between 18 and 30. But he would say, have the flexibility to know when you need to work because there will be positives, like you’re saying Phoebe, to that.
Phoebe Reith 38:54
He also talked about negotiating and influencing people.
Ankur Bahl 38:58
Phoebe Reith 38:58
And what that really means and actually it’s about listening, a lot of the time, and really gently communicating about something and finding the right angle for who it is you’re trying to get over the line. And brunch, brunch clearly persuades people. I love that example of him inviting everyone and sort of thinking, okay, I know it’s important that if the Arts Council are there other people will want to show up and he found someone to pay for the brunch and you know, all of these simple things, but that actually, you know, if there’s food there people will always show up. For me, I think that was a really simple but effective example of how to how to convene people, how to then, you know, shed light on the fact that none of these organisations had an offering that made sense for the queer communities that were- they were supposed to be serving.
Ankur Bahl 39:43
And I think he describes it in a really interesting- he just goes, be charming. And you know, he would be the first to say you don’t have to have the perfect pitch.
Phoebe Reith 39:50
Someone wiser than me once said, it’s not about what you say, it’s not about what you do, in the end, people only really remember how you made them feel.
Ankur Bahl 39:59
It’s exactly that.
Phoebe Reith 39:59
And what you say and what you do feeds into that, but the feeling is what they’re left with.
Ankur Bahl 40:03
I also love that he talks about being scared to call himself a producer.
Phoebe Reith 40:08
Ankur Bahl 40:09
And not knowing that-
Phoebe Reith 40:10
That was the term for him, actually.
Ankur Bahl 40:12
It felt bigger than him.
Phoebe Reith 40:14
Ankur Bahl 40:15
But actually going, oh, these specific skill sets coming together make me a producer and I can own that title. And I think it’s really empowering to a lot of people, who’re just making things happen to go call yourself a producer. That’s what you do, and when you call yourself that, people will also respond to you in a way that goes, oh, this person’s going to get something done. He talked about being a young, awkward, queer person in the northeast of England, and not feeling like he fit in at school not feeling like they had the cultural offerings in his local area. And he made them for himself and for other people. And what he did was he called out pink fringing as he calls it, going, you guys are programming the one gay night as this sort of like number. And actually representation doesn’t look like that. Representation looks like properly supporting people year round, putting on this work in a consistent, thoughtful way. You can’t expect for people to come to you as an arts organisation, as a museum, as anything, if they don’t see themselves represented, so change your programme, throw something that is relevant.
And they will come.
Ankur Bahl 41:25
So I want to thank Phil for joining us on Arts Work. Such an inspiring story to hear from. Phil mentioned a lot of arts organisations, a lot of artists especially up in the northeast, you can find some of those details in the show notes.
Phoebe Reith 41:37
And if you want to find more about Curious Arts, you can follow them on Twitter. Arts Work is brought to you by Sadler’s Wells in association with Barclays Dance Pass
Ankur Bahl 41:45
Your hosts are Ankur Bahl and Phoebe Reith. The producer is Hester Cant, and the series is mixed by Paul Brogden. So if you know somebody who has an idea, but doesn’t yet know they’re a producer, and would love to learn how to make it happen, send this episode to them. Subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t already, share the podcast with folks that you love, and make sure to leave a review because that helps us get the word out to other people like you.
Phoebe Reith 42:09
And join us next time.
Episode 8 - Kathryn Bilyard: arts activist
Ankur Bahl 0:08
Hi, I’m Ankur.
Phoebe Reith 0:07
And I’m Phoebe.
Ankur Bahl 0:10
And this is Arts Work.
Phoebe Reith 0:12
We work at Sadler’s Wells, a leading dance organisation.
Ankur Bahl 0:16
And this is a podcast where we look at different roles in the creative industries, and how you could find your way in.
Ankur Bahl 0:23
Phoebe Reith 0:24
Ankur Bahl 0:15
So who are we talking to this week?
Phoebe Reith 0:26
This week we are speaking to Kathryn Bilyard, who is the director and founder of Artcry.
So Artcry is a rolling fund, which is a fund that you can apply to any time and you will get a decision within seven days, which is unheard of in fundraising, and it’s a fund which was set up by Kathryn and a group of other individuals who helped along the way, to enable artists and groups to apply for funding to create a work that is in a response to a social or political issue. And the important thing to say is that every piece of work has to be free to view and available in the public realm.
Ankur Bahl 1:04
Cool, so like outdoor spaces-
Phoebe Reith 1:07
Ankur Bahl 1:07
Museums that are free, that kind of stuff?
Phoebe Reith 1:09
Ankur Bahl 1:09
And turning those decisions around in seven days?
Phoebe Reith 1:11
I know super quick, it honestly- as a fundraiser, right, it blows my mind how they’ve managed to do this. But it’s amazing, you know, this is great, it means funding, I hope, is going in this direction. And so you’ll hear about how certain networking events with other artists and other industry folk were pivotal really, in helping to progress her idea, and she met a lot of people that have become close partners for delivering this and making it happen, including Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of Sadler’s Wells.
Ankur Bahl 1:37
I have heard Alistair talk about it as he goes up and down the halls, about like, being really excited by the ideas that are coming in.
Phoebe Reith 1:44
Ankur Bahl 1:44
And how they’re able to fund it in such an agile and quick way, so I can’t wait to hear more about it.
Phoebe Reith 1:48
And you know, Kathryn trained in stage management, and then her day job is she’s an exec. producer at Improbable, which is a theatre and opera improv company, and actually that’s where we start.
Kathryn Bilyard 2:05
As a producer, I now work at a company called Improbable, we’re a theatre and opera making company, all of our practice is based in improvisation. And my job as producer really is to make that work happen, and that can really mean anything. I’ve been there a year, so I’m still figuring that out, and we have yet to make a full production so ask me in six months, and it might be a bit different.
Phoebe Reith 2:28
What a time to start.
Yeah, it’s been fascinating. We’re developing a lot of new shows, we’ve done some r&d periods, which is really exciting. As soon as we can get into a room it feels really exciting, a lot of fundraising this year, for Improbable, and for Artcry, also. And for Artcry, because I’m a founding director of the organisation, basically it’s my job to drive it, and to keep it going, and to keep it happening. I set the strategy, rope people into volunteering large amounts of time, which we’re doing, I’m on the panel of decision makers on applications that get funded, so we have a lot of conversations around that, I raise money, I do the social media, so I do it all, really, with a great deal of help and support from lots of brilliant people. And I think probably the main thing about my job is- for Artcry, is trying to get other people involved in Artcry and behind it, so that it flies.
Phoebe Reith 3:24
How did you get to the point where you decided to set it up? Where did the inspiration come from?
Kathryn Bilyard 3:29
I want to say it was 2019, but I’m losing track of years now. There was like a wave, a sort of summer of protests on the street, people were trying to stop Brexit, prorogation of Parliament happened.
Phoebe Reith 3:39
Prorogue, the word that no one had ever heard of and then suddenly was everywhere.
Kathryn Bilyard 3:42
And I still can’t say it, but I was very angry about it at the time. And I was looking- at that one in particular, looking around and wanting to see something specific and creative that nailed why this was outrageous. I went on one of the protests on the street and there was a bit of, “I hate Boris”, and there was a bit of environmental protests and there was a bit of prorogation protesters, and I was like, where’s the thing that’s going to tell people who don’t know, that don’t feel as outraged as me, that this is outrageous. I felt that what we saw was a lot of images of protests and people were becoming immune to them, and I was also feeling very frustrated that my friends and myself included- like, absolutely included in this- but entrench ourselves, we generally as a community I think at the moment, entrench ourselves on these opinions and dig ourselves into them, and then don’t shift. And it’s like you just reinforce your opinion to yourself over and over and over again, and it’s you know, we talk about echo chambers, and we talk about social media in that way, and I think that’s right. And so I was looking for, and couldn’t see, creative protests that held a different kind of space, that held a different kind of window into a perspective that could shift the dial in any way. And I was working at Emergency Exit Arts at the time, which is an outdoor arts company, and I worked there with loads of brilliant artists, really political. The roots of that organisation are from political outdoor arts movements of the 80s. There’s a picture that we use on the Artcry website that is loads of puffins, and it was loads of people dressed as puff- with big puffin heads on, like, I don’t know, maybe 100 of them- maybe I’m exaggerating, looks like a lot in the picture. And it was a Greenpeace protest, and they had a giant kind of banner, that they had remade a poster for something that included, like, fish oil or something like that, and they flooded a public space, like a big square or something to protest.
Phoebe Reith 5:39
This work, presumably, was quite radical.
Kathryn Bilyard 5:40
Yeah, it was quite radical. Basically, kind of based on communal action, so there was protest with costume, or there would be big builds of things often that got burned down, I think, at the end of the day, so like kind of a giant bonfire, really. There was a sort of surge of outdoor arts becoming a sector almost, I think, in and around the 80s,
Phoebe Reith 6:00
Summer 2019, loads of protests…
Kathryn Bilyard 6:03
Loads of protests, working with loads of brilliant artists who were very political, made beautiful work, sometimes combined them but not always. And also artists who developed a lot of their own projects but didn’t necessarily apply for lots of funding themselves, so worked with organisations who held that, and I was interested in what the blockers were and why more arts weren’t being made on the streets as part of creative process. I was thinking about, as a producer how can I support people who might want to make this work, who aren’t at the moment, and it became very clear very quickly that there just wasn’t any funding to do that.
Phoebe Reith 6:35
There wasn’t a fund that existed specifically to support artists wanting to make responses to social or political issues.
Kathryn Bilyard 6:43
Yeah, there was no- there wasn’t a fund for- any quick response fund. So the fastest turnaround I could find on a rolling fund, you know, pop-up response funds happen, so around particularly issues like we saw quite a lot at the beginning of pandemic, for example, about artists making work, small commissions, but there wasn’t a rolling fund faster than the Arts Council’s project grant fund, which is up to 15 grand, takes six weeks to turn around, and you know, is a whole skill set just to apply for that in its own right, and requires match funding, and all sorts of stuff. So unless you’re already attached to a building, you already have a really good relationship with someone who might just cough up and commission a piece of work that you want to make on the fly, or you have your own personal wealth that drives it, and like, that’s why you see a lot of creative protest is voluntary, it’s just people doing it because they feel like they need to do it. So unless you have those two things, personal wealth or connection to somebody with wealth, effectively, it was basically impossible, and it’s also generally very difficult if you’re saying, I’m making an overtly political piece, it shuts down quite a lot of funding avenues. So it was a combination of both of those things but especially being able to respond quickly as issues, headlines, people are making those decisions that they then sit in and refuse to budge from; how can art be interjected into those moments, to loosen that up, to break up people’s thinking, to show a perspective that someone hasn’t heard before in that kind of crucial moment of debate, as it happens. That’s what we were really interested in.
Phoebe Reith 8:12
You use the word ‘window’ a couple of times there, talk to me a bit about what you mean by that.
Kathryn Bilyard 8:16
I guess that’s just my personal feeling as someone who goes to see a lot of arts, that it was often the way I learned best at school, because I felt like somehow I could see through into something that was beyond where I was. Even things like history, I connected through- you know, we did a lot of World War history- I connected much more to that through the poetry that was written about it than I did through statistics. And I think that it does that, it- quite often artistic responses can open that space for someone to think about it, or to think about it later, or to hear a voice that they don’t normally hear, and see- be able to glimpse something that can start a train of thought. I feel like art changes people and people change the world, and therefore, it’s valuable. I don’t know who I took that from, I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere, that’s not my, that’s not my [laughs]
Phoebe Reith 9:05
It can sneak up on you, when you have deliberately gone and watched something that you’ve had to put your phone away for. It just speaks to a different part of your brain that then can have, you know, can kind of provoke further thought and further conversation.
Kathryn Bilyard 9:18
Yeah, I think often it connects to an emotional response and can awaken empathy, which is lacking, I think, in a lot of particularly political decision making. And I just think that it’s different, it’s different to be faced with a creative response than to be faced with a protest, even though those two things might both be protests in some way. I think it can awaken agency in people to think, oh, I also have- I’m also part of the collective responsibility, I’m part of this, I’d never thought about that before or the impact that that might have.
Phoebe Reith 9:51
How did you get from there to where it is now?
Kathryn Bilyard 9:53
So I went to, still go to, a network called What Next? What Next? is a national network of people who work in the arts, all sorts of different people who work in the arts, and gather to think about how we make the sector better and what we want to do as a sector in the world. We used to meet at 8:30 at the Young Vic on a Wednesday morning, and now it’s all online, anyone can join. So, for me, it was a really important space because when I first started going I was an events manager at Battersea Arts Centre, and it was access to a space with people like Alistair, people like David Jubb who ran Battersea Art Centre, lots of brilliant people in that room who I didn’t normally get to be in rooms with. So for me, it was a bit of a game changer, generally, in how I thought about the sector. And I was talking to Lizzie Crump, who is the strategic lead- national strategic lead, I think is her job title, of that movement of people. She said, why don’t you do a pitch for ideas at What Next? next week. And so I had to think about, okay, well, what would I do about this. And it was only five minutes. I hate speaking in front of people so I was quite nervous about it, so I thought about it, and there’s lots of great people in that room so I really didn’t wanna embarrass myself, and thought about, what do I think we could do, and I was like, what- could we start a fund? We could probably run a project, but what was- the difference was the longer term solution to this problem. So Artcry is a fund. The idea is that it is a rolling fund, fundraising pending, that you can apply to at any time, you get a decision on your application in seven days so that you can start making work. You have to be making work that’s politically responsive, and you have to be making work that is presented for free and in the public realm. It doesn’t always have to be presented for free in the public realm, it could be an existing piece that you want to bring out in this particular moment, or it could be going on somewhere else, but that’s the bit that we are interested in funding, and that’s mainly because I’m interested in how you reach audiences when you put something in their path, as opposed to them having to seek out. And the audience is so different, and so that’s why it was public realm.
Phoebe Reith 12:04
How did you get to that, to those two things as your criteria?
Kathryn Bilyard 12:08
Those were always the core things, especially the speed of response. Actually, originally, I was like, “what if we could turn around decisions in 24 hours?” and everyone told me to calm down, and they were right, a week is hard enough, 24 hours would be impossible. And we got there, but we got there through conversation. So we also created, for example, a set of values alongside that, and by ‘we’ I mean I- Alistair was at that, Alistair Spalding was at the- that What Next? conversation, and he was the first person who said, that’s a good idea, I’ll have a cup of coffee with you if you want and talk that over. And then from there we roped in other people like Suzanne Alleyne, who has then been involved all the way through, and I talked about it a lot and got lots of people’s opinions, and people challenged me a lot, what do you mean by this? What do you think about that? And then as this group gathered that became the steering committee and the first panel, together we hashed those things out and thought, what do we think, what does this need? We asked a lot of people, we talked to a lot of artists about how many questions they would realistically answer before they think, “Nah I’m not going to apply for that.” Basic things, and I guess the ethos of it, grew out of just basically a lot of conversation.
Phoebe Reith 13:24
How have your other jobs or experiences that you’ve had before Artcry helped you with Artcry in particular?
Kathryn Bilyard 13:30
It’s all informed it, I would say. Mainly as I’ve gone along, feeling more confident in making stuff up and more confident in making things happen. I’d probably only just reached the point where I would have felt confident enough to go, maybe I actually now do have the leverage and the network to try and get people- because it’s taken a lot of volunteer hours to make Artcry happen, I had good relationships with a number of artists who supported the launch, for example, and I’d probably only just been in a place where I could have realistically achieved that for, I don’t know, six months, maybe? I think six months earlier I would have been, no it can’t be me, I could help but I can’t drive that. So- and I think that came, actually a lot of it probably came from being at EeA, where I was producing and I just had a lot of free rein in my job, and it gave me lots of confidence. I had brilliant bosses who told me, go for it, make it happen. And so I was starting to, and it meant that I felt like I could do that, and so off we go, I’ll try and make it happen, and lots of people kept saying to me, that’s a good idea, yeah, we should have that, I can’t believe it doesn’t exist, do it. And the more people say that, the more you think, okay, well, I’ve it’s not going to be anybody else, it’s going to be- it’s got to be me. So off I go.
Phoebe Reith 14:48
Yeah, you’ve got permission now.
Kathryn Bilyard 14:49
Yeah, and I think particularly women often seek permission and so I don’t really want to exaggerate that trope, but I think it was a process of giving myself permission to go, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be me.
Phoebe Reith 15:03
So how did you go about practically setting it up, and you know, was that hard? Were there any surprises?
Kathryn Bilyard 15:07
It was really hard. Still is really hard. I decided we needed a panel first because we were going to ask people for money, but without telling them what we were going to spend the money on, and so who was making those decisions felt really crucial as to whether people would cough up any money, or not. Because fundraising for a fund is a whole different beast, I have discovered. So we gathered that group of people and we got some great artists on board to help, who sort of said, yes, I’ll help in theory, tell me what you need when you need it, and I said, great, and banking that I’ll be back. And I went, and I talked to the Lady Lowy Mitchell, who used to be the chair of the development committee at the Donmar while I worked there. I did a lot of events with her so I knew her pretty well, we’d spent quite a lot of time together, and I went to her for her advice and said- and she’s quite political, politically minded. So I went to her and said, what do you think about this idea, as a donor would you ever give money to something like this? Do you think it has value? Because I felt safe enough talking to her to sort of test the waters, and I knew she’d tell me if she thought it was rubbish, or she’d tell me, I wouldn’t give unless you had an accountant and I felt like you weren’t going to throw my money around.
Phoebe Reith 16:18
Manage my money right.
Exactly, like things like that, like, what would you look for in something new? And she became our- her husband Parry became our cornerstone supporters, they gave us our first donation which was great, and that was the first person who said, yes, I’ll give you some money. So that was before we had a website, it was before we even had a name, actually, it was before we had anything except the core idea, the core concept. And so that made me feel like okay, we can do that. So then I had a panel, I had a donation, and a fairly honed down idea by this point, and the more people challenged me, the more I was like, no, I feel really confident behind this idea now, that was good. So then we built a website, that made it feel more real, and then we did one event- and then there was pandemic. And so we pause for a bit, because it didn’t really feel right to be trying to start a new fund when the focus was on emergency funding, so we paused for a bit because everyone was concentrating on that in various different ways. And then I started to feel frustrated later in the year that it still didn’t exist, and once I got enough frustration behind the fact that it still didn’t exist, because we had, you know, a whole civil rights movement in that time period, and Black Lives Matter campaign, and lots of political decision making around around things, and so again I was starting to feel, like, frustrated, I haven’t made this happen yet, we’re so close, the website is there. So we started again, and originally I was like, oh I want to get a certain amount of money before we launch, so that it feels more real and I know we can fund things. And in the end I was like, I don’t think that’s really achievable, I can’t go meet people, I can’t take them out for lunch, I can’t do one-on-one convincing them. So instead, we launched straight into our crowdfunder, and that’s how we started, an then we opened the following month, with what we’d raised in the crowdfunding campaign, which was like just over 11k and started distributing that, and now it’s an ongoing fundraising granting cycle. And at the moment we still have 10k in our account and it feels like a big win, because we’re not that far from where we started, and so it’s like, we never have that much money, but we’ve never run out. So that’s the key.
Phoebe Reith 18:29
Amazing. How do you keep it all going? You mentioned fundraising for a fund has been, you know, a bit surprising at times, how are you keeping that going now?
Kathryn Bilyard 18:36
We’ve met a few other individuals who have donated as we’ve gone along, which has been really good. And a well known artist- and we haven’t announced this yet or shared it, we will at some point, I just haven’t got to it, this is a capacity question- held a piece of work then donated the proceeds to Artcry. And we also got funding from the Network for Social Change, which is a group of people who are all anonymous, so I don’t know who they are except the one person who championed our project, who have their own personal wealth and combine it to support different projects, and they nominate different projects and support them. And they picked up Artcry because I posted it speculatively on their, like, notice board, because one of them has to champion the project, and someone picked it up and championed it for us and we’ve just got some funding through from that, which is amazing.
Phoebe Reith 19:23
Both of those things are really interesting, because actually, the one from the artist is, you know, clearly there was a relationship there and it, you know- there was a sort of personal connection that kind of made that happen.
Kathryn Bilyard 19:33
Phoebe Reith 19:33
As a fundraiser that’s the, sort of, tried and tested- that’s how you raise money quickly, is you go to the people who know you and trust you and already get it. And that’s lovely, and it’s great when they come through. The Network for Social Change, that is when you really know that you’ve kind of made it is when you post it and it’s just the idea of the thing that somebody who you have no connection to just sort of falls in love with and thinks, this is great.
Kathryn Bilyard 19:52
Yeah. Reading their ethos, it felt a lot like what we were trying to do, pool resources to create meaningful change and support projects that are making change in society. That’s really the whole point of Artcry, I don’t think it needs to be a huge amount, it just needs to be a regular pot that people can go to for small amounts, to enable people to make that change wherever they are.
Phoebe Reith 20:21
So, the seven day turnaround. If you’re an artist, like, what’s the process?
Kathryn Bilyard 20:24
We have a form on the website, or you can send us a video. So either or, because some people don’t express themselves best in writing. It’s as short as we could make it while gathering the information that we thought we needed. Who’s involved, what’s your idea, what do you want to spend the money on, why does it have to happen now, and is there anything else? We have a box, like, is there anything else that we could support you with because- I can’t guarantee that but you know, we’ve got an amazing panel and people involved now so there’s a chance that we could broker extra connections and things like that. And so they fill that out, they send it in, and the panel all read them, we all read them, I would say at least a couple of times a week, because if we have questions we want to be able to go back to the artists, and then come back and discuss within a seven day window.
Phoebe Reith 21:13
Gosh, so you and the panel are all in touch 52 weeks of the year, by the sounds of things.
Kathryn Bilyard 21:18
Yeah, it’s been a lot, and to start with, I was all like, everyone within- just you know, everyone has to read them once a week, and then we’ll make decisions. But actually, that’s not really the way it goes. So we do it all remotely, so we will read them and comment on them, and we have a kind of session a week where we can debate and discuss. But that’s the idea. The criteria is that every panel member bar one has to want to fund it for it to get funding, and we’ve set that as a really high bar, because we don’t have that much money, and because when we get those projects that unite us all, those are the ones that are really exciting. So far, it’s proved a good test, I think if you can get everyone but one on board, it’s quite hard, because everyone has varying opinions.
Phoebe Reith 21:57
Well, that was also another question, is, how did you come up with the balance and the makeup of the panel?
Kathryn Bilyard 22:01
We always knew we wanted a group probably between five and ten, because above ten felt like it would be too difficult to get everybody together to actually have a conversation, and I wanted everyone to feel engaged in it, and less than five felt like you wouldn’t have enough perspectives and a diverse enough group of people making decisions for it to be interesting group of artists. We always wanted it to be artist, kind of, creative led, and I think that’s really good, and also I hope that part of the aim of that is that it feels more accessible to apply to if you’re not somebody who applies to lots of funding, because you’re not applying to people who usually run funds, you’re applying to artists who also apply for funds and will hopefully think about your work and give you space, and kind of use their imagination and think where this might fly, as opposed to feeling like, oh well they probably want me to say x, y or z on this form, so let me just fill this in.
Phoebe Reith 22:52
So how have you managed to get Artcry in front of the people who you want to apply?
Kathryn Bilyard 22:56
Well, we had our panel and they have their various networks, our steering committee. And then we had a group of advocates who- around the launch, who all came on board to help spread through their networks, and they were artists from different disciplines, people who were in different geographic locations. I talked about it a lot, things like What Next? or other, kind of, network meetings when it- basically whenever somebody would let me talk about it, I would talk about it. Around the launch, around the crowdfunding campaign, we got seven artists to make pieces of work, so that spread it through their networks. We had somebody helping us with PR, and that’s what we still do, so we’re still trying to get people to spread the word in that way, and obviously now we’ve got artists making work who’ve been funded by it, so it goes out.
Phoebe Reith 23:41
To what extent do you take into consideration the demography of the people who are applying to you?
Kathryn Bilyard 23:45
Yeah, we do. As we went along, we were noticing and informally tracking how people identified in their application. We don’t ask people to do an equal opps form as they apply or something because it’s unnecessarily laborious, I would say, for someone who’s applying for, I don’t know, maybe £1000. But people often say things about who they are, we often know where they’re making their piece of work, for example, so we’ve thought about that. At the moment, I would say actually, we haven’t even really looked at the strategy of like, where we’ve looked at that data and gone, right, we’ve never had an application from Cornwall- we have actually, but you know- so how are we going to reach the Cornish arts community or something like that, we haven’t really been to be honest, that’s probably just a capacity thing, we probably should. And we think about it with who we’re funding, definitely. So far we’ve funded eight pieces of work, so there’s not really a, kind of, major bunch in anywhere that would stop us funding any one thing, and there was a point where we had funded- our first two applications came from white women. As we went along we were like, hm, we should notice this trend, for example, but I would say that it’s just- it’s evened out, so-
Phoebe Reith 24:47
And it’s too early, in a way actually, at the moment. And in terms of medium, I mean, as well, not just the people making them but the kinds of work they’re making, I guess, is that also a feature?
Kathryn Bilyard 24:59
Yeah absolutely, and I think probably one of the most major ones in terms of making sure we’re spreading it to artists who might apply, and quite- a sort of easier thing to monitor. So at one point, we were like, hm, we haven’t really had very many poetry applications. So we got some of our advocates who were from the poetry sector to kind of do an extra push, for example, out to people, and we have now funded some poetry so that’s great.
Phoebe Reith 25:29
So can you tell me a little bit about one of the pieces that got funded, and how they made it happen?
Kathryn Bilyard 25:34
The most recent piece of work that we funded that’s out is called ‘One Year On’. It was made by Ryan Joseph Stafford and Kel Matsena, and they took over- on the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, they took over the front of the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. Ryan is a lighting designer and projection artist, brilliant one, and Kel is a artist, poet, performer, dancer, genius. And his poetry was projected really large scale with some film that they had done, across the front of the museum, and it was live streamed. It was an amazingly beautiful project, the poetry is really, really stunning, it was giant and public space, it was in response to this particular moment in time and how that moment felt, having just been reading the race report and a year on feeling like there was a lot of conversation, and where is the action? And where is the actual meaningful change? And their response to that, they applied to us, we- I think we made the decision on the very last day, we phoned them, they were like, “We need to start if we’re going to start!”, and it was on a week after that. So there was only two weeks between when they applied and when it was actually giant across the front of this museum, and I think it’s really beautiful, you can watch it online, and it was covered by the BBC in Wales and by ITV in Wales, and it had a really big impact. And you could see that this personal, really evocative response, it was just very powerful, and I think there’ll be, you know, there’ll be lots of people who don’t necessarily hear that voice so direct, who will have heard it through that piece of work.
Phoebe Reith 27:19
Wow. That sounds like Artcry at it’s best, really.
Kathryn Bilyard 27:21
Yeah, it really is, and it was, it was just brilliant, and it was a good example of one where the application came in and we all went, yes, absolutely, we have to fund this.
Phoebe Reith 27:31
And speaking of best, what makes a great day for you at work?
Kathryn Bilyard 27:33
Well, my favourite thing is funding people, it’s the best. And quite often I do it right at the start of the day, because I do it before I start work work. And it’s just brilliant, because obviously it’s great news to receive. I do lots of funding applications so I know how, when someone says yes, it’s really exciting and it has immediate impact. Then I’m straight into, okay, so when are you going to launch, and so that we want to share that work with our supporters who- who’ve helped to make that work possible, and they might give again, and they can see where their money has gone which is always great when someone gives us money. And the other really great thing is when we have really good debates, even if we don’t- we end up not funding something that I would like to fund. But it’s been really discussed. I feel like we’ve really kind of dug into ideas around it, it’s- it’s evolving what Artcry is as a concept, with that group of people in that moment in time.
Phoebe Reith 28:19
What’s your dream for Artcry? Where do you want it to go?
Kathryn Bilyard 28:21
Well, I would love it to get to the point where we have 50k a year that we grant out, I would really love it if we had at least a part time staff member to support it, keep it going, and maybe someone who can help with comms, then I think we’ll be fine [laugh] I don’t want it to grow too much because I think it’s good that it’s nimble, and I really like that it’s volunteer, like, led, generally, so kind of where it is but more established.
Phoebe Reith 28:47
And with a little bit of administration.
Kathryn Bilyard 28:46
With a bit of administration support. And where we feel like, okay we know it’s going to be around so we know we can make commitments, we know we can focus on getting people to think about it. I hope that it will support and become an advocate for artist involvement in political conversations, and encourage more artists who have never thought about making work- politically responsive work or work in the public realm, maybe, to do that more. The fact that it exists will become an advocate and a generator.
Ankur Bahl 29:26
Phoebe Reith 29:27
Yeah, she’s a combination of- it’s an extremely inspired idea but she’s driven through and she’s made it happen, but she’s also I think just incredibly kind of considered with it as well, really wanting to get to the best possible solution for this, and even just in the sense of the scale of what she’s aiming for and by when and things like that.
Ankur Bahl 29:46
The first place to start is, I love this notion of, I don’t see this politically motivated art at really critical moments. Why don’t I see this – because you can’t get the money in quick enough time or the resources don’t exist. Someone should make that – oh wait, maybe I could make that? Oh, wait, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be the one who makes that. And that leap that you take, going from, oh, I have this idea to it should be me who makes it. She talks about that so clearly.
Phoebe Reith 30:13
Ankur Bahl 30:14
I think it’s inspiring and allows all of us to go, d’you know what, there are things in my life that I wish I could do, and I- maybe I can just give myself permission to do so.
Phoebe Reith 30:21
Definitely. And not even just the permission, it’s that, don’t stress about it now, because actually you might find that in six months time, as she said that was the case for her, six months down the road she said, no, actually, I could lead on this, I just don’t need- I don’t need to just assist on this idea.
Ankur Bahl 30:36
I also think there’s- she’s right, you know, we use the notion of ‘giving permission’ in such gendered terms, right? Also, racially driven terms, right, like, who is allowed to give permission in what way, and so much of this conversation felt really empowering, to go, I don’t need anyone’s permission, I don’t need anyone’s authority to do this. I just need my ingenuity, and then I can test the ideas with other people, and I can bring people along.
Phoebe Reith 30:59
Completely. And you know what, the testing ideas thing is also part of what really stood out for me is, I think, it was a fantastic example of how your confidence can build over time, as you verbally process an idea, just test the water, really-
Ankur Bahl 31:11
Flesh it out.
Phoebe Reith 3:11
Flesh it out. But it’s interesting because that wouldn’t work for everyone. For some people, when they are embarking on a creative or an entrepreneurial project, they need to incubate it on their own for a while before they’re ready to take it anywhere.
Ankur Bahl 31:26
The other thing that it made me think about, with these individuals that she went out to identify is, I think one of the things that holds me up from doing things is going, I need to have all of the answers before I share this with somebody, or I need to have all of the data in order to make this decision. And sometimes it’s just going, I think this is good, what do you think? And going, here are two or three people, and one donor who I’m going to go have this conversation with to see if it has legs. And it might not be fully formed, but let’s test it out, and let’s see, and then it will develop over time. One of the things that’s come up for us in the series is, how do you build a network when you don’t know anybody, and you’re early in your career? And actually, Kathryn talks about being able to do this by going to What Next? right, finding an open networking opportunity that she could sign up to, that anyone can sign up to, and going to have those conversations.
Phoebe Reith 32:14
They are built around the ideas of open and innovation and conversation, and a network of people who want to help you get there.
Ankur Bahl 32:22
And also knowing scale. Having a really clear sense that, you know, in the end she talks about, I want it to be 50k, not 500 million thousand pounds, right? Like she’s gonna- like it’s gonna be this size, it can run itself, it will always have money for an artist who wants to be able to make something, but we’re not looking for world domination.
Phoebe Reith 32:40
Ankur Bahl 32:40
And I think being really clear about what scale serves the idea, what scale serves you as somebody who’s starting that idea, and being thoughtful about that. Not everything has to be the next Netflix.
Phoebe Reith 32:57
So I’d like to thank Kathryn for coming on and having a lovely conversation with us about Artcry, and if you’re interested in the fund please check out the show notes- hey, maybe even apply.
Ankur Bahl 33:06
And we’ve also indicated other things that she talks about, other companies that she’s worked for or referenced, those are in the show notes as well.
Phoebe Reith 33:13
Oh, it’s work is brought to you by that as well as in association with Barclays Dance Pass.
Ankur Bahl 33:17
Your hosts our Ankur Bahl and Phoebe Reith. The producer is Hester Cant, and the series is mixed by Paul Brogden.
Phoebe Reith 33:24
And this is our last episode.
Ankur Bahl 33:25
For this series, at least.
Phoebe Reith 33:27
It has been such a pleasure to put Arts Work together and we really hope you found it interesting.
Ankur Bahl 33:32
And if you did, share it with people you love and also go back and listen to the old episodes because I’m sure there are new pieces of information, at least in the episode that Phoebe did, that you can take from.