2023 has seen me take a step back from full time theatre producing for the first time in my career.
the decision to make a change came down to a combination of pull factors towards tech and a level of disenchantment with producing in the subsidised sector in the 2020s.
somewhere in the haze of working straight through the pandemic both full time and freelance, trying to ensure the show went on despite the relentless adversity the industry faced over the past few years, i lost some of the joy in the actual work of producing. working at the unity theatre brought me huge amounts of satisfaction thanks to its sincere focus on artist development, but in the current political and economic climate there are huge challenges to producing theatre in ways i believe best serve artists & audiences.
my interest had been piqued by life in tech and the genie wasn't going back in the bottle. the possibility, hopefulness for the future and dynamism of the tech sector really appealed to me, and i'm a believer in taking leaps of faith and seeing where they take you.
other structural factors were at play in my decision to take a break from theatre, but colleagues, peers and people I admire have written about them much more eloquently so I'd recommend taking a look at Salome's and Rash Dash's pieces or any number of Tweet threads for an insight into some of those.
that brings me to now, 3.5 months into my first role in tech, in a non-technical role.
i had wondered if this leap would take me into a UX path, but instead i've stayed more true to my roots, running programmes & events for a not-for-profit trade body, largely focussing on getting more girls and women into tech, and supporting women in the sector to stay & thrive. it's varied & inspiring work; designing programmes, building relationships, brokering partnerships and generating income to fund important projects around gender diversity, delivering events of all kinds, hosting & editing podcasts, running social media accounts, the list goes on.
a worry i'd tried to reason with when choosing to hang up my full-time producing shoes was whether i would feel a sense of purpose outside of the career path i'd been on in theatre. fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes.
women being well represented in the technology sector is in absolutely everyone's best interest. at a macro level it helps build a more equitable world, which is incredibly important as everyday life is ever more dependent on technology. who would want all the services/goods/initiatives that make up our lives to be designed, managed and run exclusively by men? no, thanks. on an individual level, women thriving in the well-paying, rewarding & flexible careers that tech can provide is undoubtedly a good thing; as is reaffirming women's self-belief as they excel in a sector historically (and often currently) dominated by men. so yes, fair to say i'm finding purpose in my new path.
with a little distance from the theatre sector (and i do mean a little, i still have commitments but my life isn't defined by them day-to-day), i've been able to reflect more deeply on my feelings for this artform. i certainly don't love it any less for not working on it every day. on the contrary, it's more like finding a new burst of appreciation & attraction in a relationship that had gone a bit stale. like the pina coladas song.
today i was thinking about moments in theatre that really changed me, and i thought i'd gather a few together on this little-used blog. so here we go, number one:
some time in spring 2019 i stood on golden jubilee bridge over the river thames and cried some of the most cathartic tears of my life. i'd just seen Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm at the Vaudeville Theatre with my friend Jake. it had transferred from the Globe where i hadn't managed to see it and it felt particularly radical in the upright stiffness of a traditional commercial venue on the Strand. what Morgan Lloyd Malcolm achieved with Emilia was nothing short of astonishing. every woman i know who saw it had a fierce, guttural reaction. and while many shows can bring you to tears with grief or frustration or sadness, this was something much more complex. at its crescendo it took so many shades of pain and injustice, made every woman feel seen in her lived experience of them, connected her to a long lineage of strength & resilience, validated the deep anger we are implicitly told to repress and galvanised it into an earth-shaking rallying cry.
here is the final speech from Emilia. It's not too much of a spoiler for the show. even if it were, read it anyway:
Like the earth has the heat of its origins deep in its centre I do too. I have been told that my anger is not to be seen on my outside.
That it is not seemly. It doesn’t help.
I have been told, even by other women, that it detracts from what I have tried to say.
I have been told that it’s distracting people from moving forward as they are too consumed by the guilt I am giving them. And that my hatred of the men who did this detracts from my arguments.
But you say we hate men as if we silence them, as if we beat and abuse them, rape them, as if we shame them for their desires, as if we restrict them from any kind of independence and agency, As if we hang and drown them and burn them.
I am seventy-six years old and I hold in me a muscle memory of every woman who came before me and I will send more for those that will come after.
For every Eve.
I don’t know if you can feel it. Do you? Do you feel it? Inside of you. You don’t need to be a woman to know what is coming. Because why have our stories been ignored? For so long? Ask yourself why.
Listen to us.
Listen to every woman who came before you. Listen to every woman with you now. And listen when I say to you to take the fire as your own. That anger that you feel it is yours and you can use it. We want you to. We need you to. The house that has been built around you is not made of stone. The stakes we have been tied to will not survive if our flames burn bright. If they try to burn you, may your fire be stronger than theirs so you can burn the whole fucking house down. Look how far we’ve come already.
Don’t stop now.
— Emilia, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm
still in love with theatre, but now i'm ready to drink pina coladas & get caught in the rain with it again.
“the most powerful innovation happens at the “Intersection,” where ideas and concepts from diverse industries, cultures, and disciplines collide. Innovation today is less about expertise and more about how you can rapidly combine insights and ideas, often widely disparate, to create surprising and unique breakthroughs.”
I've got Covid, and while I'm cooped up in isolation I've been thinking about my career.
Currently my career has three interconnected strands.
There's Producing - the primary focus of my professional life to date.
There's UX Design - a discipline I studied for a year and gained a Professional Diploma in.
And there's Coaching - the newest addition; integrated into my producing & artist support work, and in due course will also stand alone.
In my own coaching sessions (i.e. where I'm the coachee), I'd been reflecting on how I feel the value of the connections between these disciplines so strongly, how I know they're a cohesive package, but I sometimes play down one element or another because I worry that 'others' won't see that. That they might instead see my breadth of knowledge and interest as detrimental to my capabilities. Who these mystery 'others' are is a topic for another day.
My thinking progressed on to how actually I feel inspired by people who have unusual and original paths, and then to seeking out 'multi-hyphenates', 'multipotentialites' and people with portfolio careers to reaffirm this.
It was somewhere around then that I came across Frans Johansson and the Medici Effect.
At its simplest, the Medici Effect says innovation is dictated by random combinations of different concepts. It says 'when you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas.'
In his book about the Medici Effect, Johansson speaks about 'associative barriers'. This basically means that when we encounter something - a word or concept, image or idea, our minds jump to a series of connected ideas. These associations usually draw on our own experience or the fields we move in:
'A person with high associative barriers will quickly arrive at conclusions when confronted with a problem since their thinking is more focused. He or she will recall how the problem has been handled in the past, or how others in similar situations solved it.
A person with low associative barriers, on the other hand, may think to connect ideas or concepts that have very little basis in past experience, or that cannot easily be traced logically. Therefore, such ideas are often met with resistance and sentiments such as, "If this is such a good idea, someone else would have thought of it." But that is precisely what someone else would not have done, because the connection between the two concepts is not obvious.'
I love this concept. It brings freshness and possibility that has the power to shift tired, old ways of doing things. It also offers up a more inclusive and inviting alternative to traditional hierarchies that often exclude many.
It's something I'd been test driving in small ways before I had a name for it.
As an example, when I was designing the Creative'Pool programme for Unity, I consciously utilised User Research techniques from my UX training with the Liverpool arts scene as the focus of the research. I conducted long form user interviews and condensed findings in Affinity Diagrams and Customer Journey Maps. What came from it was a unique talent development programme. My background wasn't in talent development and my approach to building the programme was informed by research techniques from the tech sector. I had low associative barriers for what it could look like, and the outcome has been really successful with (at latest count) over 530 new artists subscribing to the membership over the past 10 months.
Likewise, both producing and coaching benefit my UX skills. I've spent over a decade immersed in storytelling; I know how to create impactful experiences and how to engage an audience through words, sound, imagery and more. Through coaching I've learnt how to listen at the most active level and how to ask questions that open up new thoughts and possibilities; skills that can truly set a UX Designer apart and lead to beautiful digital experiences.
Now I want to think bolder and be more intentional about this.
Some thoughts off the top of my head:
Coming across the Medici Effect feels like a gamechanger. It's shifted the worry about how I'm perceived as someone with a diverse skillset. This now feels like a skill in itself; something to be proud of, rather than explain away.
Reflections from Coaching training
A scribble I made in the margin of my notebook during training said ‘Coaching as permission to dream’. I think it was an interpretation of a conversation rather than a direct quote, but it has formed a cornerstone of how I approach coaching.
The world we live in both lauds and loathes dreaming. Small children may be told they can be anything, while teenagers are encouraged to take a ‘sensible’ or ‘realistic’ path for their lives right from the point of choosing their GCSE subjects at thirteen. The school system and the demands of a conventional life often require us to choose from a limited number of options, rather than imagining something more freeform, original or true to ourselves. The way ‘dreams’ are spoken about in popular culture is often heavily intertwined with capitalism. ‘Dreaming big’ could be synonymous with aspiring to have a prestigious title, to be rich or to be publicly celebrated. In reality, I suspect our dreams are much more unique, varied and nuanced.
My journey with coaching so far has highlighted the power of being invited to dream. When we ask ‘what would be your ideal outcome?’ or ‘what would you do if you had all the confidence you needed?’ or ‘how would you love it to be?’, clients light up. They can see a world of potential that often extends far beyond the immediate challenge - one that encompasses many or all areas of their life, that has the power to change how they see themselves as a person.
This, to me, is the essence of dreaming; an act of unbridled imagination, not bound by the confines of what currently is or what we’re expected to aspire to. It is so rare that we are asked these simple questions, and yet if we asked them more often, perhaps we could unlock far more fulfilled and rich lives.
While the topics clients bring to coaching may be career or business-focussed, the impacts they identify in their ideal outcome often spill seamlessly into their personal relationships, their work/life balance, their sense of self, the way they use their leisure time and much more. They may even find their true goal is the feeling that they hoped to achieve through their presenting issue, but that there’s an alternative, better or more appealing route to achieving it. As hypothetical examples, perhaps a client comes in wanting to discuss feeling stuck in their career, but ultimately finds they want to live in the French countryside, prioritising their spirituality and family relationships. A client may want to discuss moving cities, but in time finds they want to start their own business which gives them the same sense of freedom. The space to unpack the complexities of our minds can give us much greater clarity on what our ‘best case scenario’ could look like.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all dream. Each person’s ideal life is as complex and unique as they are. By asking clients to think beyond their present reality, by taking away barriers (if only hypothetically), we can support them to access their dreams. It’s only with the knowledge of what their dreams truly are that they can begin to pursue them.
The end of 2021 is drawing in and the passage of time is feeling hazy.
I wanted to take a moment to stop and reflect because this year, as strange as its been, has been completely different to the first year of the pandemic.
It goes without saying there have been challenges for all of us. Months of lockdown without a definitive end and without my usual London support network nearby, having a parent hospitalised despite extreme levels of caution, and some daunting health investigations (chronically delayed by Everything Else) were some of the more difficult parts of the year.
That said, as a second New Year's Eve in this time of uncertainty approaches, I'm so grateful for all the good this year has brought.
In January I joined Unity, an amazing organisation committed to supporting artists and welcoming everyone, in a role funded by Esmeé Fairbairn to develop mid-career producers. I'll be working with them until July 2022 with a 3-month secondment to Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse.
Back before Spring sprung, I spent hours and hours on zoom with artists from across the region who generously shared their wants, needs and hopes for their professional and creative development. The Creative'Pool programme was born from this research, and by the end of the financial year over 100 free opportunities for artists to develop will have taken place.
The artists of Liverpool are incredible. There's community, generosity, talent, graft, passion, wit and drive in abundance. It has been an absolute highlight of the year getting to know so many wonderful people.
My colleagues at Unity are the real deal; brilliant, bold, caring, open to ideas, non-hierarchical, compassionate and deeply committed to artists and to art. It's a space where I can bring all my ideas to the table, and every day I'm in the building I have another conversation that inspires me.
January 2021 also saw me formally join Alex Roberts & Co as co-producer.
Alex is a fantastic artist. We first crossed paths through the political arts night I ran with Harriet Bolwell in venues around London. He stepped in when someone had to pull out, a friend's partner's friend, and from that 10 minute spoken word set (that would become No Place Like Home) I knew I wanted to work with him. It wasn't until March 2020 in the tunnels under Waterloo at Vault Festival (the first night I remember saying 'we probably shouldn't shake hands, should we?' to someone), that we properly began working together. Since then, ideas and mutual support have flowed and in January we formalised.
This year we've taken a new show (Man On!) through its first phases of research & development, building a team and partnerships with the National Football Museum, Football V Homophobia and Mosaic Trust. We've had two trainee artist placements who were fantastic. We've got plans simmering away for 2022 for Man On! and for No Place Like Home, the idea that first brought us together. We're building a company culture founded on respect, kindness, balance, and the importance of the process.
Beyond these new and wonderful professional ventures, 2021 was a year for learning.
In august I completed my Professional Diploma in User Experience Design from the UX Design Institute & Glasgow Caledonian University. I started it in August 2020 in a swelteringly hot flat in North London; hair tied up, fan pointed directly at my face, iced drinks on rotation. I chipped away through the seasons on coursework after coursework, lecture after lecture. I felt my abilities grow in ways I wasn't sure they could; mastering methodologies and research techniques and prototyping. I completed my studies with a 92% average and the accomplishment I felt was worth every minute.
And then there's coaching.
Coaching is a field I've been fascinated with since my Clore Leadership course, which had huge coaching components. Inspired, I took another coaching course and saw, beyond my own experience, the impact it had on my coursemates. It's a transformational practice. I feel drawn to it, for myself, for best practice on how I can support the artists I work with, and for how it can help anyone realign with the best version of their life.
I'm now midway through training to be an accredited coach. it's challenging and mind-expanding and amazing.
On day one of my coaching course I had to write my own eulogy. I wrote that I had a rich life, exploring everything that piqued my curiosity.
I think, despite 2021's challenges, I've managed to stay true to that this year.
I also got vaccinated and we had Drag Race UK Season 2. Thank god.
I'm very grateful.
Occasional thoughts from my professional life.