Guest Blog: WildWorks- Clearing the Fog

We were delighted to have Emma Hogg, Executive Director of Wildworks speak on our Managing Uncertainty zoom panel last week. Below is a blog of her insights and reflections.

We’re a site specific theatre company that takes participants and audiences on physical and emotional journeys. We make work in found locations; with and for the community that lives there. We’re used to working with uncertainty; we work with communities living on the edge, communities facing conflict, loss of industry and economic decline. We work outdoors in the uncertainty of the British weather system! The usual rules of formal theatre venues don’t apply so we make then anew in each location.

In 2015 we were having a great year. We had delivered a critically acclaimed show Wolf’s Child at Norfolk & Norwich Festival in the May and we had lots of projects being lined up.
Bill Mitchell, our Artistic and Founding Director, delivered a bombshell. Terminal cancer but an unknown timescale. He decided his bucket list was the work and he didn’t want people to know all the details of his diagnosis. We disclosed on a needs basis and carried on. It was continuous contingency planning but Bill, being the giant that he was, carried on…chemo drips still attached the whole lot. It wasn’t easy. Emotionally he was a little more unpredictable than usual but the work continued and continued well.

Up until his diagnosis I don’t think Bill had thought much about the company without him. I think he thought when he stopped it would stop but in reality this company, this work, this is his legacy. We began to talk a lot more about talent development and succession planning- without ever quite making a plan of what would happen. It was too difficult to imagine what we would feel, what it would be like without him until we were actually there.

Fast forward to early 2017…

Bill is told there is no more treatment. He wants the company to continue so I’m writing our funding application for the next 4 years of work and at the same time looking into how to close a charity down. I genuinely didn’t know which was more likely and I was regularly turning to the ITC team for support. We’re told that Bill is fine until he’s not and then it will be a very quick final stage. We’re still not telling many people as per his wishes.

In March we agree at a board meeting to underwrite the financial risk of making Wolf’s Child in Cornwall in July and the show goes into production and tickets go on sale. By early April it is clear Bill’s health is deteriorating quickly. He works up until and including the day of his death. All we know at this point is one foot in front of the other and we deliver Wolf’s Child a few weeks later.

The next 12 months we exist in what feels like a fog of uncertainty. There is no clear choice within the team to take on artistic leadership. We had one final Bill project to deliver in summer 2018 and that kept us focused and moving forward.

The second half of 2018 was even foggier and darker. Internally as a company we felt incredibly fragile- relationships strained between artists and between the company and the board as we attempted to find the solution of how to move forward.

We’ve had to work out who we are now. Who is WildWorks and what defines a WildWorks project? This brought us back to the question of values. We’ve realised that we hold very tightly to our values and that they haven’t changed even if the make-up of people on the team has and when we’ve chosen the wrong path or hit a dead end we recognise now that the decision didn’t chime with who we say we are.

We also know that our strongest community projects have come from the communities who are clear about who they are and are passionate about their values. Well low and behold, the same is true for us- they are the foundations holding the company up. By letting our values be our guide we found the path again.

So at the moment when none of us can predict the future and we can’t make firm plans, there are things that you can do.

Reflect on who you are and what matters; individually and collectively

Do you know the values by which you work? Have you taken time recently to reflect on these? Do you share these with people new to your organisation? Should you?

Self-care. It is a very lonely position when you feel like you alone are holding the sky up especially when you have been thrust into it. If you’re the person in charge right now, it is important to find a support system. I found mine in a group coaching course and this safe space of other women in leadership gave me the headspace and clarity I needed to keep going.

Keep clear and honest communication flowing in both directions and demonstrate empathy to each other. Don’t fan the flames of fear but don’t pretend you can put them out if you’re not sure you can.

At WildWorks we have reminded ourselves that we can embrace uncertainty. As artists we have an opportunity to reflect values to the world and to make a difference at a time when it feels helpless. If uncertainty creates paralysis, a fog of inaction, then there is a problem BUT uncertainty with action might just lead to great things.

I’ll leave you with two statements by other people:-

“In uncertainty lies the power to influence the future” Rebecca Silnot

“ART WILL SAVE ME” Bill Mitchell