Leadership Challenges for The Independent Theatre Sector

By Charlotte Jones

I have been doing a lot of thinking about leadership lately in preparation for ITC running the training for the Leaders of Tomorrow programme (lead by four ITC companies: tiata fahodzi, 20 Stories High, Freedom Studios & Talawa, working with 30 BAME arts leaders over the next 18 months). Further cause for reflection was generated whilst working with new companies and practitioners in Edinburgh in August and handling some of the advice situations with members over the summer. Here follow some of my reflections on the current challenges for leaders in our sector.


What do people expect from leaders?

Vision, energy, enthusiasm, decisions, direction, a plan, motivation, support, ideas, receptiveness to ideas, listening, understanding, analysis, problem solving, judgement, daring …. (not much then!)


And what do leaders need to be able to deliver any of the above?

Crucially I think they need reflective space, time and a sounding board. These are the very three things that are in shortest supply at present for leaders of small performing arts organisations.

Many of our ITC companies have had to downsize dramatically over the past few years of austerity and funding cuts. Many companies now run on a skeleton staff (or often no staff). The luxury of a management team to consider difficult decisions and to share problem solving with is a distant dream for most. The lack of someone to bounce ideas off can lead to poor decision-making or no decision making. When things go wrong an escalating series of mistakes and consequential loss of confidence leave company leaders feeling isolated and discouraged.

Even National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) and other core-funded ITC companies are overstretched and struggle to carve out time to think. The lack of core financial support for the majority of ITC companies though means that they must exist from hand to mouth moving from one project to the next with no time for reflection. Celebration of success, learning from mistakes, opportunities to explore are all vital for the creative process and for the building of leadership skills. These opportunities are rare for most of our project funded (and unfunded) companies.

I see exceptional vision and enthusiasm in the leaders our ITC companies but I am deeply concerned for their capacity to sustain their energy and morale. There is a serious risk of arts leaders burning out, getting exhausted, even suffering mental health problems because of the lack of space and time to breathe. This is no way for an industry to thrive or successfully develop the Leaders of Tomorrow.

So what are the solutions?

Obviously more money to make the work would make an enormous difference to hard pressed arts leaders. Our ITC members already do a lot with a little. A little bit more would provide the time and space to develop the work properly, to enjoy the process more fully and to engage with people more creatively and productively. Time to build trust in a team, time to explore and discuss, the opportunity to make a few mistakes and learn from them – would all help to improve the conditions in which people strive to create. Leaders carry a weight of responsibility in the creative process – the ability to share effectively requires trust and communication.

ITC members sign up to a set of core values when they join - one of which is to provide the best possible working conditions and pay in the belief that the performing arts thrive when people are put before profit. This principle forms the backbone of practice in this sector and pride in achieving it drives arts leaders. Too often though the shortfall is made up by arts leaders themselves – waiving their own fee, working far more hours than they are paid, not taking paid holiday. The sector cannot thrive on the hidden subsidy of unpaid or underpaid artists. Arts leaders must lead by example – maintaining work life balance and making a viable living are essential to effective leadership.

Apart from money what can help?

Most ITC member companies have a Board (Trustees or Directors – a minimum of 3 if they are registered charities). An effective, engaged and supportive board can be a huge asset to a small company and an invaluable resource for sharing and spreading the leadership. In discussing the role of the Board Julia Unwin (CEO of The Rowntree Foundation) talks of the five S’s essential to good Governance: stewardship, strategy, support, stretch and scrutiny. To this I would add an essential 6th function – sounding board. A group of committed board members who support the vision of the company and believe in the work can be a very important resource for an arts leader – a challenging critical friend and the custodian of the values. Being held to account is important for leaders – it is an essential component of good support. Companies need to nurture and develop their boards and board members need to take their holistic role very seriously.

In addition to making good use of their Board members arts leaders need to engage with peers in the sector. I am continually impressed by the generosity and honesty of ITC practitioners. Despite their busy schedules, scarce resources and potential conflicts of interests I have found ITC members excellent at sharing knowledge, information, learning from mistakes and solutions to problems with their peers. Isolation is dangerous – no one can lead effectively in a vacuum. Our most successful leaders are engaging actively in their community and are gaining by sharing.

The Leaders of Tomorrow group, with whom I had the privilege to work for the first time last week, have the potential to form a strong and effective network and, through peer support, enhance each other’s leadership journey. As an industry, we need to accompany them on this journey and be ready to open doors, engage, listen, challenge and support.