Reflections on ITC’s AGM and Conference

by Imogen Burgess

Sitting on the train home following the 2019 ITC Conference, I was filled with a sense of positivity possibility and need for perseverance. Since starting at ITC as Interim Project Manager, I have had the privilege to work with a community that supports each other and is constantly questioning how and why they can make art more ethical, far reaching and ground breaking. The conference theme of ‘Doing Things Better’ was a brilliant opportunity for members to share and develop what they are doing well in a safe and inspiring environment. Despite these times of political and social uncertainty there was a positive feeling and a sense of camaraderie in the room. ITC is made up of people and companies who against all financial and political odds, campaign for change and commit themselves to work ethically, alter their working methods to be more inclusive and find ways to create small change to make our world a better place.

Our conference took place at Battersea Arts Centre, as part of their ‘Occupy’ Festival – it was a pleasure to be a part such a programme and I know all the members really enjoyed being in such a buzzing and welcoming venue. Battersea Arts Centre is committed to improving access, taking responsibility to stop spaces being disabling and are now a fully relaxed venue. To support this, we invited StageText to caption the event which was an invaluable tool for all the delegates.

Starting with the AGM we heard from ITC Chair of the Board Ali King (Turtle Key Arts) who started the day with a thought-provoking challenge that set the tone for the day ‘If we as theatre artists refuse to take a stand in favour of our ethics then we’ve already lost’, inspiring us to think how not to lose energy in our work, and how not take short cuts in these challenging times.

Many delegates were inspired by the quotation for the day “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better” - Maya Angelou. The first conference session, chaired by Saad Eddine Said, focused on access and audience engagement. My main takeaways were Jess Thom giving us three principles to create relaxed venues and performances, which were:

  1. NO new dis-abling barriers – what new barriers are you unwittingly creating?
  2. Equality of experience for all while providing opportunity to take risks
  3. Reduce FAFF – everyone in an organization should Understand access requirements & provide them confidently.

Amit Sharma spoke about the structural problems in offering artists access to the arts, such as through bursaries, because of that affecting benefits payments. Then reminded us that if it wasn’t for inclusive companies such as Graeae and many more what platform would those artists have to perform on?

Laura Dyer, from Arts Council England encouraged our delegates to be good listeners in order to authentically engage with communities - in an era when people feel their voice has not been heard, arts and culture are a vital vehicle to allow self-expression and we must listen to their stories. She then challenged the term ‘hard to reach’ about groups of people, reminding us that they are not the ‘hard to reach’, but they are the ‘easy to ignore’. Finally, she drew an excellent metaphor for is to evaluate the success of how accessible our work is, saying diversity is to invite them to the party, inclusion is to invite them to dance, but true inclusion is to let them choose the song.

Before lunch Matthew Xia (Actors Touring Company) gave us a taster for our session two topic about recruitment and employment, asking us how can we ensure recruitment processes are open, fair & transparent, with a particular focus on encouraging diversity in both recruitment panels and interviewees. He reminded us that application and interview processes are physically and mentally challenging, and with lack of care for the candidate could be detrimental to mental health.

Session two, focusing on recruitment and employment was extremely useful, with power provocations from our panel. Tarek Iskander brilliantly set the panel off in his introduction, reflecting on his last days working at Arts Council England stressing the importance of independent artists working at funding organisations to make their voices heard and to enable both sides to work better together. Suzanne Alleyne wisely told us that “Engaging ethically with others starts with engaging ethically with yourself and your needs and limits - know yourself.'

Amelia Ideh and Elliott Higgs finished the panel speaking about Fevered Sleep’s recruitment process and internship scheme, which was very inspiring to the delegates. Fevered Sleep offer a paid internship every year, and they see it is a genuine learning relationship on both sides. They also offer a company open day to potential internship applicants and offer guidance on the application process, such as how to fill in the application. Fevered Sleep also send interview questions in advance so that candidates can better prepare themselves and express themselves and not be at a disadvantage if they normally don’t interview well. All of these seemed very doable and game-changing suggestions for our member companies.

Our final panel, chaired by Deborah Chadbourn, on Ethical Fundraising and Evaluation brought a thoughtful and reflective day to a close. Quoting Reg Revans (the developer of Action Learning), Catherine Sutton emphasised the importance of ‘organisational learning’ running alongside the evaluation of our projects. Evaluation should be as much an opportunity for a company to learn as it is for fundraising, because vitally we need to understand what we do. She challenged us to think that if evaluation is generating data we need commit to investigating what the data really means and what actions need to be taken as result of those findings.

Nicole Newman reminded us of the simple things that need to be done well, such as 'Be clear about your charitable mission and values – this is absolutely key to developing an ethical fundraising policy' which she encouraged all member companies to have, and to be very clear about the company mission, values and behaviours. Michael Chandler offered thought provoking ideas with the Cardboard Citizens approach to fundraising, using the theatre of the oppressed methodology & asking whether potential funders and partners are working at the detriment of the groups they are supporting. He warned us that we must not retraumatize participants in order to fundraise – get them to re-write evaluation questions and become peer evaluators and focus on positive experiences with investors rather than focusing on negative.

Peer to peer learning has always been at the heart of ITC’s mission and community. We hope that our annual conference, with the round table discussions and 1-2-1 opportunities (with Jackie Elliman, Stagetext and Scott Webster) were able to provide the beginning of conversations between members that will lead to further networking, partnerships and practical solutions.

Before we enjoyed some well-deserved wine Charlotte Jones wrapped up the day paying tribute to the high principles, hard work and strong ethics of our inspiring members, saying the reason we had set this the theme of ‘Doing Things Better’ for the conference was to build on that, and build good practice on what are already strong foundations of the continually inspirational sector. We all left feeling incredibly inspired and motivated and ready to act with practical solutions to do things better!

My favourite part of the day was meeting so many members in person and sharing exciting ideas that have galvanized me for my next six months working at ITC. I feel refreshed and equipped to completely revaluate my ethical working practices, approaches to access, diversity and inclusion, and understanding members’ needs better.

I look forward to exploring these topics and more at the Ethical Manager Symposium in May!