I recently was asked to answer some questions from a student about the nature of the role of the Artistic Director, how one goes about becoming one, what sort of qualifications, experience, etc one would need. Needless to say answering the question was more of a process than I had anticipated. This is a copy of the letter I sent in the end.
25th August, 2011
In an attempt to be as helpful as possible, I will answer your questions the best way I know how. I fear, however, that my answers will not be the sort of definitive and explicit instructions I get the sense you’re after. The trick with questions like How would I become an artistic director? and What do I have to do? is that, as you are no doubt already aware, there is no one route, no list of boxes to be ticked, leading to the attainment of the role of Artistic Director. While there are certain generally preferred minimum qualifications (Artistic Directors frequently have MAs in the arts, often theatre-related) there is not even a check list of academic and professional qualifications common to any two posts. Each and every Artistic Director at each and every organization around the globe is unique. It is the vision and drive of the Artistic director that shapes and moves a theatre forward (or which leads to its demise) and the character and aesthetics of the man or woman (or men and/or women) in the role(s) at any given theatre will determine, to large degree, the character and aesthetics of the organization as a whole. I think the first questions you have to answer are the ones you haven’t asked: Which organization do you want to be Artistic Director of (some existing group or venue, or one you create and build yourself from the ground up)? What type of organization are you interested in (progressive and experimental theatre, classical drama, dance, performance art, etc)? What path are you interested in taking (directing, producing, administration)? In an effort to best get to the heart of what I think you want to know, I will dissect the role as it is represented in three different organizations.
• Hat Trick Theatre Productions
• Battersea Arts Centre
• Royal Court Theatre
Hat Trick Theatre Productions is a small but successful commercial theatre company in Tampa, Florida. With a membership of over a thousand, and resident in a performing arts centre seating eight hundred eighty, the company enjoys strong grassroots community involvement as well as a growing commercial impact in the area. Their Artistic Director was, until very recently, a man called Joe Winskye. A 2006 Creative Loafing interview illustrates the origins of Hat Trick Theatre Productions.
And you can hardly be as unplanned as was the genesis of Hat Trick Theatre. It all started, Winskye explains, when Mark Marple, an older student at USF, assembled a bunch of former USF theater graduates to form Bayshore Productions. Among the participants were Winskye, Jack Holloway, April Bender, Kevin Whalin, Aisha Duran and Adam Belvo. Bayshore put on two shows at Viva La Frida café and restaurant — Lone Star and Sexual Perversity in Chicago — but then business drew Marple to Jacksonville, leaving the Bayshore personnel to “stick it out” without him.
The troupe intended to keep the Bayshore name until they “found out that it was already taken by a company that makes porn calendars, and we didn’t think we could compete,” Winskye explains. So, with the help of a few more good friends, creating a company of about 12, they settled on a name that was lighthearted “but also not so silly that people wouldn’t take us seriously if were [sic] going to do Hamlet,” he says.
Winskye became artistic director, he says, “sort of by default … There was no vote, no one else said, ‘Hey, I want to do it,’ so it was kind of left to me.” In keeping with Bayshore tradition, they did their first show at Viva La Frida
Winskye took over leadership of the company in 2002 or 2003 and helped it grow and flourish to become one of the best known theatre companies in Tampa. At that time, his qualifications were a BA in theatre from the University of South Florida, and a passionate belief in himself and love of the theatre. Over the years through his patient stewardship and creative vision, Hat Trick has become a favourite of area critics and theatre-goers alike, garnering them numerous awards and accolades.
Interestingly, in this instance, the professional work and experience followed his appointment as Artistic Director. I think this is often the case when one expands ones scope of ‘artistic director-ship’ to include small professional, academic, and /or community theatre companies. It’s easy to get lost in the glamour of big players such as the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, or the new York Metropolitan Opera, but the vast majority of theatres in the world play to a local community in chunks of maybe fifty to a hundred people at a time, and far more vast are the number of ‘homeless’ theatre companies – aggregations of passionate artists who (whether in a communal, collaborative style such as the making methods of Stella, or the more traditional, hierarchical, director-stage manager-company setup of organizations such as Hat Trick Theatre Productions) come together to make work, moving from house to house, putting up shows in parks, alleyways, school auditoriums, and pub function rooms with budgets cobbled together by hook or by crook.
An Artistic Director may start out joining a small group and moving into leadership by design or opportunity, or she might found her own company with specific artistic goals in mind. In either event, sometimes, if she is persistent and focused, a director’s work will receive some level of notice in the media, and one thing will lead to another. A chat with a producer at an industry function such as an opening night reception, or a networking event specifically set up for such purposes may lead to some slightly more high profile work than her previous project, and then her name becomes more widely known. Maybe she meets an older, more established practitioner who happens to come and see one of her early shows and that person takes her under wing as a sort of mentor. Maybe she seeks out a mentor on her own, specifically contacting people she has learned about and reaching out to establish a relationship. Maybe she creates a work and takes it on tour or to festival (Edinburgh Fringe, for instance) and it happens to get noticed by the right critic, academic, or producer. Or maybe, in a very-much-every-once-in-a-while sort of way she and her company create one of those once-in-a-lifetime type shows; word of mouth goes viral, and the company suddenly finds themselves being sought after by venues like the Royal Court, the Barbican, or the Roundhouse.
In Winskye’s case, he was a university student who wanted to make theatre, got involved with an existing company, and took the reigns when an opening presented itself. He was mentored and favoured by several fairly standard names in the Bay area relatively early on, because of his charisma and earnest nature, and this opened doors for him. His company happened to make decent work, and (most importantly) they turned it out consistently, year on year, so that they became a household name in Tampa theatre. After building the company for almost a decade, he was able to parlay that success into a happy marriage with his company manager, and an acceptance to an MA at some university or other in Hawaii, and will presumably go on to do more upon graduating.
Battersea Arts Centre is currently governed by Joint Artistic Directors David Micklem and David Jubb. These two distinct individuals bring a textured, layered direction to BAC that fits well its eclectic, organic structure, history and mission. The nature of Battersea Arts Centre is a bit unique in that it is influenced by its Artistic Directors, its community, and indeed the building which houses it. Ever shifting and changing, the feel and ‘design’ of BAC is subject to changes in eddies and currents of the river of theatre internationally and in the UK. I suppose the role of the Artistic Director may be said to be principally concerned with shaping the agendas, the vision, and by extension, the mission of a theatre, and the Davids fulfil this role by steadfastly keeping BAC on track as an organization whose mission is ‘to invent the future of theatre’ As such, their approach to Artistic Directing is less about creating and shaping work and more about curating it. The Davids (and thus BAC as a whole) execute this mission by seeking out and supporting artists whose work is exciting, ground breaking and vital. In short, they approach the role more from a producing standpoint than from a directing (a la Peter Brook) perspective. And of course it follows that their paths to the role are decidedly different from the path Joe took on his road to the title. It is perhaps worth quoting parts of their biogs to give you a sense.
I have enjoyed working with several organisations that embrace development: Central School of Speech and Drama where I was Venue Director; Your Imagination an independent producing company which I founded; Battersea Arts Centre where I was Development Producer and where I have been Artistic Director since 2004. I am also Chair of Kneehigh Theatre from Cornwall a company who represent everything that is exciting and is possible in theatre.” – David Jub’s Biog
David Micklem was appointed Joint Artistic Director of BAC in April 2008, working with David Jubb to enable the organisation to build capacity to achieve ambitious growth plans.
David brought six years experience as Theatre Strategy Officer at Arts Council England, where he managed large scale projects and budgets including taking on the project based role of Associate Producer for Artichoke on ‘The Sultan’s Elephant’; leading an international debate on the role of contemporary circus arts and working closely with foreign governments on theatre investment strategies, establishing an international artists fellowship programme working across Europe and Australia. – David Mickle’s Biog
David Micklem came to BAC with a wide and varied background of titles like project leader, producer, and strategy officer. He managed budgets, oversaw planning initiatives, and sat on boards. David Jubb taught, he was venue director in a university, directed university theatre, and worked with several groups that foster developing work. While neither of the Davids were Oxbridge stock, both were university educated, and got involved at an early age with the arts, working at producing (David Micklem) and teaching and directing (David Jubb). Both approach the role with a determination to foster new work, to create an environment and a support structure to make it possible for makers of work to get on with it in a social context that is increasingly hostile and restrictive to artists. Their backgrounds are reflective of these support functions.
The skills they employ in their functions at BAC involve being able to make difficult decisions and assessments of artists and artists’ work and whether a given project adheres to the organization’s mission to invent the future of theatre. It’s a bit like intuition – seeing the next big thing and having faith in it; nurturing it before it is the next big thing. Of course there are all sorts of indirect ways they have to support this mission – attending meetings to collaborate with other organizations here and internationally, leading initiatives, creating opportunities, and also keeping BAC on course. Much of their work is concerned with communication. Communicating with the ‘outside’ (media, other theatres, the Arts Council, other bodies), communicating with (and effectively delegating tasks to) team members here, and communicating with artists. Both Davids came to their roles via largely administrative avenues.
To an outside eye (mine), the duties of Joint Artistic Director at BAC are really those of the facilitator; the steward. This differs from the more traditional, perhaps slightly dated role of the auteur director wherein the Artistic Director acts as the artistic voicebox of the organization as a whole, often actually directing many of the shows personally and exerting a great degree of authorial creative influence over the work that is done by her theatre. This is a principle dividing factor among the many examples I have looked over as I have contemplated this paper – the difference between theatres with one voice, and theatres with many. In theatres like Battersea Arts Centre (and, to be fair, I think it’s a fairly unique situation) the role of the producer is highlighted and the theatre reaches many diverse audience groups because there is not that single auteur standing at the microphone and speaking for the theatre. The theatre supports a diverse range of artists who all speak with their own voices, their distinct identities creating an aggregate of art which appeals to a wide range of people. This is not to say that there is not a set of criteria to govern these selections here. Certainly there is, and this set of criteria is of course the province of the Joint Artistic Directors.
Broadly speaking, I suppose one could divide theatres artistically by the role(s) highlighted by their artistic agendas – There are directors’ theatres (Young Vic), writers’ theatres (Royal Court Theatre), and producers’ theatres (Battersea Arts Centre). There are also what I think of as venues rather than theatres, but what are known in the parlance, respectively, as receiving houses and producing houses. Receiving houses take in touring work and independent companies from outside and do not make work in house while producing houses – you guessed it – produce work themselves. Frequently a producing house will have a company of actors and an authoritarian Artistic Director who leads the company in creating seasons of work. In theatres like this, the role of the Artistic Director much more closely resembles that of ‘theatrical director’ than in receiving houses, where her role is more concerned with selecting and curating a programme of work. The skills required for these two variations on the role differ significantly, as do (presumably) the qualifications and past experiences. The Davids are a unique team operating in a unique organization here on Lavender Hill and this is why I have chosen them as one of my examples. It is sometimes helpful to examine the exception to the rules because it prevents us getting tunnel vision. All of this is presuming we are talking about the arts sector rather than the commercial sector (West End) which is an entirely different situation – theatres often being owned by groups or consortiums who program via committee making decisions based more on what will sell tickets than on any artistic agenda. In commercial theatres there may not even be an Artistic Director, and the producer becomes a much more administrative role, while marketing takes on much greater importance.
The Royal Court Theatre is definitely a writer’s theatre, and Dominic Cooke embodies this as its current Artistic Director. Dominic Cooke arrived at his post in the Royal Court Theatre through long association with the theatre and having made good choices in his early days. … And he’s led a bit of a charmed life in the theatre. He started his own theatre company shortly after finishing at Warwick University and was taken off the back of his success with that (Pan Optic) company as an Assistant Director for the Royal Shakespeare Company. This led to that, and his next hop up the ladder was working under Steven Daldry at the Royal Court, leading to his becoming an Associate Director there before returning to the RSC, and thence back again to the Royal Court. Success followed success, and while a more in depth investigation might reveal more insights as to how he was offered such fantastic opportunities (there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of young directors every year who run their own companies, many of them successfully, but who are not selected as Assistant Directors by the RSC) I cannot say that I know the precise details. I would suspect that a combination of factors were involved (these are the usual suspects) – finance (Cooke’s family was not famously wealthy, but his father was successful in film), connections garnered through personal / familial means as well as during his time at university and while running Pan Optic, and of course luck. And Cooke was (and continues to be) ambitious.
Dominic Cooke is something of a writer himself, having written adaptations of both Arabian Nights and Noughts and Crosses, but mainly he directs. And he directs. And he directs. As Artistic Director Dominic took the reins from Ian Rickson, who had an uneventful tenure at the helm. Dominic has made some very bold choices, earning him criticism but great accolades as well, proving that tenacity and courage may be two of the most important qualities for a successful Artistic Director to possess (and, in general, are probably prerequisites for the job anyway). In a 2010 Guardian interview Dominic talked about his intentions at the start of his Artistic Directorship at the Royal Court.
When Cooke took over at the Royal Court, he said some mildly provocative things about the middle classes, who make up the majority of theatre audiences; he wanted, he said, “to explore what it means to be middle class, what it means to have power, and what it means to have wealth”. So how’s it going so far? He smiles.
“To be fair, I was slightly misquoted. My point was that, mainly, plays seem to be about the dispossessed, which is important, but you can’t really understand a world if you’re only looking at one corner of it, and that kind of theatre is really just as reactionary in its way as the theatre pre-George Devine [Devine’s English Stage Company occupied the Royal Court in the 1950s, when it staged Johm Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, the play that led to a revolution in the theatre], all french windows and all that.”
He’s unapologetic about those things he has been most criticised for (the Court received daily hate mail after making the decision to stage Seven Jewish Children was perceived as anti-Semitic), and has the courage to have an opinion, take a stand and have a direction. And this seems to be the main thing, from where I’m standing.
Artistic Directors, successful ones, take stands. They steer the theatres they have charge of in certain, specific directions. They and, following on, their organizations know what they are, and what they aren’t. What they are trying to say, where they are going, what they do value, as well as knowing what falls outside of those parameters. This is the case across the board, from Battersea to Tampa Bay. And you don’t become a person of courage and conviction when you take the role; these qualities must be in place in order for you to ever get there at all. Lives of specificity; lives of making choices and then sticking by them are lives that produce Artistic Directors. Self confidence (or at least projecting it) is one of the most important features I can think of in theatre, and in life in general.
Internships and placements can lead to some very good opportunities. Success in theatre is perhaps more dependant on connections and ‘who you know’ than any other outside factors (the only factor I can think of which might be of greater importance being the internal quality of self confidence mentioned above), and internships can (but do not always) result in meeting and getting to know people at the very top levels of an organization. As with most opportunities, there are up sides and down sides – such placements are frequently unpaid (something which may be changing under the changing Arts Council weather), but generally offer learning opportunities, experiences and contacts it would be near impossible to gain starting from the ground up. Getting onto one of these internships can be difficult in itself, but I have found that, with very little digging, chances which seem remote from within the bubble of inexperience quickly open up and present themselves. A quick search on Google will result in half a dozen hits for worthwhile possibilities. Being a bit brash and presumptuous can also be for a help in getting into a place (I suppose it could also end disastrously – use common sense). People having heard of you is really very incredibly utterly absolutely important in itself – as simple as it sounds, this fact is profoundly important: most people will not have heard of you (unless you’re Emma Watson) and often this can mean the difference between selection and a nice form letter. Doing exactly what you’re doing now – sending emails, asking questions, putting yourself (however briefly) beneath the nose of people like producers, Artistic Directors, and (perhaps most importantly) their personal assistants as a name on an email. “You know… It’s that Megan who sent in the questions last year…” Going to see shows, attending functions, asking questions, having thoughtful things to say, being informed. These are all important to anyone trying to find her way into any aspect of this world (or, I suppose, to any world). Keeping abreast of developments in the field; who’s up and coming, and what the latest (or if possible the next) big thing is, is also invaluable. And, at least in the arts sector, doing things is important. Make art. Make lots of it. Make successful (this is an entirely different, and possibly impossible to answer question) work; work you believe in; work you think is important; that makes you think, ask questions, and explore, even after you’ve seen it a hundred times.
“Talkers are no good doers: be assured. We come to use our hands and not our tongues.” – Shakespeare’s Richard III (I.3)
The theatre at its best is about action – live bodies doing things. Now. This is the thing that separates it from movies and television. Okay, actually that is a horrible oversimplification – there are a great many things which separate theatre from film and television, but no matter what the list, the live-ness and the vitality must be near the top. I think this could be an axiom. This being the case, how could one expect anything less of an Artistic Director: the principle architect of a theatre’s direction – its leading visionary, and its captain. Things are never easy in the theatre, and anyone whose responsibility it is to steer through such frequently troubled waters must be prepared to weather the storms – the spending cuts, the wash and wave of the fickle press, and ever more audiences turning to the ever more populous alternatives to theatre (the aforementioned film, television, YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and what have you – some people even go outside for a lark). Artistic Directors must strap themselves in and be ready to duck and weave – act and react, and be flexible to the changing needs of their elusive audience.
I hope this has gone at least a little way towards answering your questions. As I said at the outset, these queries are difficult in their simplicity. There are always exceptions to the rules, everything I’ve told you is wrong in certain circumstances just as surely as it is right in others. The thing about the arts is that this is a land of subjectivity; of qualitative assessments and answers. There is very little rock-solid ground, few objective, quantitative yes-or-no answers here. You must figure out what you’re passionate about, and then pursue it doggedly, abandoning all (or at least most) caution and trusting that things will work – that opportunities will present themselves to you. Most of your friends will very likely be out of the game by the time they’re thirty, having succumbed to the lures of corporate security (as laughable as that seems given the current state of things) and comfortable lives in suburbia where the rents and the beers are cheap. The life ahead of you as an artist is not a settled one – if you stick it out you will see your mates all (or mostly all) married with kids and mortgages while you’re still giving every spare penny and minute you have to your work. Sometimes it all works out to some kind of security or financial success, but far more often you will work harder and longer for less tangible return. Let me know if I may be of any further help as you go, and let me know when you’ve got something on I can come and check out.