I was delighted to be invited to speak with rural promoters at the weekend, as part of their Leadership course with the Social Enterprise Academy. I've worked on and off with rural promoters for many years now and I love hearing about their work, what is happening in their communities and why it matters. I consider myself to be a product of rural promoters - if it wasn't for the work I did with the Promoters Arts Network (PAN, now The Touring Network) I wouldn't have the values, the passion and knowledge of the rural creative sector that I have today.
I shared my journey with them, about the moment I applied to the Clore Fellowship and the circumstances which I've worked through over the last few years. We spoke about serendipity, something I notice a lot in my life - those 'sliding doors' moments when things align to take you on a path towards something which will be important to your growth.
We looked at the need to invest in culture first, the power of the collective voice, why it matters and the impact of arts and culture in our communities.
I was asked to share some leadership learning and I wanted to share them again. These resonate with me however I'd love to hear more - what have you learned on your own leadership journey?
Two years ago I was preparing for the first of my Clore Leadership Programme residencies, supported by Creative Scotland. I was about to embark on a year-long Leadership Fellowship, with 24 other cultural leaders from the U.K and across the world. When I left to start the residential in Oxford at the end of September 2017 I had been busy working with my co-founder on the Rural Touring Agency which was increasingly busy while working out how to progress Play Pieces Arts in the face of another unsuccessful funding application. It was a time of transition but one I was ready for.
Now, two years on, I find myself preparing for another residential later this month, although this time it is in Lampedusa, a small island off the coast of Sicily and I’ll be there with 500 young people from across Europe. How I found myself here has been a challenge, with pain, hurt and a journey of self-realisation. Without the opportunity 2 years ago to take the much-needed time to reflect on my work, my life and how I want to support the cultural sector, without the Clore Fellowship, I wouldn’t be doing what I am now.
My current role is with Highland One World, a Development Education Centre based in Inverness. As the Global Youth Officer, I am responsible for developing 9 creative youth activist groups in the North of Scotland, from the Highlands, across to Moray and through to Aberdeen. I meet inspiring creative young people who are passionate about making a positive impact on the world around them both locally and globally. My work, as I see it, is to support them to explore how you create empathy through creativity, to raise awareness of the issues of migration and the sustainable development goals in a meaningful way. I love my job. Sometimes the fact that this is what I do makes me stop and catch my breath because had it not been for my secondment opportunity, provided by the Clore Fellowship, I wouldn’t have realised how much this matters to me.
The secondment is a core part of the Fellowship and there was much excitement when the list of secondment opportunities arrived in our inboxes. At the time I felt I had to select a position in Scotland but I was encouraged by the Fellowship manager Sharon Armstrong-Williams to think one-step-beyond my comfort zone. She was right and a very astute person. She was also the person who handed me the much-needed tissues during my appalling interview. I knew I could trust Sharon. Yes I could travel to Edinburgh or Glasgow in 3 and a half hours but where else could I get to from Inverness in that time? London, Manchester and Bristol are the answers. I asked if I could work with Bristol Old Vic - I thought the experience of working at the oldest continuous working theatre in the English-speaking world would really stretch me, when I’d been used to putting on theatre in a pub or village hall. What I learned rather quickly that despite the heritage and brilliant work it is exactly like any other theatre, it’s just a question of scale. I loved working on the Ferment project, digging deep into the history and impact the wonderful initiative has created for theatre-makers in the South West of England, seeing many parallels with what is needed in Scotland to redistribute creativity across the regions. I was enjoying the work and yet I wasn’t sure what I wanted to take away from the experience of my time in Bristol.
The answer came when I went to Mayfest, and saw “Now in the Time to Say Nothing”. This has quite simply had the most profound effect on me, more than any other piece of theatre I’ve seen. The immersive experience of seeing the war in Syria through the eyes of a young woman, moving into the middle of the floor with the strangers in the audience to simulate cross the ocean in a dinghy to T.V screens and headsets which keep us at an uncomfortable distance from what is happening. I left the Arnolfini knowing that I wanted to do something creative and something meaningful next.
The opportunity to have mentor support is another gift of the Clore Fellowship and my mighty mentor Orla O'Loughlin helped me understand so much about how to progress. During a conversation I used the tired cliché of pushing on doors to find which one was meant to open. She asked me "have you ever thought about just sitting in the room for a while?". It became my new mantra, just sit in the room for while.
The Fellowship came to an official end in June 2018 and the next few months were the most challenging of my life. Confusion, exhaustion and a feeling of tremendous pressure. Another reason the Clore Fellowship was so significant at this time was the support of a coach. Some of the Fellows had coaches throughout the year and someone had recommended to me that I save my time for after the Fellowship and the transition beyond. What a blessing this advice was. During the weeks and months to follow I acknowledged that the confusion, exhaustion and pressure were having a negative impact on my mental health. I was struggling and accepted I couldn’t go on like this. I was confused because I didn’t know where to put my ideas any more. I was exhausted because I had been doing too much work during a year which was meant to be reflective and the pressure was something I was putting on myself because I didn’t want to let people down.
I got help and it has been the best step I could take. If I’m honest with myself, I should have asked for help 5 years ago but however long it takes you, it’s the best step you can make.
A few months later I’m happily working my way through my AHRC research project, another aspect of my life I am now grateful to Clore for the opportunity. I was feeling passionate about the sector again, I no longer wanted to run and hide, I wanted to put my energy to work.
One thing we heard a lot during the Clore Fellowship was people being told that a job was opening up and that it was “their job” and they got it and that was that. The cynic in me thought some narrative must be missing from these tales. However, one evening my friend sent me a link to a job with Highland One World and said “this is your job.” She was right - it was a job that was meaningful and creative. I wanted it. A role I’d never heard of with an organisation I’d never heard of but it was exactly what I was seeking. The Chair of Clore during our Fellowship was Sandy Nairne who shared with us that we should never apply for a job we don’t want to do. Now, that sounds simple enough but the reality is you need to know what job you want to do because then your passion will shine through when you apply. As Paulo Ceolho says in The Alchemist, a book which helped me during this challenging time; “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
So in a couple of weeks, I’ll be in Lampedusa with creative youth activists from all over Europe, understanding what it means to be on the front line of the Mediterranean Sea, where migrants arrive and seek help. To understand what that means for communities and what that means for our understanding as compassionate people. The group of Change-Makers I support will take their learning back to Scotland and share it with their peers, and then together they will create a piece of work which will be meaningful, create empathy and inspire action.
I am beyond grateful for the opportunity the Clore Fellowship gave me. The space to explore and overcome the struggles over the last two years because I realise now how each step was moving towards this role, this work which brings me so much joy and I believe so much in. I can’t not wait to share with you the further work of these young creative activists.
This paper explores how the existence of a rural creative hub can support the development of authentic, high-quality theatre.
With increasing pressure on public funding, support agencies and artists are exploring how sharing resources can help develop sustainable models of creative practice. One example of this are ‘Creative Hubs’, which are intended to allow those working across the creative and cultural industries, in any given geographical area, to come together and work collaboratively, often within the context of a shared building. However, in a rural context, resources and infrastructures associated with creative hubs can be fragmented and challenging. Often there is not one central, physical ‘hub’ but rather a connected network of individuals collaborating in various ways. Understanding the various models of networks is important because some of those working in the creative and cultural industries are finding the lack of opportunities and sustainable working in cities has resulted in an attempt to create employment and work in rural regions. As such, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the role that rural ‘hubs’ can play in supporting theatre-makers to produce high-quality, authentic theatre.
Examining three case studies, conducted through interviews and focus groups in Dumfries and Galloway (Scotland) Devon (England) and Holstebro (Denmark) this paper will explore the different ways in which rural locations have created different models of the ‘creative hub’, In particular, the discussion will focus on the extent to which authentic rural theatre creation has been facilitated through the practice of these ‘hubs’ and the networks they create and depend upon. Although some of these are unique to their location the paper concludes that on a policy level there is much that local authorities and national funding bodies can learn from the organic, artist-led hubs that have pioneered change through culture in these rural areas.
Keywords: rural, theatre, creative hubs, counter-urbanisation, cultural policy
I enjoy looking at job adverts. When I had just graduated from University I used to play ‘what job will I apply for?” because it felt at that time that I had many directions I could take my career. I would look at jobs which I thought I could do and also look at jobs which were beyond my abilities, because I wanted to see what skills I would need to progress, to work my way up and smash that glass ceiling.
As the years have gone by I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing organisations. To begin with, I was always employed. At one point I was employed on a 2-year contract to deliver arts projects in the Highlands. Looking back I think that was probably the last time I was in full-time employment. Oh, the security and certainty of a monthly salary, sick days and, something the next generation might literally not know the meaning of, a pension.
As that contract came to an end and the projects started to wrap up I started to think about what I would do next and it was at this point that I was approached by the Director of a Production agency. She needed someone freelance to work with her on the expanding organisation and I was looking for a new opportunity, to learn new skills and expand my network. While working with her I learned a lot about being a freelancer. Over time, more and more of my work has been freelance contracts, usually as a result of project funding for organisations. It feels in this day and age that the chances of being employed and working in the cultural sector are becoming slim, with many organisations side-stepping employers responsibilities with contract work.
I’ve been really lucky - working in the arts can be really challenging when work is project or commission based. Usually, I’ve had a part-time employed job alongside my freelance projects. That way I had peace of mind knowing how much I was earning each month as a minimum and could take or leave projects depending on my workload. As time has gone on though I have found myself more busy with freelance work, currently find myself at the end of a year-long Fellowship and in a funded research period. It’s a fortunate breathing space.
But it’s not employment and it’s short-term so naturally, I’m thinking about the future.
I’d quite like a new job. I’m ready for some new challenges, I want to learn again and expand that network. I want to explore what else is on offer. I’m curious.
So I look at jobs. There are some amazing jobs in the cultural and creative sector just now. Innovative, challenging, exciting roles which require leaders to disrupt and diversify ways of working.
I could have wept when I looked at three senior cultural roles which are so traditional and conforming in their approach. In a sector that cries out for creativity and innovation, why are we creating barriers with standard job application forms? Does it really matter what I got for my Standard Grades 24 years ago? How can I demonstrate in a chronological employment table that I was managing several freelance projects alongside my own enterprise over the course of the last 7 years? I’ve been honing my C.V for years to demonstrate my versatility and skills. I’ll happily send you a covering letter to demonstrate how I meet the specifications and what I can bring to the role.
Does a traditional, basic job application give them the space to be creative and demonstrate their true talents? I realise that for some employers, completing the application form is part of the process - can they follow instructions and shape their answers appropriately. I’ve been completing funding application forms and post-project reporting for years. I’m already pretty good at filling out forms. I know my way around a spreadsheet too.
In a sector dominated by women every potential cultural and creative employer should be aware of the statistic from a Hewlett Packard internal report - men will apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the qualifications, women will apply if they meet 100% of the qualifications. As a woman, who is extremely qualified and experienced, if I can’t even fit my qualifications into your form then I already feel like a failure.
As a sector, we need to stop putting up barriers for creativity and professionalism. I may have been freelance for many years but this has enriched my experience and expertise. I have worked across multiple sectors, worked geographically across Scotland, I have programmed and managed a diverse range of festivals, events and workshops across our communities and society. I have trained, travelled, stretched and searched for ways to make the creative and cultural sector stronger, emboldened and heard. I would be an outright asset to any organisation that would be lucky enough to work with me.
For me, this is the difference. I want to work with you. Not for you. I want to make your organisation the best it can be, to enable a shared vision. A job in the cultural sector is about a creative partnership. Forcing us to reduce our talents and skills to standard boxes limits us. I for one will not apply for any creative job that puts limits and barriers on me or others.
When I moved back to the Highlands I could name around 20 theatre and dance companies working professionally across the region. Today I can think of only 3. To make matters worse, none of those companies receive regular support from our national arts funders and rely on project to project funding, which is unsustainable. These companies are long established, experienced and have a loyal audience. Yet I worry about the future of theatre and dance in the Highlands. When I started Play Pieces it was to create a much needed network of support for emerging work by theatre-makers at every stage of their careers to test new ideas. I found myself wondering where the next generation of dance and theatre-makers in the Highlands was going to come from and how they were going to get the break they need to become established and gain experience.
This week I felt I could rest a little easier after witnessing a fantastic performance of young dancers at a Year of Young People 2018 event at Culloden Battlefield. The Highland Youth Arts Hub was concluding a week of cultural activities in partnership with the National Trust of Scotland at Brodie, Glencoe, Glenfinnan, Inverewe, Cromarty and Culloden. The programme had been curated by young people, performed by young people as well. Another terrific example of the for young people, by young people ethos of Year of Young People 2018.
The dancers in questions had been working with the only Highland-based, contemporary dance company Plan B for the week and created the most stunning piece to original music, performed by Fèis Rois musicians. The ease and grace of the movements which seemed to hint at traditional work skills, Highland dance and the seasons was professional, mature and captivating. To see young dancers so engaged with their work and delivering to a very high standard really demonstrates why we need companies like Plan B in the Highlands. They inspire a whole generation of artists. If we don’t have creative representation of independent, professional, Highland-based theatre and dance companies then our young people will lose out on access to experience, expertise and mentoring on their own doorstep. And we as a region will become culturally poorer as a result.
In contrast, the music scene continues to thrive. Following the exceptional dance piece was Calum Mackenzie John with his Nu Trad 5-piece. Again they displayed a high level of professional delivery combing original songs (which demonstrated a catchy writing ability way beyond what you might expect from a 17 year old ) with floor-filling ceilidh tunes. Bear in mind that I was watching this the same night that Runrig played their retirement gig down the road in Stirling. It was reassuring to know that there is plenty of musical talent to walk into the spotlight.
If we could replicate the Fèisean model for theatre and dance then I think we would be looking at a future of confident Highland creatives who can use their region and culture as the inspiration for their work, knowing that there is an international audience read to hear what they have to share. Currently I am concerned that while the traditional music scene continues to go from strength to strength, innovating and evolving for a contemporary audience, we aren’t investing and sustaining theatre and dance the same way.
Some might argue that this is because it doesn’t fall into the traditional arts category and since the start of the Fèisean movement, the case has been to revive traditional music and Gaelic culture. I’d say job well done now let’s use that creative thinking and artistic model to see how we can do the same for original theatre and dance in the Highlands.
Let’s aim to have 20 professional young companies so the future of culture in the region looks innovative and exciting again. There are Highland musicians performing Internationally because they have grown up seeing someone who inspires them. Representation is everything. Without professional dance companies and theatre-makers in the Highlands, how will the next generation of creatives know that they can do it too?
Columns published here are the authors own opinions.