The ‘write’ person for the job?

With the announcement that Michael Boyd will be leaving his post of Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (alongside Executive Director Vikki Heywood), thoughts have turned to who may take one of the most high-profile posts in British theatre.  Articles, blogs and social media have thrown a range of names into the hat, many of them the respected directors you would expect to be linked to such a post – but should companies and venues be thinking beyond the expected norm?

As with all big jobs, the long-list which arises from public discussion has been heavily scrutinised as much for who isn’t on it as who is; The Guardian have been running a poll of possible candidates, and the lack of women being suggested has once again raised concerns that the long-standing hegemonic perception of white males dominating such posts is far from a fallacy.  Although there are suggestions that the white male isn’t as prevalent as he once was – see the Donmar appointing Josie Rourke, the Bush appointing Madani Younis and Roxana Silbert taking over the Birmingham REP for examples – the so-called ‘big’ jobs seem to be a closed shop in some respects; perhaps due to what companies are looking for, or maybe due to people not applying as they don’t consider themselves to be in with a shot of getting the jobs.

However, another barrier may be the perception that such posts are almost always going to directors.  It seems ingrained that directors are the people to run buildings, but is unfairly suggesting that candidates from other disciplines need not apply?  What is to say a writer couldn’t do as good a job of running a company?  Put simply, directing a production and running a building are two very different things – although parallels can be drawn between the two roles, with Executive Directors, General Managers and Producers now taking on the vast majority of the day-to-day responsibilities of company management, does the role of an Artistic Director focus more now on an artistic/creative policy which could be delivered by candidates from a wider field?  Mark Ravenhill has been promoting his case for the RSC job in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner on Twitter by aiming to hijack the Guardian poll – and although maybe the complexities of this particular job wouldn’t see him considered, I feel the lack of writers running established companies needs further scrutiny.

There are plenty of examples of writers successfully running large companies, and in turn providing a much clearer sense of artistic identity to a company through being loyal to a particular vision.  Perhaps the most obvious example comes in the shape of Alan Ayckbourn and the Stephen Joseph Theatre – the appointment of one of Britain’s most eminent contemporary playwrights as their permanent Artistic Director (moving away from their previous annual appointments following the death of Stephen Joseph) proved to be a masterstroke by the company, allowing them to premiere a number of Ayckbourn works which in turn drew audiences to Scarborough from much further afield than may previously have considered conceivable.  Furthermore, the presence of Ayckbourn has also led to the National Student Drama Festival calling Scarborough its home since 1990 – bringing emerging artists, students, professionals and academics to the town and leading to increased investment in the local economy.

Other examples perhaps lend more credence to the concept of an Artistic Director as an auteur – during David Farr’s career as an Artistic Director, his time at the Lyric Hammersmith in particular saw the work produced have a particularly strong visual aesthetic; the production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (which he adapted and directed) is a clear example of this.  Chris Goode’s work with Camden People’s Theatre helped raise the profile of the venue and established a clear sense of the work they were interested in producing and programming, which in turn provided the support of other companies and venues which helped to support Goode’s own professional development.  Even further afield, the appointment of Britain’s Kwame Kwei-Armah at Baltimore’s Centrestage shows that big companies can recognise the potential of those from a writing background to help shape a company’s identity – Kwei-Armah has already announced plans for 50% of the company’s work to be new commissions.

It is perhaps a misnomer to refer to the above examples as simply ‘writers’, when they all have also established themselves at least to some extent as successful directors; however, their background in writing can begin to pave the way for those solely identified as writers to begin to apply for these jobs.  In order to open the application process more, perhaps the role of the Artistic Director needs to be redefined or even ‘reclaimed’ – focusing on its importance as a creative leader of an organisation and the person who drives its artistic agenda, rather than the person who directs most of its shows.  As mentioned previously, company structures now also offer support in the business elements which may put off some candidates – so candidates from more diverse professional backgrounds should be encouraged to apply to ensure an increased likelihood in appointing the ‘best person for the job’.

The example of the RSC is perhaps a slightly different case to those suggested above due to the focus on Shakespeare’s canon of work; in that respect at least, perhaps the company is best led by a director who can programme and present the work in a way which appeals to a contemporary audience.  That being said, with the company commissioning an increasing amount of new writing there is also a need for someone to have a good handle on how to package this work alongside the classical canon; the two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, as there is an expectation of a certain quality of any work under the RSC banner.  Roxana Silbert has played a large role in leading the RSC’s programme of new writing since her appointment as Associate Director – largely influenced by her history of supporting new work at Paines Plough and the Traverse Theatre – but it is important that this work doesn’t sit outside the main programme of work, thus depriving it of the profile and support it should deserve; the RSC’s website states that the company was founded on a belief that “new writing was as important an element as Shakespeare”, but it stills fails to draw the same profile and audiences as the work from the classical canon.

It is reassuring to see a number of recent Artistic Director appointments coming from a pool of directors who truly understand and champion the cause of new writing – Steve Marmion at Soho Theatre and Orla O’Loughlin at the Traverse Theatre being some examples; perhaps in time perceptions of the role of an Artistic Director may change and writers themselves will feel confident to follow in their footsteps and throw their hats into the ring, drawing on their craft and understanding of the new writing scene to breathe fresh life into companies in need of a change.

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One Response to “The ‘write’ person for the job?”

  1. […] shower of responses, from the Guardian’s poll about who should take over to Dan Baker’s blog asking why there are so few writers filling artistic director positions. One of the most intriguing […]

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