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"I am completely drunk on artistic leadership"

Julia Patey has a vision for the theatre of the future in Australia. She lays it out here.

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Category: Conversation
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“If the future is as white and male as the past, we have failed”

Date: 23 Nov 2017

Julia Patey, an Australian Theatre for Young People alumna, was awarded the 2017 Rose Byrne Female Arts Leader Scholarship at ATYP in March. Since then, she has researched how young artists can navigate their way into artistic leadership. Her findings include an urgent call for change.

This is her scholarship address in full.

“There’s a patch of carpet in a hallway in my house that I only ever sit on once or twice a year.

It’s right outside my bedroom door and there isn’t a lot of space, and if anyone was home I’d be very much in the way. I only ever sit there in the middle of the day when everyone is at work, or in the middle of the night, when everyone is asleep. And I only ever do it once or twice a year, when I’m really struggling to write something that I know has to be written.

I sit on that patch of carpet every time I write a grant or job application, every time I write a resignation letter, and this time last year, as I wrote a letter to Rose Byrne in the middle of the night, urging her to give me $10,000 so I could work out how to become an Artistic Director.

This is what I wrote:

Dear Rose,

Hi. I’m Julia. And I’m applying for this once-in-a-life-time opportunity because I have a vision that extends beyond anything I’m capable of creating on my own.

So what’s this vision then?

So. Sometime in the nearish future: There’s a theatre.

It’s warm, it has lots of funding, it has a bar that doubles as a cosy café, and all the seats are daybeds at windows.

This theatre is a sort of haven-come-science lab.

In the many rooms of this big, and fully rent-controlled theatre, there are all sorts of conversations happening between artists and non-artists – artistic conversations, philosophical conversations, altruistic conversations, scientific conversations. And the conversations are being had by some of the most exciting voices from our community: both locally and globally.

This theatre has One Job: To reflect, challenge, reframe, and empathise with the stories and voices of Australia. All of it.

And running it? It’s me. I’m the Artistic Director. I get the best job in the world: gathering these voices and stories and people and conversations together in one place and asking what if?

Sounds great! What’s the problem?

Well, there are two problems really….

The first, is that funding and resources aside, there is basically no formal training to become an artistic director. None. You can’t do a course, and there aren’t internships or any formal mentorships.

Which leads me to the second problem: Of the eight state theatre company’s current artistic directors, only one is a female. So, there’s no official training for it. And only one in eight major positions is currently filled by a female artist.

As the 2017 recipient of the Rose Byrne Female Arts Leader Scholarship, I will design, trial and launch a Female Artistic Director Mentorship Program.

Led by Associate Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre, Paige Rattray, and through consultation with experts in the fields of female leadership and women’s industrial relations, I want to identify the very real gap in my ongoing professional development:

How can I become an Artistic Director? And how can we get more than one in eight positions filled by women?

When I pitched my scholarship idea, it felt very straightforward.

Of the eight major theatre companies in Australia, only one is currently led by a female artistic director. I told Rose that as a director and a female, this greatly impacts my statistical chances of ever getting one of those jobs. And I want one of those jobs. The pitch was simple: If you give me $10,000 and close to a year, I’ll work out how one becomes an artistic director of a major theatre company in Australia: even if you’re female.

Since then, it’s become more complicated. I have spent the last 6 months mapping the paths of artistic directors in this country. I’ve looked at artistic leadership in other countries, particularly countries who have better representation across the board. I’ve examined how they achieved what they have created, in order to make recommendations for how we should be moving forward.

I’ve asked artistic leaders a whole range of questions. Questions designed to interrogate my ideas of mentorship, access and artistic growth:

  • When you first started as an artist, who influenced you, directly or indirectly?
  • Who mentored you (formally or informally)?
  • Who you were able to connect with before you had industry recognition?
  • What practical things did these people do for you?
  • Could you call them to ask for advice?
  • Did they introduce you to people?
  • Who gave you your first job?
  • Who gave you your second?

I’ve also looked at funding: who is getting early career support and who isn’t. And what is the exact nature of the support are they getting?

While all of this was unfolding, I was also interrogating my own relationship to success and career progression.

  • How is MY confidence as an artist and arts leader built?
  • How has this has been shaped by others?
  • What opportunities have I received that galvanised me and made me feel confident enough to put myself out there?

I’ve also been spending the year working and getting mentored. On the same day that ATYP announced I’d won this scholarship, I received a call from a state theatre company with a job offer. From April to June, I was the assistant director on Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White at STC, and have only just come back from Brisbane after assistant directing Joanna Murray-Smith’s Scenes from a Marriage at Queensland Theatre. All up, I’ve spent close to five months working in mainstage theatre companies this year, being mentored by their artistic teams.

So. I am completely drunk on artistic leadership. I’ve read Lean In three times. I’ve watched every TED talk on Youtube. And still I found myself this week on that same patch of carpet in my house knowing that what has to be said is difficult. There is so much I’ve learnt and have had the privilege to learn from the generous arts leaders I’ve spoken with. And I could talk about it for hours. But for the purpose of this presentation, I’m going to look at the current eight major theatre companies – Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Queensland Theatre Company, Belvoir, Bell Shakespeare, Black Swan, Malthouse and the State Theatre Company of South Australia – and how their artistic directors came to lead them.

When asked, ‘when you first started as an artist, who influenced you, directly or indirectly?’ most artistic directors I spoke with had several things in common. They had someone at school who pushed them, and then later, when they were an early-career director, were mentored by a theatre director 15-20 years more established than themselves. This mentor would come to the young directors’ work and usually offer feedback.

The next stage was allowing the young director to observe or assist on one of their main stage productions. While mentors didn’t usually formally introduce their mentees to anyone, just by being around them, they learnt a lot about the landscape. Artistic directors who had gone through VCA or NIDA were more likely to list their peers as mentors (male and female).

From here, the cycle of inviting mentors to see independent work and assisting mentors on their mainstage work would continue for a while (often five to seven years) until one of three things happened:

Option A:

Either, the young director would find their way into a major company at a young age (say, 25), in a junior position, usually as a Literary Manager, an Associate Artist or as a Fellow. From here they would bide their time, work away, and eventually get up the courage to ask the artistic director if they could direct on the mainstage.

Very rarely were they given the mainstage spot with the play they first pitched, but if it happened, and if it was successful, they may find themselves back in the program the following year, possibly with a promotion – to something like Associate Director. Often, once in the company as an associate director, you were in a position to apply for the position of Artistic Director, either in your company or in another.

Option B:

Another way that it would work is that young directors would work independently at a prolific level for several years, enjoying informal mentorship with the artistic directors of the city they practiced in. At some point, an Associate position would open up at a company and as artistic directors were already familiar with their quality of work, they would be invited to apply, and in the best cases, they were successful.

Option C:

In the third and very unusual case, two artistic directors could clearly identify a time where they were taken on at huge risk to a company. In both cases, they were assistant directors of mainstage productions and the director fell ill. After some consideration, and always at the director’s behest, both assistant directors stepped in to the main job. Their trajectory to the mainstage was rapid and in both cases, paid off with more mainstage work offered following their debuts.

All artistic directors agreed that previously assisting prolific directors on mainstage shows was essential to the confidence of the company and of themselves when the time came to take the leap and direct on the mainstage.

The next questions I asked were more specific: What practical things did these people do for you? Could you call them to ask for advice?

The answer to these questions was a little less clear.

  • ‘Yes, they introduced me to people in foyers, but no, I wouldn’t ever feel that I could call to run anything by them. Even now’.
  • Or, ‘Yes, I called my mentor every day during that first year in the company, and I still call her to run things by.’
  • ‘When I look back on it, I can see that we were always touching base about what I was doing and where I was going. There were never any official meetings, but I always pitched to him before I pitched a show to a company’.
  • ‘I didn’t have mentors, but I had colleagues, and I trusted them to speak to’.

Across the board, I found that most artistic directors were connected with a high-profile mentor while they were still studying, or by the age of 25. This wasn’t a surprise to me, and won’t be to you. We all know the benefits of mentorship and the ways in which it can support emerging artists. The best mentorships, some would argue, are organic. They’re born out of a mutual understanding of art, and the ways in which one can communicate ideas through at. I’ve had these mentorships. Mostly. In fact, all of the meaningful, miraculous connections I’ve had with mentors who inspire me, have been somewhat organic. Magical. Divine timing.

But what does organic really mean?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot. And what I can’t get past is the knowledge that very few people have access and opportunity to network with mentors who are not like them. Likeness attracts like. That in itself is not a problem. But what happens when everyone at the top comes from similar backgrounds, and shares a gender? What happens when the status quo is white and male. What does it do for those who do not share that likeness? Well, they are much more unlikely to be party to one of those golden organic mentorships. And when we go back to my list of things that mentors did for artistic directors when they were young, and when I think about the ways in which people have mentored me and helped me, I can’t help but wonder, putting talent and ambition aside, for that is not at question, how much of it was because they saw themselves in me.

What path would I have had if I was not able to connect with someone who saw themselves in me?

The statistics

  • Of the eight currently serving artistic directors, three have been artistic directors of other theatre companies.
  • Of the eight, the average current artistic directorship is 3.1 years.
  • Of the eight, all eight have undergraduate degrees, three went to NIDA, two to the VCA, two to WAAPA.
  • Of the eight, six were born in capital cities, one was born in regional Australia, and one was born in New Zealand.
  • Of the eight, five have been associates within the company they now run, and four have been associates within a theatre company different to the one they now run.
  • Of the eight, there is an average of six years between their first freelance mainstage gig and becoming an artistic director.
  • The average age of an artistic director is 40. The average gender is male.

The path was emerging:

  • Make excellent, bold, original, brave work. Do it well and often.
  • Invite your theatre idols to said bold, original, brave work. Do it well and often.
  • Have the good fortune of finding a theatre director who doesn’t already have five people like you following them around, and express your interest.
  • Wait several years, until a phone call comes out of the blue, Assistant Director. Accept it. Try not to fuck it up.
  • Continue to make the excellent bold brave original work whilst also continuing to connect with other Prolific Directors. Aim for someone who might get sick just before the start of rehearsals. Read the play.
  • Apply for every job, even if you think you’re underqualified.
  • Invite those people to your work.
  • Seek feedback from your mentors.
  • Get into a company. Don’t fuck it up.
  • Accept that the excellent bold brave original work you were making five years ago actually wasn’t that excellent. Accept it. Don’t discourage those who are five years behind you and are falling in love with blackouts between every scene. It’s OK. Everyone grows out of it.
  • Continue to work for the company. Have five or six pitches up your sleeve ready to go at any time.
  • Don’t cry when someone else pitches your work and is successful. It is not your work.
  • Continue to make your new age of excellent work.
  • Jump companies? Or dig in and stay for ages.
  • Try not to look happy when you see an artistic director has left their position. It’s a hard job and it’s not yours yet.
  • Apply for the job. Apply and mean it.
  • Get it. Start from scratch.

But let’s look at the statistics a different way:

If you’re an artistic director of a major theatre company in this country, you’re:

  • 87.5 per cent more likely to have been born in Australia, and 75 per cent likely to have been born in a capital city.
  • 87.5 per cent more likely to be a man.
  • 100 per cent likely to speak English as your first language, have received a bachelor’s degree at university, and to be white.

 So what does this mean?

Well, it means that my righteousness about statistical likelihood was somewhat misplaced when I consider how much harder it would be if I were an Aboriginal woman. Or an Asian-Australian woman. I was so busy being angry about being a woman – and if this last month has done anything, it’s really locked that anger down – I was so angry about the lack of women, that I didn’t notice all the other privileges I have lined up in front of me:

  • I was born in Australia, in a capital city, and English is my first language. Check.
  • I have a bachelor’s degree. Check.
  • I am being mentored by several prolific theatre directors. Check.
  • Who I identify with and see myself in. Check.
  • They provide me with opportunities. Check.
  • I am middle class. Check.
  • I am white. Check.

The only barrier, statistically, is my gender. So if things keep going the way they’re going, and by that I mean, if every man of influence continues to reveal himself as a sex pest, eventually there will be none left and, my problem will disappear.

But on a serious note the real problem won’t disappear. And the real problem is what I have spent days and nights sitting on that patch of carpet thinking about: Who are we giving opportunity to?

Because if all the opportunities are going to people in the same demographic, with the same gender, or the same skin colour, our leaders are going to be of the same demographic, and the same gender, and the same skin colour.

When the people making the decisions represent one kind of people, we can’t expect the decisions to reflect all kinds of people.

I am of course talking about privilege now, and specifically my privilege, my class and white privilege. When I look at where I have come from and how I have got here, if I look at it from a particular lens, even though I know I have worked hard, and been strategic and smart and talented, I have been incredibly privileged. Like everyone, I am drawn to those I share a likemindedness with. They have mentored me and I have grown from them. I rarely considered that it might be different for me if I were anything but white.

The problem is not about men or women. The problem won’t be solved if someone in 10 years time does this same investigation and finds that we have achieved gender parity. Because gender parity means nothing if the whole room is white, if the whole room was born middle class and will die middle class.

If we only give opportunities and access and time and mentorship to the people who resemble us: whether that is artistically, politically or culturally, we shut down the possibility of a fair and equitable playing field. We shut down the possibility of cultural leadership and growth. We shut down an Australian artistic landscape that is rich with Aboriginal and migrant histories. We shut down the opportunity to invest and enrich our audiences with truly urgent stories and voices. And while we’re shutting all of that down, we might just render ourselves and our work redundant.

So what do I want?

I want everyone in our industry to consider who we employ, to consider who you take a risk on and who might benefit most from assisting you as a director. To consider who might be a bigger risk as Literary Manager, but who knows about entire cultures’ worth of literary work that you’ve never even heard of. Consider hiring someone who is nothing like you. I want our industry, and our world, to trust women, like they so clearly and readily trust men. I want our industry to stop thinking and talking about diverse creative teams and put some serious time and money into developing those artists. I want those in the positions of influence to forget the notion that opportunity is opportunity and the size of it doesn’t matter. I want our leaders to create opportunities specifically for people who would otherwise have no access. I want to look at the way our training institutions are financially impossible for the majority of young artists and creatives. We have no idea about the generation of artists who will not identify as such because we have not set them up for success.

I want us to stop feeling weird about quotas. Bring them on. Quotas mean that we’re paying attention to the pathways we allow different kinds of people through.

I want to be clear that if the work that is programmed in the future is as white and as male as it has been in the past, we have failed. If the work that I make is as white as it is female, I have failed.

If the people we now invest in to be our next generation of cultural and artistic leaders are as white and as privileged as I am, we have a different version of the same problem.

Paige and I have trialled the first year of our program together with my fellow mentee, Courtney Stewart, an Asian-Australian actor director and theatremaker. So far, as part of the program Courtney has assistant directed Australian Graffiti by Disapol Savetsila, and led a Rough Draft new play development for Sydney Theatre Company. I feel stronger and more confident than ever in my work and I think Courtney does too. I’m energised and I’m ready to work. I know that I can call Paige at any time to run anything past her. Paige advocates for me and says my name as many times a day as she can to the powers that be. And our program? Well, it will need some fine tuning, but with the year of work we’ve been able to put behind it, we’re in an excellent place. We even got some Aus Co funding to keep us going next year.

So what does the future look like?

I asked every artistic director I spoke to what theatre in this country would look like in 2027. If there no limitations. What would it be?

  • Far more culturally diverse casts and stories and creative teams
  • New plays that are ambitious and in big spaces that interrogate who we are today, our history and our future
  • Gender parity would be a no-brainer (writers, directors, casts, teams)
  • Greater government funding would exisit
  • At least another major company in every capital city, and one dedicated only to new work.
  • A national Indigenous theatre company (Bangarra, but for theatre)
  • A new generation of fuck off theatre actors who broadly look like the cities they live in.
  • Four major, major, major Australian works.
  • Audiences to have grown enough to encompass the extra companies
  • For the conversations we’ve had around artists and artistic leaders to become moot.

Let’s quickly go back to THE VISION I was talking about earlier…

So. Sometime in the nearish future: There’s a theatre.

It’s warm, it has lots of funding,

It’s having conversations; important ones.

And those conversations are being had by a diverse group of artists and leaders. People whose families arrived two months ago and people whose families have been here for 60,000 years. People who are breastfeeding and people who are campaigning for human rights.

And it’s being led by someone who’s had the opportunities to interrogate, to challenge, to explore, to try their hand before.

This theatre is led by someone who had vision and talent and opportunities in spite of the fact that in 2017 they couldn’t see themselves represented.

I promised to tell you how to be an artistic director. It’s what I told Rose I would do, too. But the truth is we’re going to have to make a lot of changes until many of us can get there. And there is a heavy weight of responsibility on the current generation of artistic directors to lead us there. All this they know. This is something that every single leader has impressed upon me. Change is happening and will continue to happen. In the meantime. Let’s take responsibility for the opportunities we have to offer. All of us. Let’s offer them to the people with the least access.

That’s my next pitch as Artistic Director of wherever I end up. And that’s how I plan to get there.

Thank you.”

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