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Jenny Sealey

Jenny Sealey

Artistic Director, Graeae Theatre Company

More questions than answers

The word leadership is still twinned with bureaucracy and therefore does not lend itself easily to the artistic world. Leadership has become synonymous with systems/procedure/administration and financial accountability. It is less about passion, risk, process, spontaneity or playfulness. Less about ART.

Nobody here denies the necessity of strong financial foundation but this is governing the way forward. We are being administratively led rather than artistically. We have become skilled at making calculated risks but so much time can be spent on the calculation that artistic heart is squashed out.

Linked with this is the mantra ‘we must not make mistakes’….of any sort, as the likelihood of been cut become imminent!

I would like to quote Tony Heaton who is the director of Holton Lee. His words are linked to the experience of being a disabled leader but the content resonates also with other people who have become leaders by default and are only recognised as leaders in their own spheres.

‘I feel leaders are often shaped by circumstance, particularly life experience. Many disabled people face adversity, disadvantage, discrimination and loss of opportunity and these experiences can help to form very positive traits such as problem solving, forward planning, strategic thinking, empathy, tenacity, unfortunately the mainstream do not understand this when looking for leaders and leadership, they also judge from a narrow perspective, for instance, schools and university education, career path, achievements, because they can relate, as peers,to this mainstream conditioning. Unfortunately they often cannot relate to disabled or deaf people and cannot see us as equals, I am reminded of a Colin Wheeler cartoon, the image was a wheelchair user and a bloke behind a desk, the text was, "I'm disabled, but fortunately I can cope with your inability to come to terms with it" I think there is a great truth in this, until non-disabled people can come to terms with the fact that for most disabled people life is not in itself fundamentally different, the difference is that disabled people face constant discrimination and prejudice and unless everyone addresses this then we will not see change and we will not see the evolution of leaders.

People around this table are aware of the impact they can make as creative leaders possibly within their own sectors only. This means the learning, processes and work of that sector and the impact is insular. This sometimes is entirely intentional but for most of us art is for the many and not the few.

So how can we prevent the leadership we have built within our own worlds from being seen as gobby trouble makers in the wider sector?

This is particularly true within how I feel disability leaders are viewed and certainly within the latest campaign to at least save our place within the arts ecology and our dignity, several factors have come to the fore.

  • Much of our time has been spent having to be the lobbyist and not enough time working that energy into a model of leadership that encompasses a wider theatrical spectrum?
  • Can we be leaders based on our artistic merit, passion, sensitivity and understanding for diverse platforms and us to be seen as leaders across the arts spectrum rather than segregated to lead only in our own cultural spheres?

And if this does happen can we please not be accused of selling out or can we learn how best to defend ourselves.

The arts world now even more so is based in fear, scepticism and a feeling of artistic disembowelment. Now more than ever we need to remarry art with leadership to repair the damage done by the recent culling.

We need a shared dialogue from grass roots up and top down. We need to iron out smug elitism from the top and undo ghettoised separatism to allow new channels of communication.

We need national playing space – The National maybe as it is owned by the nation? This space and central focus can develop and nurture the many type of leaders we have become and explore creative ways to inform best practice from our perspective and to promote grass roots learning as a healthy, admirable trait.

I find it interesting that McMasters review is encouraging peer reviews. Those of us who work in dedicated sectors often work with the most critical environments with artists and audiences feeling confident to comment and being critically direct about their views on the work. Our audiences are clear what is excellence but is excellence only ‘monitored’ from the top down?

The McMasters report needs some serious input from all of us to ensure equality, access and diversity inform the process. We could see this as a new venture in verifying and nurturing the leaders we do have, engaging new leaders and widening participation and dialogue.

Realities and Revelations

Jenny Sealey also presented as part of the Realities and Revelations event, run by CLP where she said the following: “Too often disabled people, she said, had remained stuck in a stance of protest: it was inward-turning and negative and needed to be left behind. ‘I want to get off my soapbox. I am bored with talking about deafness and disability!’ On the other hand, she acknowledged there were forces that wanted to keep her in what was considered was her place, and the place of other disabled people.”

To read the full report on Realities and Revelations, see the link below