Director, Writernet 1994-2009 – A story
Writernet was a small organisation. In order to realise my ambitions it was important for me to find ways to lead not just my organisation, but my sub-sector: playwrights and those who make playwriting happen. My work over that 15 years was largely dependent on the breadth and quality of the partnerships I have created, entered into and nurtured. Often, to get things done, I have been the driving partner, while also the junior partner. Good practice manuals will say that partnership should be equal. In practice capacity varies, as does energy and enthusiasm. writernet punched way above its weight by understanding these inequalities and working with and through them. Writernet also drew on a passionately committed, diverse and multi-skilled board and small staff team.
As Director of writernet I operated a flat management approach. Regular staff included an administrator and an Information and Research Consultant; key freelancers included project dramaturgs. Through partnership working, consortium participation and network curation, I made myself part of overlapping teams.
I set myself the challenge of making a difference to the post code lottery for playwrights in the UK, by identifying energies with which I could work to build capacity in the sector and strengthen the infrastructure. I wrote Van or Tardis, a report and provocation to the sector for Arts Council Wales. I joined the board and served as Vice Chair, of the Playwrights Studio Scotland. I curated the Playwrights Network of playwright-centred organisations in each of the regions and nations, to enable different organisations to come together from across the country to learn from each other, We met, for example, in Belfast, with Tinderbox, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the playwrights union to strengthen the case for investment there. I linked this work through to The Writers Guild of Great Britain, via the Theatre Committee, for lobbying and advocacy.
Over the last 5 years we changed the landscape in the only region with no dedicated organisation championing new writing – via the South West Theatre Writing Network. In a region which had historically proved consistently problematic, in terms of geography, capacity and critical mass, there is now a flourishing, self-sustaining network connecting a dynamic, re-energised and very broad constituency around new writing.
Within the context of making excellent work, I also wanted to generate opportunities for disabled playwrights. I didn’t want to just roll out another programme. Instead I developed a 10 year partnership with Graeae, in part because of my strong belief in Jenny Sealey’s aesthetic of challenging audiences through her integrated staging. We piloted 4 development programmes, yielding 2 productions, and we also capacity built Graeae to grow its own new writing culture, working with disabled and non-disabled writers. I championed their work, for example by helping persuade additional funders and placing Kaite O’Reilly’s Peeling, a landmark production, at the centre of what The Fence would see and engage with at its inception.
I set up The Fence to bring together playwrights and cultural operators who create the conditions for playwriting – from across Europe and beyond. I launched it strategically as a small independent satellite to the International Network for Contemporary Performance (IETM), so that we could grow ourselves and then have ready access to a much wider forum. Now numbering around 170 people from 40 countries, the network has met 17 times across Europe in the last 9 years – at festivals, on retreat, as an adjunct to the IETM. Its core ethos is that diversity and cultural mobility are in practice the same thing. Each require negotiation(s). At every meeting we meet ourselves, learn about practice and structures from our hosts, make scratch work together.
As well as many smaller autonomous projects which emerged from different parts of the network, the Fence yielded Janus, a partnership between West Yorkshire Playhouse, Teater Instituut Nederland, Uni-T in Graz and the Finnish Theatre Information Centre in Helsinki. Janus identified 16 plays from 15 countries, created staged readings at festivals in Austria, Finland and the UK and explored different creative dramaturgical processes. Participants like the model and the experience of The Fence so much, they want to use the model to generate similar networks in Africa and the Caribbean. We have made a start with meetings in Guadeloupe and Morocco. I have presented on my work in Turkey, Canada, Sweden, Australia, Romania, Netherlands, Spain, Ireland and Israel.
Working for writernet allowed me a platform to develop a range of different skills. I chaired industry events, from two symposia on Alternative Dramaturgies from Deaf and Disability Perspectives in Liverpool and Exeter, through to the opening Plenary of the IETM in Belgrade. I acted as rapporteur, for Transmission, an EU funded programme based at the National Theatre on Theatre and third sector employment and training; and in Manchester at the Arts Council England first national Live Literature symposium. I acted as advisor to the Company of Angels on their Theatre Café and on the overall work of The Red Room, under Lisa Goldman. I was the Reporter for the 2009 Theatres Trust Annual Conference, Experiencing Theatres.
The Transnational working party of the Creative Renewal consortium funded as part of the EU Equal programme, brought me into contact with organisations working to remove barriers to the workplace on the grounds of ethnicity, gender and disability in Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Netherlands.
This informed my thinking around The Fence and also Acts of Translation, a bi-lateral project between Paris-London bringing together playwrights whose origins may lie outside Europe to explore each others’ systems, practice and begin making work together – in partnership with Soho Theatre and Goldsmiths, and with support from British Council and Institute Francais.
Writernet operated continuously for a decade without core funding. Our strength lay instead in our diversity. As well as trusts, local authorities and ACE project funds, I levered in, for example, £130k from non-arts based European funding, £50k from non-arts based lottery funding and £120k from the corporate sector. When as a team we could see that writernet would be unsustainable come the economic downturn, we would up, with characteristic financial prudence, removing a projected deficit of £30k to end well.
Here is an article in The Guardian on leadership that you won’t find by searching for it under “leadership.”
And that’s the point – it manifests.