Start by building relationships, says Steve Marmion, big change can wait
So four weeks in. Four weeks into the job I have been striving to get since I began directing 15 years ago. The news that I had been appointed the new Artistic Director of Soho Theatre came with overwhelming emotion – namely, that of relief: “I have finally got there”. Which was soon followed by a West Wing-esque, “Now the work really starts.”
There were roughly two months between my appointment being announced and my beginning full-time with the company. However, over that time there were a number of crisis situations that required my support and input – not least the tragic death of Sebastian Horsley, who was the subject of a one-man show that had just opened with us. But starting at the deep end gave me a chance to see just how the team worked and pulled together under pressure. Art is so subjective that regular consensus is very difficult to achieve within an artistic team; it takes exciting visionary leadership, such as Rupert Goold’s at Headlong or Michael Boyd’s at the Royal Shakespeare Company, that makes disagreement on the minutiae much less vexing for those concerned.
I have worked in theatres all over the world. I have seen models of how a building can work from afar and up close, and I am close to a number of people recently appointed to roles similar to mine. It’s this experience and those people that have been my key frames of reference in forming a plan for the organisation. In many ways, theatre directing is management. The rehearsal room is a microcosm of the organisation itself; rehearsals are about harnessing people’s passions, challenging them, and persuading them to make interesting and brave choices. So is good management.
It can feel a bit strange. There has been no conventional “handover” or even staff initiation. On one hand I am meeting everyone asking, “What do you do?” On the other, they are meeting me asking, “What do you want me to do?” I believe that if 80% of directing is casting, then 80% of good arts management is surrounding yourself with the right people. The next step is obvious but often forgotten: listen to them.
The director who thinks he can act every role, and gives nothing but line readings, will invariable make a bland show that none of the company feel any ownership of. The manager who thinks he is the best marketer, graphic designer, administrator or fundraiser, is in similar trouble and will have a similarly disenfranchised company. My philosophy is simple. Inspire, empower and support your cast and staff. If they are the right people your show and company will fly. Let’s see how that goes eh?