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After a hugely successful eight years at the helm at Mountview, its two directors are handing over the reins. Here, Sarah Preece reflects on the leadership challenges facing the drama training sector.

on stage production of Les Miserables
Les Miserables, Mountview

Marc Brenner

Stephen Jameson and I were appointed as joint leaders of Mountview drama school in 2013, to undertake the job of securing it a permanent home. By 2018, after 30 years in ‘temporary’, poor quality accommodation, we finally relocated Mountview into its beautiful £30m state-of-the-art facility in Peckham, South London. Underpinning the creation of this new home was the vision for Mountview as a New Model Drama School. 

This vision was rooted in three key principles: Excellence – the best vocational training, and the best representation by the industry; Innovation - working with the best professionals in our industry, along with commissioning and programming new work; and Access – the creation of a national talent pipeline to ensure a wider demographic plus a building porous to our community.

At the end of this year, after eight years realising the vision and having completed our task, we hand over to Abigail Morris as Artistic Director and Rosemary Squire as Chair who, together with the board and wonderful staff and students, will write the next chapter of Mountview’s story. 

We are proud of our achievements in creating an organisation fit for purpose, now with a permanent home, but as a leadership team we can’t help but be aware of the enormous challenges facing the arts sector and in particular vocational training at this time.

A fresh awakening for our institutions

In the last 18 months we have all seen our personal, interpersonal, organisational and social systems rocked by issues raised by the #MeToo movement, the murder of George Floyd in the US, the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in London, a worldwide pandemic and the continuing escalation of a climate emergency. 

These traumas, devastating in their own right, have touched our collective consciousness triggering an uprising and new era of direct action. In addition, the impact of these traumas and the retriggering of deep wounds, particularly for minoritised individuals, those who are marginalised or exposed to abuses of power, and those who stand by as allies, have brought fresh awakening to our institutions and with this comes the challenge of making change happen.

As leaders of training institutions, we work to develop the creativity of students, to prepare them for a professional career and foster a sense of individual and collective agency. We also aim to collaborate in their learning, rather than disseminate knowledge as institutional authorities. 

However, young people, activated by the issues of these times, inevitably seek to challenge those in positions of institutional power. This is complex because while we as leaders are accountable for corrective actions, we too are part of a system that is greater than our individual capability to correct. At least, that is, alone.

How do we collectively face trauma?

Steering Mountview through transition and change, one of our key objectives has been to support a process that unlocks the potential within the organisation. This involves identifying the elements that support its growth and resilience and addressing areas of imbalance or malfunction. The introduction of trauma into a system, however, can trigger a form of crisis and it is this – how we collectively face trauma - that is important. 

It is well understood that likely responses to impactful events are to fight, flight, freeze or flop, but this applies as much to leaders as it does to individuals. Our role as educators and leaders is to support a healthy response to the trauma experienced by our young people. 

However, whilst we are holders of institutional power, we have found ourselves at times insufficiently equipped to manage the level of complexity some of these issues present, particularly when the issues are of such damaging and devastating scale.

We need not to fight, flight, freeze or flop, but to face the trauma; and we need to face it together as a community. We need to move away from the positional polarities of right and wrong, good and bad and seek to understand the wider context. 

We need to restore connectivity and balance

We might then start from an understanding that conflict manifests when we become separated from a profound need for belonging, for the opportunity to give full expression to individual and communal identities and resist their imposition by others. We need skilful and well-resourced leadership but also a kind of leadership that is allowed to lean into learning and not knowing. And we need to rebuild a vision of the future that restores connectivity and balance that we create collectively.

We are living in a threshold moment and one which offers such opportunity for beneficial change. But institutional leaders cannot solve the problem alone. We can take steps towards a more integrated, resilient, whole sense of individual and collective coherence and the restoration of a healthy living system within our institutions, but we need to do that as co-creators with our young people and our community, not in opposition to it, in flight, in fear or in overwhelm.

As arts practitioners, we have the skills to hold the space of not knowing, the creativity to engage imaginatively and the belief that art wholeheartedly supports our beings. Together, in creative and generative dialogue, we have the power to heal some of the histories of this trauma. 

It is this capacity that is the change we need to see and which the sector needs to develop, and it is with this knowledge that Stephen and I leave Mountview. It is a hard time to be a leader. But it is a harder time to be subjected to deep hurts and ongoing systemic harm, and it is imperative that we take urgent, regenerative action, together.

Sarah Preece is Joint Chief Executive at Mountview with Stephen Jameson. They received Special Recognition Awards at the 2020 Oliviers for their achievements.


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