• Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email

Rob Drummer is a man on a mission to cultivate change in the theatre industry for the benefit of young people. Here he shares why he's taking the bold step to appoint leaders under 25.

A group of young people sitting on an among wooden boxes
Boundless boxes

Harry Elletson

Boundless was founded in 2001 and throughout its existence it has championed and challenged what theatre for young adults can be. I’ve been at the helm since 2016 and have used my time attempting to energise the ideas that tend to sit at the fringes of an organisation, the ones that feel riskier, ambitious - dare I say - radical? 

Ideas like establishing our advisory group of twenty 15–25-year-olds, a UK-wide representative group of provocative, supportive, critical champions who guide our decisions, direct our strategic work and support and encourage the team. Or like our co-leadership opportunity launched earlier this year. 

In 2016 this group didn’t exist. When we looked at other cultural organisations we didn’t find examples of this important open access, seat-at-the-table approach to engaging communities. Now, I’m proud to see the model spreading through our efforts to share work, encourage other arts organisations and send our advisors out as ambassadors to give talks, meet leaders and lobby for more inclusion for young people. 

The work has spread beyond the UK, with a multi-year Creative Europe funded project -Extended Universe – enabling us to encourage theatres companies in Greece, Spain and Denmark to establish advisory groups. Started before Brexit and concluding as Covid changed the cultural landscape forever, it is one of our proudest achievements.

Without limits

More recently, I accompanied a group of our advisors to Ludwigshafen in Germany, a self-declared underdog, industrial city on the banks of the Rhine in South West Germany. We were there by invitation of Das Haus, a former punk arts venue now searching for a new relationship to its city.  

What unfolded over the course of a week was a quietly radical city-wide game, devised by our advisory group connecting young people - and others - to a venue that has since found new ways to hold community space that is open to all.  

Boundless means without limits and every day I am surprised at how true this is for the way we work.  Yet after many successful years of embedding young adults in all we do, we still had more to do.  With guidance from the advisory group, we plan to appoint two co-leaders each year for the next two years to reimagine how our organisation is led.  

We’ve been overwhelmed by the response, both from our peers who support us to embed these leaders into the wider industry, and also from the sheer volume of applications from astonishingly inspiring young leaders.  

Is this level of demand sustainable?

I read almost daily of new crises (and old crises): Covid legacy crises and crises no-one could have prepared for. I receive emails, some asking for support to promote work, others are questions from like-minded colleagues checking that challenges they’re facing aren’t unique to them (they’re not). I read interviews and observe freelancers in particular opening up about the struggle of making theatre, of trying to survive this industry.  

We all know of rising costs, ongoing battles for representation, fairness and even just kindness. Through all this, the same thought occurs; we need new leadership, we need new leaders.  

I have battled anxieties about keeping our organisation going, doing the right thing by our community, creating more opportunity, guiding those without mentors. I’ve had sleepless nights, struggled to come clean about the demands of the past few years and, like many, have asked myself on numerous occasions whether I can sustain this, whether I can stay in the industry.  

Then I remind myself why I am here, why I care and why I will always advocate for the continuation of an open, accessible, vibrant and diverse theatre culture.  Yet I still can’t shake the thought that we need new leaders, new structures for leadership and we need it now, everywhere. 

Welcoming the best and the youngest

The flip side of the coin is a generation of young adults who have suffered several years of disruption at home, at school, at work. A generation trying to put down roots when the very ground is falling away. A generation which continues to scroll, to dream, to imagine a world that will welcome their ideas.  

Their reality is one of transience, of not being taken seriously because of their youth, of being globally connected, full of new thinking but not invited to the table to express themselves. Although Boundless is a small organisation, we want to find ways to amplify, welcome and be led by the best and youngest - and to encourage others to do the same. 

As with everything, our advisory group has been instrumental in this thinking. Our recent (re)application to ACE’s National Portfolio gave us the focus to accelerate these plans.  Funding from The Listening Fund has also enabled us to spend two years testing new ways of sharing leadership and imagining new ways to deliver our charitable mission.  

In practical terms, we will welcome four 18–25-year-olds over the next two years, to share my dual role of Artistic Director/CEO and that of our Executive Director.  All decisions will be equally taken - only protecting confidential HR line management information – and no decision will be made without the agreement of both co-leaders.

An exciting journey ahead

As I write, we’re in the process of appointing the first two co-leaders from the most diverse, skilled and inspiring pool of applications I’ve ever been engaged with. By now, they will have started and I’ll be sharing my work. After a trial period of evaluation, the process will run again and we’ll be penning a proposal to our board for how to proceed. 

Crucially, I want to learn as much as encourage. I hope Boundless is a different organisation by the end of 2024. With the support of our trustees and the fearlessness of the team, we’re on an exciting journey.  

We’ll be sharing our successes and challenges on the way, hosting a series of events, networking opportunities and industry meet-ups to share with and learn from others. Our aim is to inspire co-leadership work elsewhere.  

The point is to inspire conversation, perhaps with you reading this wondering if there are leadership opportunities in your organisation.  We want to connect our co-leaders to other organisations, kickstart conversations for them and encourage the wider industry to approach the myriad challenges we face in collaboration with those who, despite just starting out, are already experts. 

If you’d like to connect to any of this work, please get in touch, I’ll look forward to setting up a meeting with you and my co-Artistic Director and CEO soon. 

Rob Drummer is Artistic Director and Chief Executive Officer of Boundless.

Link to Author(s): 
Headshot of Rob Drummer