The art of leadership – Keynote: Creative leadership

The art of leadership – Keynote: Creative leadership


Good afternoon, everyone. (audience responds) That sounds like there are seven people. – Good afternoon, everyone.
– (louder response) Alright, great. I know that it’s late. It’s been a long day, very inspirational but… You know…
my culture is a little bit call and response. So, forgive me if I ask for some
calling and some responsing. Alright, so first of all I’m gonna give you
ten seconds while I talk to think about your favourite lyric or your favourite two lines of a poem. I want you to think about that right now. But before we do that I just want everyone right now
to turn to the person next to them, either side, just say, “What’s up?” (mumbling in the audience) Or some version of. Now I need everybody
to just shout their name out. Just fill it with your name.
Fill this theatre with your name. On the count of three: one, two, three. (loud shouting) And I’m Kwame. Alright, good.
So now that’s given you at least 30 seconds to think about what your favourite lyric
or your favourite poem is. And you can shout it out or you can sign it,
I don’t mind what you do, just… Are we there? Just put your hand up
in the air when you’re there. Are we there? Are we there? We’re gonna shout it out together,
thank you. And the reason why I got you to say,
“What’s up?” to the person next to you, they’ll make sure that you shout it. (laughter) Alright. There, I can see the hands up. Alright, I’m gonna go ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one… Fight the power! (loud shouting) I can hear poems, man. There’ll be a test to find out if you still
think it’s the same favourite line at the end. But let me… let me just start by saying thank you
so much for inviting me to speak here. And most importantly, thank you, friends
and family, for welcoming me back home. It’s a really beautiful thing. (applause) Josie Rourke once said
that we make theatre in Britain like the Brazilians play football. I’m old enough to remember
being a child in the ’70s watching Brazil play on the telly. And I can look back now of course and I realise that they did more
than play the beautiful game. They, along with Muhammad Ali in boxing,
they were more than the sum of their parts. They made me feel connected
to a larger, more lofty goal – that of community, that of pride in that community amid the onslaught of subtle
or not so subtle notions of white supremacy. They inspired me
to be momentarily bigger than myself. In short, they not only inspired me
but they inspired a whole generation. – (dog barks)
– What was interesting… Thank you. – And what was interesting…
– (laughter) I’m sure that gag’s been done already… But what was interesting to me
in reading about that era and reading about those people is that they seemed to know that. There was a moment when
they just accepted, “I am bigger than me.” Now, we in theatre,
and the arts in general, I think we’re slightly shy
about being inspirational, about claiming that that’s our gig. And I understand it. Of course,
it’s almost impossible to measure. I mean, how do you put
growth figures against that? How do you quantify it? And yet I wager – as I’ve just proved – that everyone in this room has had a moment,
an interaction with a piece of art, that either changed your life
or kept you alive. Our job, I think, is to remember that our job
is to lead people to inspiration. I became an AD simply, actually, to stop myself complaining
about everybody else’s leadership. To prove to my mother that a life in art
could contribute to the greater good. Like every immigrant family, she wanted me
to be a lawyer or a doctor and I chose art. Anyway, I landed in
Baltimore Center Stage in 2011, and I had a really big P political agenda. I would catalyse debate with my art
that led to change. So I opened my first season with Arthur Miller’s adaption
of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People”. I was really proud of myself. It was a run-up to the election. It was… The themes were really
relevant to what was happening with water in Baltimore at the time. And it was a disaster. It was savaged by the local press. Complaints from older subscribers
about the colour-blind casting I did led to subscribers leaving us,
sometimes in droves. It was really rough. And… although I was really proud
of the work that we did on that production it was marked in the annals
of Center Stage history as a failure. And it was my opening one. Well, it was a failure until,
actually on my last day as AD, my former board president sent me an article from “The Baltimore Sun”, our big newspaper,
dated 15 December 2017. And if I may, I’ll read it to you. “The predominantly
African-American neighborhoods along the western bank of the river
just south of downtown Baltimore are crisscrossed by major highways
and scarred by industries that have left their toxic stamp
on the environment. Destiny Watford, now 22, had heard that Energy Answers planned
to build its Fairfield trash incinerator, one that releases thousands of pounds
of greenhouse gases and toxic substances into the very air
that her school was very close to – Benjamin Franklin High School in Curtis Bay,
less than a mile away. But it wasn’t until a class field trip
to Center Stage in 2012, she says, that she fully understood the consequences
it could have on her community. The students saw “An Enemy of the People”, a play written by Henrik Ibsen
and adapted by Arthur Miller. A man realizes that the new spa that his town is clamoring for
is actually contaminated. And when he attempts
to expose the pollution, it is he who ends up
being ostracized by the community. The parallels were easy for Watford
and her classmates to draw. With the help of the community
activist group United Workers, they launched a campaign
to stop the incinerator. In late 2015, the students staged a sit-in at the Maryland
Department of the Environment, demanding it rescind a key permit
for the incinerator project. Seven students were arrested. Three months later,
the Department of the Environment agreed that Energy Answers had violated its permit after construction on the project
had stalled for more than 18 months. Energy Answers never built the project.” It says in the article:
“To Watford it was a victory.” But to me the real victory was for art, was for the power it has
to enter our hearts, our minds, and inspire people
possibly to change things. I also took two other things from this.
Number 1: my board chair at the time. He supported me in such a way
that I knew I didn’t have to retreat from leading my theatre in such a way
that would catalyse real debate. Had he and the board
not acted in such a supportive manner, the very many community interventions
through art that we made during my tenure, well, we simply would not have made. And I mean “community” and “interventions”
in its broadest sense. I learnt that being political didn’t always
mean staging a big P political play, it was bringing the cast
of our Bob Marley musical to the riot-scarred community
after the Freddie Gray murder. It was making rapid-response
guerrilla theatre to the streets where young black men and women
were being shot in the run-up to Donald Trump
being made president and putting it on to the internet
so that all could access. It was bringing remote-controlled robots
into our spaces so that children in hospitals could control
the way they viewed our shows. Not a single camera stuck at the back but a fully manoeuvrable bot that had
its own allocated seat in the auditorium. I learnt also in terms of diversity inclusion that the ultimate way
for us to succeed in that arena was to simply do it. We are what we see. When I arrived at Baltimore
I was the only senior manager of colour. A city 65% African-American. A staff, at minimum of 70, there was nobody at production level and there was two other people
in box office. By the time I left I was really proud that although we did no
“Let’s go out and diversify”… We did very little other than say, “We create excellence here, we innovate here, and those things can look like this too.” By the time I left 40% of our senior managers were people
of colour and 30% of our production. We put out a challenge
to American theatre to say, “Who else can do this?” And we were really pleased
that lots of other theatres said, “We will now try and match those quotas.” It was having a board and a chair that understood that
innovation didn’t only exist within the work we produced
in the four walls of the church, but by proving over and over again
to the community that we were legitimately
part of the community and sometimes that doesn’t show up
with bums on seats but it did mean
that when we went into the community to raise 32 million dollars
for our capital campaign we could look
in the eyes of the donors and say, “If you give to us, you give to the community
that you live and breathe in.” And they did. They said to us, the experts,
that we could only raise 15 and we hit 32. And we rebuilt their theatre
in the image of the community. So… now I’m here and all that’s behind me. And I’ve taken over a theatre
from a living legend. No pressure. A theatre that has done so much
in so many of the areas of my interest that innovation seems harder. Being aware of the optics of my appointment, I know that that carries great hope in the sector but it also carries the risk that if I fail I could set
the cause back a good few years. And I kind of think that that’s
just the nature of the beast, is it not? That our job is to not worry
about the burden of leadership or the burden of representation. I find myself far more concerned
about the burden of paranoia. So it took me a little while, actually. It took me a little while
living within the fears to find my own goals. To find the pathway to creating
the next chapter of the Young Vic’s history. And I’m right at the very beginning. But I’ve set up a few goals for myself. I will judge myself by how many
positive debates our work has catalysed, not only on the stage
and the work that we produce around that, but just in the things that we say. I will judge myself
by how diverse my administration is and my production staff are
in three years. I will judge myself
by what sincere and honest interventions I have led in the name of art. And finally,
I will judge myself by knowing that when I hand on to the next AD, which I hope will be a long way away, that I can look her in the eye
and say, “I tried.” “Here’s the baton, go fight anyone
who stands in the way of art, and artists changing lives.” How will you judge yourself? How will your community judge you? I say, let’s fight the power. Even though that power may be us. Thank you very much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *