The purpose of community theatre is to provide a place for any person to participate in the arts, but along with that joy comes one of the biggest challenges of all - working with people.
People bring their lives with them to a theatre project - lives full of personal challenges, loneliness, emotional fatigue and social ineptness (and that’s just me). But people also bring passion, courage, a desire to create something greater than themselves, and a need to belong - truly and deeply - to a group of people who understand their willingness to sing happy birthday in a restaurant, too loudly, in four part harmony, ignoring the other diners who roll their eyes and look for the exit.
Leading a theatre company, directing a show, serving on a management committee or being an independent producer, requires us to be strong leaders. What does that mean? Are we the leaders we need to be? How do we become good leaders in the arts? Here’s what I’ve learned for myself over the last 25 years.
1. Leadership is not a position of power. It’s a position of service.
The best leaders are those that serve those they are leading. This doesn’t mean doing everything for them. It means providing a place for people to grow, explore, belong, feel safe, and be challenged. My job as a leader is not to build people; my job is (amongst other things) to have a plan that inspires confidence in those creating the show; to resource my team to achieve more than they ever thought possible; to make sure the culture is safe, and to encourage people to reach for more. Sometimes that means protecting my team from outside influences that seek to damage that culture.
This cultural 'combat' often happens without the cast’s knowledge and it's emotionally exhausting if you try to do it on your own. You have to have someone you can debrief with. This person doesn’t solve your problems, they can’t deal with the personalities in your cast, they can’t even give you advice. They listen. They ask questions that encourage problem solving, and the best ones will challenge you when you need it.
2. Leadership skills are learned.
There's no such thing as a 'born leader'. We mistakenly confuse assertive personality traits with leadership. Leadership is a lifelong study and your role as a theatre leader will never be what you want it to be until you acknowledge that you will always be learning. I love working with creatives who don’t have the skills for a project (yet); how exciting is it to work together to figure something out. But I really struggle with people who believe they have nothing to learn. I want to smack them around the head with a wet fish - not a great leadership style. I’m working on that.
We’re in a time when our theatre community desperately needs leadership that is open, courageous and seeking to be better. These leaders do exist but they need our encouragement. We're burning them out at an alarming rate. Acknowledge them for their commitment. Surprise them by thanking them for their efforts. You wouldn't believe how little that happens.
Oh, and, if you’re pointing your finger at someone else and saying they should read this, you need to pick up a leadership book. You’re not ready for leadership.
The best you can do is all you need to do!
Sherryl-Lee Secomb writes her blog, An Idiot On Stage, specifically to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Sher has been building brands for performing creatives in Australia since 2011 and now advises theatre organisations and performing artists in marketing their work and building awareness of their brand.
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