Rosie and Bernard are arts veterans. Both have worked in the industry for many years and have positions on boards and as chairs at other brilliant organisations in the culture and broader charitable sector.
As well as exploring what continues to make the arts essential, this conversation was a chance to absorb some of their learned wisdom. Throughout the pandemic there has been public applause and support for artists, freelancers, and organisations, but little attention given to the people who make what we do possible; those who donate their time and expertise to leading organisations like LIFT through the good and tough times. People like Rosie and Bernard. We wanted to lift the curtain on governance in arts and culture, say a huge thank you to our leaders past and present, and shine a light on how good governance enables brilliant art to genuinely transform people’s lives.
The following conversation was originally held live, via Zoom. We have edited the conversation a little to make it work as a published, written piece, but all of the good stuff and wisdom is still there! Read on to enjoy an insightful, honest conversation between Rosie and Bernard, for some LIFT stories, and their imaginings of what the future might hold for the arts.
In Conversation with:
IF YOU’D PREFER TO LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION…
Kris Nelson: Welcome! I’m Kris Nelson, artistic director and CEO at LIFT, and with me is Stella Kanu, our executive director. The conversation today is a chance for us to chat a bit about what we’ve learned during the pandemic and what’s next for the cultural sector, both for LIFT but also more broadly.
Lots of things are still at play; there’s a budget to come, you would have seen Stella’s quote perhaps in the Guardian talking about an exodus of women in the theatre, people are leaving the field, there’s lots of shifts and churns within organisations, everyone has come back into full cultural force and full programming, and we’re all catching up with ourselves.
This is a chance too to hear from two chairs because, through this last year and a half we’ve heard from the freelancers, we’ve heard from the lobbies, we’ve heard from the organisations, we’ve heard from the artists, but we’ve very rarely heard from the people who kept organisations going through governance and leadership, and indeed, the people who volunteered their time to make sure that our cherished arts organisations are in the right place, headed in the right direction and sustaining themselves through what’s been a pretty wild ride.
So I’ll introduce our two guests: Bernard Donoghue has been chair of LIFT since 2010 and a member of our board since 2005. And that means he’s seen LIFT through all kinds of transformations and transitions. A PhD student who wrote her dissertation on LIFT told me once that LIFT is the most ideal cultural barometer in the UK cultural sector, because as the whole frame of the UK cultural sector has changed and the London cultural sector has changed, LIFT has led and changed with that, through all kinds of different waves of what it means to make and produce culture in this city and in this country. In his role as director at ALVA, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, Bernard represents the most popular, iconic and important museums, galleries, heritage sites, and leisure attractions in the UK. He has also been head of government and public affairs for Visit Britain, he was the chair of Visit Manchester, was the founder and co-chair of British Tourism Week, amongst many, many, many other roles. He’s now the incoming chair of Bristol Old Vic and the People’s History Museum Manchester, because when he left LIFT, he could take on two things!
Our incoming chair Rosie Millard is a journalist and broadcaster. She has been reporting on and writing in the national press on the arts and popular culture, lifestyle and politics for over 30 years. She also knows LIFT – we were a part of her beat when she was one of the city’s most reliable and informed arts journos. She’s been a BBC arts correspondent and arts editor at the New Statesman, and has also been a theatre critic, columnist feature writer, travel writer, and profile writer, writing for most of the national broadsheets. She was chair of the board for Hull City of Culture 2017. She’s chair of BBC Children in Need, vice chair at Opera North and chair of Firstsite in Colchester.
So, that’s a lot of chairing you both have been doing! And I can’t wait to hear all about it. But first maybe we start a little bit with LIFT.
Bernard, what drew you to LIFT and to join LIFT’s board when you first became a trustee in 2005?
Bernard Donoghue: Thank you, uh… I hadn’t heard of it if I’m honest!
I’ve been chairing boards since I was about 19, which seems a bit precocious, but all of the boards or trustee roles that I had up until 2005 were exclusively either in conservation, like the WWF, or campaigning and social justice charities like Centrepoint, the homelessness charity. I’d never been in arts or culture governance before, but I was a very heavy consumer – theatre is my default. And I was asked if I would like to think about it and apply. And I think what really grabbed me was what LIFT literally stood for, as in the acronym: London International Festival of Theatre.
I mean, what’s not to love about those four words? And the more I researched about it, the more I understood that it was such an extraordinarily innovative, creative, dynamic, politically savvy thing to have established when it was established, and had lost none of those attributes over the years.
So I joined in 2005. I joined, unfortunately, at a moment when LIFT was being very introspective and trying to work out what it should now be and do. And so for the first two and a half years of being on the board of LIFT, I didn’t see a LIFT show. And I thought, well, this can’t be right. I think I’ve joined the wrong theatre board because I haven’t actually seen anything yet!
With the one exception of the Sultan’s Elephant in 2006, which had been postponed since 2005 because the London bombings. Seeing that and seeing the effect that it had on “normal people”, and I hope you know what I mean by “normal people”, and kids… I remember one quote that we used at the time from a young guy saying, “I’ve just seen the Sultan’s Elephant walking down The Mall. And I’m confused because I’m feeling both joy and grief. Joy that I’ve just experienced it, and grief that I will never experience anything like that again.” And I thought, okay, well that’s sold it to me. And I’ve been a very happy, largely exhausted, board member ever since.
Kris: Fantastic. Thank you.
And you Rosie, what drew you to LIFT?
Rosie Millard: Storytelling is a critical part of being a journalist. And the stories I always wanted to tell, was inspired to tell, were about the arts world and art and artistic engagement, theatre, particularly visual art, things that inspire people, things like the Sultan’s Elephant, things where people gasp with amazement.
And I spent a long time doing that. I interviewed Rose Fenton, one of the co-founders of LIFT. I went across the UK, and a bit across the world, telling stories. And what I realised was that art really only matters when “normal people”, as Bernard says, connect with it. It is hopeless if it’s in a silo or in an ivory tower. It just doesn’t work.
I remember interviewing Nick Serota on the night that Tate Modern opened. It was a story I had covered from the moment that bankside was commissioned to become Tate Modern. And I said, Nick, “what is the moment for you?” And he said, “the moment will be tomorrow morning when the doors open and members of the public are coming in, free of charge, to see this wonderful collection.” The collection hadn’t changed. It was the same collection that was at the old Tate Milbank. But when they come into this wonderful cathedral, this amazing building… that is the moment. And you feel that when you go to any amazing event, including LIFT events, you know, you can. And that for me is my criteria in moving from being a journalist to, I mean, I still am writing stories, but mostly I’m chairing things and I’m looking at governance and the direction of things.
And I think that chairing the Hull City of Culture had a life-changing effect on me because I understood that what we were aiming for was something that would have an inspirational effect on every single person in the city of Hull, on every child, every adult, everyone right across the city. We had 98% engagement, and we had engagement with very difficult work. But when you saw the people of Hull revel in the joy and the beauty and the excitement of that year (and it went on and on and on – we had a thousand events), it was life-changing for the people there. And I realised that we had achieved this through messianic belief in the power of art, and culture, and storytelling on a grand scale, and that it could change people’s lives, and bring money in, and bring jobs in, all of which are important. But giving them that sense of joy.
If I can, working with the board and trustees at LIFT, continue the work that Bernard has done, continue the work that Rose inspired and led… that’s what drew me.
You’ve both pointed to some of the kind of watershed moments that we saw in the beginning of this century, with the opening of the Tate or The Sultan’s Elephant. LIFT has indeed been part of so many of those landmark moments in arts and culture.
Cultural workers will tell you (I have the image of cartoon birds swirling around many people in the sector’s heads), the last 18 months have been a lot. Cultural organisations have been striving, rebuilding, reinventing, doing incredible things. They’ve been swatting away those birds that might have stunned them at the beginning of the pandemic and have really forged ahead with new paths and some really exciting innovation.
What do you think is ahead for all of us in arts and culture? What do you think are the most important things we need to take into consideration as we set our compass and chart our way forward?
Bernard: One of the most recent roles that I’ve taken on since February is chairing the London tourism recovery board for Sadiq, and I’ve been heavily involved in the last 19 months in helping my sector – arts, cultural museums, galleries – to recover sustainably. Encouraging them all to bring all of those things that they’ve gone through, which have been beneficial and fascinating and transformative, into the new business plan.
The last 19 months has given us a mandate to see that we can do things differently; more creatively and innovatively. And one of the things I’m really realistic about is that politicians only begin to really understand the value of tourism, arts, and culture at times of crisis. This is historic. They really appreciate not only our economic benefits, but also our social and cultural benefit as well. One of my favourite phrases they’ve been using over the course of the last two years, particularly with the treasury to negotiate the cultural recovery funds, is that tourism isn’t just where you grow jobs, though we’re really good at it, tourism is where you grow. It’s where you grow people in terms of their cultural literacy, their understanding of citizenship, of where they come from or where they’re going, to have mutuality in terms of connecting with other people, of their internationalism, and this comes back to LIFT.
And since the cultural sector has been able to reopen people have been coming back in their droves, because they’ve realised what they’ve missed when their favourite things have been taken away, like museums, galleries, theatres, and performance art. We also know that we are the places that people are choosing to come to heal, to breathe and to repair.
And again, it’s that transformative process, that transformative power of theatre and the arts and culture, which I think is profoundly important. Politicians don’t quite understand the supply chain elements as to why theatre and performance art is important.
For example, the vulnerability of freelancers over the course of the last 18 months I think has been appalling. But the very fact that the arts, the cultural sector and tourism has been the biggest financial beneficiary of all government intervention – the cultural recovery funds, at least £1.57 billion – of any economic sector in the UK I think is down to two things.
One is really, really good lobbying and that’s on behalf of everybody, not just individuals. But also we’ve got really good data as to what we can do and how we can transform lives. And that’s why things like our UpLIFTer’s project in Tottenham, over the course of the last six years, has been so important – it provides that longitudinal data about what exposure to arts, theatre and performance can mean in terms of life chances for children, of optimism for the future.
I think that politicians have learned that arts and culture almost are a parallel NHS, where you can heal and thrive and repair, and mentally, socially and physically renew, if you like. And I think we shouldn’t squander a good crisis in this sector, we should build on that.
And lastly, coming back to the acronym of LIFT, is the international bit. We will never live in a post-COVID world because COVID will always be with us. But we now live in a post-Brexit world and therefore our commitment to internationalism, to providing a stage, a microphone and a platform to international voices from around the world, has suddenly in the last three years become more important, rather than less.
We’re at one of those points where we have to be even bolder, more assertive, more confident, more provocative and more disruptive about how we stress our commitments to internationalism. Because otherwise we’re an isolated island off the coast of Europe, and I’m not comfortable with that.
And I think that LIFT’s mandate has suddenly been refreshed in the course of the last 19 months because of COVID and in the course of last three years because of Brexit.
Kris: What about you, Rosie, what’s in your crystal ball? What’s next for the cultural sector?
Rosie Millard: Well, I think go local.
Firstsite won museum of the year, which is great! One of the reasons why it won is because when the pandemic happened, the director decided to turn Firstsite (it’s a contemporary art space) into a food hub for the disadvantaged children who were already being fed and nurtured by Firstsite, during holidays and weekends.
And so, it ended up being a place for small children on free school meals to come and have food, and families would come and have food as well. The restaurant was turned into a canteen. And this has changed the constituency of the gallery remarkably, from a place with basically middle-class people interested in contemporary art, into a pace where everyone comes and there’s huge community engagement. Community engagement has almost become a cliche now, but if it actually happens for real it is very arresting.
I think people are still nervous. I think perhaps directors are going to be thinking, let’s put on tried and tested shows because we know that people will always want to come and see and Anything Goes or Chicago. But I think, over and above, that people want to see something happening in their locality. So I think LIFT’s amazing connections right across London – Bernard’s already mentioned the Tottenham work.
And I went to see Sonia Hughes’ I Am From Reykjavik in essentially a residential area in East London. She had been on the millennium bridge, but this was in a space of new build flats. And people came slowly out of the flats and apartments to look and see what was going on. She was building this structure.
I think that is really what people are going to. You see it all over the place – Opera North are doing the same kind of engagement with people locally. And even grand institutions like the British Museum will have an immediate dearth of tourism. So why not look to your locality? Why not look to school children in Camden, if you’re the British Museum, and bring them in. And encourage them to come and see what’s on their doorstep.
I think that’s what the Arts Council will encourage, that sort of local engagement. And I think people will really like it. Stepping outside of your door, not having to go into the centre of town or to another town, but having stuff happening where you are.
Kris: Brilliant. Thank you.
So, what has it been like as a trustee and a chair during the pandemic?
Rosie Millard: Well, it’s very nice for you to ask because normally people don’t really ask chairs about this. I’ve never been on this sort of panel before, talking about this experience.
I think the structures and benefits of Zoom have been really interesting. Board meetings are quite hard to chair on Zoom because it’s very difficult to pick up signals. So, for example, on the board at Firstsight one of our trustees is 21 years old. She’s great. But sometimes she’s reticent to speak because it’s different when you’re on Zoom. You don’t quite know whether you can launch in and so on. So as a chair you need to use the chat box to encourage people to speak and dive in a bit further. It’s also tiring chairing a meeting on Zoom.
But the great benefit of it is, for example, at Children In Need, we fund 3,000 charities right across the UK, so I have been able to visit the committees across different areas and regions. I went to a grant committee meeting with someone from Shetland. I went to one in Wales. I went to them all across the UK. I visited every single grant committee and I got to know the fact that Children In Need funds an ex-pat Chinese community who live in Wales, in a valley within a valley. So I know that for the young people in that community, the notion of isolation and loneliness is very, very real. We fund a youth worker to go there and work with the young people within that community. They can speak their language and examine their own culture. I would never have known about that had I not been able to join via Zoom. I could have physically gone there, but that would have been an undertaking with about 15 different grant committees. So it’s good and bad.
Bernard: I echo all of those things about logistics and technology enabling you to do the work in different ways.
If I’m really honest, being a chair of an organisation, even in good times, is quite lonely and quite isolating because your role is to support your team, to support the CEO, to support the executive directors, to support the board. I don’t mean this as a criticism at all but actually, there’s no one really to reflect back and to reciprocate that. That’s the same in all the other roles that I’ve ever had, not just LIFT. So there is something about that.
And the last 19 months have been so chaotic and inconsistent and unpredictable that no one, however qualified, knew where we were going, no one knew what this all would look like. And so, we were all doing our best guess and that takes a toll too, because the last thing you want to do, bluntly, the last thing you want to do is have LIFT go down on my watch. That’s the worst thing that could possibly happen because we’re bigger and braver and more important than what the last 19 months have been like. I suppose that’s the second thing.
I think the third is that since I’ve been chair, so for the last 10 years, every year, I’ve undertaken a board appraisal of me. And I’ve always asked the same five questions, every year for the last 10 years. And they are:
What do you love about LIFT?
What frustrates you?
Are we able to draw upon your experiences and input in the best way?
Is there anything that you’ve ever wanted to ask or check and it’s never been the right moment? This is the time to answer it now just between the two of us.
And the last question is, what is it that I, Bernard, as chair, what is it that I should be doing better, differently, or not at all?
And the process of doing that, except for this year and last year, has always been an hour and a half or two hours one-to-one over one, maybe two, bottles of wine. So really, really enjoyable, but fascinating, absolutely fascinating because you get a real sense of people, what their passions are, their interests, things that you didn’t know about them that actually they could happily bring to the party. I’ve missed doing that in-person over the last two years. But doing it online has been like a sort of rather lovely, charming Catholic confessional by Zoom. And it’s been, brilliant. So I have enjoyed the technology that’s allowed us to do that.
And I suppose my last point is, and I feel this particularly at Bristol Old Vic now that I’ve taken over as chair there in June of this year, is the pros and cons of digital. At Bristol Old Vic we’ve taken the deliberate decision that all the productions that we put on stage we will now broadcast digitally around the world. And yes, that’s to generate profits. And those profits will be reinvested back into getting the people of Bristol to sit on those seats inside the Bristol Old Vic. But it’s also part of that thing about public engagement and extending your reach and doing outreach work. So there have been unintended consequences of lockdown that have just been really fascinating in terms of business appraisal and how are we going to do business in the future?
So, as for everyone, it’s been an extraordinarily difficult, unstable time. And actually, we should take the moment to celebrate survival because survival is no mean achievement.
Rosie: I think weirdly, the sort of organised nature of being a chair I have found quite helpful when everything else has gone out the window. You know you’ve got a board meeting in two weeks’ time and there are the papers; you go through the same structure and that has been quite reassuring when everything else has been swirling around. It’s been weirdly reassuring to look at the minutes.
I was so nervous when I chaired the board at Hull. I’d been on the board of modern art at Oxford and Home which some of you will remember in Camberwell, but I’d never chaired. And the magnitude of the city of culture was so daunting. The idea of messing it up was very real. I was so nervous that for my first board meeting, I wrote down every single word I was going to say beforehand, including hello. So I just went in and I sat down and I just read from the script. Terrifying. I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t understand what the local authority was doing there. What it meant to get charitable status, to achieve it?
After I’d been there for about two years, I went on a course, a chairing course, which obviously I should have done before, but I’m quite glad I didn’t do it at the beginning because I would have had to learn so much from this course, that in fact I’d learned on the job, as it were. So it was quite reassuring to go there and think, oh, I do that already. Okay.
A chair is a slightly mystical position, it’s been cloaked in secrecy because we don’t have events like this. People don’t quite understand what a chair does, or why is he or she different from the CEO, and what do you mean you don’t get paid, or do you get paid, or what does an executive chair do, and all that sort of stuff. Once you’ve learned it then it’s okay. But you can always learn how to do it a bit better. As I say, the familiarity of it I found very comforting in the last few years. I actually don’t find it too lonely.
And I think the governance was okay at the beginning of the pandemic. I don’t want to be blasé about this. The cultural recovery fund has been significant. Furlough has been significant. And I think quite a lot of institutions are coming out of this now saying actually it’s not all a disaster. In fact, our reserves are looking quite healthy because we haven’t had to spend any money on producing anything. So, in fact, we’ve had a chance to realign ourselves, perhaps change our working processes, perhaps change a few things which needed changing so they’re a bit more fit for purpose.
Bernard: Actually, linking to that, I was just thinking that one of the things that has been so significant over the course of the last 19 months is the influence of COVID survival, economic survival, literal survival, and the phenomenon of Black Lives Matter.
Particularly for organisations in the cultural sector. While we were in physical lockdown, we were receiving our news in any way that we could get it. And I think Black Lives Matter – I mean the murder that prompted it – came in slightly from the left field in that it required us to respond in an authentic and meaningful, non-PR way, as people and as humans, but also as people in the cultural sector. It was interesting to see how organisations responded. I think there was a focus on Black Lives Matter that may not have been as precise, pointed and astute as if the world had been acting normally without COVID. And I think that was necessary. An absolutely necessary, unfortunately, prompt for everyone to rethink and to respond accordingly.
Looking at how arts, cultural organisations, theatre and the cultural sector responded to that, with varying degrees of success and authenticity, has been fascinating too. So I think actually the other thing about the last 19 months is that has given us a fresh mandate to be authentically honest about what anti-racism practice means, and that if you just think it’s agenda item eight on your board meeting, you haven’t quite grasped the significance of it.
Kris: Thank you. It’s wonderful to hear you talk about practice, to talk about the kind of world you want to see, the kind of organisations you want to build, and the reflections that you’ve been doing. I think it is really important for people in our field to hear and know about. But also, it’s a role that requires a practice and methodology, a sensibility, an awareness and an astuteness to the world and to the heartbeat of the organisation.
I want to ask you about the international thing. I know you are both absolute London fanatics and could talk for days about London, but…
What’s one thing that’s excited you from a cultural organisation elsewhere in the world that you go, ‘wow, that’s exciting. I’m jealous of that. I’m envious of that, bring it to London’?
Rosie: I haven’t seen much recently obviously, but I’ve seen two things which have been amazing.
Christo’s Wrapped at Arc de Triomphe was astonishing. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about.
The first thing I’m going to talk about is an exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which is the collection of two Russian, Jewish, industrial millionaire brothers at the turn of the century called Morozov. They bought up everything and had such an enormous collection that they have their own museum. It was all forcibly nationalised and then dispersed in the forties. For the first time it’s been reassembled and brought into the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which is enormous building in Paris. And what I take away from it is how the French want people to engage in artistic events. In other words, just get used to showing your COVID-19 passport effectively and then you can go in and everyone wears masks. They make it easy for you to, there’s no question about how you should engage in an artistic enterprise in France. There’s a clarity about how audiences should be, which I think would help audiences across the UK.
And the incredible confidence and chutzpah involved in having a collection like that and carrying on with it. There must have been moments where they thought how dare we do this? Can we do this? Where will we get the people come and see it? They dared to do such an enormous and prestigious exhibition, they’ve gone right ahead with it and put it on. It is amazing. I salute them for their integrity.
The other amazing thing I saw, I went to Iceland this summer. I didn’t walk into one museum, one gallery or one theatre, but the things I saw in the natural world were so amazing. It just reminded me – and I think LIFT has always meant this to me, I’ve always seen so many things in LIFT, which have been outdoors and full of wonder – I think that we have to remember that we have to hold onto that and bring a bit of the Iceland experience and beauty of the outside world, which will be easier to do post pandemic than something inside.
Bernard: I’d cite two things that I saw a couple of years ago, but are still going around the world, and two things that I’ve seen recently. So the two things I’ve seen that are still going around the world are Barbershop Chronicles by Inua Ellams, profoundly good, completely amazing production. I saw it at The National a couple of years ago.
The other one is Michael Keegan Dolan’s Mám, which is a dance piece I first saw at the Dublin Theatre Festival, which Kris introduced me to, and then subsequently saw here at Sadler’s Wells a couple of years ago, a stunning, epic piece, essentially about a wake.
Both are linked for me because there are about places and experiences where you feel most comfort and most solace and where you feel most grounded. In my day job in museums, galleries, and visitor attractions, I think the last 19 months has shown that people now really value active, deliberate memory making with their friends and families. Experiencing things together, because those are the things that they’ve realised actually are really important in life. And so those two productions, which are about the places where you’re grounded and where you feel solace and where you feel authentic, are really important to me.
And then two recent pieces. Like the rest of the world I can’t wait until Little Amal arrives in Kent arrives next week. I mean, it’s just so LIFT. It’s so Sultan’s Elephant. It’s extraordinary. It’s deeply moving the story of this migrant girl without a voice and yet expressing beautifully and eloquently what it is to be a migrant in today’s world. And in particular, coming to Brexit Britain next week, I think is stunning.
The other is a piece that I saw at The Old Vic in London; Camp Siegfried. It’s a story about two young people who fall in love in the most extraordinary, bizarre, but actually true circumstances of living, breathing Nazi-ism and fascism in 1930s, upstate New York.
Which, chronologically, is only around the corner. It’s not that too long ago. And for me, it was again, another sort of pause to think we are living in such an inconstant, inconsistent power and grab world. Exactly the kind of world where these power structures were playing out. Exactly the kind of world when Rose and Lucy created LIFT. We’re living in that turbulent world of power paradigm shifts, where we need to be aware of our past and the lessons it has for us in order to understand where we are now and our future. And theatre, coming back to your original point, Kris, theatre for me is a political act.
Theatre makes you stop and think. I don’t always want to go to the theatre to be entertained. I want to go to the theatre to be provoked and disrupted and prodded intellectually. That’s where LIFT brings value that I can’t imagine changing.
Kris: Thank you. So, from that, Bernard…
How do you see LIFT’s role in shaping the future of arts and culture in London?
Bernard: I think the Mayor of London, who is an internationalist at heart, is going to be absolutely wanting to stress our international connections with the rest of the world and particularly the EU. So that’s all propitious and useful and timely and fortuitous. I think LIFT’s role is providing a stage to present other voices. I mean, some of the things that I’ve gone to at LIFT over the course of the last 15 years have been extraordinary. I’ve been held hostage in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall. I’ve had guns thrown at me by mad Japanese women at Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker at The Barbican. I’ve seen Russian pianos crash into each other and explode in a fiery mass. I’ve been in more cemeteries and car parks as a result of LIFT than is probably healthy or normal, and I don’t even drive!
I have to say, it’s not all about and provocation and the political. I’ve been to more whimsical stuff with LIFT than perhaps with any other production company. It’s also the joy of madness, frenzy and eccentricity.
Two things really. One is, that will never change. And I can’t imagine that it would. And two, I’m so relieved that in the next three weeks I’m handing over this beautiful, fragile, vulnerable, gorgeous gift of LIFT to Rosie and A, I haven’t broken it, and B she knows what to do with it.
Rosie: Oh, thank you. Thank you, Bernard. And well done for making it the vibrant and healthy institution that it is. Because some people don’t like provocative theatre. And this is where I see LIFT’s role shaping the future of arts and culture. And it’s an absolutely crucial one.
I first went to LIFT when I was really quite young and it showed me what theatre could mean. That sense of joy and possibility has never left me. So what LIFT can do, culturally, is engage a whole generation of Londoners by encouraging young people, by having the work we’re doing in Tottenham which is so remarkable and brilliant, like everything that LIFT does. That is what we can do. And that is just so precious because that changes lives. If you get the child or the young person, you get the parents and so it goes on.
Kris: Thank you both so much, it’s really wonderful to hear your reflections. Are there any questions from those of you who’ve been listening in?
Rose Fenton : That was amazing. Thank you both. It’s just filled me with joy to hear all that. The future is exciting and bright and it’s wonderful to feel that LIFT is evolving with the times as it always has.
There was one question I did want to ask, and that was.. the international, which Bernard, you talked about how important that was. And certainly, when we started, it was a time when Margret Thatcher was saying, ‘let’s put that great back into Britain’ and we had this dreadful little island mentality.
And everyone said, well, no, one’s interested in all those foreign shows with those weird languages and Bushy Theatre is the best in the world and all that. Well, that has changed, but we’ve got to hold onto it because the knee jerk reaction is to go back. That’s the default position.
I think the big challenge now is:
How do we work internationally at a time of the climate and ecological emergency?
We can’t just fly companies over at the drop of the hat to come and perform for five days. What is the new approach to working internationally at the same time as being aware of our carbon footprint? Programming responsibly. And I know LIFT has already started working on this with Concept Touring, but it would be really interesting to hear your thoughts.
Bernard: Well, on your first point, Rose, you’re absolutely right. One of the things that we’ve been forced to consider is our economic, environmental footprint. We can’t talk about the importance of environment and campaigning about climate change issues within the theatre community and, at the same time, not change our behaviours. I think the Concept Touring initiative that Stella and Kris have introduced has been a fantastically intelligent response to that, which is – through the power of Zoom and technology – enabling people to come together and to share insights, share best practice, sometimes share disasters, which are so much more interesting than the victories. And for me, that kind of digital virtual community that Kris and Stella have created has been a brilliant outcome of the last 19 months. I’ve watched a couple of the webinars and they’ve been genuinely transformational. And it’s a very LIFT thing to do, understanding the new reality, anticipating how best to respond to it and then getting in there and just doing it. I think that’s really important.
That said, digital has the power to invite, entice, excite, and innovate, but it doesn’t have the power to replace. And this is something that we’re struggling with at the Bristol Old Vic, where we are digitally publishing all our work, often live, around the world, and we want people to consume it and to love it. We also, at some point, want them to come on that as sort of secular pilgrimage to the Bristol Old Vic, and to sit in the spot and to consume that theatre directly.
So, I suppose that’s a long way of saying it’s an enormous challenge because I still think that the best theatre, the most transformative theatre, is the one that you are directly a participant in, rather than a voyeur of. And that poses enormous challenges for LIFT as a de-facto internationalist theatre provider. We need to share those voices, but we need to do it in an economically as well as environmentally sustainable way.
Rosie: Like Bernard said, I think digital can be our saviour, in many ways; clever concepts don’t necessarily involve human bodies. One can think of light projections, music, smoke, film. Which can be conceived and then delivered and executed, without the actual artists physically being there.
Also – partnerships. I’ve seen shows in Hull at the Freedom Festival, which then took place at LIFT. Hot Brown Honey from New Zealand, one such show, was amazing. I thought I’d hate it and I ended up dancing with the whole cast and just loving it and wanting to go live in New Zealand with them. So, closer ties with the many remarkable festivals across the UK. But you may well feel that that will take away from LIFT’s special sort of exclusive nature. I’m not sure it would because if you live in London, you’re not necessarily going to go to Edinburgh or Hull or Brighton. If you’re having a production company over, it makes sense to try to share the work of that company as widely as possible. Organising, perhaps a tour with schools in the area or local colleges or prisons. So that they aren’t coming over here for just five days. And realising the international also means places that are quite near, like Holland or Sweden. It doesn’t have to be from Bali. The joy of northern Europe!
Bernard Donoghue: Rosie is absolutely right. Something that we’ve been doing for a long while and we’ll continue to do more of is co-commissioning with other festivals in the UK. So, if a production company is coming over from Iran, for example, or Iraq. One of my favourite productions during the course of LIFT was to see the national theatre of Iraq – just think about that for a second – doing Romeo and Juliet, in Hammersmith, with Romeo and Juliet coming from Bagdad communities. I mean, just extraordinary. So when they do come over here, actually we share them generously, economically and intelligently with Manchester and Norwich and Brighton and all the other festivals. So we almost – theatrical production wise – compensate for the carbon cost.
I suppose the other thing to be really aware of, and not in a patronising or condescending way, but in a very realistic way – for some of these companies, coming to play in London and at LIFT will be the highlight of their professional careers. I’ve heard that from so many performers over the last 10 years. And we don’t want to deprive them of that. But at the same time, we need to do it in an environmentally sustainable way. So it’s a bit like that old trick at the circus where you try and spin all of these plates simultaneously and just hope that you get it as right as you can.
Rose: It may come to pass, we all have financial budgets, maybe also organisations will have carbon budgets. So you ask; how much carbon do we have and what choices do we make and how do we make it go as far as we can? And that idea of people staying and engaging, it has more impact rather than just the one-off visit. Thank you both. That was interesting.
Bernard: That’s a great idea. Stella, that’s a whole new budget for you!
Kris: You’ve both pointed to many of the things in play as we look at what we can do around sustainability and carbon neutral performance, beyond just avoiding aeroplanes. We could talk for hours! And we will get the chance to talk for hours soon, in real life at LIFT 2022, but we should wrap for this evening.
Thank you all for so much for joining us. Thank you, Rosie, and thank you, Bernard, for the wonderful conversation.