Q: What did Advance set out to change about the way the sector is thinking about or dealing with issues surrounding the under-representation of women?

LK: Advance, as a piece of work, is very focused on supporting organisations to identify and understand the root causes of inequalities.  I think there can be a tendency in the arts to treat the symptoms of a lack of equality or diversity, rather than the cause.  Most people – not all – but most I encounter in the arts, if I were to say to them, ‘If I could give you a magic wand which you could use to instantly create proper equality and fairness across your organisation and all others, would you like that?’ they’d go ‘Yes please! Of course!’ and mean it.  But it’s the gap between what we want to be in the arts and what we actually are that is the thing  Advance, and a lot of the work that Tonic does, is interested in eliminating. We want to  help organisations move from where they are to where they want to be but, in order to do that, we all need to properly understand what it is that’s not working at the moment, essentially to say: why is it, that despite our goodwill and desire to achieve equality across our artistic programme and staff, it’s not happening?’

VL: Which is why we go away and do a lot of research around the questions organisations have and feedback in a layered way.  And we try and hold them in the problem for at least half the process, so they’re not jumping to conclusions about how to fix something.

LK: Yes, many people working in the arts are really good, swift problem solvers; they can make decisions really quickly, they can identify a problem, and then they can very promptly do something about it.  But actually this work is about encouraging them to turn that part of their brains off. Because otherwise they may end up committing time, energy, and money to a solution which actually isn’t the right one.  Advance is about slowing things down: taking a few months to dig into their questions and really understand the intricacies of the problem and trying to untangle some of the knots.

A lot of the research we do during Advance involves us speaking to people who are affected by the issues that the organisations are looking into. This is important because otherwise you can have a group of people who aren’t actually experiencing  the problem jumping to conclusions about what the solution needs to be. It’s very interesting that Northern Stage, for instance, who wanted to understand how they could better support small, female-led companies in their region, kept saying to us ‘We have assumptions about what these women need from us, but we really want to use Advance to test whether these assumptions are correct.’   So part of the process for them was about hearing from people who were not in the situation that the Northern Stage staff are; people who are not on salary, not in a core-funded organisation, who don’t have a building to turn up to everyday, don’t work as part of a large team, don’t have access to resource or training.  Also, the reason that Vicky and I are here to have those conversations is so people can talk quite candidly about how they’re experiencing their careers.  If, for instance, you’re a freelancer you may not be able to say to an Artistic Director , ‘Well, actually, this is what I find really problematic about how your organisation interacts with me’ because you’re hugely reliant on them, but you can say that to a third party who will feed that back anonymously.

VL: And organisations, of course, are able to describe quickly what it is that they are experiencing. They may, for example, say that they are experiencing some lack of confidence in the girls or women they engage with. But through working with us, they know we will be able to really dig into what is behind that.  The New Wolsey Theatre shared something with me as we were working together: we spent some time looking at the work they have done and continue to do around disability – working with deaf and disabled artists.  I remember Lorna Owen, the New Wolsey’s Administration and Human Resources Manager, spoke to me about the Medical vs the Social Model.  So, in working with the disabled artists, the New Wolsey’s approach would not be ‘There’s something wrong with you that needs fixing’, but rather ‘There’s something wrong with us.  How can we put it right?’.  And with organisations we were asking ‘What might you change, given the new or greater understanding delivered through the research?’ That question, really, is what led us into the second part of the process, where organisations began to think about what action to take.

LK: I think also, going back to what Advance could change about the way the sector is thinking about the subject of gender equality, I think seeing it as something that could be changed, could be improved was key.  There’s been a lot of talk for a very long time, and I think people were really craving demonstrable action.

VL: Yes, also we were keen to create a sense of excitement about the work.  Rather than thinking about under-representation, we were asking ‘What if there was greater representation?  What would that look like? What if we were to have more and varied voices involved in making and presenting work, what could that do for art forms?  What could audiences be experiencing that they aren’t currently? And that took us into the imaginative realm, which is really where arts organisations love to be.

LK:  Another thing that we did was encourage the organisations to really pay attention to, not just how many women they work with, but in what areas of their organisations and in which roles. Because, broadly speaking, women are well-represented in the performing arts workforce there can be a perception that ‘We’re fine.  We’ve got loads of women.  Just look around our offices: they’re everywhere.’ But actually once some of the organisations began to ask themselves questions like: ‘But how many are on our Artistic Staff? How many are in particularly visible roles?’ the answer was ‘OK, not many’ Or ‘How many are making work resourced at a higher level or on our biggest stages?’. ‘Oh ok.  Not many’.  So to do a bit of self-monitoring felt like quite an important thing to encourage the organisations to do as well.

Q. You worked with nine dance, opera, and theatre companies in the 2016 cohort of Advance. Why do you think the organisations were interested in taking part?

LK: I think they were really interested in it as a process. Arts organisations are generally run by people who are inquisitive, who want to constantly develop their own thinking, and to challenge themselves, and their organisation to be forward-looking. I think that the offer of spending a six-month period looking in quite a focused and intensive way at the topic of gender equality was attractive to a lot of the people that took part because it would enable them to do just that.

VL: And individually, all, I think, had various pieces of work they felt needed to be done in relation to gender equality and saw taking part in Advance as an opportunity to get on with that work.

For example, Sadler’s Wells knew that there were challenges around the male to female ratio in choreography of contemporary dance. They had held a round table just six months or so before joining Advance to gather views from women on their experiences in the industry. They saw Advance as a timely vehicle, which would provide external expertise and additional capacity, allowing them to push on and take some action.

LK: I think also a feeling of responsibility played a role. All nine companies we worked with are National Portfolio Organisations. (i.e. core funded by Arts Council England) and so are in receipt of public funds and with this comes a responsibility to not only make great work within your own company, but to enrich the wider art form. This project was about them having the opportunity to connect up with other NPOs from across the country and in different art forms, and think collectively, ‘What’s the potential our organisations have as part of the National Portfolio and what’s the responsibility we have to drive progress forward?’

VL:  All of the organisations we have been working with have wanted to effect change and have realised that gesture is not enough, but had not quite had the opportunity to push forward and felt with Advance they could.

Q:  What did you need to be mindful of with working with the organisations during the Advance process?

LK:  We had to be incredibly efficient with people’s time in order to get the best out of them. All these organisations have a range of priorities to look after.  Of course gender equality is very important to them, but so are a range of other things, and these organisations only have so many staff and so many hours in the day. Performing arts companies operate on incredibly full yet strict schedules with constantly high workloads and timeframes that are often tight yet absolute: if you say you’re going to open a show on a certain night you’ve got to deliver on that. So we need to be very mindful of all the plates they’re spinning and exert just the right level of pressure so that the work gets done, but without them going into meltdown or feeling what we’re demanding of them is unachievable.

An important part of this is about not overwhelming people.  That’s why we ask each organisation to select just one question they want to pursue during their time on the programme.  It’s about us saying ‘Ok, we have six months with you.  Realistically we can look at one area in detail with you in that time.  And we’d rather look at one area really well, and then hopefully leave you, six months down the line, with some tools you can use in other areas, rather than try to do everything at once sketchily’.  That said, in other parts of the programme, like the Away Days, we do look more broadly at bigger, thematic questions and issues.  But giving people a kind of scale of investigation for six months that feels achievable is important.

VL:  And it’s also been about clearly positioning the work as central to the organisation’s vision and mission, something that isn’t additional, but which should form part of the organisation’s DNA.  This makes it easier for an organisation as a whole to adopt the project because it sees the work as part of the day-to-day running and development of the organisation.

LK:  Yes, so one of the first things Vicky and I do is run an initial session with the staff from each organisation, and as part of that we ask them to tell us what their vision is for the next few years as an organisation:  where do they feel they’re heading?  What changes do they see themselves making? Where do they want to be in a few years’ time? And then our job is to figure out how this work we’re doing with them on Advance fits in with that, supports it, and is sympathetic to it.  Because this work has to be going in the general direction of travel that an organisation is heading in. It can’t be that they are trying to head in one direction but this work is pulling them in another because that could lead to the people we’re ultimately relying on to deliver this change feeling ‘Where should my focus lie?’ And if this work feels like it’s supporting an organisation to achieve what it wants to achieve anyway, it’s just going to be far more successful.

VL:  Something else we had to be sensitive to was the different sizes of the organisations we were working with.  Some of the organisations are large and complex. The Royal Opera House and National Theatre have hundreds of people working with them. The work of getting people across the organisation on board takes time, diaries need to be co-ordinated, people need to sign up, stuff needs to be signed off. So we worked at different paces with the different organisations and as they moved into creating action plans various time-scales have come into play too. Some organisations will be able to implement proposed changes quickly, others may take longer because there are more internal hoops to jump through.

Q: Advance is a programme that’s designed to create change. Do you think change can feel scary or uncertain for performing arts organisations?

LK: I think change can feel scary or uncertain for anyone! But particularly in the instance of a performing arts organisation, yes, weirdly the more secure it is in itself the more challenging change can seem; if it feels it’s on track, that it’s doing its thing and doing it well,  it’s doing well in the Arts Council’s eyes,  it’s doing well in terms of attracting audiences. It’s financially keeping afloat, it’s programming a really interesting, high quality range of work.  The temptation can be to ask: why would we change that?

VL: Change is scary if an organisation takes it seriously.  Organisations have looked at and talked though the research we’ve shared – to act on what they’ve heard, discussed and understood in a comprehensive way, to follow their understanding through to the nth degree equals fundamental change and I think that can be a difficult thing for an organisation. And so the way to deal with that is to take account of the big picture, but to look simultaneously at what steps can be taken, gradually, one after the other to move towards it.  And also to address change as a sector, so that one organisation doesn’t feel it needs to carry the full weight of the change people expect to see.

LK: Sometimes you do this work with an organisation and when it dawns on them that the change they need to make is within themselves, and how they work, how they think, how they approach things, that’s when it can feel scary, and when sometimes you run the risk of people rejecting it.  What this work often exposes is that the issue or the challenges or the barriers to women lie not within the women themselves, but in the way these organisations are set up.  And that’s not through any kind of fault from anyone currently within the organisations, that’s the way things were set up in the dance, opera and theatre worlds decades ago. But in some ways it’s easier and more comforting to assume the problem exists ‘over there’ with the women: to believe they’re not confident enough, or committed enough, don’t care enough, or aren’t good enough.  What’s harder to process, and can often feel more troubling for an organisation, is the realisation that, ‘Oh, ok, if this situation is going to change then we need to change.’

Also with work in equality and representation, people can worry that they’re going to get it ‘wrong’, and that can make engaging in change-making work feel scary.  People can worry – because they’re often heading into uncharted territory – that they’re going to propose a solution that will get some people’s backs up, or has an unforeseen consequence which is negative.  Particularly in the age of social media where an action or gesture can be made very, very public very, very quickly and can be criticised in a very, very visible way.  I think that fear of getting it wrong can paralyse organisations and individuals to the point where they do nothing, rather than doing something  and running the risk of failure.  I think that’s a great shame when that fear of instigating change, because it may be received negatively, can prevent change from happening.

VL: I think that entering an environment, with other organisations, blundering, making mistakes, saying something, trying out an alternative, helps organisations on their way.  It helps them to move into taking risk.

LK: Additionally, as we discussed earlier, arts organisations are often working very quickly and making decisions swiftly, because they often have a workload that exceeds the resources that they have to do that work on.  Constantly doing everything at a high pace can mean that change can feel difficult because decisions often get made out of expediency i.e. ‘what’s the quickest and least problematic route to getting something done?’, rather than ‘what’s the best possible route?’ So people fall back on what they know.  They may feel: ‘We always put a creative team together like that. We know how to do that, and we can do it quite swiftly.’ But when you begin to inject change, when you begin to say ‘But, actually if you want to change the make-up of your creative teams, you might  need to invest more time and energy into the amount of artists that the Artistic Director is meeting with.  Or you might  need to create a greater amount of budget to travel further afield to see work of more different types of artists based in different parts of the country, or in venues you might  not normally go to.’ All of that has an implication on resources.  That sense of ‘how we have been doing things works well enough’ (i.e. we always put a creative team together on time, even if they are all white and all male) can get in the way of change, because if things are sort of motoring along fine, saying they need to be done better (i.e. we always put creative teams together on time AND they fairly reflect the make-up of 21st Century Britain), that can have consequences that may reach widely across the functionality of that organisation.

So I suppose that the priority of some things that these organisations have been working on, and speaking about, is how do you take everybody with you within an organisation?  How do you let people know that change is coming, and it will require effort to make successful.  But the goals and the possible rewards of implementing that change are so great, that it’s worth going through that work, and it’s worth making those risks.

VL: And if we think about the fact that all of these organisations are driven by wanting to present better, more interesting, more exciting art, then the idea of continuous improvement is current in all of their thinking.  We have been thinking as a group about what that principle of continuous improvement means when we think about the organisation itself, and the way it connects to a subject such as equality and representation.

Q: What was the most inspiring part of working on the project for each of you?

LK:  I think it’s when I see the action plans that the organisations have put together. I’ve just, this afternoon, been reading the action plan that Mahogany Opera Group put together.  And it’s great the way they’ve boiled down these very big areas of thinking that they were doing, into some quite concrete things. It’s very well thought through.  It’s very considered. It’s all incredibly achievable. Also when I speak to someone who was in the 2014 Advance cohort, and they’ll talk about a change that’s happened in their organisation or about a piece of work that was presented on their stages that maybe wouldn’t have previously been considered. That feels quite inspiring because you think ‘This methodology can  actually yield results.  It’s not going to fix it all.  But it is making tangible change’.

VL:  Yes, I agree.  I think it’s really exciting to see the action plans.  Some of them are quite complex. Organisations are committing to a lot, in the short, mid and long term, across different strands of work, across different departments, even companies in the case of the Royal Opera House. The first cohort  produced some bold actions, and in the second cohort we have bold actions, but we also have broader action plans that are in many cases tied to organisational plans which move organisations towards 2020 and beyond.  It’s inspiring to think that the work is ‘locked in’ in this way, that it is going to deliver in the long-term.

And I should say that the way that organisations have committed to this project has been inspiring. The way they have invited us in, opened the doors, given us access to people and information at every level has been brilliant – their willingness to make themselves open and vulnerable.

LK:  I think it’s also felt inspiring when you can see people joining up the dots between this work and other work they want to do in their organisations in regards to other areas of equality, representation, and diversity.  You can sometimes see a penny drop as someone kind of goes, ‘This problem that we’ve been concerned about, but we haven’t known how to address it: now we can see a way in.’

Advance 2016 was co-led by the Director of Tonic, Lucy Kerbel and Vicky Long, a freelance consultant and producer. Research they conducted with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s Post Doctoral Researcher Dr. Lisa Woynarski was central to the Advance 2016 process. Read about their personal connection to the subject of change, and more about Tonic’s role in Advance on the links below.

+ Tonic’s Lucy Kerbel and Vicky Long on the subject of change
+ Tonic’s role in Advance 2016