David Ralf, Executive Director & CEO of Theatre Deli on their recent artistic director appointments of Nathan Geering & Ryan Harston. He speaks to Mobius on how he and his team made the process as open and accessible as possible, what that involved and why this understanding is so important for all companies moving forwards.
Previously, David was Executive Director of The Bunker Theatre, and led the Artistic Director recruitment process which appointed Chris Sonnex, who later won Off West End Award Artistic Director of the Year 2020. The Bunker was The Stage’s 2020 Fringe Theatre of the Year before closing its doors for the final time due to proposed redevelopment in March 2020.
David's extensive CV includes working for Shakespeare’s Globe, The Stage, Exeunt Magazine and The Hope Theatre. He now produces theatre with his company Loose Tongue including The Trick (Bush/HighTide), Sea Fret (Old Red Lion) and Hotel Europe (Green Rooms Hotel).
This subject is covered in two parts with the second available here
In the span of a couple of very busy and exciting years, I moved from producing fringe shows to running arts organisations, and so my HR expertise has had to quickly grow from administrating auditions and contracting freelance production teams to hiring permanent staff. Twice since then, I’ve been in the humbling but deeply exciting position of leading a recruitment process for an Artistic Director.
I want to share how we have approached making these application processes as accessible as possible. Accessibility is one of the key processes by which diversity and inclusion become possible – without it, diversity can remain an abstract goal without actually impacting the way you work. Access is also a priority which has to flow through the whole process: from the way you think about a role, through the way you advertise it, invite applications, gather an interview panel and consider candidates, and then beyond the act of appointing someone, as an organisation makes space to change and grow with its new leadership or team member.
“Diversity & Relevance” is one of the Arts Council’s newly revealed Four Investment Principles that will inform all their grantmaking and investment in the coming ten years under the Let’s Create strategy. Prioritising diversity can be convincingly argued for from creative and commercial standpoints, but frankly both approaches undermine diversity’s validity as a primary value for arts organisations in its own right: its opposite is narrow perspective and stagnation.
As turnover for permanent and senior staff is likely to be the slowest area of change within an organisation, it is all the more crucial to prioritise access during these recruitment processes. Opportunities to diversify the make-up of a board, freelance team and casual staff present themselves much more often (when you commit to advertising all opportunities) than chances to do the same with a staff body on permanent contracts.
This work is complex: no matter what perspective you start from, thinking about access and recruitment requires engaging with the reality of the intersecting systems that keep the arts sector homogenous, and prevent everyone from participating in the industry on a level playing field. We’re not an industry that has large HR departments, and so this often becomes onerous work for volunteer trustees or busy staff. There will be moments during every recruitment where working through a rigorous process and doing what is easy will be in conflict, and resourcing the process with adequate lead time, expenses and shared values will be essential to make sure you are consciously challenging those stultifying systems, and not unconsciously working within them.
Imagining the role
This is perhaps the hardest conceptual shift: to interrogate what you as an organisation expect when it comes to a particular role and the kind of person that might fill it, and considering what other options there might be, and honestly considering whether they could work within your organisation. I think of this as finding the extreme edges of a role. For example, while we often think of Artistic Directors in this way, it is interesting to consider whether a particular organisation actually needs an artistic director to be a visible and public facing individual, or if this is an inherited idea from elsewhere. The answer will not be the same for each organisation.
These extreme edges are particularly interesting when it comes to limited resources. If a company has evolved to do things a certain way, it can be hard for them to conceive of a General Manager that doesn’t do bookkeeping, a Marketing Manager that doesn’t come with photoshop skills, or an Artistic Director that doesn’t actually direct theatrical productions. If there’s a chance that being flexible in these expectations could result in strong candidates with other skills and experience from a wider pool, it’s worth considering – and this is the kind of thinking that you will need to keep close as you move through the process.
When we use language in job descriptions, it is very easy to dissuade potential candidates from applying. Sometimes this is conscious in an, in my view, deeply ill-judged attempt to reduce application volume, and therefore the resources required. More often is it subconscious: when job advertisements use words associated with male stereotypes like ‘competitive’, ‘dominant’ or ‘leader’ fewer women are drawn to apply for those roles. So inviting many stakeholders to read draft job descriptions with a critical eye for these potential skews in expectation is key. Just as key is actually saying that you want to receive applications from a wide group: signalling that you don’t have an image of an ‘ideal candidate in mind, are aware of inequality and lack of diversity in the arts sector, and are actively encouraging applications from a wide range of backgrounds makes a big difference to the applications you actually receive.
Sharing the role
Advertising every role in as many places as possible is important. One of the great benefits of Arts Council England’s freely available Recruitment and Workplace Development Toolkit is its recommendations for places to advertise roles, it makes for great use of limited recruitment budgets. Using existing networks – direct reach through mailing lists and social media but also indirect via key individuals and existing organisations with a clearly articulated access focus – is also valuable. It’s important make sure that you consider and explain how applications through other sites like LinkedIn will work to potential candidates.
Coming up in part two: application methods, whittling candidates down, unconscious bias and beyond!
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