We Can't Work in Isolation

Naomi Campbell and Emma Stenning in Conversation

Naomi Campbell: Welcome to Toronto. When did you get here from the UK?

Emma Stenning: I arrived on 15 November, right when I started as executive director at Soulpepper. How long have you been the artistic director at Luminato?

Naomi: Since September, but I started at the festival in 2011 as company manager.

Emma: And company manager... I’m aware that some theatre terms are a bit different here in Canada, but is that the same as in the UK? Like a senior stage manager?

Naomi: No. In a festival position especially, a company manager (at least in Canada) works with logistics. It’s travel and accommodation and visas, dealing with all of the different artist liaison, looking after people if something happens.

The year I did it, it came about in a funny way. Chris Lorway, Luminato’s first artistic director, and I happened to be on the same flight back from the PuSh Festival in Vancouver and he said, “We’re looking for a company manager. If you think of anybody, let me know.” And I said, “Okay. I’ll let you know.” And then I was like, “I can’t think of anybody,” and I forgot about it. A couple of weeks later, a friend of mine who worked at Luminato told me, “You know they’re looking for a company manager. You should do that.”

It hadn’t occurred to me. I had been doing a lot of different work in the theatre community with a lot of different people, but I had ended all of my previous jobs six months earlier. The people I worked with were wonderful, but I was concerned and kept thinking “Is this what I’m going to do for the rest of my life?” I had truly wanted a change, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I felt like I didn’t have the space to think about what I could do next and what I could do differently while still working, so I had extricated myself from a number of long relationships to make room for something new.

When this suggestion came through my friend, I said, “Oh, I hadn’t even thought of that. I’ll go talk to them and see what happens.” And I ended up doing it that year, a year when we had a huge show called One Thousand and One Nights with a large Middle Eastern cast—Syrian, Lebanese, Algerian, Tunisian, Moroccan. But it was the year of the Arab Spring. And managing the logistics was enormously complicated as a result. It was wild and pretty amazing.

When they asked me if I would come back as company manager the following year, I said, “Well, actually, I would rather produce,” which is what I had been doing in my career generally. That’s what happened, and I’ve been with the organization since then.

smiling woman

Naomi Campbell. Photo by Taku Kumabe

Emma: So you worked closely with the previous artistic directors?

Naomi: I didn’t work that closely with Chris, because he left not long after I started. I was here for the transition from Chris to Jörn Weisbrodt, and also when Josephine Ridge took over.

Emma: Coming into the role now, and reflecting on your close observation of those leaders, are they sitting on your shoulders? Are you picturing yourself in the context of something you’ve seen? Or are you fresh into the job and that’s all behind you? It’s interesting to have followed the changes so closely and then to follow in their footsteps.

Naomi: I carry a lot of institutional memory, but each artistic director, including me, has been very different. It’s certainly different than it would have been coming in fresh. There are no big surprises. I am very aware of how things work—the culture and how each department fits and works together. It is strange to switch gears and suddenly be in this kind of leadership position though. I’ve been part of a team that now I am leading.

I worked very closely with Josephine on the programming for 2019. There are certainly shows in it that I know are there because of me, and there are other shows that are very much because of her. Now the job, as it is every year, is to knit all of those things together and make a story of the whole. But I must say, it’s fun starting from scratch for 2020 and 2021.

Emma: Throughout your time working at Luminato, have you ever thought, “Boy, if I had my go at it, I’d do it like that”?

Naomi: A little bit.

Emma: Now you have the chance.

Naomi: But we have to find the money to do the projects, because some of them are really ambitious ideas. Toronto is a big city, and a lot of our programming is concentrated in the downtown core. I’m interested in looking at what Luminato can be outside of the core. There are some interesting venues in Toronto’s suburbs but unfortunately they can be harder to get to. Our transportation system, the TTC, isn’t quite there yet.

It is strange to switch gears and suddenly be in this kind of leadership position though. I’ve been part of a team that now I am leading.

Emma: Is it hard to get out? I’ve not been out of downtown much so far.

Naomi: It can be. The subway reaches only a small part of Toronto but they’re slowly starting to connect downtown to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), like the train that goes to the airport, which also stops in the west end. There’s going to be a venue up there in a couple of years through Artscape, which will be of interest. There’s a really great venue in Mississauga and venues north on Yonge Street. The Nuit Blanche festival did a great job of programming things in Scarborough last year. We speak about Toronto being more than just downtown and including places like that, but Luminato has been mostly downtown, and I’m downtown-centric myself, by habit.

Emma: Is Luminato’s focus Toronto or Ontario or Canada? Who are you trying to speak to?

Naomi: It’s all of those. It began as a provincial tourism initiative in response to the decline in tourists after SARS. One of the original goals was to shine a light on Toronto, to bring the world to Toronto and Toronto to the world. So it’s also a city festival, and was based in part on big city festivals like Edinburgh, Adelaide, Avignon, and Hong Kong. At the same time, we also work really closely with artists from across Canada.

Emma: I’m still trying to get my head around the city. It is a real pressure. Over the nine years that I was at Bristol Old Vic, it was really only in the last couple of years that we thought, “What could this theatre mean for this city? What’s the civic impact we want to have here? What are the issues that matter to Bristolians? What are the challenges this city faces? How can an arts organization step into, support, lead, provoke, inspire, educate?” A lot of that delay had to do with the fact that we took over an organization that was in a certain amount of trouble. It took some time to stabilize and get to a point where we really could look out into the city and go, “Now how do we help?” But also it’s about the familiarity that you need in order to do that. I’m now in a large city going, “Oh, blimey. I’m back to square one.”

Naomi: It is different. And you’re now in a country that has a relationship to your old country, which is complex and very influential.

Emma: On the surface, there are a great many things about the culture of Canada and the culture of Toronto that have really attracted me. From the UK, we look at Canada as a country where there’s a sort of profound liberalism that exists. Is that not true? I don’t know now. I’m digging…

Naomi: Well, yes, to a degree, but we still have a lot of work to do here.

Emma: Exactly. Everyone was saying to me Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world. And of course, instinctively, I think, “Oh how thrilling to come to a city where that’s the case.” But you don’t have to be here very long to realize there are some really profound challenges that come with that as well. I need to learn about Indigenous culture, I’m sort of frantically on the internet going, “Is there a class I can go to?” I need a history class or I need the right books to read.

Naomi: There are some great books to read, actually.

Emma: I’d love some advice on that because if we want to be a cultural organization that matters to this city and is involved with this city and can connect right across the city, the people leading have got to be literate in the issues that matter to the city. Having experienced the learning curve of becoming a very civically minded theatre in Bristol, I can somewhat accelerate that process now. I arrived thinking, “That’s the most important thing.”

Naomi: Yep. And that’s one of the things that’s most interesting to me about any kind of cultural organization. Especially in these times that are rather traumatic and challenging in many ways, and the disparities are very broad and the opportunities for people are very different depending on where they live. Listening to the radio this morning, they were talking about the number of people living without housing in Toronto... There are way more this winter than there were last winter. Not necessarily people without jobs. It’s not just about employment; the housing crisis in this city is just as profound.

Being aware about the importance of Truth and Reconciliation is crucial. We’ve made a commitment in our festival to present Indigenous work. And it’s so important to truly work within the organization to be more diverse in our staff. It’s not just what we present, but how we present it and the context we give it. This is a moment where we can either save the world or we don’t.

Emma: I’m with you on that.

Naomi: It’s a priority for me, that lens. It’s not where the festival began, but there’s a lot of will within the organization to support that approach. There’s a real understanding that, as cultural workers, our responsibility goes well beyond the festival, that there is urgency in what we do.

If we want to be a cultural organization that matters to this city and is involved with this city and can connect right across the city, the people leading have got to be literate in the issues that matter to the city.

Emma: I definitely feel, for the first time in my career, there is suddenly a profound responsibility for leadership and a cultural agenda, whether it’s to do with the environment or to do with diversity, or other issues. Traditional forms of leadership seem to be failing us everywhere we look. And artists are stepping forward. My work is to try to empower that, to give a platform to the artists and to give space for their voices to be heard. It feels like a really critical mission.

I’m hoping that Soulpepper can be part of a citywide conversation. I’m not someone who looks back at all—I really only care about the future of Soulpepper. But I get a sense that the external impression might be of a company that was a little bit closed off before. And my ambition is to get out and collaborate and work together and be a creative community for the city. Because I think, like you, we’ve got to save the world.

woman smiling

Emma Stenning. Photo by Daniel Malavasi/Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Naomi: Soulpepper has done amazing things for the theatre community over the last twenty years, since it was founded—providing a year-round employer for a lot of actors, building a facility, building resources. But it has always felt like its own thing. And that’s partly because of the neighborhood where it is located, but, when you think about the physical place, its theatre looks in on its own central lobby. It has a space and it has a culture and because there was so much work going on there, it functioned on its own in a way.

I’m really excited about the idea of seeing it now as a collaborator. There are so many wonderful artists who have worked there over the years, people who are really committed to the place. The possibilities of stretching and linking together are really exciting and I think can benefit both the company and the rest of the community and the audiences. There are really great synergies to be made between what you do and what we do and what, for example, Canadian Stage does.

There are circles of connections, where our connections are your connections. We share many mutual friends that we don’t even know about at the moment. And those relationships also reinforce each other. We can’t work in isolation, and I’m not interested in that.

Emma: I think back in 2009 when Tom Morris and I joined Bristol as a partnership; we had a joint application as artistic and executive directors. The company was in quite a bad place at that point. It was threatened with closure. The building was crumbling, in dire need of redevelopment. There was barely any money in the bank. What was once quite a proud, known international brand had really diminished. There had been no international profile for the company for a long time. So really we had a very simple mission, which was to try to fix the building, fix the business, and fix the reputation. And that was it. In the beginning, we thought, “Oh, that might take us three or four years.” In the end, it was nine and a half years.

I wanted to get to a place whereby I thought the organization would have a certain amount of financial stability. I wanted to feel as though I’d lifted us to a certain place of resilience. And I wanted to get the building finished. So over that ten years, we raised and spent twenty-six million pounds on rebuilding the Bristol Old Vic.

Naomi: You got to finish, though. That’s fantastic.

Emma: I wouldn’t have left before it was finished. It was very clear that that was my mission. And even though I miss it, and I do, I thought, “Now is either time to leave, or I’ve got to stay for another five years.” There’s a choice to be made there. So it felt very right for me to go, and this opportunity came calling.

Naomi: You said you and Tom had applied together as a team to do the same jobs that you and Weyni Mengesha, Soulpepper’s new artistic director, are doing, but you’ve been blind-dated.

Emma: That’s exactly the phrase.

Naomi: How is that? How does that challenge your ideas around leadership?

Emma: In all honesty, it’s been nerve-wracking. But it’s a story where there’s a blissfully happy ending because Weyni is extraordinary.

Naomi: She is fabulous.

We share many mutual friends that we don’t even know about at the moment. And those relationships also reinforce each other. We can’t work in isolation.

Emma: In my first week, we spent a few days together and had meals together, and by the end of it we were firm friends. I’m very confident and excited now. But you’re absolutely right. Tom and I had worked together for almost twenty years—we used to lead the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) together in those roles in London.

We met when I first graduated from university and I took a show to BAC. How we worked together has evolved over those twenty years. But at its core, it’s a great friendship with huge respect. And it worked. So, for me, the biggest question about moving on from that and particularly coming overseas was, “Who on earth will be the artistic director?”

Naomi: It’s a marriage.

Emma: It is a marriage, yeah. You’re ultimately saying, “I’m going to commit to delivering this person’s vision, or this organization’s vision.” You’ve got to have faith in it. And you work so closely together that you’ve got to know it’s going to work. I said, “I’m just going to choose for this to be an adventure. The bit that I’m going to put in a box is the scary bit. There’s going to be this new partnership that I’m going to take on myself as a challenge. It’s something that will be really exciting.” And ultimately, in meeting Soulpepper’s board in the summer, that gave me the comfort that I was looking for. They’re an absolutely brilliant group of people and they care about the company a great deal. They’ve been through a challenging year, during which they doubly committed themselves to the company. They thought long and hard about the kind of leadership they needed.

In the summer, when I first met with some of the trustees, I said to myself, about not knowing who the new artistic director was, “This is going to be an arranged marriage, and I’m just going to trust it will work out.” The board, very kindly and very helpfully, invited me to sit in on the first round of interviews, and they really welcomed my feedback. It was absolutely the board’s decision, but it was incredibly reassuring to be able to say, “Here’s my response to what these people have said.” And then the board pursued the second round of interviews. I was really, really thrilled when they came back and said they had appointed Weyni. I had never worked with a woman before in that role.

Naomi: I’m very excited that she’ll be here. We’ve talked about getting together.

Emma: In terms of you and Anthony Sargent, Luminato’s CEO—was he already here when you started?

Naomi: I was here in a different role before he arrived. When he got here, I said, “Here are the local companies that you should go see,” as a sort of intro to Toronto theatre and dance. He was very diligent about seeing stuff, as he still is.

Emma: Yes. We’ve made plans to go see things together.

Naomi: I wasn’t called the acting artistic director at the time, but there was a gap of quite a few months between Jörn and Josephine where I was sort of in that role, by default. I couldn’t green light stuff, but I did collect stuff. By the time Josephine arrived, I had a list of more than 160 projects to share with her, and all of these different artists who would be of interest.

We’ve also had a lot of staff turnover here in the last three or four years. There are only three of us who have been here way longer than everyone else, and that includes me, who wasn’t here for the early years.

Emma: Those transitions are actually quite tricky, aren’t they? We’ve got a program through the whole of the next year, the second half of which will be announced in February. But it’s already in place and set up. So the first program that Weyni will present is Alan Dilworth’s, who has been the acting artistic director for the last year. Alan’s program will be up until December. It’s a fantastic one. But what Weyni will actually program and what I will support her on won’t start until Christmas.

Naomi: The first festival that I’m not inheriting is in 2020. Although, as I said, I’ve had a lot to do with this one.

Emma: It’s a strange situation, where you’re inhabiting a leadership role but you’re actually overseeing someone else’s decision-making in a sense.

Naomi: It’s interesting too, in transitional times, the nostalgia and the habits that we have to come up against. I am confronted by my own habits that lay within the structure of the organization as it was originally designed. There are so many things about the festival that are different than when it started: financial, organizational, the context. And the mission is evolving, and the board leadership has changed. All of those things mean that we can make a shift and yet still be true to the original intentions.

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Thoughts from the curator

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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