Meeting the challenge

Nick Starr: changing the model

by Kim Evans

Nick Starr is Executive Director of the National Theatre.  Nick was instrumental in building a network of arts organisations to deliver Step Change, part of the CLP’s Meeting the Challenge, which aimed to embed leadership development across the sector through a partnership approach. Step Change has offered much needed leadership development for a diverse range of participants to take stock, and plan the next stage of their career.
It started off as a five-year programme but Step Change has had significant impact, and currently recruiting on their fourth cohort, Nick now feels that it should be run in perpetuity.

Nick Starr is Executive Director of the National Theatre. He is firmly committed to helping people find opportunities to develop their talent and is convinced that there needs to be a structured approach to career development in the performing arts. In 2006, he was instrumental in building a network of performing arts organisations to deliver a development programme - Step Change - for talented individuals in the early and mid stages of their careers. 
The first year of Step Change was supported by the Cultural Leadership Programme.  It is now run by the National Theatre, which co-funds it with the Royal Opera House, in partnership with Young Vic, Battersea Arts Centre and Nitro.  ‘We started with a five year plan,’ says Nick, ‘but this is about changing the culture and I’m convinced the programme needs to be ongoing.  We’ve just recruited the fourth cohort of participants and already we can see the impact - not only on the individuals who have taken part but also on the host organisations.’
Nick Starr saw that there were not enough routes for good people in the performing arts to develop their careers and he wanted to do something about it.  David Lan, director of the Young Vic and David Jubb at Battersea Arts Centre shared his concerns.  The three of them, together with Nicola Thorold and Graham Devlin, began to develop ideas for a scheme that would get industry professionals to work together to provide emerging leaders in the performing arts with structured development opportunities.  The ambition was to have a long-term impact on the composition of the senior management and artistic teams in the performing arts.

They saw the benefits working both ways.  Artistic organisations have to engage with emergent talent and ideas if they are to stay at the top of their game; and young people need opportunities to progress at the early and mid-stages of their careers if they are not to stagnate and become disillusioned with the industry.  There is also the danger that those working in smaller organisations are forced to remain generalists and don’t get access to the specialised training that is built into the national companies.  Those who do find progressions opportunities, often do so by being in the right place at the right time or knowing the right people.  Freelancers are particularly disadvantaged. Such a haphazard approach to career development is not effective for the individual or the industry.

Underpinning the scheme was a shared commitment to diversity.  Nick, David Lan and David Jubb were convinced that the performing arts were tending to overlook people from backgrounds that had not provided them with the confidence or networks to present and negotiate their career development; and similarly people in the early stages of their careers weren’t getting experience in organisations of different scales and disciplines. 

The initial proposals were developed into the Step Change programme. Deborah Bull at the Royal Opera House and Felix Cross at Nitro were instrumental in bringing their organisations on board to join the National Theatre, Young Vic and Battersea Arts Centre in delivering the scheme and there was also input from Dawn Walton, artistic director of Eclipse Theatre.  In 2007 the consortium approached the Cultural Leadership Programme for support and this enabled them to run the programme for a year. 

The aim was to give participants from a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and cultures the opportunity to be taught by and work alongside senior figures in the performing arts. It would give those taking part the opportunity to take stock and plan the next stage of their career.  We wanted the emphasis to be on personal as well as professional development, some of the learning would be in groups and there would also be a bespoke element.

Nick and his partners were adamant that the Step Change programme had to be run by the profession itself.  The partners overcame their concern that they might lose some talented people and focused instead on the shared benefits for the profession.  Nick describes the immediate benefit as ‘an expanded address book’ and new people coming through the doors of the National Theatre and the other host organisations.

The Step Change Administrators have played an important role in developing and maintaining the programme and expanding the range of placements.  They have been recruited from the participants in the programme. Gemma Baxter, the current administrator, was a participant in the 2008/09 cohort. At that time she was an Education Officer at the Royal Opera House and desperate for more responsibility.  She knew, however, that it would be a while before that became available.  She applied to the programme with the support of her department’s director and began a gradual transition into the next stage of her career.  Her mentor, Abigail Pogson at the Spitalfields Festival, asked her searching questions about her future. She and her fellow participants then took part in a series of master classes looking at everything from fundraising to producing.  She chose to do her secondment at ATC a small touring company, vastly different in scale to the Royal Opera House but able to provide her with the kind of hands on experience she was unlikely to get in her home organisation. 

Some of the programme participants have literally made a step change in their careers, moving to new permanent jobs.  David Roots, then in the Young Vic’s marketing department, spent his placement with Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, working as assistant producer on two outdoor touring shows.  When he returned to Young Vic, he was able to use his experience working on two of their productions.  He has now moved on to become General Manager at Fevered Sleep.

 Katie Town was a participant in the inaugural Step Change programme.  At the time she applied she was working in the Royal Opera House’s Business Affairs team in the Licensing Department.  The programme offered her the opportunity to work at the Young Vic on a part-time basis.  She worked closely on a report analysing the implications of international co-productions and also assisted the General Manager.  When Katie left the programme she accepted the role of General Manager at Candoco Dance Company.  Then in 2009 she joined the National Theatre’s Discover Programme as General Manager. 

The success and speed with which the Step Change programme has taken off, surprises even Nick Starr.  Although the partner organisations will always put forward their own candidates, the programme is open to everyone, including freelance practitioners. By the third year, Step Change had 180 applicants for 15 places. 

He thinks the Cultural Leadership Programme got a good return on its investment.  The Step Change team was able to carry over part of the grant to help support the second year of the programme and it continues now thanks to ongoing investment from the National Theatre and Royal Opera House.   The support from the very top of all the partner organisations has been vital to the programme’s success and its sustainability.

Step Change started off as a five-year programme but Nick Starr thinks it should be run in perpetuity.  ‘This kind of initiative just won’t happen through informal networking,’ he says.  ‘It requires a dedicated administrator and careful development of partners and hosts.  It’s vital for the health and creativity of the profession and its played an important role in the National Theatre’s leadership journey.

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