I’m cooking up a project called Birdhouse. It’s not a show, it’s a practical thing, a support framework. It connects the thinking about the small un-noticed stuff we found about women in Permission Improbable – with the idea of leadership in the arts for the independent theatre makers. And it’s inspired by my journey recently – kickstarted by Liz Margree – the coach who heard my story and helped me change.
With Improbable and a bit of dosh from the Arts Council I set about exploring what the Birdhouse might be. We held a day in November at Camden People’s Theatre called ‘The Independents – how do we support women making new theatre?’. We invited independent female theatre makers, those mavericks on the outskirts, those ones pushing boundaries and not supported by working in big institutions to have a conversation – is your creative freedom enough to sustain you? And we did this in open space. This is thing that Phelim McDermot of Improbable has introduced to the theatre community under the banner ‘Devoted and Disgruntled’ and it’s really great. Open space really briefly is a way of holding a democratic conversation where people take responsibility for airing the stuff on their mind – anyone who shows up basically is invited to hold a session if they want to on a topic. The format is such that you can’t leave saying ‘they didn’t talk about my issue…’
This is what I noticed at the end of the day at that meeting. I was holding a session about what Birdhouse could be and it was very crowded. People new to open space were just beginning to realize, yes it’s true, everyone can be heard here and those that had been reticent at first began to speak up. And actually it was now deafening.
So to sort of bring some shape to the conversation and partly to steer away from it becoming a moaning shop I said – ok what can people bring to Birdhouse – what skill can you trade for the opportunity to do some work on your self, your leadership and your work? And I wrote them down
‘ I know about personal finance and fundraising’
‘I’m a voice coach’
‘Advertising, PR and social media’
‘I know about how to create safe collaborative environments’
‘ I teach laughter yoga’
‘I’m an independent producer and I enjoy getting things started’
‘I bake great cakes, and I’m a development manager’
All those talents in the room. Stepping forward in faith. I can do something about this. Here’s a thing nobody knows about me.
I remember that volume raising and feeling excited by these talented women speaking up and taking up the space. I remember this distinctly because of the profound headache I had afterwards which I addressed with a large white wine.
So since then Birdhouse has begun. We’ve done work on communication, listening, having difficult conversations, action learning, coaching and setting goals – all stuff that would be on the cpd training itinery of someone working in a funded institution – and entirely inaccessible to independent theatre makers. It’s not got a specific feminist agenda – but that stuff comes up about permission and taking up space – and when it does we notice it. And it’s kind of nice to be doing this work without the guys – someone described it as a sisterhood. There will be sub-tribes within it – Matilda Leyser is setting up a group within Birdhouse that aims to support theatre makers who have children or can’t have or don’t want to have. At the heart of the Birdhouse though, and the thing that might make it sustainable, is that everyone’s encouraged to teach something they’re expert at for 20 minutes. We’ve had sessions on writing, funding and on entrepreneurship. One very established and brilliant writer taught us to juggle tangerines. I love it when the women running the session get lots of questions and then they realize they have a skill that is so needed by the others. I also love it when people see that they can create change and that the place that starts is within themselves. Has to be.
Feedback from participants
‘I have noticed how my work, even to myself, has grown almost invisible, even more so since becoming a mother. In fact I have achieved a great deal in these last five years and I already notice how Birdhouse provides me with an opportunity to see this, to pull myself and my work back into visibility. Birdhouse provides a much-needed safe space in which I can begin to open up these difficult issues and dream up the best way to offer support and initiate change.’
‘Birdhouse felt like a place where you can really be open. Making any kind of creative work under budgetary constraints is a big challenge, but one i want to negotiate with as much openness as i can muster- it felt like, just attending the session last week, that it would be invaluable in helping us build skills to become better leaders.’
‘Conversations started within Birdhouse have the potential to have far reaching influence. Birdhouse offers an inspirational and practical forum and acts as a catalyst for important and relevant conversations.’
‘The space to connect with other female practitioners with a variety and wealth of experience, in a format that isn’t so formalised (such as a panel, Q&A etc) makes it extremely accessible for younger people like me who would often feel alienated from forums in that format.’
‘I feel that having a supportive and skill-sharing space for women is a brilliant initiative, it will encourage/enable more women into leadership roles with in the theatre community as well as making us better theatre makers. I’m delighted that Alex is making it happen.’
‘One exercise unexpectedly brought me to tears in the OvalHouse car park with the shocking force of confronting my ambition. I can’t wait to see what is next for Birdhouse. Thank you for supporting this vital new programme.’