Jude Kelly, Southbank

 8 February 2011

The career of Jude Kelly has spanned over thirty years. Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Southbank, she has become one of the most respected figures in the British arts scene.

Jude Kelly is the artistic director of the Southbank (photo credit Matt Faber PA)
Jude Kelly is the artistic director of the Southbank (photo credit Matt Faber PA)

The role of Artistic Director

A quick look through her achievements and you get the sense of an incredible multi tasker: “That's the way I have always been and it's genetic probably. It's to do with the fact that I can always see lots of connections between different things, I suppose like lots of train lines. I'm excited by all of the individual journeys that these trains can go on, but I'm really interested in how they intersect and how you cross between them.”

“Theatre is a very collaborative art. You get a lot of energy from many people pursuing an ideal with you.”

In her current role as Artistic Director of the Southbank, the day may start with an early morning meeting and include, as on the day we meet, press interviews and meetings followed by a working dinner and the opening of a play.

“Work and play merge into one thing, and I suppose the passion and enthusiasm that you have for what you do, and what you believe in, makes your day and night a continuum until you go to sleep and start again.”

Starting a career in theatre

Jude Kelly began her career in 1976, when at the age of 22 she founded and became Artistic Director of Solent Peoples Theatre in Hampshire. She wanted to be a director from an early age, putting on plays for friends and family in the back garden and school hall in Liverpool where she grew up.

“That's one of the great and lucky things about young people finding out what they want to do at an early age. If that happens to you, it's a sort of blessing but it's a kind of torment as well. Because as soon as you know you want to be a director at 12, well … how can you be?”

Jude went on to study drama at University of Birmingham. "It didn't train me at all in the profession. I didn't really feel as if I had a sense of my real identity until I left university and became a director. But I had a very strong sense of wanting to make the connections between making art and the context in which art got made. When you are young, you don't recognise that there are hurdles. You just assume and get on and do it.”

Her earliest roles were very much about learning on the job. When she first started out she found very little encouragement for women to become directors. “In fact I'd go as far to say there was an active discouragement and few role models.”

So what kept her pushing forwards? “Theatre is a very collaborative art and so you're surrounded by people who are on the same journey and largely the same age as you are. It's an amazing thing to have a pioneering troupe and we really believed at that time of presenting the idea that the arts belong to everyone. You get a lot of energy from this sense that many people are pursuing an ideal with you.”

Women working in the arts

It is easier for women working in the arts than when she started?

“It appears easier and I'm heartened by that. But one of the things that I feel about rights is that they are hard-won and have to be held onto and renewed all the time.

“It's too long a conversation to consider why women have unequal rights around the entire world or why we have racism and prejudice. It's easier, but when I talk to women at any level, they admit privately that they still suffer from inequality.”

Creative mentoring and leadership

"People in the arts are fuelled by a sense of a purpose”

In terms of mentors, history was Jude’s most important guide: “I have had the most emotional support from looking at the history of artists and art makers and considering what they dealt with in order to get where they got, or to do what they did.”

Jude cites examples such as theatre director Joan Littlewood, Annie Horniman (founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and first regional Rep theatre at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester) and Ninette de Valois (founder of the Royal Ballet). “I'm not saying that I'm in their mould, but there are people who set out to say – there are new things that we could be thinking about and new ways that we could be doing things.”

Jude supports leadership within the Southbank: “mentoring on a personal level the people who work with me. Spotting, when I can, opportunities for people to take a leap they perhaps haven't thought of making. Trying to make sure that the hierarchy is there for effective decision-making but not there for a sense of pegging people at certain points in their life and keeping them there.”

Leadership skills

What skills are important for leadership? “Listening, that's important for lots of reasons. What is in the ether that you need to hear.”

“People often think that, if you've come a long way in your career, you've been fuelled by ambition for your career and I completely reject that idea. I think that people largely in the arts are fuelled by a sense of a purpose, the purpose of art and how you find appropriate platforms for that purpose to be amplified and strengthened.”

In terms of finding support as a leader, “it's not always people in the industry who would support you on that journey, because there are strange rivalries and tensions. Very often I think you get your support from an inner set of questions that you have to ask yourself all the time about what contribution you make in the tiny, tiny little moment that you're on the earth.”

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