Debbi Christophers is working as a sustainability associate at the Arcola Theatre:
I’ve got what you might call an 'eclectic’ CV. Over the last ten years I’ve gone from journalism in Madrid via consultancy in the public sector and a global law firm to running a climate change programme, so applying for a Cultural Leadership Programme (CLP) ‘Peach’ placement may not necessarily have seemed like the automatic next step. After studying drama at university I worked in arts marketing and development, and recently had been harbouring a desire to return to my roots, so the Sustainability Associate placement presented the perfect opportunity.
‘Peach’ placements, are hosted by different cultural organisations for between six and twelve months. Mine lasts for six and I’m based at the Arcola Theatre, a driving force behind sustainability in the arts with the aspiration to become the world’s first truly carbon neutral theatre.
My key focus is working on a project exploring what sustainability means for the theatre, beyond the environmental, and what that implies in terms of ways of working, values, operations and business models for the sector. In addition to learning from the way things are done at Arcola, I’ve had the opportunity to go out and talk to some fascinating people, who are all driving the sustainability agenda forward and these conversations will inform the final output.
I feel very lucky that because of the scale of the operation and the general can-do ethos at Arcola, I’ve been able to get involved in a number of projects across the organisation, which might not have been possible elsewhere. For instance, I was able to facilitate a session with the staff team mapping the end-to-end process of putting on a production, to help people understand how they currently interact and to look for any possible efficiencies.
One of the best things about my CLP ‘Peach’ placement is the other people in my cohort. I had initially worried that a) my mixed career background and b) my age (38), might make me feel a bit uncomfortable in the group, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We have formed a real bond and learn a lot from each other, as well as acting as an informal support network.
Post-placement I am confident that this experience will enable me to forge a career in the arts and sustainability, whatever form that might take. In terms of my personal leadership style I’ve learnt that I prefer to lead through enabling and supporting others, so as part of my training and development, I’m taking a course to become an accredited coach. So who knows what’s next on the CV, but I’ve no doubt it will be interesting.
After graduating, my first job was at the Mean Fiddler Music Group, an admin position that gave me the classic 'foot in the door' of a tough to crack industry. By the time I left to takeover as the Live Music Programmer of the Spitz in east London two and a half years later, I’d moved into promotion as an assistant and was promoter of the unsigned band nights at The Garage venue.
The Spitz was an incredible place to work, insane and brilliant in equal measures. A much smaller company, charity owned, with a strong artistic reputation, it sat outside of the wider ‘industry’ as an independent. When the venue eventually closed down, the next move wasn’t obvious. I took some time out to reassess, travelled the US and when I returned, founded the London Word Festival with two former colleagues. The second festival took place in March this year.
My Cultural Leadership Programme ‘Peach’ Placement came at just the right time. I’d worked on various other arts and music projects whilst getting the festival off the ground but I was struggling to channel my experience cohesively in order to move my career forward. I’d developed a more creative style of programming and was experimenting with other arts forms. A placement, such as Programming Associate with the Barbican Centre, seemed perfect – all the arts under one roof.
The music department is unique in both its breath and the ‘creative producing’ of many of the gigs. For me, the placement is a near perfect balance of learning from the rich knowledge and experience of the Barbican programmers, and being given the opportunity to bring some of my own experience to the table. You negotiate your role with the host organisation to a certain extent. As a mid-career placement, the aim is to deliver a project, and in my case this has two main strands. I’ve taken on two Barbican produced shows under the guidance of the contemporary programmer, as well as leading on the programming of free performances pre and post the main hall shows. But I’ve also been given the freedom to put together a proposal for a new, smaller scale series of events.
I’ve just hit that point where I understand how the organisation works and I’m taking the lead on various projects. I’m hitting my stride and it’s starting to get exciting. The opportunity itself is so unique, I’m very aware that I need to make every day count to get the most from the experience. It’s a wonderful privilege to have the space to evaluate your work to date and figure out how to take things forward. But you have to have a balance between being aware you are not an ‘employee’ and suspending your awareness of the 12 month time limit to allow yourself to integrate and be productive.
For more info on the Cultural Leadership Programme, click here