Leader of Tomorrow Alix Harris shares the lessons she’s learnt while running a theatre company in the South West.
The Importance Of Sometimes Staying Where You Are
I live in the South West of England, in a place called Plymouth, no not Portsmouth, Plymouth. This is a choice. My choice. I could have, a long time ago, chosen to move out of this city and go to a bigger place where there are more people, as I walk around, who look like me. Where - when I sit in a theatre - I am not one of the few people, that you can count on one hand, of colour in the audience.
I will not always live here, I want to have the experience of living in another city, a bigger city, but for now I am here and this is my choice.
In one of our leadership sessions we had a discussion on how and why people become leaders. I was struck by the part in which we talked about ‘moral authority’ – the notion that you are a leader because you feel you have to be, because you see an issue or a gap and you recognise that you are the person that needs to address it, to make it your mission to be the leader in that area. To begin with, it seemed to be a negative reason to enter leadership. It made me think about whether it means that you are forcing yourself into a position simply because you feel that no one else is doing anything about it. But then - on the other hand - if you are the one that needs to do it, then what a potentially powerful and empowering position to be in – to recognise the need and to actively do something about it, despite the consequences you may then experience along the way. This is what I have done in choosing to set up my company Beyond Face – a company for young people and professionals of colour, we have the mission to increase visibility, raise profiles and let everyone be seen.
The Importance Of Having A Support Network
Another lesson that I have learnt in leadership is that it can be a lonely process and sometimes feel like you are fighting a solitary fight, but the resources and support networks that you have are vital. The team you build around you is so important. It’s vital that you operate and strive to achieve the same vision and mission statement because when you have a team meeting you need to be left with energy and believing that the work that you are doing matters and isn’t just a tick-box exercise for funding. Outside of your immediate team it’s important to have mentors and listeners, people who get it, get the internal struggle that occurs. The Artistic Director Leadership Programme gives me that, a great support network that isn’t always available to me in the South West – I have a go-to place to talk and be refuelled when I am finding certain times challenging.
Know That It’s Worth It
Though leadership can be lonely sometimes and feel like a fight, it’s worth it if you can bring change or a positive impact. Despite the obvious struggles of lack of representation in Plymouth and the surrounding areas, running Beyond Face comes with so many rewards. The young people that I get to work with give me inspiration and drive and are the reason that I do what I want to do. I took the girls from the youth company to see Talawa’s production of ‘Girls’ and they had the honour of meeting the cast afterwards. It was truly a magical moment and a highlight to hear the girls based in Plymouth talking about Nigeria and how much they knew about the story being told in the show. It was fantastic when the Talawa girls were able to ask the Beyond Face girls about how their rehearsal process was going for their production (we were in the middle of rehearsals at that time). I turned to Helen - our producer - and I said to her “This is exactly the reason I set up this company, this right here is one of my goals coming true”. The girls will never forget that moment and neither will I. I feel role models and representation is important - now more than ever down in the South West. That’s why I am doing a lot of work with undergraduates and new graduates as well as young people – the progression route in this industry is challenging enough, let alone if you are a person of colour.
When I think about what lessons are true for me and my experience of being a leader it makes me come back to the brilliant Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’. She says:
“You don’t have to be the leader of a global movement or a household name… It can be passing on knowledge and skills to those who wouldn’t access them otherwise. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you are doing something”.
For me I cannot sit and do nothing when I hear young people come to me and ask me to set up a company for them because “theatre isn’t for people like us”. True lessons in leadership for me are: making no apology for running a company such as Beyond Face in the South West despite it being - as I often hear - “not very diverse down here”, finding ways of creating resilience for those moments when you want to give up, or you feel like this is just too big and remembering that it’s not down to one individual to make change happen. Find yourself a work family, a family who can wrap their arms around you mentally and physically so that you can continue to lead but feel supported in doing so.
Alix Harris is an experienced Theatre Practitioner, Director and Associate Lecturer who graduated from Plymouth University in 2010 with a degree in Theatre and Performance. Alix has worked at the Barbican Theatre as a freelance Practitioner & Director, the Theatre Royal Plymouth & Indra Congress CIC. In 2015, Alix set up Beyond Face with the aim to promote and raise the profile of BAME performance work in Plymouth and the wider regions. Beyond Face is now a resident company within the Barbican Theatre Plymouth & an associate company of Tamasha Theatre in London.