#ExecutiveRealness: What I learned moving to Hull to run a theatre company

By 10 August 2020Uncategorised

Rozzy Knox, executive director (maternity cover)

July 2019: I left my job in London for a career adventure as the maternity cover for Middle Child’s executive director, Lindsey Alvis.

As my friends know, I LOVE London. I was dedicated to spending my twenties stumbling around Soho and Southbank. So, I faced a lot of shock at the statement I was moving to Hull: “Are you sure?”

“You love your job?!”

“You know it’s colder there?”

One friend even remarked: “My instinct tells me this is a bad move.”

Now don’t get me wrong, moving to Hull was a shock to a millennial Londoner. No Wagamamas? No Pret-a-Manger macaroni cheese? No Uber? All taxis need cash? CASH?!

But, I had claimed my aspiration was to “run a theatre company one day”. I preached that I agreed that “theatre is too London-centric”. I had told myself that I needed to work in the subsidised sector to understand the theatre industry fully. So, how could I turn away this opportunity with Middle Child?1

I packed my belongings into my Citroen C1 and drove up the M1. I traded my love/hate relationship with the Northern line commute for a walking commute which, three out of five days, smells like freshly baked bread.2

It is hard to summarise a years’ worth of experience into one blog post, but here’s an attempt to cover the main things I have learnt.

1) Hull’s sense of community is unrivalled

I thought I knew about community. But it wasn’t until I moved to Hull that I realised I hadn’t experienced community on this scale before. People from Hull, LOVE HULL. There are hundreds of volunteers who wear blue coats around the city and are met with adoration wherever they go. It sounds too twee to be real, but it’s true!

A staggering number of people who studied at the University of Hull have stayed in the city ever since. Equally, a huge number of people who moved there in 2017 for UK City of Culture have firmly rooted themselves in the city. I can’t express what it is about Hull that makes people love it. Maybe it has to do with the city’s growth over the last five years? Maybe it is rising above a negative reputation? Maybe it’s Hull Fair, the music, the festivals, the nightclubs, the museums? Maybe it’s a shared love of chip spice, white telephone boxes, Peter Levy and patties? 

The city feels like its own microcosm of shared experience, community and aspiration.

2) The strength of taking a chance on people

I was 25 when I took this job. I had never worked in subsidised theatre before. I hadn’t worked in theatre outside of London before. I hadn’t been a line manager before. I hadn’t been to a board meeting before. There are many other examples of things I hadn’t done, but we’d be here all day.

However, I am keen to learn and ready to tackle problems. Plus, I was already a huge fan of Middle Child, so not lacking in enthusiasm. I struggle to think of many companies that would have taken a risk on me like Middle Child did. But how are people to learn if not by giving opportunities and the chance for big leaps?

In a world of CVs and ‘essential experience’ criteria, I feel lucky to have had a year where I was given a chance to test myself and learn fast. How fantastic to have a company that is willing to invest that energy into supporting people early in their careers. It’s made me think about how people recruit; should experience and qualifications outweigh somebody the right mindset?

3) Leadership roles mean you have even more people supporting you

I had a vision of an executive director’s job which revolved around independent decision making, having to present myself as a leader and taking responsibility for the actions of a team. To some extent it is.

But actually, you have a whole team of people supporting you and involved in the decisions you make, including your board, your colleagues, Arts Council England, funders and other cultural leaders. The amount of support I have felt since starting at Middle Child has been unparalleled. When I moved to Hull, I had the leaders of other cultural organisations asking me if I’d like a coffee. People were going out of their way to introduce themselves and help me feel more at ease.

I’ve never been shy to ask questions when I get stuck, but it’s amazing to have people that you feel you can ask questions of.

4) Adelaide Fisheries do the best fish and chips.

Would recommend getting the gravy.

5) Help out the newcomer

Moving to a new city, solo, was quite intimidating. As I said before, the Hull community is very tight knit: they experienced UK City of Culture together, went to university together, raise families together. Whilst an amazing thing, it sometimes felt hard to fit into.

I was relatively well-weaved into the theatre community in London. Walking into a meeting, I would more often than not have a point of connection with somebody at the table. So, I never really experienced the ‘newcomer’ feeling.

The main thing I learnt was the importance of pushing myself into situations and looking out for other newcomers. A memory that sticks with me is when Middle Child board member, Fiona, watched me walk into Hull Truck Theatre for the first time and immediately left all her university friends so that I wasn’t alone and started introducing me to people. Note to self: always be a Fiona.

6) It’s ok to cry in the office.

“Some people say, ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.” – 
Tina Fey (Bossypants, 2011)

Here’s the thing: I cry when I’m frustrated. I’m not alone in this. Gloria Steinham, Roxane Gay and Rihanna are just a few of the famous women who have spoken publicly about crying with frustration at work.3

I think I’ve cried twice at Middle Child. Afterwards, I felt embarrassed – it’s not the vision of executive directing I’d imagined. But, I have amazing colleagues who immediately brought a cup of tea, said it was absolutely fine, sent a follow up text in the evening, then never mentioned it again.4

What stars. If you need to cry in the office, you should be allowed to cry in the office. You’ll feel better after. Feeling emotion is good. Showing you care about your job is good.

7) The industry relies on kindness and knowledge sharing

I had never worked in a team this small before. This meant that there was often nobody in the office who would know the answers to the problems I was trying to solve.

Previously I might have deferred to a line manager or relevant department head, but now I was often forced to problem-solve by myself or ask for help from outside the team. Often problem-solving for me was as simple as having to think who had the knowledge and would be willing to help me.

I presume that most people in their careers go through this period where they start relying on others’ support and kindness. I enjoy thinking that the industry is partially operating on a conveyor belt of free advice, guidance and support being passed around. Particularly with the challenges the industry faces in the imminent future.

8) The importance of job flexibility in the theatre industry

Whilst at Middle Child we joined PiPA (Parents in Performing Arts), an amazing company which helps arts organisations become family-friendly employers. Middle Child is a company which encourages their employees to work in the way that suits them best.

Whilst at Middle Child I had two weeks where I really needed to work from my family home.  In my previous jobs I would never have expected this to be easily agreed upon; there would have been negotiation, annual leave might have been deducted, it would have likely been a difficult and stressful process. Middle Child were fantastic, with a faith in my ability to work remotely and understanding of why I felt I had to be at home for two weeks.

I’m writing during the 2020 lockdown, where we have further tested the ability to work remotely. It’s difficult to have a family alongside long-term career ambitions in the theatre industry; theatre relies on evening work, long hours and often a physical presence. I have spent a lot of the last year thinking about what job flexibility means to me, not just for the present moment, but in how it speaks for an organisation’s values. It shows trust in employees and a recognition of commitments of individuals, and in return the organisation receives loyalty from employees and the ability to retain its talent.

So, to conclude….

I’m having an amazing time at Middle Child and I’m a big fan of Hull. I like working in theatre because I like working on project-based activity, but mainly because I like the people; they’re creative, outgoing, passionate, slightly eccentric and more often than not, very kind. It is sad to be seeing this amazing company have to cancel exciting projects because of the current situation in the world. However, as a voice from the inside, knowing what is ahead for them and how passionate they are to help re-build the industry, I could not be prouder to be associated with such a great company and for the year I’ve had with them.

Footnotes. Because I’m the kind of lass who writes a blog post with footnotes.

1) Actually what happened was, I told the co-founder of my old job that I’d been offered the role and he replied, “Well you should obviously take it, we can’t offer you an experience as good as that”, and the decision was made for me.

2) Spring Bank, Jackson’s Bakery, for the non-Hull locals.

3) Interview with Gloria Steinem

4) They also quickly learnt to suggest a Diet Coke break if I started to seem on-edge.