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28th March 2021

In Conversation with Bryony Shanahan, Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange

Deputy Theatre Editor Dolly Busby interviews Bryony Shanahan, the Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange
In Conversation with Bryony Shanahan, Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange
The Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange Bryony Shanahan. Photo credits: Lee Baxter.
Artistic Director of The Royal Exchange Bryony Shanahan. Photo credits: Lee Baxter.

Bryony Shannahan became Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester in November 2019, a title she holds alongside Roy Alexander. She joined me on zoom to discuss topics such as the #MeToo campaign, her perspectives and how she approaches equality as Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange.

A humble storyteller at The Royal Exchange

Bryony was kind enough to clear some space in her undoubtedly busy schedule to sit and discuss the all too important topic of equality and the effects of the #MeToo campaign in the theatre industry. I possessed so many preconceptions when meeting with the Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange, a theatre I have admired immensely since first moving to Manchester.

Bryony was nothing I expected the leader of such a seemingly intimidating institute to be. She was grounded, welcoming and headstrong which truly reflects the ethos of the Royal Exchange, as an innovative and inclusive theatre.

As her black zoom box flicked onto the call it looked as though she was sat in the set of a Chekov play. Her room was spacious and inviting, the walls a faint yellow colour, a rickety brown piano dominated the back wall. There were sparse but beautiful pictures in frames across all the two walls I could see, and a small quaint looking wood burner was tucked away in an alcove.

Bryony grew up in Staffordshire, and with not having a huge amount of access to different strata of theatre growing up, decided she wanted to pursue being an actor because ‘that’s what I could see.’ At 18 she attended East 15 Acting School and did both foundation and a three-year course.

As with most people who wish to pursue a career on the stage, Bryony realised there was so much more to theatre than simply acting. When chance gave the opportunity to direct in her last year she realised, ‘Oh my God, okay, actually this is what I want to do I’m a storyteller. It all made sense to me as a director.’

From there, Bryony set up a company called Snuff Box theatre with her peers. Bryony modestly brushes past the fact Snuff Box are a multi-award winning and internationally touring company.

The Artistic Director

In 2019 Bryony was made Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange with Roy Alexander. When asked about her appointment she beams, ‘I just feel really proud. This is my favourite theatre in the world. Genuinely, that’s nothing to do with the fact I work there. From the second I stepped in I was like “My God, this is incredible, I have never seen anything like it” so to me to have this opportunity is a real privilege.’ It is encouraging to see the Royal Exchange has such a deeply passionate Artistic Director at the helm.

Laughing she admits as an afterthought that she and Roy are probably the first Artistic Directors to have operated longer in a pandemic than out of one, ‘It’s a badge I wear with pride.’ Certainly, she is presented with a challenge, I ask how they plan to return theatre back to normal. Her answer to this is something I have not stopped thinking about. She simply asks, ‘Should we go back?’ Not just referring to the theatre industry but about society in full. Bryony tells me about a conversation she had, in which someone said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’

She pauses for a moment and then admits, ‘There’s something in that you know. We’ve been forced to stop and really reckon with everything.’ Bryony says that she has had to rethink, ‘What is the point of theatre, why are we fighting’ but she’s quick to emphasise, ‘not to say there isn’t a point.’ Bryony and her colleagues are forced to think back to why we love theatre and how can they take that and rebuild it into something brighter and better.

Bryony raises an interesting point that we have an opportunity to re-analyse the way things are run. Society was not perfect before, so why return to flawed fixed ways, now is a time to rethink and change.

Gender Equality At The Theatre

On the topic of change, I turn the conversation to gender equality and the #MeToo campaign and how changes are being made in the theatre industry with people like Bryony now in the lead.  

I begin by asking her experience as a woman, growing through the industry. Bryony explains that making a company with her friends (Snuff Box), was a really safe space, ‘I guess we were kind of in this strange little bubble, that we didn’t know what we didn’t know and that was amazing.’

Recognition through Snuff Box meant bigger institutions were offering up opportunities, where she would be working with very experienced and established people. She explains that as a young woman, in roles such as Assistant Director, ‘I realised that gender was such a big thing of play. I had to really navigate rooms in a way that I now have felt shift. Some of that shift is because I’ve got a bit older, and I suppose I’ve learnt a bit more about the things I will and will not accept.’ She concludes the question with, ‘I think we are in a better place now, we’re not there yet but we’re in a better place because of the bravery of a lot of those women that were speaking out a few years ago and continue to do so.’

Amber Massie-Blomfield writing for the Stage, suggests the differing approaches taken by theatre companies in response to the #MeToo campaign, is related to the gender of those in charge. I asked Bryony her take on this.

As Bryony was not working in the larger industries in 2015 to 2017, when the campaign was at the height of its exposure, she finds it hard to comment. She admits she did notice a shift, and after some thought reveals, ‘whatever company it was from the Young Company to professional companies, whatever scale and for whatever duration, the first thing that happened was Equity’s ‘Safe Space Statement’ was read out. We were given handbooks about actions and behaviours that wasn’t acceptable.’

Equity’s ‘Safe Space Statement’ is one page of detailing a pledge that promises a harassment and bullying free space. It gives people confidence to speak out, with the inclusion of a harassment helpline. By reading this out before rehearsals, it appears theatre companies are putting in some preventative measures to stop misconduct from occurring again.

In terms of the gender of those leading the companies and if it effects how they decide to take action, Bryony comments, ‘I think it’s natural that if, as a leader, you have lived experiences, then the urgency in which you think about how your organisation runs, does align with more urgency of action.’ Perhaps suggesting women in charge naturally work with more drive to make the changes because it is their sex that are more commonly at risk. However, Bryony does impress that, ‘of course there are allies and I’ve had brilliant experiences in organisations that have been helped run by men.’

Bryony explains that #MeToo helped create structure to be able to formalise actions and behaviours that are known to be wrong. It has further empowered people to build a structure and feel it would not be swept away or dismissed. ‘I really think it was the ignition point, as well as a chance to re-evaluate safe-guarding practices and handbooks. It was a big moment of “OK, we’ve got the language now and we can put this down on paper and make this a real tangible thing in the room rather than something we just don’t talk about.”

The Royal Court has a 25-point plan in which to tackle harassment in theatre, I asked Bryony what her 25 points to quash harassment would be. Rather sneaky question but I wanted to gain a clearer understanding of how those in charge plan to move forward in eliminating harassment from the workplace.

Of course, Bryony cannot muster a cohesive 25 point-plan in 30 seconds. But she quickly answers with a simple and effective core of what she believes has to be done, ‘I think that the point is speaking out loud, that is a point of contract. It’s not a thing that you can opt out of. It is important to immediately establish this how we behave and if you do not abide to this then there will be repercussions.’ I assume she is referring to Equity’s ‘Safe Space’ Act.

Secondly is to make clear the pathways through which to report abuse. ‘What’s crucial is that there are multiple pathways. Sometimes the person you are assigned to go to, should anything be a problem, might also be the person that’s paying you or giving you a job in the future.’

What happens when the person who is supposed to support and lead you is the person who is endangering you? A feature all to common in areas dominated by crooked power structures. ‘That can be really complicated when you are stepping into those spaces, so we offer multiple pathways. I think that’s the approach and it’s not about letting anything set.’

‘You can’t just write a document, put it in a drawer, and expect that behaviour to happen. It’s a brilliant start to write it down, but you really have to keep breathing life into it, you have to keep looking at it and reflecting on it for years.’

I am struck by her conviction and imagine the utter confidence she must give those that work for her, ‘As leaders, the very basic responsibility we have is to live the values that we set and that’s the simplest form of it, but I think it has to start there.’

‘Do you think power structures can ever truly be dismantled?’

She laughs and physically moves back in her chair to suggest the weight of the question. Though seemingly taken aback, Bryony formulates a digestible and speedy answer. ‘Something I think about quite a lot, and it’s too simple, but essentially as a leader you’ve got a choice whether to have power over, or to have power to.’ She elaborates further, ‘for a long time we’ve been in a hierarchy that has felt like power over and I’m far more interested in the power to.’

Though said with conviction she voices her concerns about how difficult it will be to challenge these power structures, ‘I don’t believe that a power structure that has existed for this long has to be the only way, but I think that changing it can’t happen overnight.’

She laughs and adds, ‘It’s ridiculous but even in the position that I’m in sometimes I feel like the Royal Exchange has this personality. In my head it’s in a wooden room somewhere, in the bowels of the theatre where people are actually running it.’ We laugh at the image of lying at the heart of the theatre is a wooden room with a bunch of bearded wizards running the theatre.

Bryony continues, ‘I suppose this perception that even I have, speaks to the invisible barriers that exist within all of these structures and organisations within the way society functions.’ I believe she is referring to the imposter syndrome familiar to many women who are in positions of high authority, ‘It’s been quite difficult at times and I observed this with other women creatives, that just because you get given the space, doesn’t mean that you occupy that space. I’m really working on getting there. I know that five years ago, me and Roy wouldn’t have necessarily got this gig and it’s really exciting, but some days you get that sense of imposter syndrome.’

I ask where these power structures come from. Bryony shifts in her chair and leans forwards as though she is about to dissect the whole of humankind, ‘It’s complicated because if you pull a little bit, the thread keeps on coming. It’s not just linked to theatre, it’s linked to capitalism, it’s linked to the patriarchy, it’s colonialism. It’s really a big hot mess.’

But as ever Bryony is hopeful, ‘There has been incredible work done and demonstrations all over of power that looks different to the structures that feels very different.’ She triumphantly concludes, ‘Certainly I wouldn’t be here if I thought it was always going to be a certain way.’ In Bryony Shanahan, we can hope to see an instrumental change in the way power is implemented.

Praise must be included for Bryony’s predecessor Sarah Frankcom who worked as Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange for eleven years. ‘Sarah has been such an incredible friend and support.’ Since taking over her role, Bryony explains that she has begun to see the bravery of Sarah in changing the direction of the organisation in terms of the narratives that were on stage and those who we saw making work. It’s so wonderful to hear Bryony talk about Sarah in such a positive light, too often women are subject to tearing each other down, ‘She was the Royal Exchange to me, and I look up to her in so many ways.’

Bryony is also eager to recognise those other women that helped pioneer against gender structures and forge the way, ‘It is because of women like Sarah and because of the work that she, and many of her contemporaries and people that came before her, that made it possible for me and Roy to do this job, I don’t see that would have been possible without the work of these amazing women.’

I was left with a feeling of hope. With passionate and supportive women like Bryony at the forefront of arts and culture, but also life, there are no limits to what we can achieve.

Bryony places herself in the canon of inspiring women, she realises she is part of a larger effort, ‘It’s like pass the baton, and I think about it quite a lot and I can’t wait. Not because I am rushing this tenure but genuinely, I can’t wait to see where someone else takes it and hopefully see it evolve beyond us.’

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