Features Published 8 December 2020

Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway: “I wanted to leave the industry with no option but to see us.”

Wambui Hardcastle interviews the founder of Artistic Directors of the Future about her mission to change who gets to lead the UK’s theatre buildings and companies.

Wambui Hardcastle

Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway speaking at Statera Conference

“My first love was actually dance, to be honest with you.” When I’d been preparing my questions to ask Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway, founder of Artistic Directors of the Future, this isn’t what I’d been expecting to hear. But as she explains, “My dance teacher at school introduced me to Alvin Ailey, the African American dancer and his school, and I was just fixated on the story. I love the fact he was a pioneer, somebody who went against the grain.”

This must be a case of ‘like knowing like’ without even realising. For like Alvin Ailey, Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway is every inch a pioneer in her own right.

Born and raised in East London, Hodge-Dallaway has made herself into one of theatre’s strongest proponents for diversity and equality. Her extensive portfolio career includes training as a director at the Young Vic and the National Theatre, stints working in South Africa with the Old Vic, and then going on to work on projects including the National Theatre’s Black Play Archive – an online archive of plays by black playwrights dating back several decades. And this autumn, she was also appointed as a curatorial consultant of Manchester International Festival.

While Hodge-Dallaway no longer works as an actor, she trained at Half Moon Theatre – a professional children’s theatre – and at thirteen years old landed a lead role on the West End.

“I did my first acting job at Royal Court, a play called Fair Game by Rebecca Pritchard. I say all of this because Rebecca when I finished gave me five plays as a gift – we got on really well – and one of the plays was For Coloured Girls Who have Considered Suicide/ When The Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange.”

Considered Black American playwright Ntozake Shange’s magnum opus, For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf is an amalgamation of poems focusing on the stories of seven women who have experienced oppression . It won the 1977 Obie Award for Distinguished Production, and was also nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play that same year.

“I just fell in love with the play,” says Hodge-Dallaway, “and without knowing, I kind of was already starting to imagine directing it. So I had this scrapbook to keep any images that came to mind that would be a great fit for it, and I would start gluing and taping them in.”

Hodge-Dallaway carried this scrapbook of inspiration from secondary school to the University of Roehampton, where she studied Drama and Theatre Studies. However, once there, she didn’t see a reflection of herself in any of the materials she studied, which were all authored by white writers. This predicament remained the same outside of the curriculum, when the University societies would put on plays and musicals on their own.

“We had an opportunity to direct as part of a module, and I already had this scrapbook, so I did the play as a way of me sort of expressing my own creativity. But also as a way of saying “We are here, we exist” and to validate myself and my fellow classmates. I put it on. I directed. I lighted it. The camera work. I was burnt out, but I was so determined for it to be seen and staged at Roehampton.”

All of her hard work paid off, as Hodge-Dallaway graduated from Roehampton University with a First. However, Hodge-Dallaway’s educational career didn’t end there. Years later, she returned to teach as a supply teacher in secondary schools in East London and Essex.

“It was a necessity really, there was a recession that was taking place. But what was great about teaching theatre was that I was able to use that experience to understand what’s being taught in schools today, and to see that a lot of changes still need to be made in education. Everything I did feeds into the work I do now, with ADF and Beyond The Canon.”

Beyond The Canon is a theatre company Hodge-Dallaway founded and runs, which aims to shine a light on the kind of culturally diverse playwrights she felt were missing from school curriculums.

“It was shocking to see that students were still being taught using the same English Literature materials; Of Mice and Men or Inspector Calls. It completely overlooks the fact there’s a rich canon of work written by Black, Asian, and people of colour. And needless to say, it also overlooks things like sexuality, and other things that young people are not being taught in the classrooms, but are experiencing in their own lives or experiencing within their communities. And I found that really appalling. “

There’s still a lot to be done to diversify GCSE and A-level syllabuses. But Beyond The Canon is working on the ground with drama schools to diversify play texts that are in use. This year marks Beyond The Canon’s fifth year working with RADA students to showcase monologues written by culturally diverse writers that reflect their own backgrounds. Hodge-Dallaway has also expanded the canon available to students by editing and curating two audition monologue books: The Oberon Book of Monologues for Black Actors (2014), and Audition Speeches for Black, South Asian and Middle Eastern Actors (2016).

“I would say ADF came out of the fact that I’m not only an artist but a manager, producer, and audience development consultant,” she explains. “So I was getting opportunities, not only onstage, but also in the offices of lots of buildings. And as I was entering these buildings, I would see that I’d be the only person [of colour. Hodge-Dallaway identifies as Black British-Caribbean]. And my job was always temporary. I kept on seeing that in organisations, as people would leave, they would have openings but the person who would be filling those roles would look more less identical to the person who just left… And I thought that was really problematic. Off the back of doing the Black Play Archive at the National Theatre, I knew of the Black and Asian theatre companies in Britain that were headed up by Black, Asian, and people of colour. It led to the question: “Why are they not getting these positions in mainstream organisations and theatres.”

Hodge-Dallaway brought up an anecdote of attending a Devoted and Disgruntled event several years back. Run by theatre company Improbable, Devoted and Disgruntled hosts nationwide conversations about theatre and the performing arts. Events tend to focus on a predetermined topic, and the one Hodge-Dallaway attended the focus was on diversity.

“A lot of people felt very uncomfortable talking about people of colour in the same sentence as leadership. I mean I was talking about the Old Vic and the National Theatre. I wasn’t talking about the hidden theatre companies – and there is nothing wrong with them – but it was really about looking at it from a building-based situation. And a lot of people kept talking about young people, and I was like; I want to talk about those in their mid-career and up. “Where do they go when they get those experiences?” “Where do they go?” ” How do they get these positions?” Because they are not being given to us.

Amongst the people in this conversation of leadership has been Ola Animashawun, who has recently been appointed as an Associate of the National Theatre.

“And he (Animashawun) said: ‘I know exactly what you’re getting at Simeilia, you’re talking about succession?’ And I said ‘Exactly. I’m talking about what the succession plans are for these organisations. Their talent pools are so white. We’re not even looked at’.”

As a result of coming to this understanding, Hodge-Dallaway knew she had to create an organisation that challenged the industry and status quos in place.

“I knew my community, and I knew there were so many lies being told about us not wanting those positions – which is not true – and about us not having the right qualifications – which is again not true. I really wanted to completely eradicate those myths. I wanted to leave the industry with no option but to see us. And to see the people who are doing amazing work and the people who should be getting those positions. And to create new pathways into leadership, and that is what I have created through Artistic Directors of the Future.”

ADF offers consultancy and support to help organisations diversify their senior staff and board members. Their ADF Board Shadowing Programme, which provides 10 ADF members with a five-month programme of examining board types at up to 5 arts venues/organisations, won the Innovation Award at The Stage Awards 2020. Individual membership is reserved for Black, Asian, and people of colour. ADF focuses on providing their members with the resources and information to demystify top leadership roles so that their members know that they are more than worthy of applying too. They also aim to look to find ways to further support their members in their pursuit of leadership and agency.

This support is especially valuable in an industry which, Hodge-Dallaway said, perceives artists of colour to be constantly emerging. “It doesn’t serve us well. We are always young and emerging, and never at the stage of readiness. And it helps in this industry to keep the status quo if they are always looking at us as aspiring and emerging.”

As part of ADF’s aim to further level the playing field and engage further with their members, ADF are realising a new online programme: ADF Bitesize. Supported by Arts Council England, ADF Bitesize is a new e-learning platform that is now a permanent feature of the ADF website. Its creation came from the recognition that learning is more accessible if it was able to take place at any time, anywhere in the world. It’s first series is centred around “How To Start A Theatre Company”. All the videos that make part of this e-learning course are captioned, and the option for audio description is also available.

“There are some people who are very forthcoming. They know what they want to do, they turn up to events. They engage with anything they can get their hands on. And then there are ones who are a bit more silent – and lacking a little bit of confidence and not knowing where to start. So success to me would be those people out there who want to start a theatre company or business, that this (ADF Bitesize) will give them the confidence, the boost, the encouragement they need to get started.”

The need for programmes like ADF Bitesize to help educate, demystify, and provide support is more apparent than ever. Since Hodge-Dallway founded ADF, she has seen the several high-profile artistic director appointments of people of colour, such as Kwame Kwei-Armah to the Young Vic in 2018, Lynette Linton to The Bush Theatre in 2019, and Tarek Iskander to Battersea Arts Centre. Notably, Iskander was part of ADF’s Up Next developmental training initiative at Battersea Arts Centre before his appointment to its artistic director.

And while this shows that the landscape is shifting, the pace is still slow. In January 2020, The Stage published its findings that showed at the time of the 50 highest funded national portfolio organisations, there were only seven artistic directors of colour and one executive director of colour.

Hodge-Dallaway acknowledges that the past couple of years have seen some high-profile appointments of people of colour at theatre buildings, but also highlights the importance of recognising the decrease in numbers of theatre companies led by people of colour in recent years, too.

“We need to ensure that we consider both theatre buildings and theatre companies in this discussion. Compared to the 60s and 70s and even the 80s, the number of POC theatre companies that exist today is minute in comparison. Moreover, the small number of POC theatre companies that exist are not always run by POC leaders. Not only do we need more leadership opportunities within mainstream buildings (because the small increase in numbers from the last few years is step in the right direction, however it is still not good enough) we need to ensure that there is an increase to the number of POC-led theatre companies in the UK to increase the employment opportunities.”

And while the aim to increase the number of artistic directors of colour is fundamental to what she does, Hodge-Dallaway goes on to highlight the prevalent truth that diversity in leadership should be shown in all its forms throughout an organisation’s structure.

“It is important to point out that leadership includes all decision-making roles such as; Chairs, Trustees, Artistic Directors, Executive Directors, Finance Managers, funders, Marketing Managers, Development Managers etc. It is important that diversity is seen throughout the organisation and is not evidenced by a singular person in the entire organisation.”

Time is running out, and I have enough time to ask one final question. I’m reminded of the importance of succession she brought up earlier. And I’m caught by the feeling of the flipside of that: for while a role can always be passed on, a legacy still remains. So what does Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway, the founder, the artistic director, the woman who once kept a scrapbook of inspiration from girlhood, hope her legacy will be?

“That her passion for equality and equity was realised through her works. I would hope people say that. That made the sector more accountable for its actions, and also made it look in the mirror. There’s something about just being a person who’s not scared to speak truth to power, and to leave the door open for others to join, and to lead, and to know their worth and value.”

I tell her: “That’s going to be a really fine legacy”. And I mean every word.

For more on Artistic Directors of the Future’s work, visit https://adofthefuture.com/

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Wambui Hardcastle

Wambui Hardcastle is a performer and creative based in Newcastle. She is a member of Northern Stage's Young Company, and performed in their sell-out show, Where Do We Belong. She is also a producer for City of Dreams.

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