“Probably more complicated than that…”

“Probably more complicated than that…”

A personal response to ‘Vote Leave’:

Brexit is a fundamental attack on my values, beliefs and my community. My friends, family and colleagues might be seen from the outside as living in a urbanite cosmopolitan bubble, but that is because we share similar a ideology.

This differs from person to person, obviously, but for most it is a heady mix of beliefs in openness, liberalism, equality and meritocracy that reaches beyond borders – certainly beyond the regions of the Shipping Forecast.

Although we don’t slavishly follow ‘experts’ or the establishment, we are hungry to understand the truths behind the rhetoric and the balances of the arguments.

If there is one slogan that we can unite under, it would be “Well… I think it is probably a little more complicated than that…”

For me, the Brexit campaign was founded on attacking these progressive values – and even if voters share these values and voted Leave, then they aligned themselves (and gave tacit permission to) the voices of the small-minded, anti-intellectual and bigotry.

These are the same voices that have taunted me all my life.

From the bullying of the playground, through the university jocks to the sneering voices dismissing ‘luvvies’, we are used to synonyms of ‘clever’ being used as an insult or a ‘love of culture’ being reduced to a presumptive slur on sexuality.

I have a son, who cannot yet talk, but who is already funny, open, loving, sensitive and curious. All wonderful qualities – except not the ones he needs to survive in the world of ‘Vote Leave’.

I should be teaching him to fear difference, to look inwards, to disregard education and knowledge, to dismiss those in public service rather than aspiring to join their ranks.

Whatever the arguments around free trade and sovereignty, Vote Leave has uncovered a putrid, seething side to society. I cannot put a brave face on it. I hate everything about that side of ‘Britishness’ and those people who espouse it.

They are as much a threat to my way of life as a right-wing American hotelier or any religious fundamentalist. They are the maggots eating away at the heart of the apple.

I hope I can use my anger and hatred to positive effect, but don’t ask me to deny it. I refuse to turn the other cheek. The world is a worse place because of their actions, and we are right to acknowledge that before we move forwards.


“He always seemed so young and enthusiastic in spirit. He had the attitude of a man in his 20s, which I thought was a great way to be. Tony Wilson who was no saint, but he was a good man who did good things by using his position in the media to help musicians, artists and poets to grow. He didn’t need to do that, and he didn’t do it for the money, he did it because he was trying to do good for the culture of the city he lived in and loved.”

Bernard Sumner, The Guardian, Monday 10 August 2015

Grace Under Pressure

Grace Under Pressure

In a workshop this afternoon the group was asked to contribute qualities of leaders that we admired. Instinctively, and almost without thinking a familiar phrase flew from my lips.

“Grace under pressure”

This phrase was popularised by Dorothy Parker in a profile of Ernest Hemingway (1), that indelibly linked his description of courage – or something akin to it – with our understanding of the man and his writing.

In this carefully ambiguous phrase, Hemingway encapsulated an elegance and bravery that somehow resonates when I look at the men and women I admire. It somehow captures that essence of character and an aura of confidence that I would hope one day to project.

Equally, it is so ephemeral that it seems to defy further description or deconstruction, implying that like charisma it is something that we are born blessed with, but can no more learn or inhabit than we can learn perfect pitch or photographic memory.

Despite its diaphanous shroud I feel that it is a quality that we all recognise. If not in those people we have encountered in the real world, then inevitably in the wider cast of our cultural icons and archetypes. This ‘grace under pressure’ combines quiet confidence with the elegance of a steady hand on the tiller in an Atlantic storm, or the firm clear voice reaching across the radio waves to reassure comrades under fire or the multinational billionaire CEO who can talk with absolute authenticity with every man and woman in his organisation.

A light touch that exudes confidence. A strength that is woven with gentleness. A voice reaching out of the darkness to lead you to safety.

This is different to heroism, which is exemplary behaviour under extraordinary circumstances. Heroes are forged in a moment of time when individuals choose to stand up to force the hand of destiny for themselves and those they hold dear. ‘Grace under pressure’ is that fine thread of consistency that is shot through a lifetime. There is no difference in the delicacy of presence apparent in making a cup of coffee, as Philip Marlowe does whilst at gunpoint in ‘A Long Goodbye’ (2), to the Captain who ushers the last of his passengers into a lifeboat before sinking with the ship on which he stands.

Clearly, courage is a component. More important is that to be courageous you need to put yourself where you are at risk. This, of course, need not mean that you are physically in the firing line. Rather, it can be your values, your beliefs and your morality that are exposed as you as a distinct and individual being are tested.

This is not a quality that is reserved for those who are leaders. In Hemingway’s work these men – and in this case there are always men – are often outwardly ordinary, impotent or cuckolded. They are, that is to say, unremarkable but for this very essence.

Unremarkable as I am, this ‘grace under pressure’ is not a quality that I possess – or at least not in the way that I so admire in others. I tis exactly that essential consistency. I lack. am too much behold to my emotional ebb and flow, either surpassing my feelings unhealthily or succumbing to the inevitable irrational outbursts. More vitally, through my self-absorption I lack that care and respect of others, veering from aloof distance, to eager-to-please clowning, to childish withdrawal.

Most importantly I ask myself whether I have that key courage of conviction.

It is not the courage that is the problem. I can be wilfully, nihilistically brave – usually because I only offer stakes that I do not value and would in some sense happily lose.

So that leaves the convictions., those core beliefs and values that are sacrosanct, immutable and that you hope will outlive you. This is, I sense, the foundation on which that ‘grace under pressure’ is built.

It is these convictions that I am beginning to understand sit at the heart of good leadership.

Before you can lead, you must understand what drives you. In the seminars and workshops we have been working through, this is what is alluded to as ‘the vision’. However, the vision is actually the outward and external mirror of the internal fire that fuels our endeavours.

Most importantly, this is a fire that burns even when we fall short and fail. It is exactly then that this ‘grace under pressure’ is manifest. Even when we did not succeed, we did not compromise. We were driven by a vision not of how our world was, but of how it could be. We devoted our work to realising our dreams, living and breathing what we believed.

How could you not follow someone like that?

“If we win here we will win everywhere.

The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls


(1) The phrase ‘Grace Under Pressure’ was first used in a letter by Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald (20 April 1926), published in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917–1961 (1981) edited by Carlos Baker. In the letter, he wrote that he was “not referring to guts but to something else.”

(2) ‘The Long Goodbye’, Raymond Chandler 1953

Photograph from Henry V, directed by Roland Smith for Theatre Delicatessen (c) Lorna Palmer

Without e?

A little exercise we were set on the Clore Short Course – in a minute, write a sentence or two without using the letter ‘e’. Everyone should try it as a mental warm up for any creative process – and I was stupidly proud of my effort…

A myth that a boy could stop a flood – a digit laid in a gap twixt brick and brick, but who that child was his community forgot.

Those That Teach, Can.

Those That Teach, Can.

From the very start, I need to make a declaration of interest.

I am the son of two teachers, therefore my views on teaching are a little skewed.This is despite the fact that my Mum claimed throughout her more than thirty year career she was only teaching until she discovered what she really wanted to do.

As with many people who grew up in a similar position, my parents careers advice was succinct and specific. “Don’t be a teacher” they said, “Just don’t go into teaching”.

It was a simple as that. I have never been quite sure whether the rather haphazard, badly paid and almost wilfully precarious career I ended up choosing was actually preferable, in their minds.

This is particularly on my mind as, for the first couple of months this year, I have found myself, one day a week, trekking across to an extremely reputable drama conservatoire, where I am expected to step into a studio of students and teach.

Or at least, some vague approximation of it.

This is a seemingly inevitable stage in a career in the arts – and, I am sure, for most other professions. You gather a certain weight of experience, which sends you veering this way into a niche or that way into a speciality, meeting a few kindly academics on the way and eventually, if you are willing, keen or broke enough you are invited to teach. Or, at least this is how I seem to have become the Visiting Professional for the Second Year ‘Site Specific’ Design Module at Rose Bruford College.

Of course, what I am doing bears little relationship to the honourable profession of teaching. The responsibilities of long term support, assessment, guidance and pastoral care are held by others more qualified. My skills in crowd control are barely called upon by this rather debonaire group of nine aspiring designers as they studiously .cut and paste decade old magazine pages into impressive collages of visual textual analysis.

Anyone reading who has to face a daily barrage of uniform-clad teenagers hurtling through their classrooms with the full force of puberty can unclench their jaw. I appreciate what it is you do enough to know that what I am doing ain’t it.

That said, I have always had a low opinion of teachers – or at least the wider profession which they necessarily find themselves in.

The secondary school I attended was the epitome of ‘bog standard’ and most of the staff approached their daily grind with the generalised professional interest of a rancher who herds his seemingly never-ending stream of cattle with equal dexterity and disinterest.

The occasional awkward steer may crash against the cages and even more unusually a fine specimen will demand above market price. As a herd, however, they are generally docile and accept the necessary branding and overcrowding without complaint.

Those truly exceptional teacher were tautologically few. The impact they made was seismic, for myself and to others. Now, looking back, they seem like giants offering their shoulders for us to stand upon.

What makes their generosity so exceptional is that they must have known that however rare an exceptional teacher is, exceptional students are even rarer – and to find an exceptional student who actually lives up to their early promise and potential is as rare as a diamond in a coal mine.

That makes it seem like teaching is a desperate undertaking, with a tidal flow of low-level disappointments washing against victories that almost always turn out to be pyrrhic.

Perhaps it is.

Even those who have talent and flair seem perversely smothered by a profession that successive Governments decree should value exam results and key stages above the delicate art of kindling those individual flames that flicker uncertainly in the individual hearts of individual students.

It is there that the joy lies. That is what I am discovering. It is a joy that echoes the transitory joy of theatre and performance. Perhaps that relationship should be inverted. It is performance that echoes that joy of teaching, of opening the audiences eyes to an experience, an understanding or perhaps even a simple moment.

The real privilege is discovering that for both the audience and the student what you are offering is rarely completely new. Only the most arrogant of artists believe that their minds move quicker and their weight of experience is somehow greater than that of their audience. Exceptional teachers seem to share a humility that acknowledges that they are there simple to fuel and shape the potential that we,  in our ignorance and carelessness, so often neglect.

I am neither a teacher nor a performer. My ego that tries to convince me that the thoughts written here are both new and incisive, is the same ego that is only satisfied when audiences are ‘impressed’ and would have me voice facts and experience not for the students benefit, but simply so they realise how clever I am. Yet it is more that selflessness. It is about those shared moments of discovery that come from encouraging and supporting the creativity as it emerges, of helping to shape thought processes and of bringing wider experience to bear.

The equal and opposite affect has been startling. Being forced to talk about my own practice and how I develop my own ideas has fuelled my own creativity. Working with students who are yet to take their first step into their careers has reminded again what is possible when you look beyond your own horizons. Having to offer advice and guidance leads me to re-examine and restate my own values and choices. Sharing my past experiences, both good and bad forces me to draw out the positive and acknowledge more widely the successes I have shared in.

Shamefully , part of me considered teaching as a nice safe career you could fall back on when your nerve failed and the ambition of your true vocation stalled. When all else fails you could always teach. I had not understood before how lucky we are to work in an industry where working with students can compliment our own practice because it does exactly that. It compliments our own practice, and selfishly the process forces us to delve  inside ourselves so that we can altruistically share with others.

I realise how lucky I am in that I am getting the very best of the job, without having to face the grinding, demoralising administration, paperwork, training and assessment that those who choose this noblest of professions deal with on a daily basis. I do, however, have a glimmer of an insight into what they would put themselves through that so they can spend their time teaching, and I am grateful for the opportunity to spend some time in the classroom.

I can only hope that the students are getting something out of it as well.

Close Short Course – Prologue

In the middle of February I will be heading over to Eynsham Hall in Oxfordshire for a fortnight of leadership training care of the Clore Foundation.

By all accounts, this is a fantastic course that can really change the way that people approach there roles, particularly in terms of arts leadership.

Although I am looking forward to it, I am also apprehensive. This is a natural reaction, of course, to the necessary introspection and self-assessment that will be a theme of our time in cloisters. There is, however, a deeper nagging unease about the process – the exploration of which may be as fruitful and rewarding as the myriad of management training exercises that lie ahead.

In the spirit of shared introspection, I aim to record my experiences here. So, to kick off this series of musings I present the brief overview I was asked to submit to introduce myself to my fellow Clore travellers.

A brief synopsis of your career to date and current job in no more than 150 words

Roland Smith is founding member and artistic director of Theatre Delicatessen. Through the innovative use of empty buildings to establish ‘pop-up’ performance spaces and creative hubs, of the leading lights of the UK’s immersive theatre scene. At the same time, the company has developed an important artist development scheme, supporting emerging theatre makers who are working at the cutting edge of theatre practice. In February 2011, The Observer recognised the impact that Theatre Delicatessen had made when they profiled the company as one of the “Bright Young Things Changing British Theatre”.

For Theatre Delicatessen, Roland has directed Henry V, conceived and directed Pedal Pusher (295 Regent Street; Edinburgh Festival Fringe; Tobacco Factory, Bristol; Norsk Litturfestival, Cavendish Club and Fanshen (both 295 Regent Street). Prior to this, Roland was awarded the RSC “Buzz Goodbody” Award for his revival of David Hare’s The Absence of War (NSDF and Venue 45).

Tell us what matters most to you and why (no more than 100 words)

Liberty and equality – everyone should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Therefore everyone should have access to the education, health and social care that they need – and is reasonable for society to provide.

All of this highfalutin prose flies out the window if there is any threat to my son or my family. I am astounded by the love, happiness and apprehension that fatherhood brings

Boils down to two quotes from Marx: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” and “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

Tell us about someone or something that inspires you and why (no more than 100 words)

“I’m the one person in this industry who famously has never made any money. I used to say ‘some people make money and some make history’, which is very funny until you find you can’t afford to keep yourself alive. I’ve never paid for private healthcare because I’m a socialist. Now I find you can get tummy tucks and cosmetic surgery on the NHS but not the drugs I need to stay alive. It is a scandal.”
Anthony H Wilson, Cultural catalyst, 1950 – 2007

35MHS on film…

This trailer is a very brief overview of our time at 35 Marylebone High Street, created by Ed Swabey of Rabble and Rouser, as part of our pitch for potential collaborators from the property industry.

Footage was recorded by Rabble and Rouser, Richard Preston and Esther Bradley.