We started Bell Shakespeare in a circus tent on a hot summer’s night in Sydney in 1990. Our first season consisted of Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice.
My vision, and the strategy that resulted from that vision, was to create a company dedicated to producing the plays of William Shakespeare in a way that was meaningful and exciting to contemporary Australians.
Today we are successful enough to continue performing, but it is always going to be a balance between the creativity and the financial aspect of the business.
In a quarter of a century, we have firmly established ourselves as Australia’s only truly national theatre company, specialising in the immortal plays of Shakespeare and his peers, including Marlowe, Jonson, and Molière, whose masterpieces bear comparison with the man acknowledged as history’s greatest playwright.
Be part of the team
In the theatre, you have to earn your place. You are only as good as your last production, your last review; you are under constant scrutiny. I haven’t ever written down a set of values or set out in a strategic plan what values I want to instil. Leadership comes down to example and the way you treat people and the way you relate to them. We are very considerate of each individual’s personal happiness and wellbeing.
Use doubt to your advantage
I think if you aren't full of doubt you are probably not a very good leader. Every day is riddled with doubt. Whether I'm directing or acting, I don't think I've ever come off stage thinking, that was a great performance, I was good tonight. I always think of all the things I missed out or weren't so good. That is why at the end of every day's rehearsal, I [ask] what are we missing out here? What is going wrong? Are you all happy with what we are doing? Any suggestions, criticisms, ideas? Where can we go from here? It keeps the thing organic and it keeps everybody on side to evolve and collaborate. It also helps inform you that you are on the right track.
Get rid of people who threaten your work
I dread even reprimanding [staff] very strongly. You can do it gently, but I dread confrontation. In my 50 years, I have had to fire four people. Two when I was running the Nimrod Theatre and two running Shakespeare. All four were cases of substance abuse, not just a one-off thing, which I will forgive. I had to say: “This is unacceptable, you are threatening this production, you are threatening my work, the work of our colleagues, you are putting the company at risk and I have no compunction in saying, ‘there are your marching orders’.”
Inspire and empower colleagues
The first thing is to think of what you are doing for the company or the particular show and get everybody inspired and enthusiastic about that, and then empower everybody involved. So with a production, for instance, if there are actors paying smaller roles, don’t make them feel less important than the people with the larger roles. I will say to a smaller part, what can you do? What are your skills? It might be juggling or tap dance. [So I say] ‘OK, well we will start each day with a warm-up, you teach us how to juggle or tap dance.’ [I do that] to get them involved, contributing, earning respect from the other people and so everybody has some status in the show. We did have a bit of a crisis recently within the company, when we lost our general manager. The impulse was to go out and find a new one. But our chairman [Ilana Atlas] advised to try and do it without a general manager and see how we cope. So we formed a committee of senior management and we ran the company. We met every week and we would share responsibilities.Before that we invited every member of the company, the staff and the management, to come and talk to Peter [Evans co-artistic director] and myself about what is wrong with the company, where should we be going, what aren’t we doing, what could we be doing? What is your job like, could your job be better? And so everybody had some input. That helped us as a team to manage the company for about six months. We found at the end of that six months it wasn’t working sufficiently.
Learn from criticism
Self-awareness is a prerequisite for anybody to feel successful and safe in what they are doing. It is all the more important for a leader. I think the only way you can do that is by listening to criticism. Not only listening, but also seeking out criticism and feedback, knowing who you are and knowing what people are saying about you and how they might work in with you and what they see as your strengths and weaknesses. I think one has to seek those things out and not just to hope to hear it on the grapevine.
Invest in building skills in young people
I have always found it useful to try to build up a backlog of people who have experience and proved their worth in production development paths. But every production I do, [I like to have] new people, young blood. It is a duty to keep employing young people, to give them a chance. We employ eight young actors every year, straight out of drama school. We send them on the road for a year, playing Shakespeare three times a day to schoolkids all over Australia. By the end of it they are seasoned. They know all there is to know about crowd control, storytelling, speaking Shakespeare to a large and sometimes restless audience. It is a fantastic training ground. And many of those have graduated to our main productions in the following years.
Work with people who share your vision
When we started, it was a matter of having a vision to stick to through thick or thin and then translating that to people so they understand what that vision is and hoping they will come on board once you share it. If they don’t want to share it they won’t come on board.
Build something that will continue
I made [Bell Shakespeare theatre company] 25 years ago and it was bloody hard work to get it off the ground. We had no government funding, we had no subsidies, we had no corporate sponsors. It was just sort of daily grind – getting by, show by show, week by week. I wouldn’t give up on it because I believed in it very strongly and we had so many people who helped get it off the ground. So it is difficult to step down. But my main concern is that it should go on and flourish and expand.
Find a successor
Four years ago I started planning for Peter Evans to join me as an associate director and two years ago as co-artistic director ,so people have time to grow into the organisation and people get to know him. The succession will be absolutely seamless and orderly and will create no ruffles, either in the media or in the company, and that is the important thing.
Put your personal ambition to one side
I think personal ambition is in a separate basket from trying to make something. I might have been more personally ambitious: tried to break into movies and television and get to Hollywood and do all that sort of stuff. That was an option I didn’t consider, because I wanted to do something I thought was important for me to do. I really wasn’t concerned about myself so much as making it something that would involve other people.
This article edited from a transcript of John Bell in conversation with Bell Shakespeare actor James Evans first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.