Under the surface: artist leadership in action at Theatre Bristol

At Theatre Bristol we believe in the power and potential of artist leadership. That’s why, when we were thinking about our new Creative Director role earlier this year, we wanted to create space for the artist to bring their whole self and practice to the job. To find a way of their performance-making being a big part of how they actually do the job. We knew that would look completely different depending on what their practice was, and so since Tessa Wills joined us in July we’ve been testing the waters in terms of what that means for us and them. 

Tessa’s priorities in the first few months as Creative Director have included creating a new framework and vision for our artist support, leading and developing our team of Artist Support Associates. They have been listening closely to the challenges that artists and the performance sector are facing in Bristol, and helping us identify the most important priorities for advocacy and action. Racial inequality in theatre is top of that list, and we are now working with our new Chair Chinonyerem Odimba and partners across the city to develop ways of addressing this that we hope will have longlasting change. 

Tessa is also using their practice, grounded in live art, to reflect on and work through these questions. They wrote: “This is one of the most segregated cities in the UK and it feels it, everywhere.” As part of their research they found out that when Queens Square was built it was built to consciously gentrify the area; to both embody and perform elegance and a lifestyle of the genteel. It was built over a boggy marsh within sight of the masts of ships used for the transatlantic slave trade. Many of the large houses on the Square were owned by people whose money came from the ‘Guinea trade’, who ploughed it into real estate in the city for their children to live refined lives, and whose money also helped found Bristol Theatre Royal in King Street. They lived near the theatre they partially owned. The theatre was part of the lifestyle choice. The Square was a key site where money from the slave trade and slave economy moved through taxes at Customs House. All these buildings are still there and functioning. Theatre Bristol’s office is just up the road in Bedminster.

Starting in December 2019, Tessa is performing a series of actions that question and respond to this history. Tessa shares some of these questions below. We’ll be sharing documentation as they develop, both as a way of reflecting on what this history means for artists and citizens in Bristol today, and partly as a way of sharing how artist practice is feeding our thinking and direction here at Theatre Bristol.

If you’d like to know more, feel free to get in touch with Theatre Bristol CEO Mel Scaffold mel [at] theatrebristol [dot] net or Tessa Wills tessa [at] theatrebristol [dot] net

Some questions informing Tessa’s work:

  • What effective ways have theatre organizations refused gentrification or supported it in Bristol?
  • What role does theatre play in individuals becoming genteel? 
  • In what places is this square still a swamp?
  • What activities take place on this square now?
  • What’s under the surface of the square?
  • What impact does deeply knowing your racist history have on contemporary segregation?
  • How much energy goes into the obscuring of Bristol slaving past, and what contemporary Bristolian theatre work is involved in that?
  • How is Theatre Bristol’s work impacting gentrification in the city?
  • What is there to be done in the face of unspeakable historical horror?
  • What is there to be done in the face of the scale of racism in contemporary theatre?
  • What is reconciliation and reparations in theatre?
  • What relationship do white theatre organizations and white families of Bristol have with their pasts? What relationship do new creative initiatives have with those roots?
  • What needs to be cleaned up?
  • What’s the spiritual dimension of this?
  • What impact can theatre have on segregation?
  • How are non-whiteness and whiteness represented in contemporary Bristolian theatre?