Image copyright © Dominique Brewster. All rights reserved. www.dominiquebrewster.com
A refusal to accept stereotypes or limitations has been the hallmark of Professor Jude Kelly's career. Now in creative control of one of the world's biggest arts centres, she explains her passion for giving the arts social purpose, and why riding the waves matters as much as treading the boards.
It's an irony that Jude Kelly OBE (BA Drama and Theatre Arts, 1975; Hon DLitt, 2012) has spent her life inspiring others when she knew clearly her own path at an age when most children's biggest decision is what to play on first - swing or slide?
The second of four daughters born in Liverpool, her passion for the arts became evident before she ever set foot on a stage. 'At seven, I was making up stories, putting them on in the back garden, insisting the neighbours' children acted in them and that all the neighbours came and watched. At secondary school I realised there were formal plays, and knew absolutely that I wanted to be a theatre director.'
With that surety came an understanding of the means needed to reach that end, and a flanking steely determination to get there fast. 'I realised I had to get academic training and Birmingham was the only course combining practical work and academic research. The idea of studying to be a theatre director was still new, so it was an interesting era.'
At Birmingham, two more themes emerged which still shape Jude's work - female equality and arts with a social purpose. 'There were hardly any women directors at that time and the male lecturers didn't yet have a very developed sense of how to give women the support they needed. The only opportunity to direct was in the third year so, against my tutors' wishes, I went and directed in the University's Amateur Dramatics Society. I also formed a women-only drama group because I wanted to break through the stereotypes about what women could do.
I realised I had to get academic training and Birmingham was the only course combining practical work and academic research. The idea of studying to be a theatre director was still new, so it was an interesting era.
'A couple of lecturers were interested in the idea of drama for community engagement and brought in some fascinating speakers including theatre director Peter Cheeseman and radio producer Charles Parker. I found them really inspiring, and knew I wanted to combine community practice with conventional theatre. I wanted to change the world.'
A year at the Leicester Phoenix after graduating gave Jude an actor's view, and she started a volunteer street theatre to enable her to direct immediately. Then came the crucial break. 'I applied for two director jobs, one at the Royal Court Young People's Theatre, and one at this new touring community company, the Solent People's Theatre. At the Royal Court interview they laughed when I said I was 22, so at Solent, I lied that I was 24 and got the job. It was an exciting, fascinating and wonderful time because I was completely in charge and my ambition could thrive.'
Jude went on to directorships at Battersea Arts Centre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, always focused on engaging communities and new audiences. In 2005, she became Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, the largest single-run arts centre in the world.
'If you have strong ideas for social change, you look for where you can get maximum focus and make a big impact. Southbank had forgotten its identity and I wanted to revitalise it and reassert the debate about what our large-scale, publicly subsidised cultural organisations are for.'
Having been instrumental in the cultural element of London's Olympic bid, Jude was also asked to become Director of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad but received the call on the same day she was offered her role at Southbank. 'I felt in an enormous dilemma because I knew I couldn't do justice to both. I decided to commit to the Southbank Centre because this really did need a sustained, systemic change that would influence cultural institutions around the world.'
Despite Southbank's size, Jude - who was awarded an OBE in 1997 for services to theatre - believes in creativity on all scales, having established Metal in 2002 for artists to explore ideas and hunched. 'The outcomes people ask from the arts - employment, engagement, diversity - are laudable, but to have measurement in advance of any artistic activity even being formed is too unsophisticated. I wanted to give artists time, space and permission to experiment; and show that from small amounts of resources, you can create amazing changes in communities.' There are now three Metals around the country, with activities ranging from supporting literacy among 11-14-year-olds through a partnership with Liverpool Football Club; to helping artists present their business online.
I wanted to give artists time, space and permission to experiment; and show that from small amounts of resources, you can create amazing changes in communities.
In 2011, Jude launched the Women of the World (WOW) Festival at Southbank, celebrating women's achievements and examining the barriers still faced by women around the globe. 'I haven't had many obstacles in life but any I've had have been clearly to do with gender. Feminism actually means something very simple - that you have an equal right to fulfil every bit of your potential. It doesn't matter where you sit in the great ecology of progress as long as you are realising your potential. I can't bear people's lack of imagination being used to keep others down.'
Jude, mum to poet Caroline Bird and dancer Robbie Bird, is currently overseeing a £125 million redevelopment of Southbank Centre's Festival Wing aimed, of course, at greater levels of public engagement. 'There will be a children's centre, local history museum and a 'floating' glass pavilion; but perhaps the most exciting thing is the new educational spaces, which will allow anyone to get involved in informal, progressive learning. It's something I've thought about for years and will be fantastic.'
So, having achieved and then surpassed her childhood dream, what is still left for Jude to accomplish? 'I windsurf and would like to take some consistent time away to get better at it. But I don't know about another professional ambition yet. When I'm involved in something, I'm passionately in love with it. Then comes a moment when I think: "Well that was wonderful but now I'm going to do something different" and that's when something else comes to me.'
Image: Artist's impression of the Southbank Centre's new Festival Wing © FCBS
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