Want My Job? with Jill Adamson - Director of Participation

Do you know what it's like to be a Theatre Director? Jill has the answers!

Want My Job? with Jill Adamson - Director of Participation

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

Hello, I’m Jill Adamson and I work as Director of Participation at Northern Stage in Newcastle Upon Tyne.

I’ve done similar jobs at Hull Truck Theatre and York Theatre Royal, I’ve worked as CEO of National Association of Youth Theatres, been a Youth Theatre Director and an evaluator and consultant for theatre participation.

What does your job involve? 

The job involves a lot of meetings and a lot of talking and listening!! I meet with people both inside my own organisation and externally with partners and individuals.

I have a strategic overview of all of the participation work which includes the young company, early years and family engagement, formal education, community engagement, adult programme, careers and work experience.

My job is to make sure that all strands of the programme are engaging, inspiring, inclusive, accessible, fit with organisational vision and values and are adequately resourced.

Give us the typical outline of a day?

There is no typical day, each day is different and that’s what makes it enjoyable. Today I’ve been reading Board Papers in preparation for a meeting this evening and I’ve been working on a funding application for our young company. Tomorrow I’m taking part in a programming meeting where we’ll talk about plays we’re thinking of producing and projects we’re delivering. In the afternoon I’m visiting a primary school and in the evening I’m attending a Young Company script development session.

Next week will be completely different.

What’s great about your job?

People are the best thing. The people who I work with be they colleagues, partner organisations or participants, it’s the people that make a job interesting and rewarding, or not! I really enjoy talking to people who think theatre or the arts is not for them and getting a good understanding of why they think or feel this way. This helps me to do my job better because I can then take that understanding and apply it to developing and improving projects.

The other great thing about my job is that it has a particular emphasis on social inequality. As a working class woman this is something very close to my heart. 

What are the bits you don’t like or find challenging?

Having just filled out some of the ACE annual return I have to say collecting and collating data! I have worked in the past as a freelance arts evaluator and I understand the necessity for monitoring and evaluation and for evidencing the value and impact of the work. However, the annual return is one of the least creative and most frustrating tasks I ever have to do!

There are other challenging parts of my job, like balancing ambition and resource, aligning all of the work with vision and values, managing my own work load whilst supporting others to manage theirs in an industry which is under resourced and delivery expectation is high and increasing. To overcome these challenges, I have to be very organised, always have an eye on the future and keeping in mind what’s on the horizon. I also have to be able to switch off, take time off and re charge and refresh my batteries. It’s all about striking the right balance, and this comes with practice.

What are the highlights of your career to date?

This has to be seeing young people grow and learn long term and realise their dreams. I started my career as youth theatre director and some of the young people I worked with at the start are now in their 30’s and 40’s. It’s great to see so many of them with successful careers in the arts but also those who work in other industries, are freelance or have set up their own businesses and are thriving because of the great foundations creativity provided.

There’s nothing more rewarding than bumping into an adult, who you often don’t recognise and them telling you that you changed or shaped their life in some way through youth theatre.

How did you get into an arts job?  

It all started with an inspirational drama teacher at school. I loved drama and despite teachers and parents trying to steer me away from it because it wasn’t an academic subject, I stuck with it, did a degree in it and made a career out of it.

I studied Creative and Performing Arts at Newcastle Polytechnic and then worked as a freelance actor/facilitator for 2 years before taking up a part time position with the Crucible Youth Theatre in Sheffield. Whilst working freelance and part time, I juggled lots of jobs just to pay the bills.

Have you also worked outside the arts?

Yes! My first job was as a papergirl at 13. I’ve worked in a bakers shop, a library, as a waitress, in several bars and been a fruit-picker and a nanny in France.

Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?

For 30 years I’ve worked in theatre participation, with a focus on work with young people. The biggest challenge throughout these 30 years is playing second fiddle to the ‘real’ work of the theatre.

Traditionally, theatre participation work has not been sufficiently valued, both inside the industry and beyond. This is starting to shift now, but very slowly.

I have, therefore spent a lot of my time fighting! I’ve fought for adequate resources, simple things like space, time, staff and budget to deliver a project safely, with artistic integrity and with high quality participant experience. I’ve fought for increased value through strategic means by lobbying policy makers and funders and putting myself out there for places on Boards and Steering groups. Whilst working at NAYT I commissioned academic research to back up projects and initiatives and was the first national organisation to produce regular State of The Sector publications, using hard data to paint a national picture of provision.

Have you noticed any changes in the industry? If so, what?

Yes. I believe that Arts Council England’s emphasis on Excellence for a number of years did a lot of damage to mass participation and emphasised the arts as an exclusive activity. With Great Art for Everyone came some kind of realisation that participation, community arts and amateur arts all had a part to play in the access and inclusion agenda. Additionally, the more recent move for action to be taken to improve diversity in the arts means that grass roots community and young person centred work is now becoming valued because it’s through these routes that transformation will happen.

The other changes I’ve seen over the years are of course the reduced funding for the arts in general. I’ve witnessed skilled people leave the sector because of this and seen a decline in the health and wellbeing of artists and arts organisation staff because of the additional demands funding cuts put on individuals. There is a glass ceiling on many jobs in the arts, making it difficult to progress to higher paid roles.

You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?

I’ve been brutally honest and very realistic in the picture I’ve painted (above) about working in the arts. It’s not an easy option, its hard work and often low pay with limited opportunities for progression. However, the rewards are far greater than many other industries you might choose and I don’t regret having chosen to work in the arts at all. Ask yourself ‘what gets you out of bed in the morning?’ understand yourself and what makes you happy and pursue that. Whatever it is!

Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?

Get as much experience as possible. Talk to as many people in the industry as you can. Be present. Don’t just send out a load of emails and hope for the best. Turn up. Meet people face to face. Let people know you are going to their events and ask if they’re free to meet you.

Know your subject. Fully understanding the whole theatre making process is fundamental to being successful in this job. It’s the transference of that process into the design and make up of participation projects which make them engaging and enjoyable and sets them up to succeed. Arts participation isn’t creative youth work! 

Do research, read articles join online groups and forums.

Want to be a Theatre Director? Head on over to Creative Choices, a website filled to the brim with handy arts career advice.

Are you all set for your next production?  Trinity College London can help you stay organised and avoid last-minute stress with their handy checklist


Luke Taylor

Luke Taylor Contributor

I work as the Network Administrator for Voice. Having completed my apprenticeship at Unit Twenty Three, I continue my work supporting Voice and the Youth Network in whatever way possible. Music is my passion, and I will happily talk about all the bands you've probably never heard of!

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