Sam Strong, former lawyer and current Artistic Director of the Griffin Theatre Company, understands the balance that is required to not only achieve artistic goals, but to build a sustainable arts organisation. Shifting in 2010 from what was a freelance role, albeit within structure of Company B, into the AD role at Griffin, Sam brings a unique personal perspective to the dialogue about the arts performing like a business.
Interview by Kim Goodwin
What’s changed for you in taking on the Artistic Director role at Griffin, now you are responsible for the commercial side of a company?
In a sense it’s adding new skills to the skills I required in the previous jobs. For example the task of managing a group of people expands from a project-to-project based task into an ongoing task. Instead of working towards the finite goal of a show, you’re working towards longer-term goals. That’s quite a shift in the rhythm of working.
There are also skills required of an AD, that you don’t possibly know until your do them, such as advocacy for the company with various sponsors and donors. As the director of a show you’re the spokesperson for the show, but now I’m the spokesperson for the company, and advocating the company’s interests.
How beneficial do you see as business skills to the arts, and is it something that you teach those you mentor?
Most directors imagine they could program better than other directors, it’s in our nature, what can be a shock when you’re actually fortunate enough to be in a programming position is just how unavoidable commercial realities are. There is a view that arts and business are in some sense binary opposites, and this is a legitimate view, but the reality of running a company is that while we are attempting to make great art, we can’t make great art apart from the business realities of what we do.
I’d love to do a play with a cast of 20, but we simply can’t and so we have to make it work within the parameters of what we have. You can choose to view those parameters as unduly constrictive or you can choose to view those parameters as opportunities to work within.
You’ve said that your first passion is the development of new Australian writing, how do you balance this with the commercial reality of building an audience?
We have to balance what is important to this company, which is to be discovering the best new talent and writing, and being willing to take artistic and commercial risks, with some things that are, as much as you can possibly tell, less risky. That’s not an artistic compromise; the trick is to do that without making an artistic compromise.
To take Speaking in Tongues as an example, I’ve wanted to direct it for a long time, while it’s also a Griffin classic. We get this sense of a classic coming home, but the other thing the programming of that play achieves is turning some of our unknowns into knowns, potentially less risky than a completely unknown work with a completely unknown writer. In a way, programming a season is like putting together a portfolio for anything, and that portfolio needs to balance relative risk with relative security.
You’ve been described as ‘lawyer turned director’, what skills have you brought with you from your professional career that has enhanced your performance in the arts industry? Conversely, where there any things you needed to unlearn?
I think there is more overlap than you would suspect between the two roles. Particularly between the role of dramaturge or script developer and what I used to do as a lawyer. The skill that my legal training equipped me with that is most useful is an attention to detail and rigour. Great works of art are always a product of extreme attention to detail and rigour. Also, the skills that legal training equips you with in relation to the drafting of any document – an ability to analyse its structure or micro edit for optimum effect – translate well into a theatrical context.
One thing I needed to learn anew was the importance of intuition or feeling in the making of work. In the earlier parts of my career I have a much more cerebral and intellectual approach to the making of work and I think my directing work got better when I got better at respecting the vital role of intuition in the creation of art.
Sam’s approach is not so much about whether the arts should act like a business, but the inherent commercial realities of the arts industry today. In his experience, these realities, and the cross pollination of skills, can actually enhance the creative process.
Should the arts act like a business? Reference material that may further interest you:
- The Arts and Business Relationship Model: A model for understanding motivation
- Business Plan framework