Things to pass on – thing two

I am writing a few blogs to share some of my learning as artistic director – the whole thing has been a bit of a Scratch. Thing one is here

Thing two relates to when I started as artistic director of battersea arts centre in 2004.  

But it also relates to anyone who has ever wanted to be good at something.

I used to measure my own failure using the same ruler that was used to measure the success of the previous artistic director.

In other words, in all the ways he was good, I was crap.

It took me a couple of years of being crap and miserable to understand that I needed to change the bloody ruler!

I needed to stop being an inferior version of someone else and start being me.

Looking back this sounds so obvious. But at the time I couldn’t see it.

As a result, I remember doing a lot of hiding. I got to know all the toilets around the building really well.

(And yes, this might well have been one of the motivations behind undertaking a capital project. Shy people deserve clean toilets to hang out in.)

As time went on, it got more serious.

Within a year, after a bad set of reviews for a show, I found myself lying on a bed in an A&E department, in a London hospital, hooked up to a heart monitor.

It is stressful trying to be someone else every day.

I think a turning point was when BAC’s Chair at the time, Nick Starr, pulled me aside after a Board meeting. I thought I might get fired. It was almost a relief.

“David” he said “you know, you really don’t have to be so sensible all the time.”

It was revelatory.

I was so desperately trying to be something I wasn’t that I was tying myself up in knots.

The person who appointed me, BAC’s Chair, had just told me to chill the fuck out!

It helped me to unwind a bit – and gradually I started to be me.

More than a decade later – over the last month – I have lost count of the number of people who have said to me “big shoes to fill”.

They are referring to the challenge for the next artistic director of battersea arts centre. 

While this is intended as a complement – my honest response is “absolute bollocks”.

The first thing the new artistic director of BAC should do is throw away any vestige of my shoes (I only have one pair anyway, so I am taking them with me) and focus on their own approach.

My advice to anyone is to lead in your way.

Because when you spend time trying to be someone  or something else – you stop developing – you stop growing – and you waste energy.

By 2006 I had started to learn to be myself in the job.

Reassuringly – when I started being me – things went from bad to worse…

Around Christmas 2006 we received a letter from the local council saying we had to meet a £375k demand with three months’ notice or we were out. Season’s greetings!

But the difference was that when this latest disaster happened, I didn’t try to manage it by attempting to be someone else.

The only way to cope in life is to be you.

In “thing three” I will write up some of the car-crashes – from funding disasters – to changing the programme model – to the fire in the Grand Hall – because some of most important learning happens when things go wrong.




  1. As an aspiring artistic director, this is very interesting and exciting to read! Looking forward to the next one.

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