Sending email...

Email sent!

EP 3: Sarah Brigham

Sarah Brigham is the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Derby Theatre.

Listen

Sarah is the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Derby Theatre where she has championed a new way of working through creating the Learning Theatre which combines artistic excellence with the development of emergent talent. Previously Sarah was Artistic Director of The Point, Eastleigh and Associate Director at Dundee Rep. Sarah trained at Bretton Hall and worked first extensively as an actor for a variety of companies before pursuing her directing career. 

Sarah’s Derby Theatre productions include: Hansel & Gretel, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Peter Pan, The Gingerbread Man, Great Expectations, Alice in Wonderland, Jack, Look Back in Anger, Jinny, Brassed Off, Cinderella; Solace of the Road, A Christmas Carol, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Kes, The Odyssey and Pinocchio.

Ephemera

Transcript

Read full transcript Hide full transcript

Anisa
This is Anisa on the 6th March 2020, recording for Lights Up! at Derby Theatre. Please can you introduce yourself and tell me where and when you were born and what you do?

Sarah
So, my name is Sarah Brigham. I was born in Hull – well, just outside of Hull, a little place called Beverley – in 1976, if that's relevant, and I'm the Artistic Director and the Chief Executive of Derby Theatre.

Anisa
What is your connection to the East Midlands?

Sarah
So, I moved here in 2013, basically for work. I grew up in Yorkshire, but then since working in theatre, I've lived all over the country. I've lived up in Scotland. I've lived down in the South East. And then I've landed in the middle. So yeah (laughs).

Anisa
Who did you live with, growing up?

Sarah
My mum, my dad, my brother, my dog, and then my grandma as well. My grandma was really kind of key in the first eleven years of my life.

Anisa
What's your first memory of theatre?

Sarah
My first memory of theatre is— I've got a couple, but I think the one that I go back to most is when I was really little, about five. My dad had heard some music that had really moved him, and that music was opera. When he was a bricklayer, on a building site, a guy had basically taught him everything about opera and they used to play it. So he decided that this company was coming to Hull and that we should go. I was only about five (laughs) and opera isn't really the best family-friendly thing, but he decided that his little girl should go and see this big, important opera.
My dad didn't go to the theatre very often and he thought that he had to wear a dinner jacket, a dinner suit, so he went and hired a dinner jacket, a dinner suit (laughs). Obviously, I was five and I didn't have a clue. Anyway, we went into the theatre and obviously my dad recognised at this point that he was probably a little bit overdressed.
But anyway, we sat and we watched this thing and I just remember it wasn't very interesting. But I remember just being really overwhelmed by everything and, oh wow, all these people. Then at the interval we went for an ice cream, which was the thing I was probably most interested in, and the woman who was selling the ice creams said, "Oh no, people who play in the orchestra don't have to pay for ice creams," because he had this dinner suit on (laughs). My dad was obviously massively embarrassed.
Now he tells that story and laughs about it and it's kind of grown into mythology in the family. But I suppose what it always makes me think about is about how we shouldn't have to feel like we have to dress up to go to the theatre, or be someone we're not, and that theatre should be for everyone. If you just hear something or want to see something, you should just be able to walk in and just see it. So it's informed how I think about what theatre should be.
So yeah, I don't know if I do remember that story or if it's just the story that gets told so often in our family that I remember it. Do you know what I mean, in terms of memories? But yeah, I have a memory, whether it's a real memory or a weird Blade Runner replicant memory, I don't know. But yeah (laughs).

Anisa
Thank you for sharing that. What was the main trigger for you to want to work in the industry?

Sarah
It was when I was in Youth Theatre and my Youth Theatre Director at the time – a guy called Damian Cruden – I remember we were putting a show on and I remember him saying, "If you just want to talk to four walls, then don't work in theatre. Theatre is about talking to the public and telling them what you think life should be like and how the world should be like." Basically, theatre can change the world. I was like, oh yeah, that's great. And because I was quite political, and still am very political, I was like, oh yeah, you don't have to stand up on a soapbox and tell people what to think. Actually, through theatre, you can help people think differently about the world and start to see the world through other people's eyes and start to understand a bit about themselves and a bit about how the world works. I think that really stayed with me and I was like, oh yeah, that's exciting.

Anisa
What's your own personal journey into the industry?

Sarah
So, I think Youth Theatre was really important. I went to Hull Truck Youth Theatre. It was free to attend and it was brilliant. I made some friends, really great friends, and had a really great time. Then I applied for loads of drama schools and loads of universities.
I did it at GCSE and at A-level. I applied for loads of jobs, loads of universities, didn't get into drama schools. Then through clearing – I didn't fail my A-levels but I didn't get the grades I should've done. I discovered boys and got less interested in grades, so I ended up with two Bs and a D when I should have had As and Bs. So I decided, okay, I'm not going to go to drama school, I'm going to go to university. But as I only got two Bs and a D, the universities, my first choice and second choice, both said, "No, you didn't get good enough grades." Then through clearing, I actually got into one of the drama schools that I'd applied to go to and had rejected me, but onto a different course. It was the best thing I ever did.
So it was a drama school that doesn't exist any more, it was called Bretton Hall, part of Leeds University, and it was in the middle of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. So, it's the worst place to be a student when you're eighteen (laughs). There are no pubs, no clubs (laughs). There is literally nothing, just a load of fields, but it was a great three years. Really amazing.
Then I got out of that and I went, oh, I want to be a director and I don't know how I do that. I didn't know anyone who worked in theatre or had any contacts or whatever, but I managed to convince a theatre company, through a teacher at uni, to give me some work experience. So I worked in a bar on the night and I went and volunteered during the day. It nearly killed me but I had really amazing time.
Then that company, theatre company, blah blah blah, they started employing me as an actor, and then I worked as an actor, basically, for six years, just doing various stuff, radio, theatre, and then eventually got into directing through that.

Anisa
Sounds really interesting (laughs). Can you tell me about any training that you took part in?

Sarah
So, obviously my degree taught me a lot, and then I think a lot of the training was just on the job. I always went to a lot of workshops and to the Actors' Centre in London and kind of kept my skills up that way, but it was really hard back then to get any training in directing, really. You'd do a little bit of assisting in the room, so you'd kind of observe it, but it was quite difficult to get actual training. Training courses didn't really exist.
Actually, what I decided to do seven years ago when I arrived here – because suddenly I was in charge of this massive theatre – was I got two mentors. One was a business mentor and one was an artistic mentor. The artistic mentor was brilliant. We just sat and talked about the plays that I was directing and it was just someone to kind of bounce ideas of really and kind of get into the text and really talk in-depth about that. The business mentor just helped me think about management of people and about cultural change and how I ensure that my values match the organisation's values and that we drive forward in a forward-thinking way.
So yeah, that's probably the most relevant training, but I've done lots of one-off workshops and weeklong things and stuff like that.

Anisa
Who was your biggest inspiration in those earlier years of you starting your career?

Sarah
Gosh, in those early years? There was a lecturer who was amazing, and she was unusual because she was the only female lecturer. She was also brilliant. So I think she really inspired me.
Actually, it's quite interesting because we're talking about women. When I think back, actually, there was a lecturer who came in – she was actually just a recent graduate and she came back to teach us – and she only maybe did six sessions with us or something, but I just remember finding that really exciting, the stuff that she did with us. I don't know if that was because she was female and I wasn't used to seeing females in those positions, or if she was just brilliant, or a bit of both. It was probably a bit of both.
Then throughout my career, I think there have just been lots of people who I've worked with, or worked for, who have kind of inspired me in lots of different ways.

Anisa
Being able to be taught by those women, would you say that impacted how you wanted to come into theatre?

Sarah
I was always brought up to be a feminist, and my mum's a really strong character, but I think I was always very aware that as a woman, without a doubt, you're at a disadvantage. Even now, I feel it. I'm quite often the only woman in a meeting. If I have meetings with my colleagues across the city, all the other CEOs in the city are male, so you're quite often the only female voice in that room. So I think when you see those women in those positions, it is definitely inspiring. I can't explain why or how, but I do think it does have an impact. Yeah, definitely.

Anisa
Thank you. When did you first recognise that you were pretty good at directing?

Sarah
(Laughs) I don't think I've recognised that yet (laughs). I don't think I recognise that yet. I think I constantly watch my own work and go, oh God, why have you done that? Oh, you've messed up! Yeah, I think I still really struggle to go, oh actually…
I had an interesting conversation with someone, actually, the other day. So, I've just gone into the rehearsal period, just last week, and it was the Sunday night before and I was getting a little bit like, oh-oh. My friend, who's a man, said to me, "What are you worried about?" and I was like, "Because I'm going into rehearsal and what if I mess it up?" der-der-der, all those anxieties and panics that you have. He was like, "But you've done it loads of times before," and I'm like, "Yeah," and he said, "And every time, it's been successful. Have you ever had a terrible, terrible show where everyone's hated it?" and I'm like, "No." I've had shows where some people loved it and some people were like ‘meh’, but I've never had a show where everyone's panned it. He was like, "So, it's unlikely it's going to happen then, isn't it?" and I was like, "But this might be the one," (laughs) that's the thing.
So I don't think I'll ever get to the point where I go, oh yeah, I'm really good at that, no problem. I just don't think I will. Yeah (laughs).

Anisa
Yeah, all that we've interviewed so far have actually said that.

Sarah
Have they? (Laughs) That's so interesting.

Anisa
Thank you for your honesty, Sarah. What qualities do you think make a good director?

Sarah
So I think a lot of the qualities that we don't talk about are actually about how you are with people. I think it's about your personal skills.
So, this idea that a director sits and has this grand vision and everyone serves that is not really my way of working. Of course you look at the play and you have a way of doing it and have thoughts around it, but I think a really skilled director knows how to be in the room and work with, maybe, twenty different people – creatives, actors, stage managers, technicians, all the people involved in putting it on – and knows how to communicate with each of those individually. Yes, knows how to get them behind you and move forward, but also knows, actually, this person needs this type of communication, this person needs that type of communication, and knows how to do that so that everybody's going in the same way and on the same page.
I think that's the most important thing because, if you can do that, then you can release their creativity, and if you can release their creativity and you can do that for everyone and they can do that for you, then actually, that's when you get something really exciting. I mean, yeah, I think that's the most important thing. Yeah.
Then I guess it is about, with your creative team, having that vision of what it's like and knowing your audience and thinking, actually, how is an audience going to respond to this, and testing things out and not being afraid to fail. Going through previews and having no ego, really, and going, okay, I thought that was going to work brilliant but, do you know what? It doesn't. Right, get rid of it. Let's try this. Let's try that. So yeah, I think they're the things for me.

Anisa
What drives you to do your job?

Sarah
It sounds a bit rubbish but changing the world (laughs). I don't see the point in doing theatre if you don't think you're going to have an impact.
So, at the moment I'm doing a production that's got professionals and a community company working side-by-side, and the impact on the community company, without a doubt, is massive. I'm just seeing these young people – and they're from all over Derby, some are disabled, some are deaf – but I'm just seeing their confidence rise and rise and rise and rise every rehearsal we do, which is wonderful. So I think that is the reason for doing it.
But I also think, when you put a play – let's call it a straight play – in the traditional form on stage, you only do it because you want the audience to go out talking about it. I don't want my audience to go out and go, "Oh, that was nice. Are we going to Pizza Express, or what?" (Laughs) Do you know what I mean? I want them to go out arguing about it, disagreeing about it, having a debate about it, and then for them to have shifted somehow and for them to either be angry at the play or love the play, but be having a conversation.
I think that's the same for whether you're making a show for three- to seven-year-olds or whether you're making a drama for older people. Ultimately, you want those audiences going out talking about it and then thinking about their place in the world in relation to it and how it might make you think differently, or the same, or reinforce, whatever. But I think that's what drives me.

Anisa
Yeah, and it's those conversations that audience members have that almost then fuels you to create more plays and more plays.

Sarah
Yeah, yeah, and the fact that we've got to be in dialogue, haven't we? That's what life's about. It's about having conversations and it's about challenging each other. And that's what theatre is. It's a two-way process, and that's why it's interesting, I think.

Anisa
Thank you. If you had to choose, what three words would you use to describe your job?

Sarah
Wow. Variable, if that's a word (laughs), because I think we do different things. My job is different every day. I never have the same day twice, ever. Oh, what else? Three words, yeah? I guess, emotional, because it is about people and I think, actually, if emotion is present, then that's really important. And fun.

Anisa
What is the difference between being a director and being an artistic director?

Sarah
Ooh, that's a good question. Well, the way I read that question is that being an artistic director is when you're in charge of the vision of a company or a building, as well as just a production.
So, my job as Artistic Director of Derby Theatre is not just to pick the shows I want to do, because we probably wouldn't have any audiences – (laughs) I've got very specific tastes – but my job is to serve my community as the Artistic Director of Derby Theatre. It's not about my ego, it's not about what I want to put on stage, it's about looking at the people of Derby and going, how can I make your theatre have the most civic presence that you want it to have? How can you engage and give you want you want, really, but also challenge you and also broaden your horizons, and also say something about the city and to the city and all of those things.
So I think, yeah, if I was just directing a show, then it's just, okay, it's about that show and what do we want to say with that show. But I think, as an artistic director of a building, you've got a bigger responsibility than that and to really serve your community as well.

Anisa
What do you most struggle with in directing, or find challenging?

Sarah
Probably confidence, I think, actually. I think that's the root of it all. I would say that whenever you come across a problem – and they're different in every show. So it might be that a particular actor is challenging for whatever reason, or a particular scene isn't quite working out or whatever – generally, when you trace it back, it comes back to you, or me, feeling unconfident in my own abilities or knowing that, actually, we'll find the answer. Do you know what I mean? I think that's probably the thing that is the kind of demon sometimes.

Anisa
What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't a director?

Sarah
When I was younger, I thought I might be a teacher, and then I realised it's really hard work (laughs). So, no.
What would I do? What would I do and could I do is probably different to what would I want to do. What I'd like to do is probably still something creative. I do a lot of writing, so maybe write something. Or I am very political, so I'd probably get involved in politics. Although, party politics I find a bit challenging. So yeah, maybe something like that, but I don't know.
But yeah, what I'd like to do is probably sit somewhere on a sunny island and just write books – (laughs) that'd be amazing – that people would actually want to read, rather than just my ramblings. Yeah (laughs).

Anisa
Was there anyone who gave you your big break or really championed you?

Sarah
I think there have been lots of people along the way who have supported me. I'm trying to think. I wouldn't say there's been anyone who's specifically gone, "Oh, here you go, here's an open door." In fact, I'd probably say most doors have been quite hard to push at, and I've had to push to get through them. But I would say that I've had people supporting me to push that door open, definitely.
Actually, a lot of those are even some of the people that you've been interviewing. They might not have pushed them directly but just in how they've talked to you or the encouragement that they give you, that kind of thing. Yeah, I'd say that, probably.

Anisa
When did the theatre become your career?

Sarah
I think your career begins as soon as you decide it does. So I think for me, when I was thirteen, I decided I wanted to work in theatre and that that was going to be my life. So actually, you could say, since then, that's what I've been working towards.
But I suppose, in reality, it was kind of after university and once I started getting paid for it, probably. (Laughs) Once someone gave me my first pay cheque and went, "There you go, there's your first pay cheque as an actor," I went, oh right, I get paid for this. Yeah.

Anisa
What gave you the confidence to pursue this as a career?

Sarah
Probably it came from my mum and dad. The way I was brought up was you don't have to be rich, you just have to be happy, and I think that always stuck with me. They worked incredibly hard in their jobs so that I was able to have a fairly good upbringing, and I feel very grateful to them for that. They were really supportive.
(Laughs) My dad does still sometimes say to me, "You could move into teaching. You could move into lecturing. You work at the theatre that's owned by the university, you could move into lecturing," because I think he sees that as more stable. But yeah, I think, really, my confidence came because my family supported me.

Anisa
That is really important.

Sarah
Yeah, it really is.

Anisa
What's been your biggest setback in your career?

Sarah
My biggest setback? Well, at the time there have been things that have felt like setbacks, but now, when I look back, there were loads of—
I remember there was a period when I was applying for, probably, every job in theatre in the country (laughs). I imagine all the shows in the country were like, "Oh, it's her again," (laughs) and I wasn't getting any of them. But now I look back and I go, a lot of the jobs I went for, actually, probably now I think, I dodged a bullet there. Like (laughs) I'm quite glad I didn't end up running that theatre or doing that job because that's not really me and maybe we didn't have the same kinds of values or whatever.
So I think when you're in the setback you go, this is the biggest setback, but I think once you get through it, you look back and you go, well, that was hard but, actually, it taught me lessons, and had that not have happened, then I wouldn't be where I am now.
I mean, you can have massive setbacks. So, two years ago, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer. You could go, oh my God, my life is over. Actually, it taught me loads, and I would say it even made me more certain about what it is I want to do.
Now I look back – and don't get me wrong, that was a really dark period of my life – but now I sit there and I look at it and I go, do you know what? I learned loads about myself. I learned loads about my friends and how much love and support I've got. I think I make better work now because I kind of go, do you know what? Nothing is as important as that, so (laughs) let's not worry about some little play.
So I think you can go through what feels like massive, massive setbacks and, once you get on the other side – you'll always get to the other side of it – when you get to the other side of it, you can look back and go, do you know what? It taught me something. Even though it was hard, it taught me something and it was worth it, I think.

Anisa
How did you cope at the time in certain setbacks when you were in them, and you did feel like, oh, this is huge? How did you cope with them?

Sarah
I don't know if I did (laughs). What were my coping strategies? I think, again, it's really easy to look at people and go, oh, because you're successful or because I deem you to be successful, then you've obviously dealt with it really well. The reality is, when you get setbacks, you cry (laughs), you eat too much junk food (laughs), you do all the things you shouldn't do, but you eventually get a point where you go, well, I've got two choices here. I either roll over and give up, or I just keep going. If you just keep going, you will get through it. If you put one foot in front of the other, you will get through to the other end. That's my take on it.

Anisa
What do you most enjoy about your job?

Sarah
Everything (laughs). I think I'm really lucky. I'm not going to lie. I wake up every morning and I love coming to work. I feel incredibly grateful and thankful for the job that I do. I love the team that I work with, the people that I work with.
I most enjoy opening doors for other people, actually. I most enjoy seeing a young person, a young artist, a young whoever, who's going, "Oh, I want to do that," and you go, "Oh," and I know that just by giving them a little bit of advice, that's going to take them twenty steps on. That's really rewarding, I think, yeah. But to be honest, pretty much everything.

Anisa
What isn't quite so important about your job?

Sarah
I suppose the millions of funding applications that I have to do (laughs). But even that, I quite enjoy doing it because when you have to explain your work to someone else, it gets you to think about it. So whilst it would be nice for funders just to give you millions of pounds to make the work that you want to make, actually I find it quite interesting and useful.
I suppose what's not good is the deadlines and the timeframes that we work to. That's challenging. So you've got to make a play in this amount of time, or you've got to apply for this funding by this point, and all those deadlines, quite often, don't nicely come one at a time. You're often hitting maybe ten or eleven deadlines all at the same time, and that can become really stressful. Yeah, I suppose that's probably the least enjoyable thing.

Anisa
I would like to talk to you about the changes in the industry for women. What have you noticed?

Sarah
I've noticed that we talk about it a lot more. So that's good. I've noticed that people are now aware that it's a problem, but I'm not sure we're close to solving it yet. That would be my answer, hmm.

Anisa
What are the advantages of being a woman in your role?

Sarah
I think it gives you a way of— You know, you're informed by whatever it is that you are, whether that's your class, your sexuality, your gender, all of those things. So it gives you a way of looking at the world or looking at a play, or whatever.
There's one particular play that's got, centrally to it, a mother/daughter relationship, and every time I go to see it directed by a man, I feel they get it wrong because I feel like, actually, you can't know what that relationship is. I think women know that relationship with a mother in a way that, actually, men maybe don't understand. And maybe the converse is true as well, but I don't know because that's not my world.
So yeah, I think it informs how you look at the world.

Anisa
What are the disadvantages?

Sarah
I think society, the industry, puts barriers in your way, without a doubt. I think certain doors are closed. I think there is a glass ceiling, and whilst maybe that glass ceiling is getting raised a little bit, I think it's very definitely still there.

Anisa
Would you say these disadvantages are also another source of fuel or energy to drive you to do your job?

Sarah
Yeah.

Anisa
And push through those barriers?

Sarah
Yeah, definitely. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, if someone tells me I can't do something, then I'm like, I think I can (laughs), come on. Yeah, definitely.

Anisa
If you had a magic wand and could change one thing in the industry, what would it be?

Sarah
Pfft, wow! I suppose— Oh wow, let me think about that. I guess it would be lifting people's prejudices, generally, kind of about everything (laughs). Do you know what I mean? Yeah, just helping people to understand that it's all right to cast – I don't know – a black actor and a white actor and they can be sisters. Because you know what? It's theatre (laughs), we can believe that, and it happens also. Yeah, it's okay for a woman to play Hamlet. Yeah, I guess it would be just to make people a bit more open to change.

Anisa
What's your greatest achievement?

Sarah
There's loads of stuff I'm really proud of. It's really hard to boast and it's really hard (laughs) to pick one thing that you go, oh yeah, that's it.
I hope what my greatest achievement is that people walk away from interacting with me and feel that I'm generous and can inspire them. Do you know what I mean? I think your impact on other people has to be your greatest achievement. If those people walk away going, "Oh yeah, I really loved that show," or, "I really felt like Sarah gave me an opportunity there," or whatever, then that has to be your greatest achievement.
There are certain shows that I've directed that I've gone, I'm really proud of that one, but yeah, I think your greatest achievement has to be a bit more than that. It's really hard to go ‘it's that’, if that makes sense.

Anisa
Is there a production that you are most proud of?

Sarah
Yeah. Well, I don't know if it's a production that I'm most proud of but there are productions that I've really loved directing.
So, ironically (laughs), given what we're talking about, when I directed Look Back in Anger, I loved directing it. So, Look Back in Anger – I don't know if you know it – is known as a pretty misogynistic, sexist play, but it's kind of a classic text and, supposedly, they talk about it being the first time that they put a working-class character on stage. Prior to that, it was all drawing rooms and whatever. But I loved directing it. Whether it's the show that I'm most proud of – do you know what I mean? – or whether I think it's my most successful show, is slightly different. So there's that show.
Then there was also a show that I did here called Solace of the Road, which was really amazing because we worked with young people in care and a professional company. That just felt really special because it felt like we were telling a story that really mattered. So I really enjoyed that.
But then I also think about some of the Youth Theatre productions I directed, especially when I was back at York Theatre Royal. Yeah, again, in terms of the impact, I think there are certain shows that we did there that really helped a lot of young people feel really confident in their future.

Anisa
That's lovely. Thank you. How would you suggest a young person can get into this industry?

Sarah
I think joining a Youth Theatre is the first thing they should do (laughs), without a doubt. By Youth Theatre, I mean if you're looking for a Youth Theatre, you should be looking for something that isn't there just to teach you to sing and dance but is interested in your self-expression and what you have to say. That's the difference, I think, between a Youth Theatre and a stage school. A Youth Theatre can do all the other things, like supporting your acting and your skills, but it should, first and foremost, be about actually looking at you as an individual and helping you express yourself. That's the first and foremost thing.
Then if they're in Derby, get in touch with Derby Theatre, because that's what we're here for. If they're in another city, then go and bang on the door of their theatre, because that's what their theatre should be there for. Yeah, that's what I would say.

Anisa
What advice would you give your younger self?

Sarah
Know that, one way or another, it will work out. Just keep doing it and keep believing in yourself. You can afford to believe in yourself a bit more.