> > Michael Lynch & Cathy Woolley video clip

Michael Lynch & Cathy Woolley video clip

Transcript of Michael Lynch and Cathy Woolley interview for Sync

ML I’m Michael Lynch, Chief Executive of the South Bank Centre.

CW I’m Cathy Woolley, Participation Producer at the South Bank Centre. I come from a long line of deaf people in my family so there was always the chance that I would become deaf as well.

ML Did you know that?

CW Yes, but in a very happily positive way!

ML Because your mother was deaf.

CW Yeah my mum was deaf, and I thought my mum was brilliant, I don’t have any memory of being afraid of becoming deaf at all. It was first noted that at about 5 years old my hearing was a bit lower than average but nothing to be worried about until I hit 11 and it started to go down, I wasn’t able to catch everything that people were saying, but I was still quite positive about the whole thing. Great, okay, I’m becoming deaf! Bizarrely! But, when I went through the process of going to hospital and dealing with social workers and going through their processes, it stopped being a family thing, it becomes…

ML You become some part of the system.

CW Yes, so I went through difficult times for several years after that, not necessarily dealing with my deafness and accepting my identity, but dealing with other peoples’ responses to my deafness.

ML And, did there come a point where you were able to recognise yourself that you were deaf?

CW Yes, we’re very adaptable, but what is more difficult is dealing with other people’s issues or other people’s responses. The initial response of social workers, for example, was that I was making it up because I was so happy about becoming deaf that I must have been completely disillusioned! It took about 2 years to convince them and various child psychologists that I was actually deaf! And that was really strange. That process, it’s very different now, I have to convince people that I am capable of managing things. At that point it was convincing people that I was deaf and needed support. So there has always been a running theme of being able to persuade people that I’m this or that.

ML That’s a very different experience [to mine] because I had polio when I was 3, and I went into hospital for a year and was paralysed from the chest down for a large part of that year, and interesting enough, you can talk about your parts of the journey. I remember nothing from when I was born to when I was 3 and I remember only one day about the year in hospital, which was the day I left and so I think that probably was a very different story in terms of the evolution of where we have got ourselves to now.

CW When you went to school when you were younger, was it just your parent involved in deciding what happened or were other people? Do you remember any doctors or…

ML I remember lots of doctors after coming out of hospital. I was 4 then and I guess I went to school when I was 5, 5 and a half, round about then. The doctors were sort of in the background, it was quite clear that I wore callipers on both legs but then went to one leg, then going to school was an interesting experience because it was a school where I think I was the only person who wasn’t fitting the norm of what 5 or 6 year olds should look like or how they behaved.

CW Did you have friends at school? Did you find it easy to mix?

ML Yeah, I think I always found it quite easy to mix. One of my friends, the one I remember most vividly, he used to have a big Labrador. He was very big and very fat, but my friend used to take me to school on the big Labrador’s back, so people were recognising quite early on that I needed some sort of assistance and at that point I think that’s how I went along with that.

CW My partner is also deaf and his experiences at school were fine, he was able to mix quite well, but I always struggled with that, the idea of learning how to mix with people. It didn’t come naturally to me at all.

ML That’s one of the interesting things, what I did at school over the period of time, was try very hard to pretend that there was nothing wrong and that I wasn’t wearing a calliper and I was able to do things. So I spent most of my early school years, I think, denying that there was anything wrong. So I would try and run and then fall over! I’d play cricket and be hopeless! I played football. I did lots of things trying to compensate for what all the other kids were doing. Which I think probably was part of the development of my personality and the development of who I was and its probably why it took me such a long time to admit to myself, and be able to be much more open with the outside world, that I had a disability, because for a long period of time I pretended that I didn’t.


ML Thinking about the people that have had an influence on it obviously your mother was a big influence on you. My parents were incredibly supportive but they had never had to be involved with anyone with a disability and so that was a very different experience, and I suppose I took a very particular view because polio was something that was around and it was the end of the time in Australia where people were getting polio, I was in the last epidemic. I would look at people and think, “Oooh, Roosevelt, he had polio, he is sort of a role model” and, I suppose, I was much more isolated to people that I knew had some connection with polio rather than more generally around the place. What about you? Obviously your mother was a very powerful influence…

CW But she was also a very powerful influence in how, the people that she interacted with… We were surrounded, when I was growing up, surrounded with disabled people; weird and wonderful and funny successful people of all shapes and sizes! So I was constantly aware that disability didn’t necessarily need to be a bad part of life.

ML You see, that was a very different experience because I can’t… I think all the time when I was in secondary school there was only one other boy there who had any obvious disability and he was a thalidomide child. So from that point of view we were, we could connect to each other in some way, but it was a very different experience. And I guess that to some extent, growing up in Australia, the physical side of what life was about was incredibly important so once again that whole thing about what physically you could do. I was pretending, I suppose, that I was no different from any of the others.

ML How did it go when… let’s get out of school and into the rest of the world! Were there other people you came into contact with that made a big impact on you?

CW Strangely, keeping it in the family again, my sister was a very important influence. She had also gone deaf but much later on in life. I got quite insulated in what they call the ‘deaf community’ so I wasn’t sure of how to advance my career but through watching her, even though she wasn’t deaf at that point, she was very much in the underground arts scene in London. So I used to copy her and go to her parties and follow her around. And that was very important to make me aware of things that most deaf people found very difficult to access, social networking, professional networking. I also had a strong role model with the person who gave me my first job, after university. To this day, we are still good friends and she runs a business called Deafworks, she’s the director of probably the most successful running deaf organisation/business in the UK. And just by seeing her, how she has managed to set up a business and be respected as a business woman...

ML And a really good role model for you, see that, once again, is a very different experience because I don’t think I was even conscious through all of that period of time. I was very conscious really in more recent times, probably more so here. I think one of the more powerful influences in the last couple of years on me was an Australian woman I met, Gill Hicks, the woman who lost both legs in the London bombings, because it happened here, two days after we closed the Royal Festival Hall, and I still find her ability to deal with a changed set of circumstances very inspirational and I can only admire her courage. And it made me think really hard about if you are a leader, or in some position of prominence, that there is a responsibility that sits with you to try and address a lot of those situations that other people who have had to deal with much more difficult situations and how you can find ways of helping them confront that, and she is probably, if you can still learn at 57, which I think you can! She has been a quite profound influence over the past years, watching the way she dealt with, well, a bad choice of train.


ML I suppose I have been a leader for 25 years, I’ve had 5 different jobs where I was nominally ‘the leader’. How it happened I’m not sure, I really don’t know how it happened until one day, after being a follower, someone said “you know, you could become a leader” and I suppose the things that I think about are that good leaders have people’s respect, people want to talk too, that people feel comfortable with, those sort of qualities are the things that I have tried to do.

ML But in terms of learning about leadership, it can happen in all sorts of different places and I’m sure that the thing that I learnt most was that every time I did it, in each of the 5 jobs when I was in charge, the ‘boss’, but each time I did it I learnt so much about that job, that next time I actually knew something, then next time, I knew something more, and then next time I knew something more and it has been a really interesting experience just building on that. So I think in many ways I’m coming at the end of the spectrum, and it’s really good in the way that you have done different things, going in and doing some of your projects. Leading a creative project is just as relevant, and doing that programme that you did on the Tube with all of those people and all of those stakeholders, is really important, and that’s where I think it’s not just about being a boss. The first time I was supposedly a leader I don’t think I knew anything. Leading creative projects is probably as important as leading organisations and I think that is where the leadership thing is really important.

CW Well, after university I had the idea of being an artist but there were few opportunities where I could access galleries or training courses so in the end I just got a group of deaf people in the mini bus and drove them up to the Lake District, got them all out of the bus, told them to get on with it! And we got back in the bus, drove all the way back to London and had a massive exhibition in the Candid Art Gallery and so that was my first experience of people will follow you if you have a good idea. It was also my first experience of when you put your neck out, people can be quite critical as well. I was able to have confidence in myself. I didn’t think it would work, I’m not allowed to take a group of people up in a mini bus, silly things like that, people would say! So it is important to have courage.

ML But I think all those things you have done are really important steps and I think you build on that, you build on the experiences. I remember one of the trickiest things I did was, in talking to people, staff, within the organisation at the Opera House, the day after 9/11, when the Towers had come down, and everyone was so traumatised and it was one of those days when you thought someone had to be there to talk to those people about what’s happened. And I guess that was one of the times where I felt I was, actually was, the leader because I was the one who had to stand up and articulate the feelings of 400 people about something that no one could understand. And I think it’s exactly the same sort of thing where you sometimes have to be picked out or walk out in front; that becomes an important part that says that you can do it in different circumstances.


CW I didn’t have any expectations about the South Bank, in terms of access and what that would be like, because I know not to have any from previous experiences in starting in a job - you don’t know until you get there. But I was pleasantly surprised about how it has been, how the team and the line manager have been, in terms of understanding and doing their homework before I got there as to how to talk to me as an individual, asking me what I needed. But South Bank itself is an accessible place because it’s like a park, a public park. People can come in, interact. It’s as good as it can be in terms of access to the arts programme at the moment but…

ML In our earlier conversations I think that what you bring to the place is a sensibility and sensitivity to the way the place might work and the future. I would say quite critically of myself in the roles that I have played, that I haven’t been thinking enough about the issues. I’ve thought about the access issue in terms of making the spaces work, from working at the Opera House in Sydney and then working here, I was absolutely determined that if you were going to spend 100 million pounds on fixing up this place then you had to make sure that it worked for all sorts of people because of its tradition and that everyone deserved the right to be able to experience it, but I think the interesting thing in our conversation has been about the programme, what’s the behaviour of people, what are the opportunities. If I really want to get on in the arts world I need to be able to deal with the idea of going to parties and going to first nights of open things of shows. It’s this sort of sensibility that your experience will being into this organisation and that’s why I think its going to be really important, that you can engage - not just your team but with the rest of the organisation - and that’s where I think your influence on the organisation will be very important as we go forward. I think we have solved most of the physical access problems except concerts in the hall. On Friday night we did a fantastic concert with Goldfrapp, and a lot of the audience stood up and got told to sit down Security and then Alison from Goldfrapp said “stand up” and everyone stood up and people in their wheelchairs couldn’t see the stage, so it’s something that you continually think about it, from people’s rights to see the show, but sometimes it doesn’t quite work out, I haven’t fixed that one yet, we will have to talk about it.

CW I think sometimes there is a fear when you are deaf of disabled that if you bring deaf and disabled people with you when you access a mainstream environment your disability will be focused on rather than your particular area of work, but I have never let that fear take over. I have always kept the door open once I’ve got my foot in. With Hampton Court Palace and, even though my job wasn’t about access, I tried to insure that access was shaken up because I didn’t want to go to work every day knowing that my family and friends couldn’t access it. So it meant I had to make sure that it happened. I think 3 years after I left, they’re still doing access for deaf people, they have a forum for disabled people. So when I left it was still going on.

ML I think that insight that you can bring to an organisation, or any disabled person can bring to an organisation, of both the community that they have both lived and worked in and that they understand, will just make places like this much better. There is that extraordinary insight that you have brought to this place, I think, even in a short period of time. I think, in some ways I would say that, this building now works for a whole lot of people. Early in the piece I realised that this building, while it was being built, that there weren’t a lot of people out there who were really concerned about those questions, architects don’t really know, and a lot of other people… We have loads of good people I think, who are in tune to getting that balance right, and I think the building and organisation are much better off on both sides of the equation.

CW I think we already have a good track record here of working with disabled people and we just don’t make a point out of it, we don’t present it. Maybe we should have a platform, maybe, for disabled artists. If their work is political, for example. We should try and promote that more because that should set us up as a leading organisation in terms of disabled people, it’s not just about ramps.