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Rachel Bagshaw in conversation with Jenny Sealey

Rachel Bagshaw, Training and Learning Manager at Graeae is preparing to take on the biggest challenge of her career as Assistant Director at the Young Vic. In this case study she discusses leadership authenticity, style and learning with her current boss, Jenny Sealey. Rachel is a member of Sync Intensives - a leadership and coaching programme for 15 individuals running from April - November 2010.

Rachel Shall we start at our beginnings and the journey we've had to date? I do think my perception of myself as a disabled person has been formed differently because of my own journey with becoming disabled. Do you think that’s true of you as well?

Jenny I think I only allowed myself to be deaf when I left college as my friends were all the ‘we don’t think of you as deaf variety'. It was a huge relief when I started to met deaf people and learnt to sign. I felt as if I had come home. I still have all the bad habits developed from being in an all hearing environment most of my life, like nodding sagely as if I know what is going on when inside I am frantically trying to catch up. I am, even after 39 years of being deaf, still scared to say pardon as often as I need too.

Simon at work on his computer (wearing a padded jacket). The photo is in black and white.

Rachel I think I also went on a similar journey; in some ways, I stayed in a non-disabled environment for such a long time so I didn’t have to confront the change in my circumstances. I wonder sometimes if I would feel differently if I hadn’t gradually become disabled – if it had happened instantly in some way, or from birth. But because it was a slow process over several years in some ways that gave me time to adjust to my new reality. It also caused lots of frustration – practical things like giving up dance which I did to start off with, but also frustration with my new body and how it altered things.

Jenny I think because your body is constantly changing you do have the added issue of continual adjustment but you are so much clearer about how you manage this and you have a new found honesty about yourself which can only be a good thing. You need to hang on to this!

Rachel It’s funny when we start to talk about leadership. You’re a very natural leader. I’m not sure I always see myself as a leader. I think I see how, as a director, I facilitate other people, which I suppose is leadership in a sense, but it’s only really in the last couple of years, I’ve started to see that leadership is not only about managing people but also about creating pathways.

Jenny It is always hard to think of oneself as a leader when you are a director because directing is leading people on a journey. I think as women we view the terminology of words like CEO or Leader etc, as very male and it is only sometimes, in retrospect or because of recognition from others that we go 'oh yes I suppose I did lead that'.

Simon at work on his computer (wearing a padded jacket). The photo is in black and white.

Rachel Working with you has had a tremendous impact on the way I view myself and has definitely increased my confidence to lead, whatever that may be. Your style is, in some ways, the opposite of mine – and that has really helped me to grow. You’re a much bigger presence I would say and a force to be reckoned with.

Jenny At the risk of repeating myself, I do believe that your confidence to direct and lead your Training and Learning department has happened in tandem with our dialogue around supporting you to recognise that you call the shots in line with your understanding of how your body works and managing your pain and fatigue. You have learnt and are still learning that these elements of your life do impact on you but you have to work around it positively i.e. shorter rehearsal days and flexible working hours etc. This knowledge has given you the freedom to get right inside that creative mind of yours and let that lead you.

Rachel It has been a slow process! I’ve thought a lot about how I have gone on endless pain management courses and learned all these techniques, but somehow failed to apply them to my working life. Working, for me, is so much a part of my pain management that sometimes I think I immerse myself in it rather more than I need to. It’s tough because working is so exhausting for me, but then when I’ve tried working part time in some way I’ve found that even harder. It’s a long learning curve and one that I still think I’m on.

Jenny It's felt a huge learning curve and at times, as you well know, I have found it so frustrating to get you to listen to me!!!!!! But now you own who you are much more positively than you did when you joined us. This acceptance means that you are empathetic and it has given you a drive for equality and ambition for others too. This is where your leadership is beginning to flourish as you are looking at the big picture and seeing others in that picture. You are taking others on your journey.

Rachel It’s funny because that’s how I see you – that you take others on that journey too. That’s why you’ve managed to change so much through your time at Graeae. Your drive has created such an enormous impact on the disability arts sector and across the whole theatre industry.

Jenny I think we have been on a big journey together with frustrations, conflict and angst but also with creative fun, frolics and humour. We are both older and wiser and much more accepting that we are not always right and that difference of opinion is a healthy thing. I have been struggling to work out who I am as CEO and Artistic Director and so sometimes get so caught up in my own wee world and have at times not been there to support you. This has meant, at times, I have just thrown you in at the deep end and my god you can swim!!! I also think I have at times deliberately given you space (whilst keeping my eye on things) to work it out for yourself and make the mistakes you have needed to make in order to learn and move on.

Rachel I think that I’ve learned to take more risks from my time working with you – that’s one of the ways your leading is so inspiring. I've watched the way you always surround yourself with people whose opinions matter to you – and you listen to them. Sometimes we don’t always appreciate the importance of this. I think that’s partly what marks us out as different from male directors - women are often less prescriptive and more open to collaboration with actors. I know that being a wheelchair user has massively impacted on the way I direct – I have to sit still rather than move around the space too much as I get very tired, so this makes me more focused in the way I work.

Jenny Being deaf has most definitely shaped how I direct. I need the work to be accessible for me in the first instance as that is my starting point in a way. I have developed a real knack of ‘reading bodies/faces so even when I cannot hear an actor’s voice I can sort of judge if they are being truthful or not. I think being an actor has also been important because I do understand what it is like for an actor and as a deaf actor I know the frustrations of hearing actors forgetting their visual cues. I never ever had ‘director’ on my agenda. I was a jobbing actor and workshop facilitator. Getting involved with directing was a revelation. I never thought I would enjoy it or be any good at it. I absolutely love it although it seriously terrifies me too!

Rachel I don’t know how much being disabled has inhibited my leadership – or my ability to see myself as such. It’s difficult to quantify this I think. I know that there are often access obstacles – physical and otherwise – that sometimes get in the way of me forging a path for myself. But I do think that in a way my experience as a disabled woman has also had a hugely positive effect on the way that I work. I think I am a lot more empathetic as a result – I hope so at least!

Jenny I have also been very clear that I carry the can when needed and being a 'leader' means you carry the good the bad and the ugly and it is through mistakes and going to battle that you really try and test your strengths.

Rachel Writing the article I’ve done for Sync this month has raised lots of questions for me – but also highlighted how entwined being disabled is with who I am and where I’m going. I think I maybe don’t always think that – sometimes I choose to ignore it as well – but it definitely does have an impact. Sometimes, I think working for a disabled-led organisation can mean that I feel I have to get it right – that we need to be the leading lights in terms of how disabled people can be within the industry. But it’s OK if we don’t – we’re still experimenting ourselves.

Jenny When teenagers say that when they grow up everything will seem clearer and easier, I despair. Being an adult is so complicated and fraught with responsibilities, we actually find it hard to advise and support young people because we are so caught up in trying to manage and make sense of our own lives. I sometimes feel the same at Graeae. There is a huge pressure to get it RIGHT at Graeae and I so agree with you that we are still experimenting. I think it is important that we always get as much practical and artistic advice from deaf and disabled VIPs to ensure that we are creating an accessible experience. I think as women we are much more open to asking for advice but at Graeae access is core to the process. When you are at the Young Vic you need to be extremely careful that you are not the person who has to answer everything on access. You are a Assistant Director, not an access officer. You will also have the added pressure of being the first ever disabled person with such a prestigious job at a major theatre company. Enjoy the challenge and know that I am always there for you if you need me.

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