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Spotlight: Leading Change and Managing the Weight of History

Martin Russell took on a new leadership role as Head of Learning and Participation at Mercury Theatre in Colchester. Here, he reflects on the challenges of becoming a new cultural leader and inspiring others to get on board with organisational change.

The Mercury Theatre has been on its current site in Colchester for 43 years and the Community and Education programme was established 20 years ago by the, then, Associate Director.  Fast forward to the present day and I am the new Head of Learning and Participation at the Mercury Theatre, at a point where the leadership team are establishing their new artistic vision for the organisation.

Mercury Theatre youth production
Photo: Robert Day

I’m not a big fan of Bob Dylan. At school, my history teacher would deliver assemblies where he would illustrate the point of his talk with a poignant choice from his extensive vinyl collection of American protest folk. It was the early nineties and I preferred the riffs of Smells Like Teen Spirit to Dylan's twang.  Looking back, it's unfortunate that my grunge addled teenage brain misinterpreted what my history teacher was doing. It's a shame that my synapses for Bob Dylan appreciation were fused closed forever back when I was a 12 year old boy.

However, one Dylan song did get through to me…Times They Are a-Changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

Cultural Leader Spotlight: Martin Russell

Now, as Head of learning and Participation, Dylan's words have been rolling on repeat in my head...interspersed by All About Dat Bass.

In my short time in post, I have met co-workers, ex-employees, audience members, teachers and regional partners who have a range of anecdotes about what the theatre was, its successes and what it used to do. In these early months, I have learnt that the weight of history can appear to be a burden -  but it is only an apparition. It is transparent and holding no solid form.

It’s not about the past, it’s about the present and seeing change on the horizon. Change brings uncertainty, the unknown and we have to hold on to something familiar and recognisable.

I want to inspire people to join me on this journey, to get excited by the adventure.

As a new cultural leader, I have a responsibility to develop and change the Learning and Participation offer at the Mercury Theatre – to set off down the new road. But, unlike Dylan, I don’t ask people to get off the road if they don’t want to lend a hand. I want to inspire people to join me on this journey, to get excited by the adventure.

As a leader I have to find different methodologies for the range of people I work with. I have to find ways that support them to develop and change - so that they are active rather than passive. I would like people to be not merely accepting of change but to become the vehicles for change themselves.

Another thing I have learnt as a new cultural leader is that it is alright not to have all answers all of the time.  It’s not possible after all.  I’m not interested in being the 'Sage on the Stage', I prefer being the 'Guide on the Side' – the conduit to understanding rather than the figurehead of it.

As we travel down this road together I am learning as well. It's good to ask questions… the future is where we will find the answers.

Written by Martin Russell, Head of Learning & Participation, Mercury Theatre

More In The Spotlight

The Royal Opera House Bridge Spotlight is a selection of stories, profiles and provocations from inspiring leaders in cultural learning across Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and North Kent. Explore more…

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