SOPHIE ROBERTS

SOPHIE ROBERTS
Artistic Director – Silo Theatre
unnamedI grew up in Auckland on the North Shore, but went to a steiner school in Ellerslie. I always enjoyed drama at school, but definitely wasn’t a kid who always wanted to be an actor. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished high school so I moved overseas and travelled around until I was twenty-one. After coming back to New Zealand I applied for Toi Whakaari and soon realised, this is what I’m meant to be doing and this is where I’m meant to be. Before that point it was never something I was particularly driven to do, I was just lucky that I ended up in the right place.

Within a few months of being at Toi Whakaari, I quickly realised that I was not just interested solely in performance. I loved performing but didn’t like everything that came with being a performer, in terms of really having no agency unless you’re making your own work and driving your own projects. I didn’t like the idea of a whole bunch of other people getting to decide the direction that my career went in. So outside of studying, I started a theatre collective with Dutch Director, Willem Wassenaar, Colleen Davis, Dan Musgrove and Matt Whelan and we started putting on our own works.

I never trained as a director, I just learnt on the job. Directing is quite an invisible process and directors can be quite private and secretive with their process, which isn’t very helpful for people learning. We don’t have a lot of mentorships for people directing in this country either, so I think a lot of people just learn by stumbling their way through and making a lot of mistakes, which is what I did.

The best thing about Toi Whakaari, for me, was the people that I met there. Because they’re the people that I still work with now. I think I somewhat struggled with being in an institution, but being immersed in a creative environment 24/7 was pretty amazing. I just loved making work with my peers.

We started really small scale, as a bunch of mates making shows, but then after a few years, the scale of the work that we were making grew and we ended up doing fairly big scale productions down in Wellington. Through that company we formed, I learnt how every aspect of a production functions. From being responsible for a big group of people to getting money. It’s pretty tough and it was even tougher back then because we were twenty-four years of age and taking on all of the financial risk. We had no money, we were in massive amounts of debt, so the stakes were really high if something were to fail. But all of those skills are definitely things I now use in my job at Silo, a lot.

When I came to Silo Theatre, Shane Bosher, the founding Artistic Director had been running the company for thirteen years. When you’re coming into a company where the founder is leaving, it is very much formed around their artistic identity. Shane is a close friend of mine and he was a great mentor to me, but it was very much a process of me putting my own stamp on the company. Programming is quite personal and it does reflect your own interests, curiosities and where a person is at to a large degree. So I definitely think the artistic direction has shifted as I’ve become more comfortable with feeling like I can make the company my own, in my time here.

There has been a bit of a theatre boom in Auckland recently. I remember when I first came back after living in Wellington for five years and The Basement had really only just started. Silo had just left that space, so until The Basement started there wasn’t really anywhere to put work on. Independently you could put shows on in art galleries and weird spaces around town, but now with The Basement and Q Theatre, there’s so much more work and so many more practitioners, which is awesome! It is definitely a different landscape to what it used to be.

My responsibility in a general sense as the Artistic Director is to deliver the artistic vision for the company. There’s two of us that run the organisation, myself and our executive director who is like the producer. We do everything from the programming of the work to the selection of the creative team attached to the work, casting and commissions. Anything that is related to the artistic space is my responsibility. Then on top of that, I direct normally about half of the works as well, so it is a lot of hard work! You’re programming about eighteen months in advance at any given time so that can be quite challenging. There’s no guide book on how to do that, so you’re kind of having to crystal ball gaze a little about what conversations are going to be important or relevant in a year and a half, which can definitely be tricky.

Moving into this role I was hyper aware of the age and gender thing. I had just turned thirty when I got this job, so I wasn’t super young, but at the time I was the youngest and only female Artistic Director of a major theatre company in New Zealand and I’m still the only female, which is fucked. That fact made me much more protective of myself in terms of who I spent time with and who I gave energy to, because inevitably there’s built in sexism and backlash. Much of these directing roles are still held by old white men, so there’s a feeling of not having immediate authority as a woman. You have to work much harder for it, because it’s not a given when you walk into a room that you’re the leader. I think that made me compensate in certain areas and ape a kind of male style of leadership to prove myself because I was younger and a woman.

This industry is an interesting one. On the one hand, if theatre is operating well, it should be right at the forefront of leading cultural change. However, in many ways it is not very progressive at all, particularly when it comes to questions around leadership. There is still a very non-inclusive group of people that hold all of the power. It’s a problem all over the world, not just New Zealand. Look at the stats around female directors across film, television and theatre, they’re so low. But I’ve noticed there has been conversations around this lately in the UK and The States and as a result of that awareness in the media and the industry, there has been a small shift. So as long as these conversations continue, that’s key, because a few years ago, nothing was being said.

Part of our mandate at Silo is that we only do contemporary work. It has to speak to the present moment in some way, shape or form. We’re not here doing Shakespeare because that’s not our function in the city and ecology of Auckland. We’re always looking for work that is going to give audiences access to big questions about the world that we live in now. I’m really conscious in my programming, as a feminist, to make sure that there is storytelling where women are at the centre and that they are both politically charged and socially conscious.

It’s all about choosing your tribe. I’ve never experienced any competitiveness because I’ve always been surrounded by a group of artists, particular female artists who really like to elevate each other as opposed to being competitive artists. That is definitely out there if you want to tap into it, but I just personally choose not to engage with it, because I find it toxic and unhelpful. I’m all for people challenging each other to do their best work and pushing each other forward, but I do think that kindness can be quite a rare thing in our industry. The older I get and the longer I’m in this industry, the more people I see damaged or burnt out by it. This industry is really hard and it’s full of quite sensitive human beings who are trying to achieve things, often under a lot of pressure. That can take a bit of a human toll, so I’m definitely drawn to giving my energy to artists who practice generosity of the spirit.

I’m inspired by so many people. I think there’s a lot of great female theatre makers at the moment. In terms of my development, Willem Wassenaar was hugely influential in my life, also Shane Bosher, in terms of being the first person that really gave me the opportunity as a young director. I’m inspired by people that make work which pushes us forward and by people that are generous, open-hearted and have a general interest in elevating other artists. There’s a lot of people in our industry that really do champion those ideas of opening doors for other people.

The thing is, you really have to love the work. It’s hard and you’re not going to make money out of it. It is a struggle, so if you don’t feel a real true sense of purpose in the work, I don’t think you’re going to sustain a career. The first thing to work out is why you want to do it. What are your reasons and do they go deep enough. Have good relationships, don’t be a dick, treat people well and find your tribe. Finding a group of like-minded artists and people that you want to make work with is the key, because those relationships really sustain and nourish you over the course of a career, which is a long time. Theatre is a very collaborative art form, you’re not alone as the sole generator of the content that you’re creating, so the way you work with people is kind of everything.

Success is interesting. When a group of people have worked really hard on a project together, it it awesome for their work to be recognised, but some of the works that I feel most successful in, as an artist, are not necessarily the most commercially successful works. They’re the works where I shifted or achieved something I didn’t think I could do. For me, I define success as knowing that I’ve challenged myself, my team has grown and are happy and we had a good experience. You can have a show that goes really well and sells lots of tickets, but at the end of it, if the team wasn’t quite right or you haven’t evolved in some way, then I don’t feel like that is necessarily a success.

The great thing about being an art maker in this country, is that it’s pretty accessible to make work here. There is access to space and audiences and it’s not as difficult as it is in some of the bigger countries and bigger centres to have a go. One thing I really love about being an artist in New Zealand is that we seem to embrace wearing many hats in our careers. The roles are much clearly more defined overseas, you’re either a director or an actor, whereas in New Zealand it is okay to have a much more diverse skill set. There is definitely a fighter spirit in New Zealand artists that is rare and special and I think our perspective is very unique because we are so isolated. The work that comes out of this country is really interesting because our artists are so multi-faceted.

When I was younger I wanted to be an artist in Berlin, like everybody does, but now I feel very committed to New Zealand. I feel like there is still work to do here and I wonder if I would feel as connected to that purpose if I lived overseas. That’s not to say I would write off moving overseas, because there is definitely a ceiling in New Zealand, but hopefully the industry keeps evolving and we are able to hold onto our artists, because this is a great place to make work.


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