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Nancy Webster on the value of internships, mentors, and female leadership in the performing arts

An arts manager and theatre champion whose career spans decades, Nancy Webster has made an incredible mark on Toronto’s theatre community. She has held key leadership roles at the Toronto Fringe Festival and the Factory Theatre, and is now the executive director at Young People’s Theatre (YPT).

In 2003, Webster received a Metcalf grant to study labour relations and participate in negotiations during a six-month placement at the Stratford Festival. She is currently a Support Lead for the Foundation’s 2014 Creative Strategies Incubator.

This spring, Webster’s commitment to strengthening the performing arts and mentoring its future leaders was acknowledged with two major awards: the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts’ Leonard McHardy and John Harvey Award, and the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres’ Mallory Gilbert Awardfor which she named Katie Pounder as her protégé.

We sat down with Webster to discuss her recent awards, the changing face of theatre administration, and how for her, mentorship is a natural extension of performing arts activism.

What did it mean to you to be so enthusiastically recognized by your community with these recent awards?

Awards are really nice, but the nicest part of it is the people who nominated you. It was extra special, because many were people that I had mentored over the years. And then there were also people who talked about how I acted as a mentor to them, when really, I’d say it was them who mentored me. That was a wonderful feeling.

But on the other hand, if you start to win a bunch of awards, you start to think, “Oh, I guess this is a lifetime achievement? Is it all over?” I’ve hit that age I suppose, but it’s still very pleasant.

Do you think mentorship takes on a unique value in the performing arts?

I feel very strongly that there aren’t as many opportunities nowadays for arts administrators to receive training on the job, as compared to 20 years ago. I could be statistically wrong, but I really don’t think so. I remember Mallory Gilbert herself telling me that that’s how they staffed their organizations back in her day. There were all these apprentice grants that came from the federal and provincial governments. But all those things have gone away, and what’s replaced them are brief summer student programs. People have no means of getting into the industry, getting that hands-on experience, and making more than just subsistence wages.

We need to train our next generation of administrators because they are the people that can actually make happen what these artists want to do. We need to be training the people that will have my job in a few years. Positions like associate general manager, like associate producer, are rarities these days.

Due to budgetary restrictions?

Yes, though it comes down to where you put the money that you do have. We’re most often putting it with fundraising staff, because their coveted talents make them expensive. I’ve even seen it at Metcalf in the internship program. Often the applications were for “artist-producers,” or “artistic and producing directors.” A combination title. And in the application, they would refer to the administration in an off-hand way. “I’m an artist and I’d like to create my own work, and to do that, I guess I’ll learn some administration.” No offence to artists learning administrative techniques, I think it’s incredibly important for artists to have a strong understanding of the business side of things, but wouldn’t it be great if we had some brilliant administrators who just want to be administrators? And just want to support those artists in achieving their goals?

Beyond a clear passion for theatre administration, what attracts you to potential mentees?

One aspect of it is that I feel really strongly about women taking their place in managing and directing organizations. There was a study done recently that showed that women executives in the performing arts were earning substantively less than their male counterparts. A big thing for me, for a long time, has been trying to empower young women to be the next generation of performing arts leaders. And to feel solid on their feet and strong in that notion. I’ve met a lot of extraordinary male executives, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve also seen a lot of men get jobs where I know that a female would not have gotten them with their level of experience. For me, it’s the same thing I feel about cultural diversity. Let’s get strong women in these positions, let’s get culturally diverse people, let’s change what our world of performing arts looks like, and let’s do it as fast as we can, in every way possible.

Is prioritizing cultural diversity a key strategy for you in reaching new audiences?

Entirely. We have a very strong feeling at YPT that children should be able to see themselves onstage. So for that reason, YPT was putting culturally diverse actors in our productions a long time before anyone else was. By the same token, I think young women need to see themselves in position of authority in our industry. Being able to give Katie Pounder that protégée award was a real benefit for me of getting the Mallory Gilbert award.

Especially because you had a similar relationship with Mallory Gilbert.

Absolutely. You know, my whole career has been built on learning stuff from other people, so I feel like it’s my job to pass that on and pay that forward.

Is that what attracted you to work as a Metcalf advisor?

Well, that, and Michael [Jones] and Sandy [Houston] asked me to! But I’m also particularly interested in the subject matter of the cohort I’m working with. They’re exploring audience engagement, and that has major significance for YPT. We say at YPT that learning is at the centre of everything we do. So, we try to put that into every element of not just our programming, but how we work together as a staff.

This spring, our head of scenic carpentry, our head of member schools, and our head of props got together and created a seminar called “Where Do I Go From Here?” It was about advancing careers in the arts for people who are in mid-level management. And about 60 people showed up! What was so compelling for me was that different departments were coming together to say, “this is what we want to know.” And then they went out and asked the community, and invited others to share in their learning. That’s exactly what the Creative Strategies Incubator is about; it’s about learning, sharing the lessons you learn, and engaging your community.

Have there been lessons from the Creative Strategies Incubator group that you’ve been able to apply to your work at YPT?

I was thinking about this just the other day. Toronto Summer Music is bringing back all the folks who once upon a time wanted to be musicians themselves. They invited them to audition to be part of an ensemble. Watching that, and seeing how people were drawn to returning to their instruments, even though they might be a doctor or a lawyer, I thought there was something so compelling about that. I haven’t figured out yet how I might bring that concept here, but considering the many, many young people who have been through our doors, there’s definitely something to explore there.

What’s next for you?

We’re about to launch a campaign, called Room for Imagination, to build a new building for YPT. It’s the main reason I came back to be the executive director. They’ll be lots for me to learn, doing something like that.

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