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My job explained: Artistic director

LIFT festival director mark ballIn theatre, what happens behind the scenes is just as important as what goes on in the spotlight. Read on to find out how Mark Ball plans the LIFT festival, from finding the first plays to the final lights down.

Tell us a bit about your job

I am the Artistic Director of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), which is a major festival of theatre from across the world presented for four weeks in London once every two years. We also run a year-round programme of arts education and participation work. Being Artistic Director means that it’s my job to find interesting theatre makers, get to know their work and present them in London.

Talk us through a typical working day

One thing I love about this job is that there are no typical days. I probably spend two to three months of the year travelling the world to find work. Most of the rest of the time is spent reviewing artists proposals, persuading major venues to take the work, overseeing production schedules, overseeing marketing and press strategies and managing budgets. A really substantial part of my job is fundraising with the funding team here: the festival costs around £1m so we have to raise all of that from government grants, charities, sponsorship and trusts and foundations. And that’s not easy in these times.

Why did you choose to work in theatre?

To be honest it was an accident. I left University in Liverpool in the late 80s and it was very difficult to get a job. I sold double glazing for a while to make ends meet. My elder brother ran a children’s theatre company in Birmingham and asked me to work as a volunteer for him doing administration. I found I really enjoyed it and had a natural aptitude for it and I quickly got a full-time job with another company.

What do you most like about your job?

Definitely seeing the finished article on stage. After the months of the planning and preparation it takes to bring over international artists, of marketing and PR and of fundraising, I get real satisfaction from watching one of our shows play to a live audience. And a great audience reaction is real justification for the months of hard work.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a degree in Politics which hasn’t been hugely relevant to my professional life. There are now a fair few degrees and post-graduate qualifications in Arts Management which do provide a good grounding for the working in the industry, although nothing beats practical experience in my view.

What other skills do you need?

It’s really important to build partnerships and to do that you have to be persuasive, have excellent listening skills and be able to read situations.

What's the most difficult part of your job?

Managing multiple priorities and projects is always tough, especially during a busy festival period. But I have got used to bursts of extreme intensity with my job.

Is it hard to get your first job?

As I mentioned earlier my first job was voluntary. Voluntary placements and internships can be one of the best ways to start: you can get valuable experience with support and guidance from an organisation and it shows a future employer that you’re committed. It is a short-term financial hardship, but it’s worth it in the long run.

What advice would you have for people who want to get into theatre?

Be prepared to do most things and learn on the job. Have a real passion for theatre and an open, inquisitive and curious mind. And network like crazy – you never know when the next opportunity will come along.

Why do you think theatre is important?

Because it holds up a mirror to our behaviour. It allows us to fully understand ourselves and the world around us. It lifts us out of the ordinary and it can be great fun.

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