Martin Russell, Head of Creative Learning and Talent, Mercury Theatre Colchester, talks to us about his career and life lessons.
Tell us about your early life. What were your goals and dreams?
As long as I can remember I always wanted to be a visual artist. As a child I was always drawing and making things, I was fascinated by how things looked and the tactile nature of materials. At the time I always felt that where I grew up was a cultural desert, there were no local art galleries or creative outlets…but on reflection this wasn’t true, every year my family would go to the local panto and I also remember winning an art competition at the local library and receiving WH Smiths vouchers that I spent on my first set of oil paints!
One of my most formative moments as a teenager was going with my Dad to see the exhibition ‘Sensation’ at the Royal Academy, the exhibition on Charles Saatchi’s collection that launched the YBA’s (Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin into the public sphere. It was the first time I really felt a connection with other people’s view of the world, it was that exhibition that made me understand the role of artists, the point of making art and gave me the drive to really push on and aim to be an artist. I was really lucky in that I had parents who, although had no artistic background, were willing to support their ‘odd’ son chase this notion of being a contemporary artist.
Talk us through your career journey to date.
Coming out of university with a Fine Art degree means you must be open to a meandering career path with lots of cul-de-sacs along the way. I wanted to be an artist but needed to pay the bills! I started as an art and antiques handler, preparing works of art for transport, storage and exhibitions. The best part of that role was being given access to major art galleries and museums in the middle of the night and getting ‘hands on’ quite literally with famous paintings and sculptures.
Then my mum saw a job opportunity for a trainee art & design teacher. I applied, got the role and the training to become a qualified teacher. I loved teaching – passing on knowledge, working with young people and the sense of reward watching those young people achieve, but, I didn’t like working in a school. I felt I wasn’t giving young people the true art education they deserved or teaching it in a manner that opened the art world up in the way I knew it existed…as an artist.
From teaching in a school, I moved to be an education officer in an art gallery. I had the opportunity to design and build an arts education programme based on the exhibitions, building an audience and developing targeted projects. This was the first time I worked with NEET (Not in Education Employment or Training) young people, introducing them to alternative provision and routes into careers they just didn’t know existed.
After 5 years at the gallery I decided to take a leap of faith and go freelance; working as an artist in residence, workshop facilitator and education project manager. During this part of my career I worked with a lot of different people, and this really fuelled and directed my approach to arts education. I strongly believe that it is my moral and social obligation to support children, young people and young adults regardless of background and ability to access the arts and realise their potential. I have met and worked with so many talented young people who just don’t know where to go, how to use their skills, and how to progress their interest into a career. (I always think about how I felt growing up wanting to be an artist and feeling I had nowhere to go).
I then worked for the Royal Opera Housefor 3 years, based at their production facility in Thurrock for their regional Bridge Team, covering the county of Essex which is where I first began a partnership relationship with the Mercury Theatre in Colchester. When a role for Head of Creative Learning became available I thought to myself throw your hat in the ring, I’ve never worked in the theatre before, but I liked the direction the Mercury is going, I know what quality provision for young people looks like and I felt confident I could lead a team.
And here I am now Head of Creative Learning and Talent at the Mercury Theatre. I head up an amazing team of four hard-working, like-minded individuals and then a wider group of freelance artists, youth theatre assistants and project managers. Across a year we work with over 20,000 audience members and participants across projects, performances and regular weekly activities.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I’m proud of being able to feel like I have made a difference in people’s lives.
What are you working on now?
Where to start?!?! For the theatre we are preparing for a large capital redevelopment of the building, it is an exciting moment in the 80-year history of the Mercury/Colchester Rep. We’ll be working across multiple sites for two years whilst onsite facilities are built and redeveloped. For my Creative Learning and Talent team we are working on our activities for young people with autism spectrum conditions and additional needs; we have many summer schools coming up including hACkT, a week of making immersive theatre using digital technologies and video game design; and a two-year schools project celebrating the history of the North-East Essex Coast.
I am also Deputy Chair of Trustees for a national charity called Upstart Projects, we focus on developing the creative voice of young people and developing the arts professionals of the future.
- Dartford Grammar School for Boys 1991-1998
- Camberwell College of Art Foundation Course 1998-99
- University of Reading BA Fine Art 1999-2003
- Canterbury Christchurch College Qualified Teacher 2004-05
- Goldsmiths College MFA Fine Art Practice 2006-08
- Head of Creative Learning and Talent, Mercury Theatre 2015 – present
- Programme Manager Royal Opera House Bridge 2012-15
- Freelance 2009-2012
- Education Officer, UH Galleries 2005-2010
- Art and Design Teacher, Dartford Grammar School for Girls 2004-2005
- Art Handler, Constantine 2003-04
1. Make sure you enjoy what you do, you’ll be spending most of your time doing it, so get the most out of it
2. If you don’t enjoy it then change it. It is ok to not have a nice linear, straight line, career history, if you learn, reflect and take from it quality professional experience
3. You can’t be in control all the time; a little chaos and risk is a good thing! It’s when you become the most creative and productive, and also when you problem solve most efficiently.
Mercury Young Company, 'Half of Me' by Satinder Chohan. Directed by Filiz Ozcan. Photo: Sally Parkinson