You moved from New Zealand where you had worked in theatre to London, and stayed. What did you feel London offered that home didn’t?
I was brought up in New Zealand, in the 1970’s with no internet, a history stretching back only to the 19th Century and a population of less than 3 million. For my first job in theatre, I was lucky to get a job within the stage management team at Downstage, the only professional theatre in the capital city Wellington. There was a National drama school training actors but no formal training for stage management and technical staff – we learnt by doing it. I quickly got a good grounding in different aspects of professional theatre. But I needed to fulfil the Kiwi tradition of getting ones OE (overseas experience) and decided to head for London, for me the theatre heart of the world.
After living in and pulling pints at The Crown at Seven Dials, blagging tickets for West end shows, I took a job in the stage management team at The Queens Theatre in Hornchurch, a producing theatre on the outskirts of London making theatre for predominantly EastEnders who had moved to leafier suburbs. When I made the move to London Bubble Theatre, touring parks around the capital, I really understood how diverse London was and the power of making shows for people not used to going to the theatre and the excitement of new and different stories, often told with music embedded in the production.
From there, I moved to work with Philip Hedley at the Theatre Royal Stratford East who was developing work for Black and Asian audiences. It was an exciting time; we worked hard to make shows that were relevant to Stratford East’s immediate diverse communities, making their stories into theatre and shared with universal audiences.
Having moved out of London to Wales and then to Ipswich did you find anything very different?
I left London for Wales, as the big city and a small baby didn’t mix well. In London I had been bamboozled by the opportunities and often didn’t know where to start, there was so much to see and get involved with. North Wales, a complete contrast, but I had big views of magnificent hills, and a big job at Theatr Clwyd to make sense of a complex role in a multifaceted organisation. After 10 years and another baby later we were all ready to take on a new challenge.
My partner and I came as a joint package to the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, covering both the artistic and the business elements between us. It was incredible to have an almost blank canvas. The previous company had gone into liquidation and the community had campaigned hard for it to reopen. This was our chance, starting almost from scratch, to serve our immediate community.
The New Wolsey Theatre is seen as an industry leader in many aspects of its collaborative work with diverse artists and companies - how did you and your team achieve this?
We concluded that the last company had got into trouble because their audience was very narrow in taste, economic background, very white and very middle class. I firmly believe the three watch words we, in the early days, attached to every aspect of our business: (1) diversity 2) accessibility and 3) quality are a lot to do with our success. I’m sure of it.
We didn’t feel it was appropriate and nor did we have the money to create all our own work. It was natural to work collaboratively. One of the first projects we worked on was Eclipse. We with three or four other companies joined together to make mainstream Black- led work out of regional institutions, made shows and took them out to each other’s theatres, a model on which Ramps on the Moon is now based.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
Whatever I am working on at the moment! And yes Ramps on the Moon is one of them. It is beginning to have an impact on the whole industry and not just the partner organisations. It started with work we were making with Graeae, the excitement and joy of working with a mixed cast and the artistic richness created when embedding access into the production. We are creating opportunities for more d/deaf and disabled artists to gain work in the midscale/mainstream theatres, and opportunities for young disabled people to gain experience of every aspect of making a production.
What are you most excited about?
Our next production, which is also the next Ramps production The Who’s Tommy. Also the work we are doing with StartEast, an East Anglia-wide initiative to grow small cultural business.
Life Lessons with Sarah Holmes
- If you say something enough times, and in enough different forums it eventually becomes the truth
- Always answer questions about how your organisation is fairing with extreme positives
- Encourage colleagues to take risks and always support them when something fails
- As a CEO every mess is your responsibility
- Look after artists, welcome them, feed them and watch their shows!
1967 – 70 : Secondary School: St. Margaret's College, Christchurch, New Zealand
1971 – 73: Further Education: Primary Teacher's College, Christchurch, New Zealand
1981: City of London Theatre Administration Course
Murati Primary School, Wellington, New Zealand
Government Statistics Department, Wellington, New Zealand
Statistical Interviewer, 1975
Circa & Downstage Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand
A number of posts held, including; Stage Manager; House Manager, Tour Manager; Production Manager, 1976 – 79
Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch; Bill Kenwright Ltd.; Vagabond Theatre Company; BS Productions
Freelance Stage Manager/Production Manager, 1980 – 82
The London Bubble Theatre Company
Marketing and Publicity Officer. Tour booker, 1981
The London Bubble Theatre Company
Administrator, 1982 – 86
Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London
General Manager,1986 – 89
Theatr Clwyd, Mold, Wales
Head of Marketing & Customer Services, 1990 – 92
Theatr Clwyd, Mold, Wales
Deputy General Manager, 1992 – 95
Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold, Wales
Administrative Director, 1995 – 2000
New Wolsey Theatre Company, Ipswich
Chief Executive, 2000 - Present