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The woman bringing the Gate Theatre into the 21st century

Selina Cartmell, chief executive of the Gate Theatre: ‘I was given the support to be fearless’

The primary characteristic to which Selina Cartmell attributes her success is fearlessness.

That seems fitting for the artistic director of the Gate Theatre, the role she took up last year. After all, you don’t want to step into the shoes of a three decade-long incumbent and suffer stage fright. In fact, Cartmell didn’t step into anyone’s shoes, she just strode out in her own.

Where she was headed was mapped out in the theme she chose for her first season, the outsider. Diversity and inclusion have played a huge part in her work there since.

That makes sense, too, for an Englishwoman who first came to Ireland as a student 20 years ago, driven by a passion for Beckett. When the Gate’s board announced her appointment to the top job, it cited her ability to bring imagination, flair and a fresh perspective to the role, as well as strong leadership.

She wasn’t long following through. Since her arrival she has catapulted the number of female directors at the Gate from eight per cent to 80 per cent and the number of female writers from six per cent to 33 per cent.

For her own part, she never saw any reason why she should not make a successful career in the arts, thanks in large part to her mother, a midwife.

“I was very lucky to have very strong support from my family. I think that is key, especially in a sector as risky as this. I was never made to feel that a career in the arts was impossible. I was given the support to be fearless.”

That extended through school, helped by great teachers. “I had a series of very strong voices all along the way encouraging me.”

Mentoring

As a young director she was mentored by Julie Taymor, of Lion King fame. "Julie was a big influence on me. She encouraged me to think outside the box."

The experience left her with a strong appreciation of the value of mentoring. “It’s important to pass your skills and knowledge back to a younger generation and it’s something I’d like to do more of when I have the time.”

That’s unlikely to be any time soon however - achieving a good work-life balance is challenging when you’re juggling an artistic life at the top of its game and heading up a significant commercial organisation.

The key is to have a very good support team. “It’s about surrounding yourself with people you trust in the pursuit of excellence.”

As an artist she is well aware of the “bubble world” in which the artist lives. What has been a revelation to her is just how satisfying her own role is, helping other artists.

“It’s about creating an environment where people can do their best work and it’s amazing how empowering that has turned out to be. I didn’t know how satisfying it would be to provide a launch pad for others and how, in creating opportunities for others, you get creative nourishment yourself. That surprised me and is really wonderful.”

True to her outsider theme, she is bringing in not just new artists but new audiences too, encouraging more to experience what she regards as the transformative power of live performance.

“In this age of Netflix and social media, the paradox is that it is in this live experience that you make a real connection, turning off your phone and sitting shoulder to shoulder in the dark with 300 other people.” It’s an alchemy she says, that also “reconnects you to who you are.”

Coping with failure

Cartmell’s CV is filled with success but part of her strength has come from learning to cope with failure too. “It’s important to accept that it is okay to fail, that failure is part of the learning curve. Artists by their nature are perfectionists, they always want everything to be as good as it possibly can be.”

Over time that internal pressure, allied to very public judgement, can take a toll. “It’s about being self aware and looking after yourself. You need to take out pockets of time just to breathe. I’m only beginning to understand that now.”

When things go badly, step back and gain perspective. “You need to see the bigger picture, especially when you are in the eye of the storm. You have to remind yourself, this too will pass. It’s one of my great mantras. It’s important to take a step back and see that.”

Just don’t waste time worrying. “I don’t see the point. It has a negative impact on your thinking and what good does it do anyway? All it does is take up headspace. It’s important to learn to limit and control your thoughts.”

Much more productive is to seek out support. “I have a close group of friends that I really rely on, and that I look to when the going gets tough. They remind me about the importance of being kind to yourself, and sometimes we need to be reminded.”

Learning to say no is important too. “Saying no is a big part of it and I struggle with that. As CEO you often don’t have time to switch off, to say ‘This is a space I need’.”

For now her days – and nights – are full with her mission to deliver the Gate into the 21st century as a world class example of what a theatre can be, bringing outsiders in and fostering an internal culture that is open, progressive, transparent, supportive and fearless, too.

“In theatre you need to take risks. The question is how to do that when you are running a business, how to balance the two. It’s about trying to be more fearless in the work being created, and pushing myself personally.”

Stories of successful Irish women

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