We caught up with Laura McDermott, Artistic Director at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts (ACCA), about her motivations and inspiration for her career choices so far.
- What made you want to pursue a career in the arts?
I wanted to spend the majority of my time doing something that I really loved and believed in. For a long time I wasn’t really sure what that was, but I knew that doing something I loved had to be the guiding principle. For me it’s really important to do something that makes a difference to peoples’ lives and creates a positive impact. That was my hope and I’m lucky enough to have made that happen so far. I don’t know if it will necessarily be forever but for now, it’s still the right thing.
- When would you say that your interest for your line of work began?
When I was 17, I took an A-Level in Theatre and was introduced to some really experimental, international, interesting work. My teacher showed us videos of a Spanish theatre company, who took over warehouses for big, immersive performances and it really blew our minds. I think that at a young age, exposure to someone else’s passions and having the right people to guide you can be massively informative. I don’t think I’d be here now if it hadn’t been for those teachers sharing their passion and knowledge.
- Could you tell us a bit more about your role at ACCA?
I was brought in at the end of the refurbishment of ACCA to do the final bit of breathing life into the building, filling it with art and artists. My role as Creative Director, is to shape and lead the artistic vision as well as engage with different stakeholders.
Another part of my role is to engage with the Students’ Union and members of the faculty, to try and link up with their world-leading research and think about how that can have a connection to the arts for public expression. I also work with lots of different festivals and art organisations like South East Dance and Brighton Festival, Brighton Digital Festival and CineCity. A huge part of my job is meeting and talking to all these companies. I’ve always wanted this building to feel like quite a porous space for lots of people’s work to connect and enable them to be helped and amplified.
- What does your average day look like?
It usually involves a lot of meetings so I try to keep an eye on my caffeine intake!
A lot of my time is spent connecting with other people. My role is incredibly varied- this week I have I met up with artists to discuss working on community projects and fundraising, I sat in on a research seminar delivered by a Sussex faculty member and thought about how we might find a public expression for their research. Last night I was here with a lighting designer who’s creating an architectural lighting design for the building, so we were prancing around on the grass at 10pm, putting lights on the building and seeing what they looked like!
I also connect people with other members of our team who help to make events happen. There’s all these little bits of micro-planning which go on behind something which can seem like a very straight forward event!
Although the building has a long history, we’re effectively starting from scratch. We’ve put a lot of thought and love into how to refurbish the café bar. We also thought about what kind of space we’d like to have on campus which doesn’t already exist. We’ve got loads of plants, beautiful coffee and I’m delighted to say that people have started hanging out here.
My role is very holistic, which means overseeing everything in the building, visualising our future direction, vision and also all the day to day details.
It’s very multi-faceted so I need to be quite disciplined in terms of where I direct my attention. One of the most useful skills for this role is learning when to zoom in and focus on certain areas.
- What has been your favourite performance at ACCA to date?
It’s a pretty tough question because we’re always inviting performances here which are all really special. Last October, we worked with South East Dance and a company called Fevered Sleep. We did a project called Men and Girls Dance. The professional male dancers were on tour and in each place they visited they created a production. They made this with the help of local girls age 9-11 years old who liked to dance for fun, they weren’t necessarily amazing ballet dancers, they just loved to dance and had a particular energy. For some people, the image of men and girls dancing together was a challenging one, so there was a whole series of conversations which happened about that and how those kinds of things are presented in society.
The dancing was absolutely extraordinary and the personality of the local girls really shone out- I watched the performance about four times in three days! I loved that every show was different, there were lots of improvised sections and it was incredibly beautiful, uplifting and empowering. In the end The Guardian theatre critic, Lynn Gardener listed the performance as one of her top ten things she’d seen in 2016. It was a huge accolade for all of us and a really nice way of rounding off what had been lots of hard work and a very positive collaboration.
- Can you tell us about ACCA’s partnership with Brighton Festival?
We love working with Brighton Festival. Last year we had an incredible show from UK based company, Complicite, who have an outstanding international reputation. The show was a solo performance from Director, Simon McBurney. The audience all listened through headphones as the piece used binaural recording to create amazing, immersive soundscapes. It was about one man’s voyage and encounter with tribes in the rainforest. It was quite existential, remarkable and it was a very unique and brilliant experience. It was a great thing for us to present because it combined performance and technology in an interdisciplinary way which felt quite Sussex.
This year we’re really excited to host the UK premier of the Gabriels trilogy, written by Richard Nelson. The Gabriels were all written in real time, around the US presidential election. The plays are about a family discussing world politics at a really domestic level, in the way that real people talk about politics. It’s the sort of thing we wouldn’t be able to do without our partnership with Brighton Festival, so it’s a very positive partnership and one that will certainly continue in the future.
- Which performances will you be attending at the wider festival?
I’m really thrilled that the guest director is Kate Tempest, as I think she’s an absolute visionary and a force of nature. I love the way she expresses herself- her spoken word is blistering and remarkable, so I’ll be trying to see her perform as much as possible!
Kate’s also given a really interesting provocation to the festival. She’s asking them to set up community hubs so people can collaborate with Brighton People’s Theatre outside the city centre. This year Kate’s really working with local people to say ‘what do you want to do? Want do you want to see? This is yours to sculpt’ I think it will be really wonderful to see what comes out of that.
Having worked at a festival, I think the draw of it is having the whole city as your canvas.
I’d like to see ‘For the Birds’ in the Sussex Downs. The artists have created kinetic sculptures with light and sound art which are embedded in and draw from the natural environment. I think it will be a really beautiful experience.
Another intriguing piece is happening down at Shoreham Port, it’s called ‘Short Blasts’. It’s a sound work and the performance times are around the tide timetable. Again, it’s a piece that’s programmed in harmony with nature. It sounds really brilliant.
Last May I was exhausted, because as well as putting shows at ACCA I just tried to see as much as possible! My advice to anyone is just dive in and see as much as possible, it’s an amazing opportunity to see the city enlivened and buzzing!
- What was it like being joint Artistic Director of Fierce Festival?
It was a wonderful, 6 year adventure. I lead the artistic vision and organisation of the whole collaboration with Harun Morrison, who’s a great friend and colleague. Birmingham was such a fantastic place to work, it has a really welcoming and collaborative arts scene. The city is small enough that people from different creative disciplines can have a good conversation with another, so it was quite easy to make projects happen where different art forms were mixing and that felt really exciting.
Birmingham was also a very interesting canvas as it has a very ethnically diverse community. We worked with a South African artist called James Webb on a project called Prayer, which recorded different faith’s prayers and religious songs to create a sound installation. It was a really beautiful voyage of discovery to work on that project.
It was an amazing 6 years, but I’m also a big believer in renewal and change, so it felt right for us having done our chapter to hand that opportunity to someone else and watch how they would reinvigorate the festival.
- What did you enjoy most about your time at university?
I studied English at Leeds and when I was there I was set on the idea being a journalist. I spent a lot of time editing the arts section of the student paper and met some lifelong friends there. Lots of people went on to be journalists but I just had a complete change of heart after I graduated. Something in my gut just told me it wasn’t the right thing for me to do. In the end I’m very happy I did listen to my gut, even if it was a scary moment to have that feeling that I needed change!
Those real halcyon days and our shared endeavours were pretty incredible, we produced an edition of the paper weekly, went through it on a Friday and then celebrated with a night out. The people I met were brilliant political, witty, talented minds. Discovering the city was also amazing and I got involved with Nightline, the student listening service as well as different societies. I also loved going to gigs. For me, university has always been about much more of a holistic thing than just head down studying .Of course it’s important to commit to the incredible opportunity there is to develop your mind and learn, but for me I was also developing as human being, learning about where I wanted to be in the world and how I wanted to use my time.
- Would you recommend a Masters degree for students who are considering one?
I would certainly recommend further study for those who feel it’s right for them. I went into my Masters straight after my Undergraduate degree and if I had my time again I would consider having a bit of a pause between the two. I think the reason I made that decision was because I’d had this change of heart about journalism and because I’d decided actually no, if I strip back to my life’s path before that point it’s actually been more about performance and making things happen. Suddenly, feeling like I was one step away from the arts didn’t feel right anymore.
My MA was an expensive way to have a bit more thinking time and steer my path in another direction! I got involved with the drama society at York and directed a couple of productions which was really exciting.
- What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
I don’t have many regrets, I think it’s hard to have hang-ups about the path you’ve taken ‘if that then that’, to be honest it’s hard to untangle it.
In terms of a general attitude, I would just try and say to my 18 year old self: ‘less thinking more doing. Less hesitation more going for it!’
I think a lot of the time I was taking the leap into new and exciting territory, I would often be having a parallel internal narrative that was saying all the usual stuff like ‘I’m going to get found out, I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve this’. I know it’s a very hard thing, that’s just being human, but that’s probably what I’d say if I went back: ‘it’s really fine and you’re wasting your energy with all those thoughts, just get on with it!’
- Is there anything you would do-over?
I don’t think so, although that’s not to say that it has all been plain sailing. There’s definitely been hard bits which I wouldn’t have chosen and they unfolded in a different way. In fact, looking back, once you’ve survived difficult things, you find that you do your most profound learning during them. There’s nothing to regret about my experiences as they’ve helped me to develop as a person.
- ACCA is available for subsidised booking for University of Sussex departments. It’s also bookable for the wider community, whether it’s conferences, product launches, parties, events or even weddings! All contact details are avialable on www.attenboroughcentre.com