Creative Leadership Navigating liminal spaces - Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi

Creative Leadership
Navigating liminal spaces

Navigating liminal spaces

Jane Yonge and Lydia Zanetti are both participants of the Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi Creative Leadership rōpū. The programme combines a series of intensive wānanga and one-on-one mentorship crafted to support participants in their leadership mahi.

Jane and Lydia discuss leadership as a way of bridging generations, and the self-care and awareness required to lead well.

Lydia Zanetti: I think that both of us in some ways feel like part of our role as leaders is working within certain structures that we’ve inherited, but also finding ways to disrupt them or complicate them, or starting to find new ways. We’re shifting towards where the next generation might be able to actually take it, but there’s also quite a lot of complication about straddling that.

Jane Yonge: I have found that the disruption of colonial and patriarchal spaces is hard because those things are so ingrained. But it seems like there’s growing awareness in the next generations of what it means to not be a monoculture.

Our generation tries to push boundaries but isn’t quite sure how to because we’ve grown up in this system. Whereas, the generation coming up next feels far more disruptive. They understand systems so much more than I did when I was in my early twenties. That’s not to say that our generation shouldn’t keep trying though!

Lydia: I think that because of the ways that even popular culture communicates now, there’s so much more space to be having those conversations much earlier on. I think about that a lot in queerness. When I talk to younger queer folx, I’m like, “Oh my God, you’ve just had it so differently to my experience, this is incredible," and complicated in other ways, but it just feels like those conversations are so much freer somehow, despite how shocking things are in other spaces.

In larger-scaled spaces or bigger organisations, it can be complicated to retain that sense of pushing conversations forward and bringing in changes when there’s increasingly more pressure and more structure – and deeper ties to a particular kind of audience and money. I certainly feel within the festival context, it’s quite a different thing to be talking about making change, compared to what it was when I was an independent producer. They’re just very different ways of operating.

Jane: Different perspectives that you have to consider.

Lydia: The responsibility is so much more wide-ranging. And that’s on all fronts. You’ll feel more tied to a certain demographic or a certain kind of funding structure, but also you have more responsibility to a community and particularly to voices that aren’t heard as much in that community.

Jane: Within the arts space there is a lot of empowerment, because there’s a willingness to try and figure out new ways. Sometimes though I find myself in the “real world” and I’m suddenly confronted and realise , “Oh, that’s right, in these spaces, I’m other." Whereas in many arts spaces it feels like there is more of an acknowledgement of difference in a celebratory way.

Lydia: Do you think that every generation feels like this? Or do you think it’s all worse?

Jane: I don’t know. I always wonder. I feel like I’m struggling already to keep up with the next generation.

Lydia: Or even people who are four years younger than me. We’re not even talking about big gaps. There’s some radically different perspectives. It’s interesting when you think about, say a particular part of the arts industry, like contemporary music, in our lifetime, we’ve gone from cassettes to CDs, to that paid-for downloaded music, to streaming services. That is a massive, huge wind change in the whole way that an entire industry works. It’s interesting when you think about theatre, because theatre hasn’t changed. Maybe it needs to.

Jane: To be a leader, you need to be in a good place yourself. There’s also unlearning the habits we developed earlier in life and creating boundaries to allow ourselves to lead well.

Lydia: I really felt like there was a phase in my life where anything that I would pat myself on the back about was about giving stuff to other people and being in service to other people, or something that was not myself. Especially now that the style of leadership that I’m practising, a huge part of it’s about leading a team of people who I talk to very regularly and are at varying stages of their pathway in the arts – it seems with the help of quite a bit of therapy, it’s vital to be focusing on looking after myself.

One of the key drops from being part of the leadership course, was the conversation around people being like, “I just don’t know. How can I look after myself? How can I do this?" And someone else being like, “Well, if you can do it for other people, then you know how to do it. You just need to apply it to yourself." And I was like, “Oh, so simple, but so true." And it’s just so easy to think, when I have more time, when I have more money, when I have more energy, when this piece of work is gone, which I’m chronic for. Just that trying to carve out space and energy to hold myself, so that I can look after myself first and foremost and then so that I can then also hold that space for other people.

Jane: I feel like if I don’t do that, I start to get really anxious about everything and second guessing everything I’m doing. No matter if I’m doing theatre directing or advocacy mahi or whatever it is, if I don’t hold space for myself, that anxiety permeates and it means that everyone around me starts to feel that too. How do I empower others, so that we can all do the work together?

Lydia: I think one of the things that’s hardest for me, but I’m trying to practice doing more, is also being like, “Oh, I’m feeling really anxious about this." I think there’s a danger when you think about “leadership", which is pushing down yourself, pushing down your feelings, pushing down your anxiety or whatever else is going on with you in your life and just being there for everybody else. But if I can bring all of myself, but being aware of my boundaries and what feels good to be sharing in this space, then that makes the space for everybody else so much safer and also clearer, and encourages a certain kind of communication that I hope I can have with people that I’m working with.

Jane: I really appreciate it when folks can do that because it’s really hard, you have to be so self-aware that you can name the thing that is happening, whatever it is. That was one of the first things we learned at drama school. When you’re directing and you don’t know, we were taught to be like , “Hey, guys, I don’t know. I don’t actually know what the answer is to this thing, but can we work through it together?" Or, I need to take some space. So many conflicts happen because people have just powered on through.

Lydia: I think it’s particularly bad for the performing arts. There’s such a strong perfectionist tendency. Saying, “I don’t know," is the opposite of that. It’s really challenging for people because they’re fighting for their own space all the time. And then to be, “I want to do the best thing that I can possibly do, because that equals value", but how to sit in that and be like, “Oh, actually, I don’t know," and that I’m still of value.

Jane: Particularly coming into spaces and feeling “Oh, I’m not supposed to be here," or “I’m not traditionally what this kind of leader looks like in this space. No one’s going to take me seriously, no one’s going to listen to me." Then to say “I don’t know” might make the imposter syndrome worse.

I was talking to my mentor for the leadership program and saying , “I’m a leader as a director,  I’m a leader in the advocacy space and I’m thinking about my creative practice and how important that is too.” He said, “How can you think about your whole life really holistically, that you’re Jane, the artist in all of the spaces, and you’re also Jane, the advocate in all of those spaces and Jane, the mom of Jimmy in all of those spaces and Jane, person of colour, tauiwi in all of those too – rather than fracturing off bits of identity to suit different spaces”.

Lydia: The code switching. I found it quite confronting, but I’m starting to realise when I’m doing it and being aware of it. Sometimes I laugh at myself at some of the things that I’m doing and other times I’m like, “Oh my God, this is horrific."

I’ve been in a lot of council environments recently and in that context, I’m like, “Oh, I should be dressing more feminine. That will make me less scary." But then I’m like, “Actually, really, that’s bullshit." But it’s interesting that the way that my brain is wired, that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I have to present my gender in a specific way. Terrifying and awful, and something to continue to unpack. It’s interesting when you just suddenly notice those moments in yourself, where you’re doing something in a particular way, like, “Oh, I’ve just started talking to this different person and now my voice has gone down like an octave, because I don’t feel like I have to perform a certain thing for them."

I think one of the things we’ve talked about in the leadership course as well was the thing of taking your foot off the pedal and feeling like you can’t. It’s been such an interesting mental image for me to think about and being like, okay. How often am I choosing to do something just because I feel like I must? When is the point where we go, maybe this thing just has run its course.

There’s an interesting thing, which feels like it’s related to the FOMO thing in a way. We’re an industry that’s built on change and liveness, but are we actually trying to stagnate and hold things a bit too much? Maybe there’s a letting go that would actually serve everyone better.

I get why we want to hold things. If anything, the last couple of years speaking to this COVID environment, if anything it has taught us, is how deeply panic-inducing a sense of uncertainty is. But we’re living with uncertainty all the time. It’s constantly around us. All the things that we thought were certain, are not.

Jane: That’s one thing that we in the arts know best, uncertainty. Being in those liminal spaces allows us to transform and to be transformative. The challenge that you’ve set around knowing when something’s time is potentially up, or when something needs to innovate or change, that’s the next step.

Jane Yonge and Lydia Zanetti were participants in the Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi Creative Leadership programme.

Lydia Zanetti (they/them) is experienced in the arts and festival scene in Aotearoa and internationally. They produce artists through their company, Zanetti Productions, and are Executive and Artistic Director of Nelson Arts Festival, an annual celebration of exciting arts experiences from Aotearoa and beyond. Zanetti Productions presents work that invigorates social change, celebrates otherness and sends audiences out into the world with a spark in their hearts. It has toured in UK, Australia, Singapore, Vancouver, New York and throughout Aotearoa – and in 2019 alone had 51 opening nights and won numerous awards at home and abroad. Lydia directed Auckland Fringe (2017-2019). 

Jane Yonge (she/her) leads advocacy initiatives, facilitates sector engagement, helps build collaborative partnerships, and manages the design and development of strategic initiatives at Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi. A theatre director, creator, and arts policy and strategy maker, Jane has a Master of Theatre Arts in Directing from Victoria University and Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School. In 2019 she graduated with a Masters in Arts Politics from New York University: Tisch School of the Arts on a Fulbright scholarship.