In Conversation: ISTA Directors Sally Robertson & Ian Pike

1 November 2018

Our executive director, Sally Robertson, and assistant executive director, Ian Pike, chat about ISTA – the organisation they call home.

Ian: What are the most significant changes within ISTA you have seen over the years?

Sally: The obvious answer has to be growth hasn’t it? I can remember I was terrified in that first year when I had to produce 11 events; and we virtually knew all our member schools. And look at us now – over 70 events and 250 member schools. So, the significant change has to be one of scale I think. Another significant change is the virtual office. In the early days it was just Jo and I and now we have this virtual office with 8 people, which is tiny compared to most organisations in the world but it seems really big for us. And the third thing is the less tangible changes – the responsibility, accountability and complexity of the organisation now and all it brings with it, whereas in the early days it was very simply you produce your events, choose the artists, make sure the budgets work – and that was it really. But now because of the scale of the organisation – there are so many factors that then feed into the day to day which makes it all trickier and more of a challenge.

Sally: You joined us from the world of freelance, professional writing. What do you miss about that world and what do you love about the ISTA ‘desk’ job?

Ian: I’ll start with what I don’t miss. And what I don’t miss is having to write. I used to live in a world where stuff was foisted on me – an episode that I had to write that I didn’t want to write. Now I can just write for pleasure which is a massive luxury for me. So, if I write now, and something gets sold, that’s an added bonus but I don’t write any longer to pay the mortgage which is lovely. There’s a lot I don’t miss. I don’t miss chasing money; I don’t miss the world of freelance and constantly having to hustle for work. What do I love about the ISTA ‘desk’ job? I was thinking about this the other day. It’s about working on something for a year and then seeing that come to fruition even if I’m not at the event. Whether it’s the gender and disability work that we did or working with theatre companies like Push and SITI in New York. You know that took a year in the planning and then suddenly you are seeing photos of students working with these companies and hearing feedback about it and that’s quite odd in a way because when you are freelance, you are there when it happens, and this is now from a distance. So yes, it’s about working on something and then seeing the students benefiting from that.

Ian: Where do you see ISTA in 20 years time?

Sally: Historically, we’ve never really thought much beyond the year ahead and now we’ve realised what we need to be doing, at the very least, is coming up with a 3 or 5 year plan which I’m really excited about. It does seem quite fragile only looking one year ahead. So looking 20 years ahead, I actually have no idea. I can’t say what I want ISTA to be like or what I think it will be like. All I can say is that I hope in 20 years time the organisation is still thriving, that it’s still dynamic, that it’s still giving young people and teachers the most impactful experiences, and that it’s still a community that people cherish.

Sally: You are and have been an ISTA artist, an IB examiner, an honorary life member of ISTA. How do these roles inform your current work as assistant executive director?

Ian: They undoubtedly inform the role. I don’t think I could do the work I do with IB workshops, with TaPS, with managing the relationship with the IB as a provider if I hadn’t had the experience working with students at TaPS, being an examiner. I know the terminology, I understand the curriculum. I’m not an expert by any means but I have the practical knowledge. I guess what helps is that I’m probably one of the few artists who’s worked consistently, for such a long time, as a student ensemble leader, an AD and a Rep. And that experience informs every decision I make and possibly every opinion I have about how the artist pool should work. It informs any opinion I have about festival changes and the way we work artistically because I can see it from those three different roles. The only eyes I don’t have necessarily are those of a visiting teacher because I don’t come from a school background but that’s one of the beauties of ISTA is that there’s always someone with that experience and with those eyes.

Ian: What is your earliest ISTA memory?

Sally: Walking through the doors of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford upon Avon, I can’t recall the exact year – maybe 1987? Feeling quite terrified of my first ISTA event and taking part in that Stratford Experience which was the annual teacher training workshop ISTA produced at the time. So walking into this room of strangers and the first two faces I saw were those of Mike Pasternak and Ted Miltenberger – Ted in his black leather trousers and Mike with the wild grey hair and embroidered waistcoat and I just remember laughing for two hours, cracking up at the silliness, and those nerves disappeared; they made me so welcome and we hit it off straight away and the rest is history.

Sally: What is your funniest ISTA memory, or at least the funniest ISTA memory that you can share?

Ian: There are so many but the festival that had the largest number of funny memories was Fenella’s Uskudar festival when she was teaching in Istanbul. It was a festival where it seemed something funny happened at least once an hour. From John Smith, David Lightbody and I getting in a taxi and saying ‘Uskudar’ and the taxi driver driving us for an hour and a half into a different continent; to all of the artists getting into two separate taxis and the taxi drivers deciding to have a race through city streets at 90-100 miles an hour; or, the sweetest one, was with dear, dear Gillie Kerrod in the bar of the hotel when a Turkish carpet seller came up to us and said ‘Would you mind if I ask your friend to dance?’ Gillie was shaking her head and we said ‘No, not at all, be our guest’ and watching her being man handled around the dance floor for an hour and a half. There were lots of others, it was just one of those festivals.

Ian: How much has your role changed over the years?

Sally: Hugely actually. In the early days it was just about producing events, that was it really. You had to make sure the artist teams were in place, look after the executive council, make sure budgets were OK but really it was about producing events, that was the job. Which is quite interesting looking back on it now. Slowly that changed and evolved and now I look back on that and think we’re in a really strong position now. While I think there are still a lot of things we need to change about the executive director role, certainly in terms of less hands on time spent on the day to day; but we’ve started that process. There are elements of ISTA that I have totally handed over to colleagues and that I just monitor now. The majority of events are handed over now to event coordinators and I think actually… that’s brilliant… it’s a real achievement. And you know now programming is huge. Can you imagine the difference between producing 11 events, which were all pretty similar festivals, to producing 70 events of which there are about 8 different categories now? It’s so complex. So, even jobs that I was doing 17 years ago like programming, are just completely different now.

Sally: What are the most important elements for you in being an ISTA leader?

Ian: You have to be prepared for anything. It’s like being an SEL or AD or Rep at a festival, certainly in the day to day stuff, I quite often say I thought I’d seen everything, I thought I’d come across everything and literally on a daily basis there’s a new thing that crops up…

Sally: I know I don’t get it. You’d think after 17 years there would be no surprises but as you say on a daily basis you find yourself saying: “Well, I didn’t see that coming.” We say things to each other like: “That’s not happened before, has it?” And I don’t understand how that happens.

Ian: No, I don’t understand the science of it. For me it’s also about the lightness of touch, and keeping humour and fun. As you say, ISTA has grown into this machine, this business and there are elements (like contracts) that are really serious, so, for me, it’s about trying to keep it fun besides all those serious elements, and trying to keep that element of humour in everything we do.

Ian: How best do we protect the ethos and values of ISTA?

Sally: The first step is recognising what that history is. I think that’s really important, naming that history. Then looking at how that history has shaped our values. And I guess this is less tangible, but making sure that every decision we make, acknowledges that history. Because it’s that history that’s defined the culture that we see today, and that’s what makes us unique and we can’t forget it; we need to make conscious decisions about taking it forward in our day to day. Otherwise we’ll just become some other faceless organisation that doesn’t mean anything to anyone. And that culture has grown organically over 40 years, which is quite incredible isn’t it? 40 years of this amazing community and so many individuals helping to shape and create that culture – makes it such a rich phenomenon.

Sally: Your best ISTA trip?

Ian: That’s so hard. I’ve had so many ISTA trips that on paper are not supposed to have been the best trips but I still remember them clearly. Some of the travel elements have made the festivals memorable. I’ll never forget my first festival in Asia, in Hong Kong. A couple of festivals back to back where I was away for two weeks – KL and then Australia and more recently Hong Kong and Shanghai – where you’re just immersed in the ISTA experience for that extended period of time. The first trip to the middle east… several of the New York trips all stick in my mind. For me though the best trip should always be your last one. So my best one is the Shanghai TaPS I’ve just been to. Because it’s the freshest in my memory. The Shanghai TaPS of two weeks ago is currently my favourite and will be until I go to the next event.

Ian: If you had to explain ISTA to someone who knew nothing about us what would you say?

Sally: I would say we’re a community of young people, artists and teachers producing international theatre events globally that develop international mindedness, cultural literacy, a passion for theatre, self confidence and empathy. We pride ourselves on a ‘no-fuss’ approach to our work, avoiding bureaucracy if possible; and we take time to celebrate and laugh. We’re interested in creating strong networks and life long friendships. We’re a learning organisation that remains dynamic at all times.

Sally: At ISTA, our colleagues are often, first and foremost, friends and professional colleagues second. What are the challenges of this and do you think the advantages outweigh the challenges?

Ian: Interesting question! Definitely there are challenges. It’s tricky because you can’t keep everyone happy all the time. The amount of times I have to say ‘no’ throughout the year is extraordinary really… and it’s hard because when you say ‘no’ you get back ‘But I thought we were friends?’ It very seldom happens – but sometimes I have to pass on negative feedback to someone who I’ve known for years and that’s a challenge. Do the benefits outweigh the challenges? A thousand times over. It’s for two simple reasons. Because ISTA is so professional and because everyone is so professional who works with ISTA even if there is that challenge of friend vs colleague the professionalism overrides the issue. I can safely say that some of my closest friends spanning decades are from ISTA; I may not see them for five or six years but I would still count them as close friends. And friends overcome challenges.

Ian: What has it been like to see ISTA grow, running it on your own out of your spare bedroom to this huge organisation that it is now with so many more employees?

Sally: A bit mad… a bit exhausting at times and yet I wouldn’t change any of it. I can honestly say I’ve never thought ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ So even though it’s been a bit mad, and I say that because I’m not really a business person, I didn’t come in with an MBA saying ‘So this is how we grow ISTA from a family to an international business.’ It’s just happened really and wouldn’t have happened without the amazing people we’ve had along the way. And they say you’re only as good as the people you work with. So while I may have been at the heart of it and I’m the one where the buck stops, that’s not the picture. The picture is all these amazing people who have fitted together the jigsaw pieces, and been there to listen when we’ve gone through tricky times and who have placed their trust in me to say ‘Yes, let’s go for it.’ And having said all that – how does it make me feel – proud actually. Proud of a collective achievement! It makes me proud that we’ve evolved so holistically. And that we’ve kept that spirit of ISTA and haven’t ‘sold out’ to a corporate model. Pride and joy actually – hearing so many people say so many great things about us; how can that not make you feel happy. So proud and exhausted…

Ian: … maybe that’s your autobiography title?

Sally: Or the writing on my tombstone?

Sally: Where would you like to see ISTA in 20 years?

Ian: Firstly and most importantly, still here. It’s just too good a thing not to be around. There are many challenges globally, in the arts, in education so the fact that we’ve lasted 40 years puts us in a really good position. I’d like to see us still growing and working with a broader range of young people. Perhaps with young people who would not normally be able to afford to work with us. With young people who are not from such a privileged (with a small ‘p’) background. But the most important thing is we know what we do is fantastic so let’s keep doing it with more people in 20 years, 40 years, 60 years time.