Friday Interview with Leila D’Aronville
In addition to her role as Managing Director for music promotion and development agency, Northern Roots, Leila is also a mum to two young girls and a campaigner for the region's creative freelancers.
By Lucy Nichol
As one of the original team who opened Sage Gateshead in 2004, Leila has since continued to dedicate her career to the arts – with a particular passion and focus on inclusivity and opportunity. Leila tells us what drove her to set up the now 1,500 strong Tyne and Wear Cultural Freelancer’s network, and what it was like chatting to Keir Starmer about a critical lack of government support while bouncing a two-year-old on her knee.
You’ve had a long and varied career in the arts. Tell us about some of your favourite moments.
I think there might be too many to mention! I have been incredibly lucky…One of the obvious highlights would have to be the opening of Sage Gateshead. We were living in an amazing time back in 2004, and it feels like a completely different world now. But the camaraderie and connection I still have with the team who opened the building is immense.
I’ve also been a part of the team who ran a youth theatre called Mongrel UK which was based in Sage Gateshead. We were an open-access group who carried out targeted recruitment to engage young people who had refugee or asylum seeker status. We held activity for the majority of the year with an intensive period and large-scale performance in the Summer Holidays. I got to work with some of the most amazing and creative friends, colleagues and young people, but also, the work the company created was of such high quality. A particular high was a show we did called ‘A Journey Home’ based on a Shaun Tan book ‘The Arrival’.
I also love what I do today, my role with Northern Roots and my work with other creatives who don’t feel like they have a voice. I have been that person too so it’s great being able to provide opportunities for people to feel listened to, connected, heard and valued.
You’ve been extremely busy lobbying for support on behalf of the region’s cultural freelance community recently. What challenges are the community facing?
The community is made up of so many different types of roles – anything from actors, artists and musicians, to marketers, technicians, producers, community workers, makers and crafters. In theatre, freelancers make up around 70% of the workforce, and across the whole industry we make up around 48%.
Prior to COVID-19 there were already inequalities in the creative Industries – especially when it came to our freelancers – and the pandemic has only made things worse. More people of colour are likely to find themselves working as creative freelancers rather than situated in organisations, and the same goes for parents and those with caring responsibilities. The precarious nature of the work means people have already turned to the gig economy to supplement salaries – working in pubs, restaurants, in front of house roles in cultural venues and other flexible jobs that can work around their freelance career. No one has job security! There is no sick pay, no employer pension contributions, no holiday pay or salary sacrifice scheme and absolutely no chance of continued professional development or training. Plus, wages for our freelance workforce have been dropping as people are expecting more for less.
Enter COVID-19…most freelancers lost all their work overnight! Freelancers then missed out of all of the employment-focused government support schemes, and it took the chancellor over two weeks to announce SEISS (Self employment income support scheme) – which then didn’t kick in until May and will end in August.
It’s also worth noting that it is likely that only around 40-50% creative freelancers are entitled to SEISS due to various factors (there are around 3 million people who have been ‘excluded’ from government support packages across the whole country). For some people this might be because they are working 2 or 3 jobs and the government scheme set out clearly that you needed to earn a minimum of 50% of your take home salary from self-employed work.
The recovery package of £1.57bn presented by government is very much to save the bricks and mortar and the more established organisations – it is not for freelancers. We have been told this very clearly.
Mental Health of the sector is also very concerning. Most people I speak to are talking about stress and anxiety in a way they never have before. The sector has collapsed, it is hard to see when work will resume, funding is scarce, and people feel anchorless in many ways. People are talking very clearly about leaving the sector – which when being in the creative sector is such a big part of your identity, means things are really bad.
I know, joyful right?
Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
I am really sorry to say no…however I think there are some really interesting challenges coming forward. Challenges to the way things have always been, where things are often excluding and old fashioned in the way they are set up. The freelance and independent side of the sector is gradually coming together and speaking in a more unified way, and people are starting to listen to us!
But we need to be honest, we are headed into one of the worst recessions some of us will ever have seen – we are going to lose jobs and organisations across every industry. What we all need to be better at doing is championing what we really value! If you love something – whether it is a show, a venue, a pub or even an energy company, tell someone!
Arts Council are working more closely with the freelance sector nationally and have had the strength of the sector highlighted to them, as well as the lack of parity. They are keen to ensure there is more equity in the way they deliver their funding models and how they can diversify their own organisation as well as those they support.
What led to you becoming the voice for a struggling sector?
Firstly I would say I am one voice, and there are many others…off the top of my head: the Freelance Task Force – led by Fuel in London with regional representatives; all of the unions; Excluded – an organisation lobbying for those who have been excluded from government support; MPs like Tracey Brabin; other regional champions such as Culture Vulture and Crystallised; What Next? Chapters in Newcastle/Gateshead, Sunderland and Durham. I know I will have missed loads out…
But to answer your question about Tyne and Wear Cultural Freelancers – we are a network made of around 1,500 people. I set it up with three things at its heart; participation, purpose and passion. I initially set it up for freelance friends, and friends of friends, to be able to ask each other questions…it went a bit wild overnight! However, it has filled a gap which really needed filling and I am really glad it exists and hopefully gives people a structure to speak and feel heard.
I am using the privilege I have from being in the sector for as long as I have, to try and unite and amplify the voices of others.
You recently made a presentation to the House of Lords digital select committee and spoke with Keir Starmer. Can you tell us more about that?
Oh god, I felt so out of my comfort zone! For the select committee I was speaking alongside Julian Bird the Chief Exec for SoLT (Society of London Theatre) and Deborah Annetts the Chief Exec of ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicians). And then there was little old me…a mixed heritage woman from Newcastle representing the freelance sector and the region. I stupidly wore bright yellow too – I stood out like a sore thumb! However, I was there, and I got to say most of the stuff I wanted to say. I think I represented us well.
Talking to Keir Starmer was way more relaxed and I actually did it whilst my two-year-old sat on my knee. I asked Keir about shadow cabinet policy and how we could all support and influence it to support economic growth and sector stability! He was really forthcoming about how we could work directly with members of his shadow cabinet including giving us direct email addresses, people like Tracey Brabin and Jo Stevens, and also members from employment.
Can you share any examples of cultural projects or events that would not have made it into our lives had freelance creatives not been involved?
It would be easier to tell you events that would not have happened without freelancers! Almost every event or activity you have experienced – in or outside a venue – will have had a creative freelancer somewhere on its staff! Whether that be the actors, musicians and artists, or the technicians, marketers or producers.
You’re not the first woman in your family to have made a significant mark on the cultural scene. Tell us a bit about your mum, Judi’s career.
Ah my Mum is amazing! She has been an actor all my life and she is just brilliant at it. When I was younger, she was a key member of the Tyne and Wear Theatre in Education company who toured original issue-based theatre around schools and communities. She then went on to be a key member of Bruvvers Theatre Company, another community focused company of actors, based in the Ouseburn. More recently she has been in Key Change – an award-winning show by Open Clasp Theatre company which went on to do a run in New York! She has worked all over the North East and with so many inspirational creatives.
She has always worked hard to be a great actor, a generous person and an amazing Mum. She has worked to take theatre to some of the most forgotten communities in our region – she would put as much effort into performing in a community venue in South East Northumberland as she would performing at the Edinburgh Festival or Battersea Arts Centre.
You’re a mum yourself. How have you balanced your role as MD of Northern Roots, with campaigning and parenting?
It’s been hard, and I haven’t always managed well. I have two kids aged six and two. They are wonderful and not especially hard work, but my partner works out of the house for around 40 hours a week, and so it is hard when I am trying to work in the house with the kids too, especially when you can’t even rely on your extended networks to support you!
We are muddling through, but the fact my attention is constantly split is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do – never mind including homeschooling into the mix! I have zoomed whilst changing nappies and had to make snacks for the kids whilst being part of conference discussions. My workstation is often the kitchen table or bench, or if I want peace and quiet, it’s on top of the six-year old’s mid-sleeper bed!
The fact that children and parenting responsibilities are visible to people is a good thing and hopefully, organisations will be more flexible in the future, but I think everyone who has parented/cared and worked whilst in lockdown should have an extended spa break when this is all over!
Can you tell us a bit about Northern Roots and what’s on the horizon for the organisation?
Northern Roots is a music promotion and development agency. We have an amazing performance programme – Jumpin’ Hot Club – which is on pause at the moment, and we also do a large amount of work to support artists who are not readily represented in our region’s venues and organisations. We have worked extensively with artists such as Radikal Queen, Kema Kay, Kay Greyson, Georgia May, Tex Johnson, Collective Identity and Voices of Virtue.
It should have been our 35th birthday event this year and we were planning a celebratory programme of activity focused around women and artists of colour – but we will just have to have all of those celebrations next year.
We continue to work with our artists and have been developing exciting projects based around need. For example, Kema and Kay are currently working with groups of young people of colour who want to develop as rappers.
In your opinion, what is it about the North East cultural scene that makes it so special compared to other regions?
As a regional scene, I think we are strong in our quality, our connectedness and regional identity. Each area has something they can and should be immensely proud of! If you look at the whole scene, I think we work with most communities, and we have some of the most exciting festivals – many of which are grass roots led. One place we do fall down…we don’t talk about what we do well, or harness the communities we work with to help us talk about what we do.
Finally, if you could pick any performance from the past to watch again with friends and family when lockdown restrictions are fully lifted, what would it be and why?
You do like a difficult question! Again, I can’t choose just one. Firstly, I would say a Bruvvers Panto – they were accessible, funny and connected to the audience so well. When you went to see them, you would know most people in the audience, there was great music and great acting and lots and lots of laughter! Mike Mold, who set up Bruvvers, was a force to be reckoned with and he brought together a quality experience that didn’t feel out of anyone’s reach.
My slightly more serious one would be London Sinfonietta and Warp Records performance at Sage. It was definitely niche, but I don’t think I will ever hear Aphex Twin performed on 8 Marimbas ever again, and Jamie Lidell’s set was just brilliant! Oh, and Cinematic Orchestra in the Old Odeon on Pilgrim Street…oh, I could go on all day!