Theatre marketing director Glenda Harkness

Glenda Harkness is a mum of two, theatre marketing director, competition and literary festival organiser, local theatre company starter, and living proof that you can follow your passions and make an impact while raising a family. We find out  how and why she does it all!

Tell us about your career background

I started working in theatre administration as a publicity assistant 23 years ago, at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing, Sussex. I worked my way up and trained on the job to become marketing manager and then assistant administrator with a diploma in arts management and arts marketing.

Working in a receiving house meant we worked with a lot of different companies and organisations – and the job encompassed education working, producing shows and working with directors as well as marketing, sales and programming.

When the theatre was taken into full council control I realised it was time for a change. By this point I had children, so decided to go freelance – and diversified to apply my skills to business as well as the arts. My passion still lies with the arts though, so most of my work has been for theatres and companies and arts organisations (I organised the nearby Arundel Festival for three years).

I was also involved with a small record label for a while as their events manager – working with new artists to get them gigs and to run our own small launch events. That was a really big learning curve for me!

How did your career change after having children?

After my first child I stayed working long hours at the theatre for a few years. But I found it very tough and demanding, and  the birth of my second child spurred me on to change my working life. I decided to go freelance to give me more flexibility and be around for the girls. It was much better but still very demanding of my time.

What inspired you to start Theatre Akimbo?

I wanted to be an actress originally but couldn’t really handle rejection very well, so I moved into theatre marketing instead. I belonged to a small amateur company who were okay, but were just really going through the motions – the was no depth to the pieces or the way they worked, and no real exploration of texts or techniques. I wanted to do the pieces better and be more inventive with them.

I really wanted to be able to put on small scale drama that was relevant and gritty and not the usual am dram fodder that’s around. While working at the theatre I had the wonderful opportunity of working with some great and inspirational directors, and I learnt some great tips and techniques from them.

I wanted to see that kind of quality locally, so I thought that instead of moaning about the lack of quality theatre in the area, I should do something about it and formed Theatre Akimbo in 2008. I was also organising the Arundel Festival at this time, so it was a great platform to launch the company.

We then diversified into teen work too (something I’m really passionate about) as there is nothing locally to really give young people a proper grounding in theatre. There are many performing arts classes and groups, and those that offer hopes of fame and fortune, but none present an opportunity for teenagers to participate, create, have a voice and be heard – nurturing a sense of validity and belonging.

I believe it’s imperative to inspire and train young people – theatre can transform their aspirations and life chances, and impact on their confidence and social development.

How have your skills and contacts helped you?

Arts marketing and management skills are transferable across most businesses – being able to make things work on the tightest of budgets in the arts has helped me save money for other businesses marketing activity without losing impact or affectivity.

My contacts have been invaluable too – all my theatre and professional contacts still remain a close network of allies to call upon for help, advice and collaboration. I work closely with local college staff and students on projects, and theatre practitioners act as mentors for my teen projects, teaching students about lighting, design, sound, wardrobe etc. We share or trade our talents and swap our skills, quid pro quo.

What’s Scripted4, and who can enter?

We’ve just launched an incredibly exciting playwriting competition for One Act shorts called Scripted4. We want to encourage new and exciting writing for theatre, and are looking for bold, relevant and compelling pieces that will communicate to, connect with and challenge today’s diverse audiences.

Submissions are welcomed from anyone and anywhere in Sussex, from 16 to 116 years old, about anything and everything. Experienced and new writers are all welcome to enter. The closing deadline is 11th April 2014. There is a £5 entry fee for all submissions and you’re limited to submitting a maximum of three plays.

The four winning scripts will be performed as rehearsed readings on the 15 June at the opening night of Worthing WOW festival, giving writers an opportunity to test the script and develop it further. (If any Sussex mums on here would like to enter they can email me at for details.)

You’re also involved in organising Worthing WOW. What’s that?

Worthing WOW is a much-needed attempt to put the WOW factor back in Worthing. There is a lot of local talent here, and it would be good to see it here rather than let it slip out of our town and migrate to Brighton or London. Worthing needs to look after and celebrate it’s artists, performers and writers, and that’s what we want to help it do.

WOW is a celebration of all that is words, from playwriting to film, to books to poetry, to debate to music, to the bible and words celebrated through art too – it’s a pretty unique thing we have going on. All events are running from 15-22 June. Most are taking place in a venue called the Connaught Studio, but there are lots of events happening around the town centre in different venues – we’re really bringing the town together for one extraordinary week of creative talent!

On a personal level I also love the fact that the festival and the Scripted4 competition both take me back to where I started, at the Connaught Theatre.

How do you balance everything with your family?

Better now than when my daughters were younger. I make sure I have a cut-off time. I adhere to working office hours only – if work cannot be achieved in that time, then there’s something wrong with my time management.

I am also very good at multitasking – a skill motherhood teaches you to acquire very quickly! I work from home most of the time so I am around for the important times for the girls after school. I think it’s vital to be there to share with them how their day has gone and give them the home comforts they deserve after a long hard day at school and college.

How important is it to you to be a good role model to your daughters?

Crucial. In the current social climate where young people think they can achieve riches, fame and fortune on a plate by entering reality TV shows or winning the lottery, I think it’s imperative for the girls to see that although it can be difficult and stressful at times, meaningful success comes through hard work.

Not everything is done for you – if you want it you have to get it. I want my daughters to know that they must be brave enough to reach for their dreams, and not to be afraid of things not working out. There’s always a plan B if that happens. I believe that things happen for a reason, and inevitably take us to the right path.

But in order to get where you want to be and achieve in life, you need to work hard at what you do. I think seeing me working at something I love doing will cultivate the same instincts and ethics in them. Doing what you love makes you happy.

What have been your career highlights to date?

There are so many! One is creating Cinema on the Lake for the Arundel festival – I managed to put a cinema screen on the lake for a weekend of classic movie screenings with music – no mean feat. It was a magical event, despite the rain!

Another is Akimbo’s very first production ‘One Minute’ – a great piece of intimate, in yer face, challenging theatre produced on a shoestring budget.

What have been your biggest challenges – and how have you overcome them?

As a working mum, having to balance deadlines and important meetings with a child off school sick or one who just needs you is a really tough challenge. It took a long time before I felt able to stand up to bosses or clients and say, “Actually, I can’t do that today because I’m a mum and my daughter needs me, sorry”. But once I did it, I felt empowered and it made me make better use of my time.

There’s no need to let anyone down – meetings can be held on the phone from home or over the internet, and the job can still get done with a bit of flexibility on everyone’s part.

My biggest professional challenge now is finding funding for Akimbo’s work. It’s an ongoing challenge and one that is not always successful – so we find other ways to make things work. We either work voluntarily or we create more commercial shows to subsidise our more educational and worthy work.

Who are you inspired by?

My daughters inspire me every day (cheesey but true)! Professionally though, there are too many people to name.

I think the most inspirational director for me is Mike Alfreds of Cambridge Theatre Company. I did a workshop with him once, and he really showed me how to get more out of text and actors by stripping plays of their text and looking at the action behind it to give greater depth to the piece. I use his techniques a lot.

What advice do you have for other ambitious mums?

Keep going! Make sure you take time to breathe, step back and look objectively at what you’re doing – if you don’t, things will become too stressful and you won’t enjoy it.

Prioritise your jobs – mum first, everything else second – and don’t be afraid to tell clients, bosses or whoever, that’s where your priority lies. I usually find it falls into place then (most of the time)!

Find out more about Theatre Akimbo and Worthing WOW.