“Our leadership team must reflect the demographic diversity”- Sandeep Mahal’s take on art and diversity

Anusha Singh Wednesday 07th February 2024 17:22 EST

Sandeep Mahal comes from a humble background where her parents immigrated from Punjab, and settled in Derby finding employment opportunities in the foundries, where they worked tireless labour-intensive shifts. Growing up, she was immersed in a tight-knit South Asian community comprised of immigrant families and despite financial limitations, this upbringing had a huge impact on her.

In November of 2023, Sandeep along with Vicky Cheetham, took up the role of interim co-executive director at the Royal Shakespeare Society (RSC). Sandeep, in an interview with Asian Voice, talks about her new role, vision, and more.

How are you and Vicky Cheetham collaborating as Interim Co-Executive Directors, and what strengths, according to you, do each of you bring to the role?

I would say it's a truly positive collaboration. I'm a huge fan of co-leadership, and being a co-leader during this period of renewal and transformation is truly exciting. When I was considering the role of interim Executive Director, I felt in my heart that I could excel in it and that I would relish the role. But Vicky and I both made an active choice that we only want to work part-time. Given the scale, the complexity of the company, it necessitated two people to lead it because it's a complex organisation.

There are things that appealed to me that I thought I could do brilliantly, but other things felt too big or emotionally very taxing. It was going to take two leaders to achieve that kind of breath to lead us to address some of the complexity of the challenges as well as the potential that I see in the RSC. With two of us, it feels like we have broader shoulders, and two heads are always better than one. I'm constantly learning from Vicky every single day.

It's crucial to me that our leadership team reflects the demographic diversity of the UK, particularly considering the significant Black and Asian communities. Having a leadership team that mirrors the national demographic fosters openness, acceptance, and values diversity of thought. I like to think that individuals like me, who have been underrepresented in the arts sector, bring a unique perspective and strength to the team.

What are your priorities that you plan to focus on in this directorship?

We have a short window of time to make a meaningful impact, so we must use it wisely. Our focus is on working closely with the artistic directors and the senior team to shape a new vision and strategy for the RSC. We are clear about the RSC's purpose: through the stories of Shakespeare and other artists, we aim to deepen our understanding of each other and the world, while bringing joy to people's lives.

We want to build a new RSC that is inclusive, diverse, welcoming, and impactful in society. This means producing high-quality programs that are accessible and provide value for money, especially in these tough economic times. We also want to strengthen the relationship between South Asian communities and Shakespeare, making his works more relevant and resonant to them. Another priority is nurturing the next generation of theatre professionals, from actors to costume makers to technicians. We have an apprenticeship program to broaden diversity in these roles, recognising that diversity is present among young people. Ultimately, we aim to support this new era of the RSC and enable artists from across the globe to create their best work.

How are you working towards ensuring diversity and inclusivity in both the organisational structure and the productions presented by the RSC?

It's something I'm incredibly passionate about, and it informs my goals for this interim role. I see the interim period as passing on responsibility from one leader to another in the organisation, preparing for the transition to a new permanent leader. What I'm passing on aligns with my passion. Throughout my career in the arts, I've been driven by spreading the sheer creative joy and power of stories as a catalyst for change. My motivation has always been a blend of social ambition and artistic vision, aiming to create a more inclusive world where diverse stories and talents, particularly South Asian ones, are not just accepted but actively sought after. Amplifying diverse stories and talents has been a consistent theme in my work, and I'm thrilled to continue that in this role at this company, especially as we embark on an exciting new chapter at the RSC.

Considering the diverse classrooms we see today, our goal is to ensure that Shakespeare's works are accessible to all children and young people, regardless of their background. That's why we've launched new ticket initiatives, offering 25,000 tickets at £25 or less across the season, as well as £10 tickets for children and young people under the age of 25.


What advice would you offer to career women juggling multiple responsibilities?

My advice would be to set boundaries and practice self-compassion. It's important to establish clear boundaries to prevent overworking and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Identify where you can be flexible with these boundaries and where you need to remain firm.

Additionally, practising self-compassion is essential for overall well-being. This includes engaging in activities that help you rest, recuperate, and rejuvenate. For me, this involves indulging in activities like getting a massage, spending a weekend at a spa with friends, or simply reading fiction, especially stories that resonate with my South Asian heritage. Taking care of both my mind and body is crucial for maintaining balance and avoiding burnout.

As International Women's Day approaches, I'm reminded of the importance of supporting and championing each other as women. I've been fortunate to learn from many incredible women throughout my life, and their generosity and support have been invaluable. Together, we can uplift and empower one another, making us all stronger in the process.

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