Inspiring Women in Business – Sophie Fullerlove

At BrightWord we are lucky to cross paths and work with many inspirational women. From those juggling families alongside demanding small businesses, to the creatives behind some of our best loved venues and entrepreneurs with bright ideas and determination, we know that success comes in many different guises, and the road to achieving it is rarely straight and narrow.

Now, more than ever, we feel it is important to celebrate the people who help to shape the fabric of our community and therefore we’ve created our Inspiring Women series. Throughout this series we chat with women we are inspired by on a daily basis, discovering what it is that drives them, and finding out a little more about their career successes and the experiences that have shaped the businesswomen they are today.

First up is a woman who never fails to energise and inspire us every time we meet, Sophie Fullerlove, Director & Chief Executive at The Spring Arts & Heritage Centre in Havant…

Tell us a little about your career and how you came to work as Director of The Spring?
I’ve been the Director of The Spring for over 7 years now and that time has flown by and I’ve learnt a lot!

I have always loved theatre and visual arts but when I was young I didn’t realise there was a way of working in the industry that didn’t involve being an artist or actor. I studied history and archaeology at university and while I was there I worked part time as an usher in a theatre (back when they were paid positions). That introduced me to the huge number of backstage, administration and management roles that exist in the cultural sector and inspired me to do a postgraduate course in arts management. I then worked in marketing in arts centres and theatres across the south west. My job before coming to The Spring was as general manager for a touring theatre company, but my preference is always working in mulit-artform venues, getting to know the audience and community.

What does your role involve?
One of the best things about my job is the variety! I can go from planning an event with a theatre maker or artist to dealing with museum insurance, answering box office calls and clearing plates in our cafe to writing funding applications in the space of a few hours.

I’m responsible for the overall work of The Spring including planning our events, managing the relationships with our funders, overseeing budgets and making sure we’re working in the best way possible for the benefit of our community. The real magic is delivered by our team of 20 fantastic staff across both The Spring and our trading subsidiary which manages our bar, café and shop. We’re a charity so I’m also supported by a fantastic board of volunteer trustees.

How do you go about programming a season?
The Spring has three seasons of live events, films, workshops and exhibitions each year. My inbox of constantly full of artists and performers sending me ideas and asking me to book their work. I try to carve out time to watch performances in other venues or online and choose those which I think will suit our space, budget and audiences most appropriately. But there’s never enough time to see all the work I’d like to!

I programme work of all genres. I usually try to get family and contemporary theatre performances booked in quite early as these are more difficult to find space for and usually only available for limited tour periods. Music and comedy come next and then spaces are filled with heritage talks, event cinema and films. I’m usually working 9 – 12 months in advance for the live programme and up to 2 years in advance for exhibitions.

Many of the shows/activities all have interesting stories and hooks behind them – what comes first the themes or the shows?
I’m afraid it’s not an exact science! If several events or exhibitions have a similar theme I will try to programme them in a way that makes sense for our audiences, but usually the main ideas come from the artists who approach me.

The exception to this is our ‘Beyond the Stage’ programme. This is where we try to theme particular events to try to create special experiences for our audiences that can’t be seen elsewhere. In the past this has seen The Spring turn into a nightclub with theatre and DJ performances, transform our venue into a vintage circus and programme one day festivals on themes including feminism, mental health and dementia. In these cases I will usually see a performance and that will inspire an idea. Experience tells me that the main live element has to be brilliant in order to pull these events together so that will always be the starting point.

How do you discover the shows/activities that you put on at The Spring?
Each year I take a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe and see a week watching performances – it can be as many as 8 in a day. Sometimes I discover work that I really want to show our audiences and sometimes it’s the opposite! Having worked in the industry for 15 years I also have a good idea of the performers I like to work with. I also keep a close eye on what other venues are up to and the people who are making an impact in the industry. I also like to support new emerging artists and I might come across these on social media or they might simply send me an introductory email or ask to have a chat over a coffee.

Some of the shows you choose are very thought provoking – are there particular issues you feel passionate about communicating to audiences?
Personally I’m very interested in feminism and social justice and so you will often find those themes cropping up in our work. I am careful though to make sure that we balance the programme so a range of voices, ideas and subjects are represented. My job is not just about planning events I like to see, but about things that will resonate with our community.

What is the biggest professional challenge you have had to overcome and how did you approach it?
The Spring is currently closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This is a new situation for all of us and unlike anything I have had to manage before. We closed on 17 March after the government advised people to avoid theatres and public events. We knew at that point we couldn’t continue to operate as usual. We had contingency plan in place for this scenarios but it all happened more quickly than we anticipated.

Making the decision to close while the pandemic continues is the easy bit. Telling the staff about the situation and working out a positive way forward is more challenging. The Spring faces financial uncertainty as a result the closure and working our way through that as well as keeping the staff motivated and positive from a far (we still have 7 members of the team working) is certainly the biggest challenge I have faced.

The Spring does not belong to me or the staff – it belongs to the community – we just look after it, so we all feel a huge responsibility to make sure the organisation comes out of this situation in the best position possible.

How do you find juggling parenthood with work?
Busy! My son is 3 and when he was born I reduced my hours to 4 days a week and so I try not to work on Fridays. They have become very special time as during the rest of the week I’m usually only just walking through the door a few minutes before bedtime (assuming I’m not working in the evening).

James loves a trip to The Spring to see performances, play in our play area and look at the interactive exhibits in our museum. It’s great to get him involved and he’s very popular with our 106 volunteers!

Tips for anyone looking to get into the world of arts and culture?
It can be really hard to get into the sector and people often end up volunteering before they land a paid position. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to afford or have the time to do this though and it’s something the industry is more and more aware of. People who work in arts and culture understand it can be difficult to access so ask for support so get in touch. We’re usually willing to help and can talk through the opportunities we know about.

Overall though, my best tip would be to watch and take part in events and activities. It’s the best way to learn what you like and what you’d do differently. Opinions are useful!

To find out more about The Spring click here.


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