To celebrate Black History Month, The Attic interviews Landé Belo, senior counsel and employment lawyer. In this profile, she discusses her professional legal career and how she became a theatre director to drive positive change in the arts community.
My career started firmly in employment law…
I am a City-trained employment lawyer, starting my career in 1997 and after seven years of private practice, went in-house — first with BP, then working with other global brands. In 2006, I set up one of the first virtual law practices; at the time, people were skeptical about the viability of such a model in the legal profession, but it did and today, there are various practices offering outsourced legal services. I subsequently joined an IT/IP practice in London, working remotely from France and from then on, became a consultant, also signing up with providers like Obelisk.
As a consultant, I supported various organisations on cross border projects, managed multi-disciplinary teams and have managed to construct a niche career as a specialist advisor offering tailored legal advice within a global framework and designing and implementing sustainable employee and labour relations solutions. The truth is, most people think of employment lawyers as lawyers to clean up the mess or lawyers to call when things go wrong. But there is a lot more in our bag of tricks as employment lawyers, which is why driving a company’s business strategy is very important. Fundamentally, implementing good people processes makes people’s lives easier but as human beings, we don’t naturally like change. We need time to mourn old processes in order to adapt to new ones. We need that transition and this is an area where lots of companies become unstuck because they think that people will adapt to new processes without support. It’s not true. However efficient and transformative an initiative is, it is important that the change management aspect is handled with care. This is where I come in: I have built up and managed teams which typically comprise labour lawyers and employee relations specialists and positioned ourselves as in-sourced service providers, and serve as invaluable business partners. .
For instance, my last role involved building and developing a global centre of excellence, creating high value roles and establishing a global team of 20 labour lawyers and employee relations specialists, managing 60 markets and an employee population of over 14,000. Our goal was to drive employee engagement and design sustainable employee labour relations. Over the last two years, we shared best practice, reduced the duplication of efforts, developed analytical capabilities of the team and ultimately reduced external legal spend.
At some point, my career somehow found its way into the arts…
Outside the law, I have found other ways to channel my energy. Indeed when you take a lot on as a lawyer, it is a real challenge to balance work and personal life, but if you are determined, you can also take other things on and do them to high standards. In my case, it’s theatre.
I started off getting involved with amateur theatre groups both in France and the UK over 10 years ago. After a few years, I landed with a theatre company that felt like home. I’m now part of Tower Theatre: this is a theatre company that is run by volunteers,. Like our other competitors in this blurred space of unpaid and non-professional theatre, we don’t like being labeled as an amateur theatre company, as the assumption (rather unfairly) is that your work will be sub-standard. Although we are not paid for the work, our productions are done to a very high and professional standard and indeed we have many professionals involved, whether backstage or onstage, donating their valuable time and expertise. The important thing is, we are all doing it for the sheer love of theatre and if you think about the true meaning of the word “amateur” it means someone who is devoted or passionate about something; therefore, it does not have to mean poor quality theatre.
After a few years of being an itinerant company, Tower Theatre finally moved into our own home again and opened our own theatre in Stoke Newington in 2018. In my three years with Tower Theatre, I’ve been privileged to play some wonderful parts on stage. However, I have found that there has not been much in the way of diversity in theatre. The real turning point for me was my first play with Tower Theatre, when I played a part that was specifically written for a black woman (Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris). There is something very rewarding and validating about playing a character that shares your identifying characteristics. Apart from anything else, the discussion can be on whether your performance was credible or not as opposed to whether the director was justified in experimenting with colour blind casting. I do applaud directors that are open to so-called colour blind and gender blind casting (without that, I would not have been cast in many plays and yes, what’s wrong with having a female Hamlet and so on); however, I do not think this is a solution to bringing more diversity to theatre. There is so much wonderful material out there that depicts the lives of black people, so why not just promote those plays? Instead of re-writing an Ackybourn play (which traditionally depicts white, middle class people) by replacing it with a black character – and don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of Ackybourn, why not just simply put on a play which already has black people in it?
Well, this was the very argument I took to the Tower Theatre Artistic Director who wholeheartedly agreed with me and encouraged me to direct a play that had black characters in it. Up to that point, directing was not really something that I would have considered, but I realised that I couldn’t just sit and wait for someone to do this for me, if I wanted to drive change, I would have to get up and take action myself. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of directing. I found that my legal and management skills really came handy: the key is putting together a strong team and delegating to them. You have to trust in your ability as a leader that you have surrounded yourself with capable and talented people who know what they’re doing and you let them get on with it. I have never been a micro manager and the same went with directing a play. As a director, I had to be one of the early disruptors – the goal, simply to drive change.
I put on a play in June 2019 with an all-black cast called “Fix Up” written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Artistic Director of the Young Vic. It was the first play with an all-black cast in Tower Theatre’s over 80 year history and I’m proud to say, it was one of our best-selling plays of 2018-1019 and was critically acclaimed. The success of Fix Up showed that not only is the material out there, the talent is out there and so are the audiences – these were all reasons given in the past for not pursuing such plays. What made Fix Up so relatable is that it explored universal themes that would resonate with anyone of any ethnicity and just happened to choose as its subject matter a handful of disparate individuals of Caribbean origin, based in London.
Following on from the success of Fix Up, I was appointed as an Assistant Artistic Director at Tower Theatre. The Artistic Team is responsible for putting together our lineup of plays for the coming seasons. We are currently working on our Autumn 2020 season. We put on about 18 plays a year at Tower Theatre, across three seasons. My ambition is to ensure that we have at least one play per season which features black characters; therefore three plays a year. I am excited to say that I’ll be back to directing in June 2020 and the play I’ll be doing has an all-female, predominantly black cast. I am sitting on hundreds of plays by black playwrights in desperate need of directors, so any aspiring directors or actors out there should please get in touch with me.
The one key thing I value most in life and work is agility
As lawyers, it’s so easy to see yourself in very reductive terms. The truth is, you can be so many different things and you have the ability to pursue multiple interests. I am a lawyer but I’m also an actress. I’m a theatre director and I attempt to play golf. There’s a lot more you can do beyond your remit and nowadays, companies are a lot more porous in terms of job descriptions. It’s a great opportunity for you to step in and see how you can add value to that company by picking up the work that falls between the cracks and using that to develop your career.
I was brought up believing that there is no barrier to what I want to do in life
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, I grew up in the UK, went to boarding school in the country and grew up in North London. I was brought up believing that it’s just up to me to decide what I want to be and this has held true. I haven’t seen anything in my adult life to make me change that view. With the right mindset, you can achieve whatever you want. Of course there will be obstacles and some face more obstacles than others but that gives you the opportunity to do something exceptional.
I have to say, Black History Month is something that only came onto my radar in recent years
It wasn’t part of my consciousness growing up, because of my education and upbringing. The values of Black History Month were already embedded into my upbringing and as an adult, I realised that it may not have been the case for everyone. Throughout my life, I had access to black culture, black history and black role models.
My utopia is that one day, Black History Month will be so mainstream that it won’t need to be a month of celebrations. It will happen naturally all year-round. We might be way off from that but that’s what I would like to see. To me, the danger of Black History Month is that people will say, we’ll just get a month but for the other 11 months of the year, we don’t need to talk about black history. At school, when I learnt about the two world wars, we didn’t really hear about the black soldiers. My grand-father was doing radio transmissions in the RAF during WW2. The UK in particular enlisted many soldiers from its colonies in Africa and Asia to fight in both wars, yet their stories are never really brought into the foreground. There is not a single black face in photographs of the liberation of France celebrations on the Champs Elysées in Paris and yet we know it’s not true. Black History Month is relevant in that it makes sure that everyone of all ethnicities has access to that history. It should not even be called black history – it’s all our shared and collective history.
My role models are…
I’ve been very fortunate and my parents have been integral to my having role models around me – my mother and aunts, in particular. Role models are important, particularly if you share characteristics with them, whether gender, ethnicity, gender orientation, because it validates the fact that it’s fine to be thinking big and you have right before you exponents who have dared to think big and were successful.
In my legal career, one book which has had a profound impact on me, which I discovered in my final year of my law degree, was “Eve Was Framed” by Helena Kennedy. This book gave me a whole new perspective on how women fit in the workplace and in society at large. This book was my bible in college. It is interesting that the issues it addressed back in the 1990s are still so relevant today.
The whole Diversity & Inclusion piece is not just a PC tick box — it also makes good business sense
Any company that focuses on targeting a specific demographic exclusively prevents itself from finding new audiences and that’s not good for business. It’s good that more and more companies are focusing on diversity and inclusion and I’ve seen initiatives to raise awareness such as mandated unconscious bias training for people managers and senior leadership; these are all steps in the right direction. However until we have C-Suite and leadership embracing such initiatives, we won’t see real change. A CEO saying “I’m going to endorse an initiative to encourage the government to include more black history into the national curriculum” or “I’m attending Gay Pride marches this month and will be spearheading initiatives at the company in support” this is the type of call to action that is required. I haven’t seen enough of that yet. Some companies are doing some great things, they are pioneers with aggressive targets of 50/50 gender balance but unless you hold people to account, we’ll keep having the same discussions. It’s important to be an activist but the change needs to come from the top.
I am passionate about two areas – health and education
In Nigeria, I support charities that work with orphanages (such as the Red Cross), but is not enough. My ambition is to continue my father’s legacy – he used to sponsor children from deprived backgrounds and educate them all the way to university and then create employment for them through informal youth training initiatives. Health is my other passion and I lost my father to cancer. In fact, at some point, most of us are touched by cancer (whether through someone we know), which is is why I support Cancer Research UK and MacMillan.
At the moment, I’d like to explore community outreach work to encourage more young people to embrace the arts and in particular, theatre. Our Stoke Newington theatre provides us with a great opportunity to create strong links with the local community and seek out local talent. Around the time of Fix Up, we hosted an ‘Evening With The Playwright’, Kwame Kwei Armah at Tower Theatre. He said that he grew up just round the corner from our new theatre and actually used to live a few streets away. He was really impressed with our theatre and saw it as a great resource for young people. He talked about his own childhood and the inspiration for the bookshop depicted in Fix Up. He said that had he not turned to the arts (and theatre in particular), he could have ended up running with gangs.
Theatre clearly can’t solve all our societal problems, but it’s certainly a start to give young people who feel alienated an opportunity to feel they are part of something.