Having previously worked for technology and tobacco companies, Marina Zain ran away to the theatre and has been the Royal Shakespeare Company’s head of legal since 2013. She takes GC behind the scenes of her role at the legal helm of one of the UK’s most iconic and well-loved arts organisations.
GC: After working in a number of different industry sectors, what was it that led you to the arts?
MZ: Serendipity. I moved out here with my husband about two years ago to the north Cotswolds. At the time, I was doing freelance work and I had just finished doing up our house when I got a call from a local recruitment agency who said, “The Royal Shakespeare Company are looking for somebody to come in and do some legal work, would you be interested?” And I thought that would be really interesting!
It was a contract job for four months while they figured out what they needed to do, because the previous GC had left after 10 years in the role and it was a chance for the organisation to reassess what they needed in terms of the function. Those four months were really good because they gave me a chance to actually figure out whether this was a place that I wanted to work in. At the end of it I decided yes, so when they advertised for the permanent role I put my CV in, went through the interview process and was eventually picked for the job.
What attracts me to a particular role is opportunity - the opportunity to contribute and the opportunity to learn and grow. I think it’s important to stay open to possibilities otherwise you risk missing out.
Working for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is very fulfilling for me personally because of the organisation’s mission, the lives that it touches and the real difference it makes to so many people from all walks of life. Aside from developing on the personal level it also gives me a chance to be part of making a real contribution to society in general, and that’s really special.
GC: Was it a culture shock for someone coming from a non-theatrical background?
MZ: I don’t have any theatrical background whatsoever. I am really just the ordinary person in the street. I like going to watch something that entertains me and that could be film, theatre, an art gallery. Was it a culture shock? No, not really. I think if you’ve worked in-house long enough, and you’ve worked in different organisations over the years, you come to realise that even though the organisations may do different things, there are certain underlying things that are the same.
Whenever I go in somewhere new there’s a checklist that I go through to get myself into the organisation, to understand what they do and how they do it. Every organisation has got their processes, every organisation has got product. In the case of the RSC, one of its main products is what it puts on the stage. So it’s understanding that: how do we get there, what is the process?
GC: When you’re in a new role in a new industry sector, how do you go about getting under the skin of the organisation?
MZ: A key part of it is talking to and connecting with people, so it’s identifying key people within the organisation and literally spending time with them. I think it’s also good practice to understand what your clients are like – what they like, what they don’t like, what their requirements are. I think those first hundred days are important for getting out into the “business”.
The other way of doing it is to have access to board papers. Just reading through the board papers will give you a real flavour of what the organisation does and what’s important to it. And then attending events - if the RSC produces a play, then go and see what they produce. How does it make you feel? What does it make you think? That just feeds into your ability to engage with other people within your organisation, to get more information and get a relationship going. You can’t be everywhere at once, especially if you’ve got a very small team, so you’ve got to rely on other people, and that involves developing relationships.
With the arts industry you’ve got the industry publications like The Stage, so you can get a lot of information on what’s going on there. Our press office compiles daily the important things that we need to know; they send out a daily news bulletin, with links to different things happening in the industry and things that could impact on us in general.
All of these sources put together start to give you a picture. And that picture will take some time to form - it’s not a thing where you go into an industry and you’re an expert within two weeks.
It’s really key that as you are forming this picture you develop an understanding of, and map out, principal areas of legal risk. Foresight and identification of emerging risk is important for all GCs regardless of sector and team size. This is a continuous process and regular “horizon scanning” is a key part of making sure that as a GC you are proactive in this area.
GC: What are the common threads that run through your roles in the different sectors that you have worked in?
MZ: Any organisation has to operate within a framework of set parameters. With respect to the RSC, we have a mixed set of parameters. On the non-profit side we have our Royal Charter and the Charities particularly. We also need to be mindful of regulators such as the Charities Commission. But also we’ve got another set of commercial parameters, because charities trade through limited companies. So there are matters that relate to the Companies Act, and all the operational boundaries you would have in a commercial organisation would also apply.
The next thing that they have in common is that all of them have got processes to allow or help them to achieve results. For example, generally they’ve all got finance departments, legal departments and HR departments. There’s a lot more in common than people realise, though there may be variations on a theme because it depends on what product they ultimately produce.
The other common thread is that you’re producing a product for an audience or a customer - whether that customer is smoking cigarettes, or buying computers, or coming to watch your play. So there are some fundamental things that carry you across and it doesn’t matter what sector you are in.
GC: Would you say that the RSC is a tough client?
MZ: This is interesting, actually, because when I first came in, my executive director would come into my room every now and again, and say, “Are you ok? We haven’t scared you off yet I hope?” I found that really quite endearing and the concern was welcome. In the sectors that I’ve worked in previously, I worked with sales teams and they are arguably the most demanding clients that you can have in any organisation. It was one of the things I found a welcome change at the RSC – the real concern for people. Compared to working in a sales-driven organisation with a frenetic pace of driving to the end of the quarter, the end of the year – where it’s just endless, it’s just one deadline after the next - I feel that there’s more space to breathe here. It can be quite hectic and we work to a cycle as well, but we have a different cycle and there are times when you can stop and reflect. I believe that this is healthy and allows you to do a much better job in the long run.
GC: What is the cycle driven by?
MZ: It’s driven by the artistic programme. So for example, Gregory Doran [artistic director of the RSC] has decided that the RSC will stage all of Shakespeare’s plays over the next six years, and then things feed into that. You’ve got exhibitions, you’ve got our digital transformation work, you’ve got RSC “Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon”, which is our live broadcast to cinemas across the world. We’ve got three performing spaces (or we will have quite soon): we’ve got the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, we’ve got The Swan and we’ve got The Other Place. The Other Place is now undergoing a major capital project to transform it. Because of the demands of the artistic programme, everything else around it has to fit in, or we have to look at new ways of developing in order either to fund it or create a space for it.
GC: That’s quite a refreshing way of looking at business.
MZ: It is. It also presents its own challenges though. You’ve got the artistic side of things, and then you’ve got the people who are looking at it, thinking, “oh, we’ve got to find the money; how are we going to deliver this?” So there’s always going to be the creative tension versus the funding, hard-headed business side of things. It’s about having conversations around what our priorities are.
Everything we do has to fall within the objectives and the purpose of our Royal Charter ultimately, so it serves to guide the overall direction of the Company.
GC: What, for you, is the best thing about working for the RSC?
MZ: I think it’s very fulfilling for me personally because I’m working for an organisation that is very dear to many people and has a wonderful mission. When you go somewhere and you say you work for The Royal Shakespeare Company, the response is very positive and immediately people are curious and want to engage with you, and find out more about the organisation and what you do. That’s the one thing I think I would say I have never experienced before in my career. It’s such a wonderful, positive response, because of the long tradition the company has had, the success that the company has had, the outreach programme, and the fact that the company is very much about giving back.
GC: You mentioned the push-pull between the creative and the financial side of things. What are the other main challenges?
MZ: I think a lot of the challenges revolve around having a very ambitious company that wants to accomplish such a lot, and being hamstrung by resource constraints because of the sector that we’re in, and the Arts Council funding cuts. Having to reinvent ourselves in terms of how we view what we do, and the fact that we need to think about being more commercial in some respects actually isn’t a bad thing. I think many people tend to associate being commercial with being really ruthless and very money-driven, and not with the kind of ideals or organisational culture that the RSC has. But I just think that we have a lot to give and there are many people who would gladly pay for the privilege to watch our performances, buy our products, etc. If that money then enables us to do things for segments of the population who are either less able to afford to do so or would benefit enormously from exposure to Shakespeare and theatre (for example students), then I see no conflict in that whatsoever, because as a charity it is part of our mission.
GC: When you say “being commercial”, what do you mean by that?
MZ: I mean making much more of our assets. So for example, we’ve got a huge archive of plays, music, pictures and film that we’re looking at digitising and in the longer term licensing. The model is very similar to what the Historic Royal Palaces, for example, or the V&A are doing. It’s about using the enormous amount of intellectual property that has been created over the years (and continues to be), in a much more commercial way, to help us generate a continuous revenue stream into the future. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that because we can still (and do) carve out uses for non-commercial purposes such as education, and other areas that we want to continue to support as part of our charitable purpose and objectives. We’ve also invested in “Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon”. It’s another way of promoting our performances to a wider audience.
These initiatives are important because you need to think about the longer term of the company. It’s such a brilliant organisation, it needs to carry on long after we’re gone, and in order to do that we have to continue to work hard to ensure that it stays relevant and reaches its audiences.
GC: The model is evolving as arts funding is cut. Does that feel like a dramatic change, or is it an evolution? Is there a lot of resistance from purists?
MZ: I think you can have purists in any organisation, and that can be a commercial organisation or it could be an organisation like the RSC. I think it’s fundamentally about change, and people wherever they are tend to resist change, because change is unfamiliar. It’s fearful for a lot of people. So I don’t think it’s something that is unusual to the RSC or unusual to any particular organisation. It’s just a human response.
It is an evolution and it does take time. In particular, I draw a parallel between the RSC and, although they’re so much bigger, IBM. When Lou Gerstner came in and took over in IBM and wrote that book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? it took a long time to change the direction of a big ship. And you want to try and do that by taking people with you.
GC: What’s a typical day in the life for you? Is there one?
MZ: No! There isn’t a typical day, simply because we’re a small team. I’m basically a sole practitioner within the organisation. I’ve got a team member, but she’s not legally qualified. However she’s invaluable because she’s very organised, efficient and great at working cross-functionally. She manages and does a lot of the project management work in relation to all projects undertaken by the department, and also the administration around our department.
It really and truly could be anything. It could be that one minute I’m looking at some health and safety regulations, the next minute I’m being asked to review a venue agreement for any of our productions transferring to London, or I could be involved in contracts for our commercial productions overseas. It could be a staff directory and processes; even setting up things within the department.
We also ran a tender exercise not long ago and have recently appointed two law firms to the RSC’s inaugural panel. I have been working to get them bedded into the organisation. I also act as a governor on the board of another performing arts organisation called The Place. It’s a school of contemporary dance based in Euston, London. Joining the board of a National portfolio organisation [a portfolio of UK Arts Council-funded organisations] has been great exposure that has given me another perspective. Like the RSC, The Place is also involved in the performing arts (albeit a different strand) and education and higher learning, so it all feeds back into the work that I do.
So my role is really quite unbelievably wide. I find it very rewarding and enriching. You need to have a “can do” attitude and be happy to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.
GC: What led you to take on the role at The Place?
MZ: One of our governors here at the RSC thought that I might make a good addition to the board of The Place, so she nominated me and after being interviewed by the nominations committee I was invited to join the board. I thought that it would be good for me to get involved in a different strand of the performing arts – one that I have no formal experience of. I think you’ll find this a lot with in-house counsel - they try to look at things from lots of different perspectives. I find that it's the intersection of different organisations and disciplines that actually generates some of the best ideas. So you can go somewhere and think: that’s a brilliant idea, if I can tweak it a bit I can bring it back and apply it here. It’s the reason I stayed in-house – the exposure to various parts of a business, and various types of businesses, and all the ideas and possibilities that brings, keeps things endlessly interesting.
GC: Do you have a highlight of your career so far?
MZ: There have been many of those. Before I joined the RSC I worked for BAT [British American Tobacco] and I was recruited to a global project. They were going to transfer their IT operations from 76 end-market hubs all over the world, into four shared services hubs. It was a massive undertaking that took two years. We didn’t know how we were going to do it. There was a team of about six or seven of us, and we had to sit down and try to figure all this out. We did it very successfully and I saw some amazing places as well - I spent 80% of my time travelling the world for BAT doing this project. It also resulted in me gaining a lot of confidence, because of having to travel on your own to some far flung places - for example Nigeria, Brazil, China and Japan - and having to engage with people from different cultures and backgrounds regularly to explain yourself and get their buy-in and support for your project. It was a brilliant experience. It was a really steep learning curve; essentially jumping into the job at the deep end and going, “I don’t have all the answers, but I’m sure I can figure it out as I go!” Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why working at the RSC didn’t faze me. I know nothing about the arts or theatre production, but, hey, all of these people didn’t know anything at some point, they all learnt, so why can’t I?
One of the highlights of my career at the RSC to date was when we did a charity performance of Matilda in London for Children in Need [a UK charity run by the BBC], and I played a key part in enabling that to happen. It was great to get the appreciation of the team. I was invited to the performance and it felt really good. It felt like I was contributing to something that was really worthwhile.
GC: You have a small panel now. How do you go about working with external law firms? Do they do a lot of pro bono work for you?
MZ: When I came in to this role I decided that the approach that would work best for this organisation would be strong and robust partnerships, where our panel lawyers are truly trusted business advisers and not just the external people who we give some work to from time to time. With that in mind I decided to tender out for work.
Our two panel firms - Mills & Reeve and Foot Anstey - will work with us for the next three years. I wanted it to be a reasonable amount of time because it gives all parties a chance to actually get to know each other and for the law firms to get to know the RSC thoroughly. The work has been a combination of paid work - especially with capital projects like The Other Place or other specialist areas and pro bono work.
As a result, we actually get more out of them, as all parties see it as an investment in a relationship and not something that is purely money driven. We made it very clear during the panel selection process that we wanted to work in partnership with the firms that we appoint. That means it’s a two-way street, with them also investing in us as an organisation. That has been working quite well so far.
GC: How are you growing the partnership? Do you have formalised processes for doing that?
MZ: I am feeling my way through really, and opportunities for growth present themselves as we go along. I’m always keeping an eye out for possible ways that we could deepen that partnership.
One of the examples is that both firms have committed to giving us three bespoke training sessions a year. It can be to any number of people in the organisation and it can be on any topic. Intellectual property is a big thing for us here - because of how we’re looking at exploiting our IP – and there was a great hunger for people to try and understand some of the basics. So the IP partner from Mills & Reeve came and ran a session during a regular middle management meeting. It went down extremely well and as a result, a whole group of people asked whether he could do a workshop for them. So we’re setting that up.
Foot Anstey have spoken to us and we are working with them on their pilot virtual trainee programme. I think it’s important to open up the possibilities to trainees and people who are new to the legal profession, as secondees, to show them that there are different career options available. The RSC is such a non-traditional route. How often do you get the chance as a trainee to actually work in entertainment and the performing arts? From what I can tell, the opportunities are like gold dust. We’ve also got other projects that we’re working on with our partner firms that relate to process, setting up structures within the organisation, digitising our contracts - all sorts of things. It helps them to understand what we do.
We encourage firm partners and employees to attend our performances and we also encourage them to hold team meetings at our venues. In addition, we have invited them to come and join our theatre and workshop tours, so they can understand our operations and what we do and how we do it.
There are lots of ways that it can be done, and my ideas come to me over time. It’s also about understanding how much they’d like to invest - what works for them. For me and for the RSC, that partnership element is very important.
GC: Last thing, do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?
MZ: It’s very difficult! I would have to go with the last one that I have seen, simply because it has been done so well - Loves Labour’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing). Christopher Luscombe’s interpretation of the play was wonderful, with a great use of music, and it was all very topical because it was set in a huge manor house at the end of the First World War in the year of the centenary. It was brilliant. Very funny, they used a lot of Chaplin-esque physical comedy, which was all in-keeping with the time. To my mind, a real indicator of whether a play is a success is whether my husband enjoys it. He’s not an avid theatre-goer and I would say he is broadly representative of the general public, the audience we’re trying to reach. If someone like him goes, they sit down and laugh, they’ve had a really good time and they think, actually I would come back and watch something else - then you’ve won.