Driving change within England’s leading performing arts companies


Tonic recognises the power of bringing cohorts of organisations together to work alongside each other on shared challenges and to ensure cross-fertilisation of ideas and practice.

In 2014 and 2016 we delivered Advance, our ground-breaking programme focusing on improving the situation for women in the performing arts.

The programme brought together the Artistic Directors, Chief Executives, and senior staff of leading performing arts organisations. They recognised that something was preventing talented women in the performing arts industries from rising to the top and wanted to understand in a nuanced and complex way why this was the case and then lead the way in addressing it.

From October 2013 to May 2014 Tonic piloted the Advance process with a cohort of 11 theatres, guiding them through a six-month period of research, reflection and activity which tasked them to take an interrogative and methodical approach to understanding the root causes behind the comparative lack of women in key creative roles. Rather than settling for quick fixes or advocating a ‘sticking plaster’ approach, Advance tasked the theatres to understand not only where barriers to female talent exist within their organisations but why.

The second cycle of the programme began in January 2016 and saw two key expansions. First the programme opened out to encompass dance and opera organisations alongside theatre companies.

Secondly, the focus of what the participants explored broadened beyond women in creative roles alone; while some organisations chose to remain focused on creative roles such as choreography and conducting, others explored areas such as artist development, pathways to senior leadership, and how the culture of communication within an organisation impacts on gender balance.

Upon concluding the programme all participating organisations were required to have in place concrete and considered plans for how they would create change. This entailed them working towards progress within their own organisations but also considering how, within their cohort and with Tonic’s ongoing collaboration, they could drive for industry-wide change.

The Advance programme was supported by Arts Council England and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

The Process

Before beginning, each organisation was asked to write a question they wanted to explore over the duration of the programme. This was to give each organisation a targeted and focused starting point for their investigation and, following that, a way of helping them stay on track over the subsequent six months. After deciding on their question, Tonic worked with each organisation to help them break it down into manageable chunks, and to plan and carry out their approach to answering it.

Step 1. Investigation

This step centred on the area of focus the organisations selected for themselves via their question. Tonic conducted investigations on their behalf, examining how things wereworking at the time, and sought to understand where barriers to women existed. Tonic then shared their findings with the organisations.

This step was about the organisations enhancing their own understanding and asking ‘why’; it was about them questioning their own thinking and that of others, and about exposing themselves to perspectives and information that may previously have been off their radar. Over all, it was about them being reflective and listening to others, not about them leading or needing to come up with solutions; that would come in Step Two.

Step 2. Innovation

Based on the findings of the investigation, the organisations explored and considered alternative or supplementary ways of working which would go some way towards removing the barriers they had identified.

This step was about dreaming up new ways of doing things, and of challenging existing preconceptions and the ‘but we’ve always done it this way’ approach. At the same time, any new approaches had to be achievable, realistic, and deliverable within the organisations’ already busy schedules and programmes of work.

Step 3. Action Plans

By the conclusion of Step Two, the organisations had identified a range of new actions they would like to implement and each produced an action plan outlining steps towards making this happen. These action plans covered a range of approaches. Some were:

  • small and time-limited, others were big and long-lasting.
  • designed to achieve impact in one organisation, others to drive change across the wider industry.
  • focused on the operational or ‘nuts and bolts’ side of how the organisation runs, others focused on artistic output or the creation of new artistic work.

Who Was Involved

2014 Advance cohort

2016 Advance cohort


Watch Advance participants speak about their experience of the programme.

Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, speaking in 2014.

Alison Porter, Executive Producer and Michael Duffy, Communications Manager at Mahogany Opera Group, speaking in 2016.

Find out more

View or download an archive of the Advance website tonictheatre-advance.co.uk, which was available online between 2014 and 2022. The archive is available in PDF format (13Mb).

Tonic – For greater equality, diversity and inclusion in the arts