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A day in the life: Lisa Burger

Lisa Burger always wanted to work in performing arts, and the ACA helped her to do so. She tells Xenia Taliotis about being the National Theatre’s executive director

How I changed career

You could argue that I haven’t changed career, because I found my path even before I qualified. There have been changes along the way, but they have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I had a very rich cultural upbringing. I read music at Sheffield University, so from the start my goal was a job in the performing arts. I spoke to a friend of the family after I graduated, and he said that qualifying as an accountant would not only be a great way in, but also a brilliant Plan B if Plan A failed. I joined Touche Ross in Cardiff – my home city – and was seconded to Welsh National Opera (WNO) just before I qualified. I never went back.

I spent a year as chief accountant at WNO and then moved to London to work for the Royal Opera House (ROH). I was there for 10 years, holding various positions within the finance department, concluding with acting finance director. I did that for the 12 months in the run up to the ROH’s closure for redevelopment, and oversaw all the planning and financial decisions that entailed. I then spent four years as director of finance and operations at the National Gallery Company, the trading arm of the National Gallery, where I learned about retail, publishing and catering. In 2011, I moved back to the performing arts and the National Theatre (NT) – first as chief operating officer and, from 2015, as executive director.

My responsibilities

The NT is a big organisation, with 2,500 staff and freelancers and an annual turnover of over £100m, 80% of which is self-earned and the balance of which is funded by the Arts Council. Our self-generated income comes from ticket sales, from the 30 productions staged at the NT, from our national and international tours, and from front of house trading and fundraising. As well as being the executive director, I am also joint chief executive – along with our director, Rufus Norris. My primary responsibility is the business side and his the art, but we have a very close working relationship, which enables us to bring our joint vision for the theatre to fruition. Everything I do sits under the broad umbrella of fulfilling our original and ongoing purpose: our existence is based on providing theatre for the nation. So we strive for diversity, inclusion and accessibility in every aspect of our business, from the works we put on to the audiences we reach.

I still take a keen interest in two initiatives I instigated: NT Live, which broadcasts live performances to 750 cinemas within the UK and in more than 45 countries; and NT Future, our redevelopment programme. NT Live has proved an excellent revenue stream for us, and one that we hope to build on, while NT Future has transformed the entire theatre creating better public spaces that are now being very well used. We remain hugely grateful to the many individuals, trusts and corporates who gave so generously.

My typical day

My days are almost all long. Aside from that, they will often be packed with meetings – with our corporate funders, co-producers, or senior management team. I oversee everything, so even though I am not directly involved with the commissioning of new work, I am part of the planning group that develops the programme. Again, the remit is always to choose work that is relevant, and which lives up to the ‘national’ in our name. Planning is an important part of my day: it’s imperative to take our plays on tour to theatres outside London and into schools nationwide. The arts benefit society, and it’s sad that they remain out of reach for so many people. We offer NT Live free to state schools and last year we took a specially adapted tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to schools in six cities with high levels of social deprivation. It was sheer joy to see the effect live theatre had on children who’d never seen a play before.

The challenges I’ve overcome

Sadly it’s not a challenge that’s been overcome, but one that, if anything, becomes yearly more onerous – funding for the arts. Funding on every level has been cut, so a whole generation now risks growing up culturally impoverished. That’s something I find deeply dispiriting, but which each day spurs me on to find new approaches.

Industry quirks

Measuring success can be very tricky in the world of performing arts. Do you measure it through the box office, or through awards and critical reviews; by the extent to which you’ve reached new audiences or by how successful you have been in developing a diverse range of theatre makers and writers? Money is so often the standard marker for success, yet we don’t always see immediate returns in the performing arts. Developing and nurturing new talent can be an extremely long-term investment in the ecology of a theatre, and you need to keep that in the round.

How the ACA helped my career

The ACA is a tremendous jumpstart into any profession, including the one I chose. I feel a great sense of gratitude to the qualification. It has given me the confidence to progress and to broaden my skills and strive for more. I’d like young people who are just starting out to consider taking the ACA qualification as their next step after school or university. It’s such a terrific gateway to any number of dream jobs, from being your own boss to running one of the country’s most important performing art venues, so I don’t want kids to rule it out because they don’t want to be an accountant.

The habits of an accountant

It’s ingrained in us to keep asking questions until we get a satisfactory answer. You really can’t fob off a good accountant because we’re not embarrassed to ask and ask, and ask again. We’re tenacious and curious: we know the answer is there somewhere and it’s our job to find it.

Originally published in Economia on 18 July 2019.