Meet Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre

Host stories

Sayo Ayodele

25 February 2014

From growing up as a deaf child in 1970s Britain to co-directing the Paralympics Opening Ceremony ¬ with a global audience of 11 million people, Jenny Sealey is unstoppable. She lost her hearing in a playground accident aged seven. She considers the incident to be a gift that has allowed her, even pushed her, to incredible heights.

In the seventies, facilities for deaf students were rare. Jenny leaned over to copy notes from other students when she couldn’t hear her teachers. One of them told her that theatre was not the place for a deaf person and she might as well consider another career. I wonder what that teacher thought when she saw the magic Jenny created at the 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony.

When she’s not directing international events on a global stage, Jenny’s day job is CEO and Artistic Director ofGraeae Theatre, where she and her team create award-winning plays about inclusion and accessibility in the broadest sense. Their work recognises and celebrates individual differences, and shows how they can come together to create something truly beautiful, both in theatre and on the larger stage of life.

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Jenny told me her story when we met for the first time on a sunny afternoon in early 2013. I was seeking potential hosts – individuals and organisations demonstrating inspirational examples of leadership – for a programme tailored for a group of leaders from EY, the major professional services firm. The two worlds could not have seemed more different.

A couple of months later, ten EY partners walked into Graeae, slightly apprehensive about why they had been asked to come to a theatre as part of a leadership development programme. Jenny opened by asking everyone to introduce themselves, not by name, but by a gesture that defines them.

She kicked off the introductions with a gesture that involved grabbing just under her bosom, and moving her hands up and down, referencing her large breasts! Everyone laughed and you could see the effect on the room as people visibly relaxed. It was almost as if Jenny had given us permission to let go. Others in the room quickly followed suit with self-defining gestures, revealing small-eared runners, eager bakers, swimmers, and many other talents.

What Jenny does, she says, is help people dig deep into their true selves and identify the creative expression that is seeking release. She tells stories and creates a space for people to articulate their own experiences.

Many of these stories, which constitute who we are as individuals, are checked at the door when people come to work. It is immensely valuable to create the space for them to be told, so we can understand and celebrate individuality, foster a work environment that is inclusive and, therefore, more sustainable. An open and diverse culture is a key component of building innovative, creative, and thriving organisations. Jenny’s work is helping to grow this culture at EY.

The relationship has been mutual. As a non-profit organisation, Graeae relies on funding from a variety of sources, and the recent cuts have affected its budget. The hosting experience opened a new avenue of sustainable income for Jenny and Graeae.

Inspired by their visit, the EY partners decided to support Graeae on equal terms – not through corporate funding but something more deeply embedded in their leadership training. So, together with Graeae, they developed a programme for their senior teams, led by Jenny.

This model means that Jenny can do what she is passionate about (and get remunerated for it), while reaching senior people at EY who can be Graeae ambassadors. EY benefits immensely from a unique programme – infused with Jenny’s energy, vision, leadership and passion – that allows its senior leaders to creatively and deeply reflect on difference and inclusion, both personally and within their organisation.

Though the shift is difficult to measure, it is there. It might involve seeing someone who is different, in a wheelchair, or of another gender or race, and recognising that within teams, organisations and in the larger world, these collective differences add up to a strength, not a limitation.

Fast forward to 2014, and the outcomes of our first meeting have far exceeded expectations. As a result of hosting EY last February, Jenny is now delivering a series of leadership development programmes for executives across the business.

The experience of hosting has confirmed what she has always known: theatre has a responsibility to change hearts and minds, everyone is a theatre maker, and life is the greatest stage of all. The speed at which participants take to her creative exercises proves this, and the results continue to dazzle her.

Hosting Quests has also given Jenny a chance to reflect on her own leadership, how far she has come, and where she wants to go. It has taken her and the team at Graeae on a journey that, a year ago, they wouldn’t have thought possible. Hosting has enabled them to develop an ethos with integrity and a transaction of skills and finance where everyone benefits. They are now daring to imagine a new set of horizons.

As part of the joint programme, eight EY consultants spent two days with Jenny in early 2014, reflecting on their values and what it means to belong. As I walked through a multi-sensory experience that the participants had curated, I felt the power of Jenny’s work.

Life-sized human body outlines of each person hung from the ceiling, with descriptions or drawings showing what they were ‘made of’. The exhibition included scents, music and poetry, all designed to stir emotions or memories, related to identity and belonging for each of the participants.

On my way home, I found myself reflecting on how this experience would open up similar conversations once people got back to the office. I was excited by how this could impact the work environment and reveal previously hidden knowledge, talents, and connections.

For Leaders’ Quest, it has been a privilege to foster a connection between two very different organisations that has led to a mutually beneficial relationship and the strengthening of both businesses.

This is a particularly powerful example from our growing community of individuals, hosts and clients, who we connect through our Quest programmes around the world.