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Jude Kelly


Jude Kelly is CEO and Founder of The WOW Foundation, which runs WOW - Women of the World Festivals across the globe to celebrate the achievements of women and girls and confront global gender injustice. Starting at London’s Southbank Centre in 2010, where Jude was Artistic Director for 12 years, the festival now takes place in 30 locations across six continents. In 2018 Jude established The WOW Foundation as an independent charity dedicated to building the WOW movement as a force for change.

Jude Kelly has directed over 200 theatre and opera productions, including at the Royal Shakespeare Company, English National Opera, National Theatre, and the Châtalet in Paris including Ian McKellen in The Seagull; Patrick Stewart in Johnson over Jordon; and Dawn French in When We Are Married. She is the recipient of two Olivier Awards, a BASCA Gold Badge Award for contribution to music and a Southbank Award for opera.

She was headhunted to join the bidding team for the 2012 London Olympics and create the programme for culture and ceremonies, she subsequently advised both Rio and Tokyo on their successful bids. Jude Kelly has founded a range of arts institutions and has commissioned and supported the work of thousands of artists across all genres.



Today, it is my great honour to welcome Judith Pamela Kelly to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Jude Kelly is known to millions of people around the world. She is a theatre director, with more than 100 productions to her name. Between 2006 and 2018, she was the artistic director of the Southbank Centre, Britain’s largest cultural institution. Today, she is renowned for her work as the director of WOW – Women of the World.

What do we know of Kelly? She was born in Liverpool in 1954, the second of four daughters. Her mother was a secretary and her father a civil servant with a huge commitment to self-improvement, which Kelly has inherited. In sectarian Liverpool, the fact that her father’s family were Irish Catholic while her mothers’ family were Protestants of German descent (they were even interned during the Second World War) not only taught her the importance of tolerance, but also of the excitement of cultural difference.

Her love of theatre, music, dance, and culture in all its forms developed at a very young age. So-called “flat feet”, saw her sent to ballet classes as a young child. The classes were run by the West Indian Society, which had a significant presence in Liverpool at the time – indeed, second only to Chinese immigrants, with Irish immigrants in third place. She attended Quarry Bank Comprehensive School, opposite Calderstones Park on Harthill Road in Liverpool. She had a rocky start, skipping classes and shoplifting. But, at the age of thirteen, she read “Murder in the Cathedral”, the verse drama by T. S. Eliot, and was enthralled. The creative energy of her school’s headmaster, William Pobjoy, was also important. Pobjoy (incidentally, the headmaster who once caned John Lennon and, realizing it was wrong, subsequently spent his energies getting corporal punishment banned in schools) suggested that she start a theatre club. It thrived, drawing in the talents of entertainer Les Dennis  and horror writer Clive Barker.

Jude Kelly was “on her way”. She studied drama at Birmingham University, graduating in 1975. She was a folk singer and an actress at the Leicester Phoenix Theatre, but her real passion was for directing. So, the year after leaving university, she founded the Southampton-based touring company Solent People’s Theatre. This was an unusual career choice for a woman at that time. One of her lecturers even told her that there were only three female directors: “One’s a lesbian, one’s retired, and one’s just killed herself – which would you like to be?”

Nothing would dissuade her. By the early 1980s, she was artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre, where she set out making it a welcoming space with theatre, cinema, gallery, and café. Then, between 1990 and 2002, she was founding director and then CEO of the West Yorkshire Playhouse: her talents made it a global landmark. It also cemented her distain for the extreme provincialism of Londoners. She complained that in some people’s minds “somewhere is the centre and other places are satellites” but that “doesn’t reflect population or intellectual movements and it doesn’t encourage people to think as big as they can”. She set out to change this perception, directing over 100 theatre and opera productions, including (my personal favourite) an incredible feminist critique of The Taming of the Shrew. Kelly brought her own, distinctive vision to the canon, and, along the way, directed Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Dawn French, and the English National Opera. The number of awards she has amassed are too long to list. Her “Singin’ in the Rain”, originally at the West Yorkshire Playhouse before transferring to the National Theatre, stunned audiences with its use of multi-media, including film screens. Her production picked up four Olivier nominations and was named Outstanding Musical Production at the Laurence Olivier Awards in 2001. In 1997 she was awarded an OBE for her services to theatre and in 2015 a CBE in the New Year Honours for Services to the Arts. 

Jude Kelly has also been important in the politics of the arts. She has a longstanding interest in widened the appeal of the arts to those who never consider themselves (and are not considered by others) to be the main audiences. Kelly served on the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, which was worried that the pressures of the National Curriculum coupled with reduced resources and facilities were squeezing out the arts. This could only be to the detriment of “creativity, the processes of original thought and action”, which are “the most powerful force in cultural change”, as the Chair of NACCCE, Ken Robinson, put it. The Committee wrote the All Our Futures (1999) report, which led to significant investment in the creative and cultural education of youth.

However, it was her 2006 appointment as the artistic director of the Southbank Centre that provided her with a large canvas for her ideas. As she had done at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, she set about making the Centre accessible, diverse, and inclusive. Kelly urged everyone involved in the arts to “understand the deep pain and sense of disenfranchisement of individuals, generations, and communities who feel they have been excluded”. For her, arts institutions

are bodies of people who represent both the arts and the people who pay for them, which is the whole community. Their job is not only to nurture the artist but to contextualise the work, to give it a place that makes sense to all our communities, to allow whatever the art is talking about the enter the soul”.

Her work at the Southbank Centre transformed that institution.  And she combined it with leading the cultural team for the successful London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic bid and then served on the Board of the cultural Olympiad. After twelve years as Artistic Director, though, Kelly decided to leave. As she admitted, the move was “like leaving a long and happy marriage for a more compelling mistress”!

And that compelling mistress was the WOW Foundation, an independent charity celebrating the achievements of women and girls globally, while also seeking to improve their lives. It now conducts huge festivals in 22 countries, reaching millions of girls and women and their allies. Her “Being a Man Festival” (BAM) from 2014 directly addressed masculinity and entitlement. In her words, “the conversation about gender equality belongs to all of us. Gender isn’t about women, it’s about the way we’ve positioned gender in terms of who has power, so it’s realy important that men ar part of the conversation. Masculinity has many of its own problems and Being a Man gave an opportunity for those to be discussed”.

For us today, the WOW foundation is collaborating with one of Birkbeck’s most active Research Hubs. This is the interdisciplinary SHaME project, directed by me and funded by The Wellcome Trust. SHaME stands for Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters, so is dedicated to understanding and communicating knowledge about the public health aspects of sexual violence. Together, WOW and SHaME are running a Shameless! Festival of Activism Against Sexual Violence. It will take place at the Battersea Arts Centre on the 27th November this year. You are all invited to register to participate in a programme of arts, music, dance, theatre, “hands-on” activities, “hope boxes”, and talks.

What all this makes clear is that Jude Kelly has a strong sense of responsibility to create better worlds for all of us. She believes that “if I don’t use this position of power to change or try to change at least to some degree, then I’ve really squandered the opportunities that were given to me as a girl and as a woman”. After all, she notes, women today have so many opportunities “because somebody got us the vote, somebody got us education, and even if we weren’t as brave as they were then, we can all do our bit and we have to”. She argues that “Bringing together women of all classes, backgrounds, and life experiences allows us to fight for things in a way that includes everybody’s needs, not just those with certain levels of power”.

If I have made Jude Kelly sounds too earnest, nothing could be further from the truth. She is fun, optimistic, idealistic, and a full of restless energy. As she told one interviewer, “I’m Lucozade-on-legs, me”. She enjoys fashion, food, and the work of female artists. She takes great pleasure in driving her convertible mini to the seaside, where she windsurfs. She also loves buying gadgets – many of which she never uses! She is also a mother to Caroline and Robbie, and lives with the author Andrew Cracknell, who has three daughters.

Finally, the last words must go to Jude Kelly. She urges each of us to give ourselves “permission to dream”. If we can “imagine the sort of landscape you would like to see developing without worrying about the practical aspects”, we can then, “sit with others and consider how it would be possible to achieve that dream”. The most important step is “thinking boldly”.

By accepting this College Fellowship, she signals her support of our educational and artistic missions. We are thrilled that she has agreed to become a Fellow of Birkbeck.