Yvonne: The story of me and my mentor

Soon after I moved into my first home – alone, as a grown-up – there was a rat-tat-tat on my front door. I opened it. An older woman was standing there. She had a head of short, black-pepper hair, lively eyes, and the smile of someone who had experienced a lot of the world and still had an appetite for more. Then, for the first time, I heard her molasses-flavoured voice, as she introduced herself as Yvonne Gilan, my neighbour.

I was fresh from university. A blank piece of paper. Quite honestly, I couldn’t describe myself as having much of a plan for my life ahead except to have some kind of career in the theatre. How I would do that dissolved into vagueness.

Yvonne told me that she too had recently moved into the building, into the studio flat opposite mine. She had a house-warming gift for me, which she placed into my hands – a large, grey-green cube. I stared at it, with no idea of what it was or what I was supposed to do with it. I thanked her and closed the door. Later, turning it over – it was waxy to the touch – I noticed words incised into one side: ‘Huile d’Olive’. Turning it again, I read on another side: ‘Savon de Marseille’. So, I had been presented with a giant block of soap.

This was the first of many gifts Yvonne would bestow on me over the years. Some of them were objects like the set of brown-glazed crockery spice pots, or the recipe book by my favourite cookery writer Josceline Dimbleby that she’d hunted down for me in a charity shop, or the numerous postcards with her messages drawn across the back in the fat, felt-tip markers that children use for their artworks. But many of the gifts have come in the shape of insights, stories, lessons, opportunities – a career! – praise, criticism, affection, advice, and even downright interference. And sometimes, like with the soap, it would take me a while to figure out what the gift actually was and how to use it.

Yvonne has been my mentor for twenty-eight years. Looking back at the path behind us, I recognise what complex dynamics are at play in this kind of relationship. I admit that there have been bad moments when we’ve wound each other up something rotten. Yet, with time, we’ve grown closer and closer. Our mutual respect has deepened. Our story is rewritten all the time as we continue, and especially at big moments, such as now when we both think about the several endings that death will bring. Yvonne is 87 and has cancer in her breast and lung. Nevertheless, as I visit her at the Marie Curie Hospice, where she has become a favourite among the staff and holds court over a parade of visitors, I’m happy to see that her charisma is undimmed.

Yvonne was a born performer. Her glamorous mother, who herself was steeped in amateur dramatics, encouraged her to recite poems to family and friends from her early childhood. This was, after all, a genteel household in 1930s Edinburgh. One day, as a present from her godmother Mary, Yvonne was taken to a department store where you could go into a booth and make a voice recording to take away. Yvonne answered Auntie Mary’s questions about an upcoming holiday and, as a finale, sang the Shirley Temple hit, The Good Ship Lollipop. The disc was sent to her Uncle Jack in a tea plantation in India. A terse message came back to her mother: “I think you’d better do something about her Scottish accent.”

That moment launched Yvonne’s training. At five years old, like those toddler violinists who begin lessons when they’re scarcely big enough to hold their instruments, Yvonne was dispatched to Edinburgh College of Speech and Drama in Murray Place to learn elocution. Here she came under the direction of Sybil Attwell in one-to-one tutorials on Saturday mornings. Yvonne was taught a programme rather similar to that of the prestigious London drama schools of the day. “You’d be lying flat out on your back on the floor, so relaxed that Sybil could pick up your arms, and they’d just drop, pick up your legs, drop… It was learning proper relaxation.” Eventually, Yvonne joined in with other children putting on plays like the Tailor of Gloucester and made lifelong friends. Everything she learned in this academy – the techniques for breath release and voice, the poetry reading and the Greek Dancing (“striking poses like Yoga”) – all laid the foundations for what she would eventually pass on as a teacher herself. Yvonne even credits the techniques with equipping her with the wherewithal to push out her first baby in a mere three hours.

After years in repertory, where Geoffrey Palmer was one of her juvenile co-stars, Yvonne married and started a family with TV producer Michael Gill. Their social gatherings were lit up by intellectuals such as John Berger and David Sylvester. Later, Yvonne picked up acting again. Her TV and film credits include Fawlty Towers, Crossroads, Empire of the Sun and Chariots of Fire. In between acting, she wrote short scripts, particularly for radio. Yvonne also became involved in fringe theatre at the Half Moon Theatre in Aldgate, where innovative staging and ensemble playing were as much political choices as creative ones. While this experimental work isn’t so well known, companies such as the Half Moon are the godparents of today’s British avant-garde theatre. In fact, Yvonne is an enthusiastic supporter of my own company, Wishbone. While our other fans compliment us on our originality, Yvonne likes to remind me that her generation had done it all already in the 60s and 70s.

Yvonne brought her theatrical know-how to international conference producing in the 1980s. She recalls this as a glorious period of adventure and inventiveness. Her success lay in her ability to design events for corporate giants such as IMB or American Express with a responsive sensitivity to the character of whatever city was the host, combined with a clever knack for building a holistic journey for the delegates. She loved the excitement of collaborating with a crack team, working and playing together. She could also draw on connections that she had made throughout her varied career for celebrated guest speakers. Often, however, an introverted scientist or a mumbling CEO was called upon to speak, and Yvonne was there to share skills from the theatre to help the non-actors to loosen up and find their inner-performer. Finally, the demand for this specific kind of support – “They were clamouring, darling!”– led Yvonne to set up her own business as a speaker coach under the banner of Voicecraft.

This potted biography leaves out many artistic ventures, characters and stories. Some are too outrageous to repeat, some too heart-breaking. In her life, Yvonne has had a great deal of loss to contend with, which she has always done with extraordinary fortitude.

I’m so well marinated in Yvonne’s philosophy of creative communication that I can longer clearly identify which of my current practices are her legacy and which are my independent innovations. Under her mentorship, I have designed and directed training programmes, coached a range of individuals from teenage students to top business leaders, and watched many people grow in confidence at presenting themselves and their messages. And I have managed this in tandem with my practice as a theatre-maker, taking a unified approach to teaching and creating art just as Yvonne has always done.

My professional relationship with Yvonne began when she took on an ambitious project. British Airways had asked her to coach a large number of people who were to be ‘Global Ambassadors’ for a new range of tailfins for their fleet. To handle a group of this size, Yvonne decided she needed to assemble a team of tutors to work under her leadership. I was among those called up. We were a small team of young women, who each had some combined experience of teaching, theatre and voice development. We would go on to become the core of Yvonne’s Voicecraft team. I was the only one who had never before taught anybody anything. I took to it from the first moment. It felt natural to engage with what the person in front of me wanted to say, and for us to feel our way together towards how to say it better.

Of course, Yvonne and the team had conflicts and difficulties at times. There were the up-down looks just before the start of a long day with Senior Executive teams, and the singling out of one of us as inappropriately dressed. Usually the charge was that our heels were too high. The only safe choice was ballet pumps, although we all grumbled that we took our shoes off anyway for the warm-up exercises so we were hardly tottering about. Yvonne has always maintained a draconian insistence that women’s voices are adversely affected by the height of their heels, and I can’t disagree with the principle. But censure wasn’t limited to shoes. Occasionally a top with a perfectly decent neckline was condemned as: “too low-cut, darling”. On different days, Yvonne would offer her judgement that one of us was “the best”; it could be the best teacher, the most talented actor, the prettiest, or whatever. Then she would lean back and smile, watching who was stricken with disappointment or confused pride. Until, that was, we had become mature enough to see through this game. It became apparent that there were no consistent favourites; eventually we could rationalise that it was simply our turn to be demonized or exalted. Once the fox had been shot, the sport lost its appeal for Yvonne and there was a lot less of that sort of thing.

For my part, as my confidence increased, I wanted to shrug off the control of my mentor. I had new ideas I wanted to try out, and the skills to implement them. There were many legitimate opportunities that I picked up. I was invited by the Professor of Strategy at London Business School to lead some presentation skills workshops for MBA students at a business school at Cyprus where he had ties. I didn’t think twice before saying yes. The money was good, it was on a sunny island, and it would be my own show. When I mentioned my new job to Yvonne, I was amazed by her reaction. She was hurt. Yes, she gave me a telling off for my casual disloyalty, but it was her vulnerability that shocked me more. In the thrill of being recognised for my ability, I’d forgotten a crucial thing. London Business School was Yvonne’s client and I had only come to the Professor’s attention because Yvonne had put me in his sights. Yvonne was equally furious with the Professor. In fact, she made excuses for me. I was a naïve girl, but he should have known better than to make the arrangements for my engagement behind her back. She didn’t prevent me taking up the booking but my cockiness was somewhat subdued. This was when I learned the code of honour between consultants: if you are approached by an associate’s client, you tell your associate, and cut them in on the deal before agreeing to anything. To behave otherwise is stealing from under their noses. There is other protocol to remember: don’t use their material – support notes, articles, training design formats – for your purposes without asking, and don’t forget to credit them for any contribution they’ve made to your project. However, there’s always a first time for discovering the blindingly obvious. How to conduct yourself in business is something that you have to pick up as you go along, sometimes with embarrassing consequences. The unexpected or the difficult will always rear up in your path. You learn a balance between taking the initiative and taking advice from a mentor. I find that since I’ve grown up, our relationship has shifted. Yvonne controls less, and I rebel less. I defer to her less frequently but with much more ease and gratitude when I do.

Always an appreciative guest at my table, Yvonne used to relish a tasty dinner before chemotherapy robbed her of her appetite. She believes that as an only child – which I am too, incidentally – she is particularly adept at stretching her antennae out into to the world. “We are sensory creatures,” she often tells me. “Your senses, including taste, are your means of connection.” Both Yvonne’s sons were professionally involved with fine dining. Nick was a Michelin-starred chef and Adrian (A.A. Gill) was a food critic for the Sunday Times. So, it seems apt to describe her teaching philosophy as a family recipe that she has passed on to us in the next generation. Even as I aim to reproduce it faithfully, I know that it will never be identical. I can carry off a close likeness, I hope, although tweaked and twisted by my own personality, as dishes tend to be by cooks further down the line. So here is my take on the essential ingredients for teaching creative communication.

First, design your programme well. When I was a novice, Yvonne schooled me in the order and timings of the exercises and games. She suggested ways of steering the participants’ experience. It was a serious task to get my head around this liturgy. Back then, I couldn’t see the wood because I was trying to keep track of the trees, to remember what came next without sneaky peaks at my notes. Now, I can appreciate the perfect arc of the workshop. It’s a classic. Yvonne’s design artfully builds challenges and discoveries incrementally to a finale. The parameters are fixed but what happens within them is fluid. “We know we can hold it,” Yvonne nods. I and my Voicecraft colleagues continue to roll out the same workshop several times a year to senior executives on leadership programmes at the business schools who made a her a Fellow in recognition of her contribution, despite her having zero academic qualifications whatsoever. These principles now underpin my own designs for Resonance workshops: putting the participants’ experience at the centre, balancing support and risk, and keeping it playful.

Pick the right environment. Yvonne understands that people are affected profoundly by their surroundings. Her mantra is: “What are the rooms like? We must have good rooms, darling.” Back in the day, we would troop behind Yvonne as new venues were evaluated for suitability. It was all about space and light. A clean, freshly-vacuumed carpet was also a priority, as we ask people to lie down on the floor for some of the physical warm-up exercises. We didn’t just work in boardrooms. We occupied bars, hotels and theatres – many theatres – and, on a couple of occasions, a gynaecological college.

I still request that clients email me a photo of the training space before I commit to the logistics. If it seems too dark or that it’s not possible to move furniture around, I do what Yvonne taught me to do: to ask nicely for an alternative so that the participants have the best possible learning experience.

Add several handfuls of talent, sprinkle heavily with praise. Yvonne believes in other people’s talent, whether this is the talent of the team she has assembled or the talent of the people she’s coaching. She believes in letting people know what they’re good at: how clever, how thoughtful or good-looking, or how sexy their shoes are. In terms of praise, nothing is off-limits. Understanding why this is a vital part of teaching has been one of the lessons that took me the longest to learn. Wasn’t the objective of training to show people their errors and recommend ways of avoiding pitfalls? As someone who herself is a little embarrassed about receiving compliments, I was suspicious that people would feel pandered to if I focused on praise rather than criticism. There would be times when Yvonne listened as I offloaded about some challenge I was experiencing guiding a client who was struggling with this or that. I might complain that it was slow progress, or that we’d hit a frustrating barrier. She would incline her head and say, “Darling, have you thought of telling him what he’s good at?” Good point. Maybe I hadn’t. Over the years, I’ve noticed how when I choose someone’s talent as a starting point, they flourish rapidly. If you’re open to it, it isn’t hard to discover natural flair in anyone’s performance or the unique personality that every person brings to communication. Let’s have less of the feedback cliché, the ‘shit sandwich’, where you say something nice, insert a negative criticism, and finish with another platitude. If people trust you as a coach, they will bring up their own insecurities and flaws anyway. You can address these as and when they emerge. They’re secondary, though. What really matters is that people become aware of what they are good at. People often dismiss their own strengths. They see these as unimportant and unremarkable. This mindset can leave them unable to convert their good instincts into technique when under pressure. In a workshop environment, this phenomenon is amplified. If you teach others to be generous with the support and compliments they offer to their peers, the whole standard goes up. In order to transform, what people don’t need is to keep thinking about what they’re bad at. It seems counter-intuitive, but there it is.

Stir in some storytelling. It is a truism that the best business leaders are great storytellers. But this view hasn’t always prevailed. When Yvonne pioneered the use of the arts in business in the 1980s, this was an entirely novel idea. Partly, the radical nature of this innovation lies in the fact that storytelling is about evoking emotion. In fact, for some, the idea that emotion can play a positive part in business is still fairly radical. Storytelling is also where my double lives – as a training consultant and as an artist – intersect. Making theatre is about both the crafting of the story, its structure, imagery and language, and communicating it to an audience with your voice, eye contact, timing, and your whole physical presence. This part of Yvonne’s recipe made sense to me instantly, intuitively, although working with groups and individuals within the parameters of her design has broadened my understanding of what good storytelling is. It has revealed to me the range of talent that is out there in regular human beings not just in other professional artists. Storytelling is a human activity rather than a specialist one. However, it is nevertheless also an accomplishment that one can hone. The first task of the trainer is to provide people with prompts to nudge them into creating and sharing their stories. Yvonne has some simple tactics for this. “The wonderful thing is that no one ever says no.” Indeed, it is a wonderful thing to open people up to the possibility of expression and connection, and that is the potential that Yvonne’s method sets in motion.

Thank-you, Yvonne, for the recipe for drawing out others’ voices and creativity. Thank-you for the cookbooks and the reference book about cheeses of the world. Thank-you for the role at Saïd Business School and the job in Budapest that meant I had to step up as a leader of the Voicecraft team myself, and for the coffee table book on Budapest you presented me with afterwards. Thank-you for the dinners at Lemonia, where the waiters are all in thrall to your charm. Thank-you for encouraging my ideas and giving me advice when I’ve been stuck. Thank-you for coming to every Wishbone production, for your unstinting praise and promotion, and for recording the script for a voiceover for a new installation we’re developing. Thanks for poking your nose into my whole life with the finest of intentions. Thanks for each and every gift, whatever shape it took. Thanks for the love and emotional support you’ve given me, for being a dear friend.

Thank-you, Yvonne. I promise to do my best to carry your legacy forward.