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A Conversation with the Watergate Theatre’s Executive Director Joanna Cunningham About Influences and Positivity

Joanna Cunningham, who is from Co. Kildare, Ireland is the Executive Director of the Watergate Theatre in Kilkenny, Ireland. Joanna graduated from University College Cork with a Bachelor of Music before moving on to the University of Limerick where she graduated with a MA in Music with a focus on its social psychology and therapeutic […]

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Joanna Cunningham, who is from Co. Kildare, Ireland is the Executive Director of the Watergate Theatre in Kilkenny, Ireland. Joanna graduated from University College Cork with a Bachelor of Music before moving on to the University of Limerick where she graduated with a MA in Music with a focus on its social psychology and therapeutic potential.

She has worked at the Watergate Theatre since January 2018. Before this she headed up the Music Programme at Garter Lane Arts Centre, Waterford and before this as Deputy Director at Waterford Healing Arts Trust at Waterford University Hospital. Joanna also ran a community arts programme in Ballyfermot for the first eight years of her career post MA.

The Watergate Theatre contributes to ensuring that Kilkenny is in line with an Ireland which believes that each citizen’s life should be enriched by arts and culture. Within this mission Joanna aims to create opportunities for the local community to engage in high quality arts experiences while working with artists to create these opportunities. Through her work Joanna aims to support the development of the arts locally and to build partnerships through which the Watergate works alongside members of Kilkenny’s artistic and non-artistic communities. Joanna aims to increase the depth of engagement by all community sectors with a particular focus on children and young people.

In the last few years, what lifestyle, habit, or behavior change has had the biggest positive impact on your life?

I have done 10-15 minutes of yoga nearly every morning of my life for the past 17 years. The benefit to me is the wonderful muscular stretch. On the days that I skip it I feel the loss of it both mentally and physically.

I also love open water swimming. I live in Waterford which is on the South East coast of Ireland where some of the most beautiful beaches in the country are. It’s a wild and rugged place. I particularly love a 1.5 km swim from the slip of a beach called Annestown in Co. Waterford to the tip of what we call Crocodile Island and back. When I am out there at the tip of the island – sometimes alone and sometimes with a companion – it is perhaps one of the most peaceful places on earth.   

When you feel unfocused, what do you do?

I drag myself back to the task using a kind of cognitive behavioural over-ride which relies on self awareness and discipline. We can’t address that in our personality which impedes progress until we are aware of it. I try to be courageous in my acceptance of my weaknesses.

Occasionally though I let myself off the hook by popping away from my desk – or whatever task I’m in the midst of – for a cup of coffee or one of my favourite pastimes – shopping! I do recognise the value of rewarding myself.

What advice would you give a smart and ambitious recent college graduate? What advice should they ignore?

I believe in allowing one’s career to unfold organically while keeping a close eye on what it is that ignites our passions. I also believe that in today’s disconnected world close personal relationships are essential for good mental health. When your life is progressing try to value and achieve emotional maturity and intelligence and not just cerebral, intellectual, or financial success. If you can achieve this then balanced development across all the areas of your life should follow. Work and career are not everything. They should be seen as key elements interwoven with a spectrum of other important areas of each person’s life.     

What is one lifestyle trend that excites you?

I am not one for trends although I do love fashion. Two of the most therapeutic pastimes for me are reading and dancing.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life and why?

I can’t pick just one – my parents are excellent people. I am one of six children and my siblings are my closest friends. I have the most fun with my family. I also have a circle of close friends with whom I have great fun and whose counsel I find crucial. I value friendship highly. I was educated in the Quaker tradition which fosters friendship and equality two of the most important values I hold. My husband has been a lifelong friend. I fell in love with him when I first set eyes on him (we were both 9). So, to have been travelling through my life with him from age 9 to now – with the occasional hiatus before we got married in our late twenties – has been and continues to be wonderful. 

What’s one of the biggest life lessons you’ve learned?

That which I consider to be logical is not always what others see as logical. I find it astonishing sometimes how differently two people can view and interpret the same set of events or facts. The skill of being able to empathise with these different points of view is one of the keys to successful leadership.

What do you think it is that makes you/someone successful?

Hard work, a balanced point of view, taking responsibility for my part in a disagreement and remembering to have fun.

How do you stay motivated?

I am motivated by the prospect of providing a secure and safe home for my children. They are my highest priority. Being a good role model as well as contributing to keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table fuels the fire of my ambition.

I also believe strongly in the role of the arts in responding to society. Artists provide a mirror to the evolution of humanity and their creations are our cultural record. Culture provides depth, meaning, colour and understanding in and of the world. Those of us who work in the rear ground to filter funding and provide structures within which artists can make their work, I believe, are an important element of this societal and human reflective process. In addition, contributing to the process in which artists across all disciplines make cutting edge art which asks questions, explores possibilities, and adds substance to the world helps in my goal of improving the world my children live in and the values they absorb.  

What legacy do you hope to leave behind?

Happy, healthy, well adjusted children who grow into happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults capable of participating in good, fair, positive and loving relationships.

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