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Lyn Gardner: We should really define success by the well-being of theatremakers

The Roundhouse today. Photo: John Williams The Art of Self Care, a day of workshops, panel talks and provocations, took place at London’s Roundhouse Photo: John Williams
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Last month, I was involved in The Art of Self Care, a day of workshops, panel talks and provocations at London’s Roundhouse. “This is not about doing some yoga in the rehearsal room,” China Plate’s Rosie Kelly, another participant, said at the time, “but about creating the conditions for creative risk-taking.”

Its curator Hannah Jane Walker observed that perhaps the title of the event, which was part of The Last Word festival, was not the best-chosen because it implied that we can leave theatre practitioners to look after themselves. In fact, it is up to everyone – including companies and buildings – to ensure that those working in theatre not only have the best possible working conditions, are paid properly and on time, and feel safe in the rehearsal room, but can also expect the mental and physical health of everyone involved will be prioritised.

In other careers, there is baseline assumption that you will be looked after, but in the arts, exploitation in so many different forms is rife. And that includes self-exploitation. I am a huge fan of Ken Robinson, the former director of the Arts in Schools Project and ex-professor of arts education at the University of Warwick. Our children would not be so unhappy and stressed if the government took more notice of his talks and writing on arts in schools. Like him, I believe that rather than continuing to gear our educational system to 19th-century models, we should be encouraging creativity to meet 21st-century needs.

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Working in the arts can lead to the misguided assumption that people doing something they love means they should be martyrs to it because suffering makes you a better artist. Actually, it is proper pay and conditions that create happier, less stressed artists and the most thrilling art.

It’s not just those working in theatre who should expect to be taken care of, but audiences too. Battersea Arts Centre’s move towards becoming a relaxed venue is proof of that and it is good to see more conversations happening around trigger warnings.

Taking more care of everyone is integral to theatre’s development and diversity. Helping the widest range of people, with the widest range of needs, to work in the industry adds breadth and depth to the talent pool, and the widest range of people feeling theatre is for them leads to different perspectives and different stories being told.

This is why initiatives such as Parents and Carers in Performing Arts are important because they help to shift the culture. And why it’s crucial to have initiatives like China Plate’s creation of pre-planned, pre-budgeted processes for rehearsing and distributing work that properly respond to the needs of artists. This is particularly true when much of the most interesting new work is autobiographical and often responds to trauma, sometimes still unresolved.

How Parents in Performing Arts is giving theatre a creche course in caring

What China Plate, PIPA and others are doing is making the industry look at itself and its working practices and asking whether they are fit for purpose. It is all very well to say that rehearsals have always run from 10am until 6pm with an hour for lunch but that may immediately exclude those with childcare responsibilities or those with physical or mental-health needs who need more flexibility.

Just because something has always been done one way, it doesn’t mean that it can’t change. Younger practitioners, who are often more attuned to their own and other people’s well-being, are also leading change and it was good to see how many in the room regularly used check-in and check-out processes.

Kelly pointed out that China Plate’s initiative, which responds to the changing needs of artists, is still a new one. The challenge will be to implement it even as it moves up in the scale of work it produces. After all there is no point in improving artist well-being if it is at the expense of the well-being of producers implementing the policies, adding another layer of anxiety to what is often already a stressful process.

This is an important point, because new ways of working can add different stresses. But one of the things we really need to address is that the health and well-being of all involved should be as much part of the evaluation of any project as the quality of the art and quality of the engagement.

This was brought home to me at The Art of Self Care by the experiences of one participant who spoke eloquently and sorrowfully about their experiences and that of other people on a particular project that had caused burnout because of the lack of care extended to those making the project happen.

Ironically, at another conference recently, I had heard a great deal about the success of that same project and its rave reviews. What that tells us is that it is perfectly possible for a project to find public-facing success while bringing those behind the scenes to their knees. If that’s the case, then its time to think about what we mean by success.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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