Why I am Worried to Talk

Last year I wrote a blog about my mental health and how it is tied to my work as a theatre maker. I think it generated a lot of discussion, and it was also a great help for me, as many people reached out with kind words and boosted my self-esteem when it was at its lowest. 

The blog undoubtedly was a useful stage in my recovery so it would make sense that I write another while I’m struggling again. But this time it has been much harder. I have tried to type some words every day for about three weeks and I haven’t been able to until maybe this moment. We will soon see… this might be deleted or if you are reading this now, then it might just be that I’ve manged to scramble something together. Thank you, I hope it is a worthwhile read. 

The last few months have been very difficult for me for lots of reasons. I have been signed off again after having a big dip in my mental health. I had to leave a production I cared deeply about and was really excited to work on. To top it off, with my actions, I scared a lot of people who I love and respect. This has naturally come with lots of mixed up feelings, guilt, helplessness, vulnerability and huge amounts of regret. I am getting lots of support and help to deal with it. My family are caring for me on an hour to hour basis and supporting me in particularly low ‘can’t get out of bed days.’ The NHS mental health team and doctors in Fife are working with me to try and make this a long-lasting recovery. My industry peers have picked up and carried on what I had to leave behind.

One of the ways this was achieved was by putting the standard out of office on my email. My colleagues picked up any emails coming my way and spoke to contacts, carefully explaining that I was taking some time off and they would deal with things in my absence. This is of course absolutely the right protocol. Standard procedure, I would imagine, for any sickness.  My team mates were stepping in and stepping up to ensure that I could step away. This meant I should not stress over work and focus on my recovery. 

The only thing was, this is  incredibly difficult. As difficult as it is to write this blog. As difficult as it is to write in a tweet that I’ve been unwell. As difficult as it is to mention to friends and colleagues when I see them face to face. 

This is for one simple reason, I am scared of letting people know. I’m scared that ‘everyone gets one’ is the way we might look at the world. Ross was unwell but now he’s better. But if he’s ill again, not even one year after the last time,  then maybe, he’s not getting better. Maybe the unconscious bias is that I have just put myself in the unreliable zone. There is a truth in that. I have dropped the ball on things, twice. That’s hard to say but maybe that’s what other people might think. 

I worry a lot about what the narrative of having a consistent mental health problem might do in an industry where work can ebb and flow and there is no shortage of artistic talent who can do what I do, reliably.   

I also worry about what that means as a director who is looking to take on more demanding projects with greater strains and stresses. Does it seem like I can’t cope? 

I also worry about my role within the room. If the director is anxious that can feed into the room and affect the process. Even if the anxiety is medical and unrelated to the strength of the project. No one wants that director in their rehearsal rooms. 

I’m unsure how many of these worries are well-founded and how many are fed by my current high level of anxiety. 

What I do know is that so far, the industry has been incredibly supportive and open. 

Amazing podcasts like ‘Don’t Speak’ by Mim Attwood and Amy Taylor, and ‘Putting It Together’ by Brian O’Sullivan are opening up debate about mental health. Activists like Drew Taylor, Cultured Mongrel’s Emma Jayne Park and FST’s recent training programme highlight our growing awareness in Scotland to consider mental health in an industry that can sometimes be very exposing.

However, my recent bout of mental health has made me wonder What Can We Do Better?

I am a heterosexual white middle-class who has the wide support of family and friends. I am incredibly privileged and yet I have been knocked by the pressure of our industry.  Mental health affects us all so we need to ensure that our industry can protect those less well supported  by our society. We need to make space for more diverse voices, so we need to do more for well-being in our industry. 

For instance, we need to create opportunities for people to talk about mental health not just at external training events but when they are right in the midst of productions.  Can we make people aware of who they can check in with  throughout the process without feeling embarrassed or stigmatised? 

We need to examine how the rehearsal process works. I love a tech week. Love it. But recently as I was signed back into work my doctor recommended me working only 37 hours. I completely ignored this. Production weeks are not scheduled this way and I didn’t feel empowered to have the conversation. Schedules are in place and the show has to work to the deadline of opening night. So, I ignored the advice and I worked. And this has arguably had an impact. It was my own decision and I take this on but could an actor or a stage manager really feel supported to ask for reduced hours on production week? Would it be allowed.  Maybe we need to start thinking differently to ensure that we can support a neurodiverse team to work in new ways to make exciting new work. 

Is there that space when you have a cup of tea with a new theatre or producer or company where we can ask each other not just what do we want to make but how we can support each other in the best ways to do it? Each artist might have different invisible needs. Is there a way we can make the conversation easier and not necessarily rest on the shoulders of the freelance artist pitching for work?

 ‘I would love to direct a show for you, can I get some extra time to stretch out the tech weeks?’ 

I’m not even sure I could say that right now.  I need to get better at figuring out what I need and talking up front about it. But if there is an early career artist struggling like I have; can we find a way to make those questions and conversations easier for them? 

 This has been a hard blog to write and I don’t have any answers (evidently, I’m bloody sick again) but I’m heartened by the support I have been given. I know there are wonderful artists, producers and theatres working hard to figure this out. I hope my experience might help a little. 

Promises I Made

Earlier in the year I was selected to be part of Assitej’s Next Generation Programme for their Artistic Gathering in Beijing. I entered the programme with so much excitement and anticipation. The team of people who I met were quite extraordinary and I feel connected to artists around the world. However, the programme itself over worked us all and was not rewarding. It felt sad to know that many aspects of the programme were fuelled by exploitation. As one example, our translators worked over 12 hour days and were volunteers.

I was asked to give this speech late on Thursday night for the Friday morning. I wrote it extremely late and delivered it very nervously in the morning. I wanted to read it again and publish the speech here so that I can remind myself of the promises I made. I will strive to adhere to them and fulfil them whenever and where ever I can. 

Hello, thank you for giving me this time to speak. Thank you very much to Assitej China for hosting us. And by ASSITEJ CHINA, I want to make sure that this thank you extends to everyone throughout the festival. 

Many many people have worked tirelessly this week to support us in our journey. Rainbow and Albert, our translators, our guides, our friends have been with us every step of the way, looking after us. You are the beating heart of this group and without you this encounter would not have been at all possible. 

The camera crews who have documented us so closely. Every tiniest detail has been captured. They have followed us, working incredibly hard to ensure this experience can be remembered for a long time to come. The volunteers, bus drivers, performers, stage crew, workshop leaders and  theatre staff. 

Mao Ernan, Ken Jiro, Yin Xiaodong the President of Asstiej China, the entire Assitej EC and everyone who put this programme together. You served us with good hearts and good intentions. And while at points many of us struggled and at points suffered, we know the intention was heartfelt and we ask that you, like us will learn from this experience. 

I am writing this speech very early in the morning  and speaking it on very little sleep please accept my deepest apologies as I know I will have left someone out. I extend our thanks to them. 

I also want to extend a special thank you to our Chinese collaborators, you have welcomed us with the most open of arms and been willing to play and come on this journey with us. 

I know that China has a bright future in TYA. I did not learn this in shows or workshops. I learnt it from you, the next generation of artistic leaders from theatres all over China. Your passion to reach children from the biggest of cities to the tiniest of villages with work that comes from the heart is breathtaking. 

I mean this from the bottom of my heart. You are all absolutely Sasha! 

I arrived only a week ago and already so much has changed. This group arrived with red eyes and messy hair to a room full of strangers.  

Our eyes have got redder and our hair has gotten messier but now I am in a room full of friends who I will love forever. 

The moments I will treasure are those we made as a group of young leaders taking control and making our own future together. 

 In a room full of artists from all over the world, we heard about our passions and what drives us to become who we are. Tears were shed because the art of honestly speaking and honestly listening across the world is a powerful, beautiful and cathartic experience. That we made happen. 

 In the evenings we took the pressure off us for 10-15 minutes and we played games together. We had fun. We laughed. We shared simple exercises, and, in this time, we learnt so much about what ignites us.  

 ‘I’m Falling’ – No I’m only kidding. 

 That is true cross-cultural exchange. No performance, no speech, no ceremony can capture those moments. 

 But all of this, the good memories and the bad will soon be in the past. At this festival we were asked to work closely with our fellow artists from around the world and imagine a future together. 

 As we move forward from being the next generation to The Generation of artistic leaders. I promise to you all I will never forget this experience. I am making a promise to you all now. And I hope you can join me in this promise:  

 I promise to treat artists with the utmost of respect, care and compassion. Whether they are young or old or somewhere in between, they are my equals and their experience is as valuable as my own. I will listen to them.

 Just as importantly, I will respect, care and treat well everyone who supports artists. This applies to, translators, guides, camera crews, ushers, those who work in the hotels. Those who we encounter once or many many times. We have a duty to protect them and treasure them. We should never let them be exploited. Without other people we cannot do what we do. 

 I will listen. I will watch. I will treat other cultures with respect but l I will never abandon my values and I will ensure they are heard when they need to be heard. 

I promise to look after the next generation, no matter where they are from. I will support them, and I will never abandon them. 

This promise is an immense responsibility and I do not take it lightly.  I offer this promise to you all and I hope you can join me in this. 

 Thank you 

Bumps in the Road

I’ve not written in a wee while. Mostly, because normal service has resumed, and I am pleased to say I am doing a lot better than I was at the start of the year. Hooray! Bring out the bunting and the platters of lactose free treats! It is good news for me and I am so happy to be working and doing what I love. But it would be a total fabrication to say it has been plain sailing.

I have wanted to prove to myself I am fit and healthy and I have dived back into work. And work has been very kind and forthcoming. I just finished a twenty day stretch. Not something I would usually brag about. There are so many people out there working much harder and much longer than me. But considering I wasn’t even managing to get out of bed a few months ago, this really does feel like an achievement. Some of the days were very long and some were shorter, but it was 20 days of work in a row. And I’m proud of the projects I worked on and everything I achieved. So seriously, I would like some lactose free goodies or something…

But this is perhaps a weird sense of achievement. I can sense my family, my friends, my psychiatric nurse smiling encouragingly while at the same time saying, 

‘ummm maybe it was this kind of work routine that didn’t help in the first place.’ 

And in a lot of ways they would be right. But the thing is, I am a freelance artist and when I’m faced with the chance to do what I love and get paid for it. It is really hard to turn that down. I don’t earn much for what I do.  And sometimes there can be stretches when not a lot comes along. So, if you get the chance you take it. You say, yes, I’m sure I can squeeze that in. And you do it. Because it’s probably an exciting project and also, it’s a pay cheque that keeps you going for another month. You might even stretch it over a couple if you have a lean patch coming up. 

And what happens in that lean patch. I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but it can be when I work the hardest. Get those applications in. Dream up the next few ideas. Update the website. Email out for some more work. Try and build my skill sets. Hustle for the pennies! 

Days off are great but they can be more of a rare treat than an expected outcome. You take the work and then you hunt the work. You love the work, so you forget that there should be space between the work.  And that can become an issue. Easily. Your mental health can slip and slide when you aren’t even noticing. When your mind is on the task in hand it is easy to forget that the breaks are important too. 

So, I have been thinking a lot about this. I can’t be the only one who feels this. I want to offer something practical. A genuine offer that isn’t much, but it might be something for someone. Are you in the midst of a massive project crying out for a weekend or have you been staring at a blank calendar and despairing at an ever decreasing (or increasing if you don’t count the minus sign) bank balance? Need a few days respite… I have a pretty comfy double bed in my little cottage home in Aberdour (recently voted second best place to live in Scotland – screw you Melrose!). The village is a 35 min train from Edinburgh. It has not one but two beaches. Its surrounded by acres of farm land and great walks. It has its own castle. A good pub. Some great cafes. We do have a cat. But she is pretty friendly. 

So maybe you need a couple of days. Maybe you know me, and it would be lovely to catch up. Maybe you only know me in passing. Maybe you’ve just stumbled onto this blog by accident. You can use the room as a hide hole and we won’t bother you. You can come down say hello and join us for dinner. It’s up to you. This invite is open to someone who might need it. An artist that needs a wee break. 

Anyway. I’m going to stop now. I’m taking a wee break myself.

The Show Must Go On

‘The show must go on’ that’s the old stalwart phrase. It’s like a theatrical version of the old stiff upper lip or ‘Keep calm and…’ motifs. It speaks of something noble and virtuous. The chips are down but, by god, we keep on going. It’s admirable. We’ve all heard stories of actors muddling through. In the face of sickness or injury and ensuring the audience get what it came for. After all that is what we offer. Bodies in space. If the bodies aren’t there, there isn’t a show. So, it is essential that we band together and hold the spirit of ‘never say die’ close to our hearts.

But sometimes, we should be aware. Sometimes the show shouldn’t go on. Or at least the version which you wanted. I have been very lucky, in my last two projects I have worked as a puppetry director and as more of a dramaturg. Important but not necessarily vital elements. Which has meant the show has gone on. But If I was a performer or a director on any project at this time, life would have been much different.

Officially, I have been signed off work until the 21st of January. I have been suffering from Anxiety with depression. This has meant more than a few nights in hospital and a terribly scary time for my family. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to revisit the details. But during this time, I was trying and failing to ensure that I fulfilled my roles to the two productions I was working on. The pressure of failing weighed heavily on me and fed into me ending up in hospital time after time.

I have received support, love and care from both Tortoise in a Nutshell and The Lyceum teams.  During a time when our industry is rightfully doing some much needed soul searching and questioning its moral and ethics, I have found it comforting to know that my needs have been so well supported when I really feared they may not be. Both also, it must be said supported me financially even when I failed to meet contractual requirements. This was hugely encouraging and only know as I’m officially signed off do I realise how important this was.

Currently, I am undertaking the herculean bureaucratic effort of applying as a freelancer to the new universal credit system as the only way to access any form of statutory sick pay for self-employed people in my area. It is not, for this blog, but It is one of the most stressful things about being signed off. I am so glad that when I was at my lowest point neither of the theatre shows looked to pay me less as this would have been devastating for me mentally.

So, what was the cause of this pressure? I wasn’t essential. Both shows were being made both with and without my presence at various times. Progressing with my input well but managing just fine without. The people surrounding me who were in the know were taking care of me. So, the only thing I can say about the pressure was I think it was built in my head. I am an artist. I must create the art. As a theatre maker, the show is the thing. That’s what we do. We carry on. We artists, make work to be shown. It’s like a weird artist machismo. We must bleed for our work. Do everything we can to realise our creative ideas.  Cry out to the world all our feelings of laughter or sadness, through our work.  This pressure is all in my head and it is utterly useless in making my work. I have an image like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man of the perfect artist. They are there with their oeuvre and their tale of suffering for each one, here I was impoverished, here I was persecuted, here, how I portrayed my mental anguish. Holding up idols of artists, somehow thinking their ability to create in face of their repressions is what makes them great. The brightly burning, quickly diminished candles. The pure, fragile objects reflecting the world as it tears at them. Even as I type this, I find myself leaning to this model but we should fight this. Artists are not Prometheans with flames. They are humans. They identify with the common humanity. They reflect tribulations that a human can find themselves in. They are no set apart. And that means like all humans, its ok for things to get on top of them. To take a pause and take a breath.

The show must not be the be all and end all. After all the arts is about human interaction and it is so important that we keep the people at the centre of it. Cancelled or altered shows may mean bad box office and disgruntled audiences. But I need to learn that there will be another chance, another time for art. If all art is abandoned then make sure to abandon it at the right time. Abandon it before it starts taking your health with you. Abandon it, abandon the whole craft and know it will be there to pick up when you come back.

‘The show must go on,’ is foolish posturing.  To hell with the show. There will another show, the artists must go on and sometimes that mean the artists must allow themselves to stop.