Safe Spaces

Healthier creative work environments

In recent years, more and more people have been making live performances that address mental health, often drawing on their own very personal experiences of trauma. In doing so, they potentially make themselves emotionally vulnerable. What should those who are producing or directing this work be doing to support them?

“There’s more general awareness and openness to talking about mental health. I feel like we’ve made some fairly decent strides in that area in recent years. But yes, there is also a concern about how it’s being talked about, by who, and what support has been put in place for people processing their trauma through art, and also people then having to sit and watch it and process it with them. So yeah, it’s a really interesting dynamic. For us, we see an awful lot of it.” 

Robyn Jancovich Brown

Robyn Jancovich Brown is a theatre producer who has worked for the British Council, the Edinburgh Fringe, and the National Theatre of Scotland, among others. She also runs her own production company, Stories Untold, whose work has a strong emphasis on care and access.

“We take the approach that care and wellbeing should be baked into every single aspect of project management or relationship building. So the very first step is building trust with an artist, making sure that we have lots of conversations before starting to work together, we know exactly where the boundaries are for each person, they understand the way that we work, we understand the way that they work, and that there’s a synergy there between us. And that trust is really, really crucial. Because if the artist doesn’t trust us to hold the m and hold their work, then everything just kind of falls apart from there.”

Robyn Jancovich Brown

Stories Untold has various processes in place to help build this trust. One example is access riders, which are completed at the beginning of a working relationship.

“We have an access rider, and so people can tell us about not only their physical access needs but any ways of working – if they prefer digital working, and if they need quiet spaces, quiet time, all of that kind of thing. It basically sets out how they like to work, or what they need in order to work the best. And then, as much as reasonably possible, we will always try and work with those needs.”

Robyn Jancovich Brown

Access riders are a list of things artists require to be able to do their job to the best of their abilities. Until recently they were an accessibility tool designed by, and for, people who identify as disabled or neurodivergent, but some organisations, like Stories Untold, are now offering them to everybody they work with. Scissor Kick, another Scottish production company, also does this. Its artistic director is Stephanie Katie Hunter. 

“We always knew access riders were a thing. And we’re so aware that when you implement support with access and inclusion in mind, everybody benefits. We were also very keen to try and eliminate the risk of finding out information after some preparatory work had already taken place. So from word go on contract, we can go, this is what that person’s needs are moving forward.”

Stephanie Katie Hunter

Scissor Kick and Stories Untold were both suggested to me as examples of good practice when it comes to taking care of artists. They use several similar processes, and Hunter and Jancovich Brown talk in more detail about these in our full interviews elsewhere on this website, touching on contracts, safeguarding policies, shorter working hours where possible, managing expectations, and setting boundaries so that people know where they stand from the beginning of a working relationship.

Establishing good practice can become more complicated though once creative work starts and clashes emerge between different needs and personalities. For example, one thing that has become widely used in rehearsals is verbal check ins, where a group of performers each has a chance to express how they are feeling before the day’s work begins. But not everyone likes them. Scissor Kick use them, but with caveats.

“We try to be very specific in the framing because unfortunately we do have experiences of working with folks who talk about championing issues around mental health but who have used check ins maliciously, and who have unfortunately used content shared within check ins as a means to shift a group dynamic later on.”

Stephanie Katie Hunter

Theatre director Julia Taudevin also has reservations about verbal check ins.

“So the verbal check in space is quite often relied upon, in creation of work, as a way to check that everyone’s okay. But actually I have found that can be a space that can be exploited and abused, but also can be a disingenuous space. We’ve had tears in the room but we’ve not had anyone sharing personal trauma, because I’ve found in the past with these check in spaces, people bring personal trauma into the space because they’re looking to release it. But it’s actually then inappropriate for the work that you’re trying to do because really what you’re looking for in this scenario is therapy.”

Julia Taudevin

Instead, Taudevin begins a day working with a cast of performers by singing together or, for her most recent project, dancing together.

“We come together to sort of ritualise the entrance to the work. That is not about sharing what’s on our minds, but about being present together. And the day is bookended with that.”

Julia Taudevin

Singing or dancing is also not for everybody, of course. And what this illustrates is that the effectiveness of practices designed to promote positive mental health can depend on the personalities and needs of the individual people involved. Another example is the increasing use of wellbeing practitioners, or wellbeing co-ordinators, people who work alongside directors and producers as a mental health resource for the creative team. 

Stories Untold work with wellbeing practitioners on every project they make, even if the subject matter doesn’t explicitly touch on mental health. Could this across the board approach be described as good practice? Robert Softley Gale is artistic director of Scotland’s disabled-led theatre company Birds of Paradise, and is one of Scotland’s most respected advocates for accessibility in the arts, but he has mixed feelings about wellbeing practitioners.

“I worry. I compare it to intimacy co-ordinators and I know that’s a separate thing but there’s a similar thing where we are saying that the wellbeing practitioner’s job is somehow distinct from the director’s job, and that concerns me a little bit because I think it lets directors off the hook. I think as a director it’s my job to make sure that my cast and my team’s wellbeing is looked after. A wellbeing practitioner has got expertise and they’ve got more experience of dealing with things but as a director it’s my job to be there to support my actors. If the actors are having problems with something that’s happening in the rehearsal room or on stage then that affects the play, you know, and I as a director need to hold that, and work with that, and somehow respond to that. So I think that trying to sort of section it off into different jobs, I worry about that.”

Robert Softley Gale

Another theatre director I spoke to compared working with a wellbeing practitioner to having a teacher in the room, and said that feedback from their cast suggested the constant offer of wellbeing was distracting them from actually making the work. They are still planning to work with a wellbeing practitioner in future, but in a more limited way. One problem here is that, perhaps because this is a relatively new way of working, there is no clear consensus on what experience or qualifications someone actually needs to call themselves a wellbeing practitioner, or how often they should be present in the room. 

For Robyn Jancovich Brown though, a clear benefit of wellbeing practitioners – for her and Stories Untold producer Kirsten McPake – is that it provides a creative team with someone to talk to who has no power over them.

“It means that they’re not having to come to me or Kirsten, who are technically their employers who are paying them, or the director or the writer, whoever’s in the room, and offer themselves up as being quite vulnerable. They’re able to give that to someone else for them to hold. And then, obviously, if there’s an issue that needs mediated, that will come back to us and we can address it. It also means that we’re not having to hold people’s emotions quite as much, which is great wellbeing for us and makes sure that it’s a sustainable way for us to work a little bit more.”

Robyn Jancovich Brown

Ultimately, all approaches to wellbeing are likely to be imperfect. One issue that came up a few times in interviews was aftercare; how effective can any form of mental health safeguarding be when it is limited to the short life of an arts project? But it is encouraging to see companies like Stories Untold and Scissor Kick modelling innovative new ideas. Another Scottish organisation that is focusing much of its work on wellbeing is Stellar Quines, an intersectional feminist theatre company active for over 30 years now. I spoke at length to artistic director, Caitlin Skinner, about the challenges involved in creating a ‘culture of wellbeing’ across the company’s work.

“At the moment it feels like you start from the principle of being person-centred. You learn, you gather your tools, you find out what other people are doing, and you try some stuff. And then you debrief. I think we’re in a process of uncoupling ourselves from exploitative working practices that have been accepted for a really long time. And I think that makes for a really exciting opportunity and an exciting time actually. I think it’s tough to be remaking the plane as you are flying the plane, but overall we’re headed in a good direction.”

Caitlin Skinner