The Gatekeepers

Power and responsibility

Throughout this resource, we’ve been looking at how the past few years have seen a huge increase in the number of artists explicitly addressing mental health in their work, drawing on their own lived experiences. Audiences clearly want to see this work. Funders, festivals and venues want to support it. But what are the consequences for artists’ mental health, and what should those in power be doing about it?

“Actually I think we actively, as a society and as a sector, need to move away from glorifying trauma as what makes good art because I don’t think it does make good art. I think art can be about trauma, but it doesn’t have to be our trauma.”

Julia Taudevin

Julia Taudevin has been working professionally as a playwright and director in Scotland for over a decade and is co-artistic director of Glasgow-based theatre company Disaster Plan. She is often asked to support emerging artists, and has concerns about the kind of work they are being encouraged by the industry to make.

“I’ve been asked a lot to work in development for young or emergent theatre makers -generally, as I say, makers of colour or gender minority theatre makers who have been successful in getting funding to develop their idea, which is how to turn their trauma into a play. And that is a sector problem, because these young theatre-makers are vulnerable, I think, really vulnerable. And I think it’s important that we make art about mental health but we have to look after ourselves as well.”

Julia Taudevin

What Taudevin is referring to here connects to a series of cultural shifts that have taken place alongside the reduction in stigma around mental health. In the wake of MeToo, Black Lives Matter and the mainstreaming of discussions around transgender rights, there has been an increasing appetite in the industry for stories about people whose inner life experiences had previously been ignored. Caitlin Skinner, artistic director of feminist theatre company Stellar Quines, has observed this too.

“Audiences, particularly in the last five years, have become really hungry for more diverse stories, for stories that they haven’t heard before, and for stories about injustice, actually. And so there needs to be particular care around that work. I think also, because we’re often working with folks who are underrepresented on stage – that’s our job – you’re likely therefore to write from your own experience, because you’ve not seen it before. So that means you’re likely to be exploring trauma, and your own experiences of trauma.”

Caitlin Skinner

I asked Selina Thompson, as a prominent black British theatre-maker whose own work explores mental health, for her thoughts on this situation.

“Here are some messy thoughts, all half-formed. The first is a quote from Michaela Coel, where she was saying that what matters to her is everybody gets to make the work that they want to make. The thing I always want to balance, when we’re talking about work that is about the trauma of people of colour, is that I have made work that is about some of the foundational traumas of blackness and irrespective of who was commissioning it, I as a person really needed and wanted to make that work. And I always feel really provoked by any suggestion that there is an excess of that work or that work shouldn’t happen. Because if there are artists that want to make it, they should be able to make it. The problem comes if you are an artist of colour who wants to make a Wind in the Willows adaptation, and that is completely out of reach for you. They’re like, no, we don’t want to see that from you, please make another show about abjection and pain.”

Selina Thompson
Selina Thompson © Jana Rumley
Selina Thompson. Photo by Jana Rumley

In other words, a broader issue here is a need for people in positions of leadership who understand the difference between supporting artists to tell stories about mental health and actually creating work environments that allow everyone to flourish. A good example is Tracy Gentles; now artistic director of Sick! Festival, Tracy was co-founder of the the Sick of the Fringe, a mental health initiative at the Edinburgh festival; she went on to found the charity Something to Aim For, which advocates on behalf of people who are marginalised in the arts. 

“I’ve always been a champion of looking at artists at the fringes, supporting their platforming in new spaces, but also changing the context. So the Sick of the Fringe in Edinburgh was about context building for those conversations. How do we bring together artists? How do we bring some mental health practitioners? How do we have those wider conversations about what is actually happening here outside of the art? And I think that lots of things have happened since that period of time. We’ve had MeToo, we’ve had Black Lives Matter, all of these things are about how people treat each other and our differences and how we navigate that. Mental health being a big priority has come to feel like a natural thing because when you’re oppressed by a system in whatever way, you start to think about your needs and your rights.”

Tracy Gentles

Thanks to the work of people like Gentles, more of our institutions seem to be prioritising mental health. However it is telling that this has been a long learning experience even for someone like Gentles, whose work has focused on wellbeing for many years now, but who admits that while doing this work she neglected her own mental health.

“I think my journey of getting things wrong has gone from just prioritising the artistic space, like what we were doing before, and not thinking about the team around it, and then onwards from that, thinking about the team around and the space and connecting the dots but not looking at myself within that… I think it’s quite easy, when you’re in that curation role, like leader or perceived gatekeeper, and having those conversations, to forget yourself within that. The hardest thing is to live it. And I think that is the final piece of journey, that I’m like, ‘how do you actually live this and make it sustainable?’ And leadership that portrays that, or a programme where you can feel that and the invitation is there is a beautiful thing. It’s also safe for yourself and stops you from burning out.”

Tracy Gentles

Someone who understands this all too well is Ross Mackay. Now a freelance writer and director, until 2020 Mackay was artistic director of Scottish theatre company Tortoise in a Nutshell. In 2016, Tortoise in a Nutshell made a show called Fisk, inspired by Mackay’s experiences of depression. The show was an international success, and opened up valuable conversations about mental health. When it toured as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival it was accompanied by workshops about mental health. 

Behind the scenes though, the stress of running the company was making it impossible for Mackay to manage his depression. Ultimately he had to leave the job.

“Now I’m working for myself and so my mental health management is so much easier. Whereas working for a company, you were employing people, bringing people on for a gig, I was the director and if I wasn’t there, things stopped or got held up. So other people can’t do their jobs because I wasn’t doing my job. And that was really difficult… What would happen is I’d go to the doctor, would be signed off, and then I would desperately work to get back to work. I would desperately try and get myself to a point where I could get back into work. And it took me a long time to realise that the focus for me was not me feeling better, the focus was ‘I can survive a day at work so I’ll go in’. It wasn’t that I felt like the anxiety had reduced or that my suicidal feelings had reduced, but that I managed to get them enough under control that I wasn’t dangerous. Looking back, that was a really bad cycle that I got caught in for quite a few years.”

Ross Mackay

Mackay is aware of the irony of making a hit show that raised awareness about depression while his own mental health was in crisis. 

“I’m doing a project with the National Theatre of Scotland, and it’s not even about mental health, per se but there’s depictions of violence and trauma. And they instantly said, ‘we employ counselling services that anyone from NTS can use.’ That’s very different because with Fisk we didn’t have any of that. And I think, looking back, that was the big gap, because all the conversations were about the show. Reliving the trauma wasn’t about me processing it emotionally or psychologically, it was about sort of using that as material. But then there was no aftercare for me having brought those memories up and trying to process them.”

Ross Mackay

It feels impossible, ultimately, to talk about good practice in making creative work about mental health without addressing the wider issue of mental health across the performing arts industry, an industry that is in a state of crisis itself. It is a problem that Selina Thompson keeps encountering.

“Something that I feel we come up against often is that we have to deal with huge amounts of hostility and aggression, both passive and aggressive, from people who are overworked, masking their own mental health issues and masking their own neurodiversities within their workplaces. You’ve got to put on your own oxygen mask before you put on anyone else’s. So how you treat your staff tells me a lot about whether you can actually take care of me and my company when we’re working in your building. We’re talking about actually remaking the foundation of how the arts works, if you really want to change things, and that can’t be rushed.”

Selina Thompson

The challenges of addressing mental health in an industry that is often exploitative is something that came up a lot in my conversation with Caitlin Skinner of Stellar Quines. But our interview ended on a positive note, and so this chapter will too.

“Things that I’m hopeful about – you know, I really am starting to see mental health be referenced openly and regularly, and in a nuanced way and an expansive way. I think we’re at the beginning of that. I think people will look back on us and laugh at our naivety probably, and our kind of clumsiness, and our excitement about ‘wow, we could talk about mental health, how exciting’. So I’m looking forward to moving to a more nuanced place perhaps. And I’m excited about the new generations of artists who will be able to be more of themselves when we start to see our mental health as a positive part of who we are, even if it’s challenging, and as an important part of who we are. I think that’s really exciting. And I feel like there’s a younger generation of artists who are going to do that. I think they’re already starting to do that.”

Caitlin Skinner