Tracy Gentles

Tracy Gentles has worked in the creative industries for almost two decades, focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion.  

In 2015 she co-founded the Sick of the Fringe, a support programme for Edinburgh Fringe artists. She went on to be founding creative director / CEO of Something to Aim For, a charity which expanded the work of Sick of the Fringe to include an international commissioning, writing and festivals programme. She has also worked at Dance Umbrella, Clod Ensemble, Sadler’s Wells and the University of Salford, and recently became artistic director and CEO of Sick! Festival, an international arts programme which explores mental and physical health through dance, theatre, film, spoken word and discussion and debate.

We interviewed Tracy in February 2024 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource.

In the past few years we’ve seen a cultural shift in terms of how we talk about mental health. Can I start by asking you to reflect on that and how it has impacted on the arts, from your perspective?

It’s a big question. When we were doing the Sick of the Fringe programme in Edinburgh, a programme supported by the Wellcome Trust, (we wanted) to really look at how the Wellcome Trust was not accessible for people they should be supporting – independent artists making critical work about health, body, and lived experience – but also the Edinburgh Fringe being a really bad environment for artists to be seen, the struggles around all of this precarity which has just been amplified by what’s been happening in the world. And mental health is also a massive thing within the middle of that. 

I’ve worked with independent artists a lot, sort of pre the shift. So if we look at that first, I describe a lot of that work – with people like Le Gateau Chocolat or Split Britches, making work about gender – as about trying to push their work through oppressive systems, systems that are not seeing that precarity, that are not really honouring the difficulties of presenting that work not just for the artists, but also for the people around it and around them, including those structures. 

Because if you were in the arts for the love of it, people were killing themselves to make work. And I thought the lack of what was happening then was that wider ecology of the arts sector. Because an artist puts their work in a frame, and they’re talking about their mental health, which is really valuable to them getting their message out, and (to) audiences, if you don’t look at the culture around that work and how it’s presented, it can also just present poor mental health in everyone around them. So that’s where it was and a lot of my work has shifted around that. 

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? When you stop and there’s no one in the audience, how do you feel? How do you cope with that? What are the coping mechanisms?

And we worked together a bit on the quality of reviewing – you know, chasing the stars, chasing this small pool of reviewers. How do you deal with that, with the failure, you know? And how do you make it through in a healthy way? So we were really pushing for that work to be seen, but prioritising people with lived experience, and within that as well, thinking that they hold the tools to unpick some of these large questions. 

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 for a lot of people 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, and it’s very difficult to deal with conversations around the self for anyone in society. 

We did feel quite compromised in that because we were trying to create a space, and we didn’t have mental health practitioners in every space like we do at Sick! Festival now. And there wasn’t trigger warnings back in those days, you know, and now we’re really hot on those things. But I think that does shift the aesthetic of the art that you’re making, the way that you make a thing, what you see and how you present it and the care for the audience. 

Arts will never standardise itself, because it’s always innovating. But when you innovate and push through, sometimes, like in the digital world, you move fast and break things. We’re in this slower pace of discovery, which I think is really great. It is very complicated, though. We could talk about access clash. If you’ve got a very individualised sort of society, where people are talking their individual needs, and theatre and performance is a collective experience, how do you navigate that? There are some things that completely destroy an artistic experience for me, but really give someone else that security and safety to be in a space. And so how do you balance that? 

And how, as an artist, do you put that central to your work? There’s some amazing artists working like that. (performance artist) Vijay Patel really embeds talking about neurodiversity in the space, really puts that into the art. But just because you might be an artist who is exploring mental health, or disability, or anything that has to do with you being marginalised in society in any way, you should also have the right to present work around flowers. You don’t always have to do that (talk about mental health). 

But I think that actually people are interested in those conversations, and more people are programming that work. Now there is a significant amount of work about mental health that’s out there, and maybe that’s a phase. We’ve seen a lot, especially with places like Edinburgh, we used to say that it’s always been ‘the year of mental health’ really, or the (year of) white male comic. So how do you get beneath that, to see what the intersections are? 

So yeah, I don’t know if that answers your question but I feel like what we’re looking at now is, rather than an individualised artist pushing through that and people really supporting that that work, what’s the ecology around that, that makes it sustainable for everyone involved? That’s why you have to think about the people around, so when people do check ins, they do it with the technicians as well. It’s not just the artists on stage, it should be the whole. 

Even in programming, especially when we were doing the Sick of the Fringe, and now I’m doing Sick! Festival, actually supervision was part of the practice because in my role as a leader of that it’s not appropriate for me to know everyone’s lived experience, but it is appropriate for me to have a mechanism of support. And I think that boundary of that disclosure is healthy. And I think that sometimes when these spaces become unhealthy, it’s because disclosure is seen as the only way to the support, if that makes sense. That’s definitely not good for me as a leader and a programmer but also people come in and talk to us about abuse, and that can have a real residual impact on the people that are supporting that work to be seen.

What are the kinds of things you have in place to support artists at Sick! Festival?

I’ve not been here long, I’ve been here since February. But for example, we do a social prescribing programme, which is specifically for artists with lived experience of different mental health conditions. And we have a referrals network that then brings people from the community in, and then we try to build a programme that has conversations that has Create workshops (example here), and then people go and see work. 

And we find that that matchmaking, that residence, is really important. (For) someone who is an artistic creator, what strategies and tools in creativity kind of forms that voice, so it’s a very empowering space when you work with artists. However, not all artists are on their mental health journey. We’ve had people who’ve been sectioned, all sorts of crises, so it’s about us judging if they’re in the right place for it to be healthy for them. So how processed  is that experience? And how safely can we hold that?

So there is a curational judgement which we do with the artists that approach us, because a lot of people, when they’ve had transformative experiences and got through it, want to share with the world. And you can usually tell by the way they apply – sometimes it’s very, very long and intense. Sometimes that’s really a conversation of going ‘actually, are you ready to share this?’ Sometimes we’re in Zoom meetings and we have to make sure that ends in a really healthy place. Because if we don’t think that’s safe, they need to know on that call, they can’t wait for an email that then puts them in a bad mental health space. 

So there’s a duty of care when you’re working with people with lived experience, in particular, about mental health, because it is so fluid and can shift in that moment. So there’s that curation that happens. And then there’s that ongoing dialogue. There are also a series of policies, some that I’m bringing in since I’ve started, around mental health and stress, because we find within the team these things can come up. Who knows what’s happening in people’s precarious lives? It helps us as a team to know how to respond to that. And so we have that sort of mechanism. 

And then within any space that we’re opening up that is directly exploring mental health, we will bring in a mental health practitioner, who basically holds the space and sets it up to take the pressure off that individual artist and the participants as well. So there’s quite a carefully constructed frame when you’re thinking about the entry point of everyone. And also if the content of the talk or workshop is potentially triggering, we will signpost some of those things in advance because some people can self-select, then. So there’s quite a lot of that kind of guidance that goes through. 

I think what we’re doing at the moment is quite interesting, because we’re working a lot in communities. A lot of artists are working in community spaces, and things about looking after your mental health can feel quite alien in those spaces because people are just on the breadline getting through it. So I see Sick! as the host of that space, to set the tone of that space, and then the artists are invited into that world, rather than the artist creating that space. It’s difficult when we’re not a venue that has lots of different artists and black box spaces; we have to be the venue. So our venue is about care, it centres care and creates that infrastructure of care around how we approach every individual. But it’s our duty of care to make sure that is safe. With a festival like Sic!k it is us becoming that venue and the host and putting those mechanisms in, and standardising them in a way so that those things are not necessarily determined by the individual artists.

That’s interesting, because one of my questions was to what extent the things you put in place change from project to project, and artist to artist, but it sounds like there are standard things that would apply across all performances and events?

Yeah, because I think that those things we know create that safety net. It’s not like there’s heavy signposting if, you know, you have a BSL interpreter on the stage, but it is part of that landscape of access and care and inclusion, so we would have those people at hand. And then as a team, how do we digest what’s just happened? Especially because festivals have more than one thing happening at once. I remember when I was working at Wellcome Collection, we had an amazing piece by Viv Gordon about childhood sexual abuse, and then we had a talk about the care system with Lemn Sissay. And those were programmed together – very different things, but one came at the same thing in a very different way. And then so curationally it was quite risky, but you don’t know until you’re in it sometimes what you can put next to each other, even though it might make an amazing journey. 

We also did something about death and dying, then had a Death Cafe, which was really great, because it gave that diffusion space. So a lot of it, when you’re curating and putting things together, is what space is put around for people to digest, and then healthily re-enter. So I look at it like much more like that now, rather than that individualised way of creating a piece of work and getting an audience. I think, with all of the things that I’ve learned from working with individual artists, I’ve taken a lot of that and gone, how do you shape that into a world that makes sense? And therefore you have to standardise some things. And they’re also the safety net for my practice.

Can you give me a sort of bullet point list of the things that are standardised across all Sick! Festival events?

Yeah. So you would have mental health provision and support within spaces, and you would have around the festival Mental Health First Aid, then we would have supervision. That’s around the festival, specifically when that gears up and the content is set, and that’s for the all of the team. We have a mental health and stress policy, and that’s part of our policy documents, which is also given to the artists when they’re entering the space. We have breakout spaces around, so people can diffuse after, or have the permission to leave – sometimes (at other events) you can’t leave a space, when you’re in it you’ve got to stay. So we would have those breakout rooms as well, which are used for lots of different things. 

But those are the things I would say, in the production, because I’ve not worked a lot with (wellbeing) practitioners who are in the space making work with the artists, I’ve never done that. I think that that is a newer thing. And I don’t work with artists in the same way anymore, if that makes sense. When I did the Sick of the Fringe with Wellcome, we were actually commissioned to develop Something to Aim For, which is specifically about structural support. It was a Wellcome commission, a very interesting one, that was not about arts production, it was about the things that go round it. It was about how artists and small arts organisations are dealing with budgets, and schedules, and organising their work, because we found a glass ceiling was happening with individual artists, especially those with intersectional disadvantage, when it came to actually moving ideas forward and sustaining their work and delivering. 

So I see Something to Aim For, for Sick! as well – because we’ve got a strategic partnership – as that mechanism of support for the other things that are happening. Because there’s also the delivery, and a lot of individual independent artists like Bryony Kimmings or Le Gateau Chocolat are also running businesses. So that’s how I have been trying to support that ecology and make an impact on a healthier working culture. 

So it’s about supporting artists across all aspects of their lives?

Yeah, and not separating the art from the business. When we were doing the Sick of the Fringe in Edinburgh we used to ban talking about money – now it’s very different because of the cost of living crisis – but we wanted mental health and different access and inclusion sort of needs to be at the forefront of those conversations. But then actually that is the red herring beneath it because a lot of poor mental health can come from lived experience of precarity. So if you can’t talk about lived experience of precarity… it’s the elephant in the room. I’ve been in meetings with artists trying to talk about art and you can see that they’re traumatised and it’s about stuff that’s happening in the background. Something to Aim For was about bringing that to the fore. 

So we worked with people like Selena Thompson on that, with new NPOs (national portfolio organisations funded by Arts Council England), how do you make work that is about your lived experience of trauma and also be director of an NPO organisation, and also lead with care? So you have to put yourself in that, if you’re in an organisation, you’re not on a stage as an individual artist. I think what I’ve learned from my experience of working in the arts – which is not the greatest space to maintain good mental health – is that you have to look at the whole, you can’t just look at the part. And it’s not just about the art, because actually, there’s amazing artists that have not been able to survive and thrive within the arts. 

I had a great conversation with Selena. She has things in place to safeguard her own mental health as well as the people who work with here. But one of the things that was striking about that conversation is that she was able to do that because she’s been successful, she had a show that did very well. And therefore she’s in a position to ask. Sometimes the people who most need the sort of safeguarding processes are the people who feel least able to ask them.

Yeah. You’re supposed to hide those things, that’s the old school way, isn’t it? You’re supposed to be really capable and excellent and show up on time and be brilliant, and not show any fragility. And it’s very tough to do that. And that’s why the arts has got a massive issue with diversity. People do fundamentally have gaps because of structural inequality. But if you can’t show your gaps, then you can’t get the support you need, and mental health is part of that. Because life has been so tough, in particular for people at the margins of society, they’re in need of even more of those things. And I do think people are more aware now but I don’t think necessarily people know how to deal with complex sets of needs. 

It’s also more expensive. Like you say, Selena has permission to ask for that. Because they really want Selena to go on and people will go and see her and they can trust that work, then she will get it. This is why the (Edinburgh) Fringe is so interesting, because it is about that entry point, isn’t it? And it’s an amazing entry point. But it also doesn’t prioritise those (safeguarding needs) and people have to do that for themselves. I’ve done a lot of work with the Fringe in the background over the last couple of years, when they’re trying to do (support for) working class producers or Phoebe Waller Bridge’s thing (the Keep it Fringe fund, launched by Waller-Bridge in 2023). It’s interesting how people are prioritising that as a strand of work and it is also a question that I ask every artist that I’m working with. In particular it’s really important to ask emerging artists about what they’re doing, especially if they’re working with mental health as a core thing, how are you in the making of this work looking after your own? Just to put that question in the room.

There q43 all kinds of things going on here. One is that if you’re an artist of colour, for example, you’re already fighting for your place in a white dominated industry, so perhaps you’re less willing to admit that you’re not coping. Also, you mentioned Black Lives Matter and MeToo earlier, it seems to me that since those two movements in particular there is an increased appetite, culturally, for hearing stories about trauma related to being female or a person of colour. And in some ways that’s a good thing, we want those stories to be widely heard and understood, but there’s also the risk of those artists being pushed towards making a certain kind of work.

And also, if it’s successful, then they have to tour that work, and do it every night. They have to go back into that space. And actually is that success? I remember working with Travis Alabanza, who did Burgers, about being attacked for being trans. And I just was like, that show’s great, you’re a great artist, but what do you really want to do? I like to support artists to step out of those (spaces), just for a minute, and then Travis ended up making a piece about loneliness, which wasn’t centring their trans identity but was the most beautiful piece ever. And (I like) helping people step out of that, otherwise, you’re building that identity about being able to go deep into that. And Selena, who we work with, is amazing at that. But it’s hella complicated when you have a team around that as well. That’s why it’s really great, the focus on care that she has, but you need to constantly review and update those things and make sure they’re working. Because she has a responsibility for herself, but also a team of people around her, it’s complicated. I do worry, and I did think about that when we were supporting a lot of people before this sort of appetite for thinking about how it works was there, about our role in that, of taste making, when you’re pushing agendas and people are tapping into that lived experience without any of that, and what are the ethics of that?

One of the things I read while working on this project was a blog Demi Nandhra wrote for you that asked ‘Why do white people like watching trauma so much?’ It was a bit of a polemic obviously but what did you make of it?

It’s an interesting one because you go yeah, why do they? I don’t know because I’m not white, but if I had to guess, it’s about allyship, it’s about being seen. I think it’s about being in a space and sharing space with that. I think people have tried to read books, like Reni Eddo Lodge (Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race) and do the learning and then also absorb some guilt around that by sharing space. It might be something to do with that. A really amazing artist called Tian Glasgow – actually we named the company after this, Something to Aim For – made a show about, you know the Barbican’s Exhibit B? 

Yes I do. I remember Selina wrote a brilliant blog about it.  

He did a show which was at Barbican Lab – it was at Rich Mix, but it was held by the Barbican –  and it was about Exhibit B, but like a real takedown. And I was in that space, and it was traumatising, but it was supposed to be, and it was really interesting. And then I was walking home for ages and I was trying to think of a company name, but also knowing Tian was the type of artist that we want to support and make those conversations. And I was going, yeah, we want to have a name of something that honours that position, but also brings it on beyond that. So Something to Aim For for came from that, because we all need something that is beyond that to aim far. Because we should be able to not be talking about our trauma, we’ve got to have permission to not do that. And we have to find some sort of way to practically dream our way out of that, because I can’t sit in those spaces. I want to be with those artists but I can’t sit in those spaces every day. I can’t go and see work about trauma every day. It’s too upsetting. So yeah, we’re in this interesting thing when a lot of that work is out and prioritised. But also it’s been programmed largely by white programmers, to meet new audiences, but also the artists are responding to that. So there’s a need and it’s a market isn’t it? That’s what the market’s demanding. But that will change because people will get bored. 

I do get then sense that we’re starting to move on from that a little bit, but there. There will always be people doing very personal shows but the range is expanding and often they’re becoming very specific . There was a show I saw at the Fringe last year about intrusive thoughts, for example, I’ve seen shows about psychosis, and there are increasingly shows about neurodivergence. Ultimately there will perhaps be a show for very mental health experience but we’ve gone way beyond that initial wave of shows with people talking about depression and anxiety in a way that hadn’t been done before.

I’ve also seen a shift, when you’re looking at the younger generational shift in how generation Z see the world, and how they’re holding those spaces and the conversations, a lot address how the system is not supporting them, because we’ve been talking about the system. So a lot of those conversations, especially around LGBT rights, and the voice of younger people within that space, or mental health and how important that is to younger people. I think some of it is about that and actually how more socially engaged people are generally in the world. Climate change anxiety, stuff like that. It’s actually quite an exciting time to look at how the world and society does impact our mental states. And that’s probably why it’s going like that, as well, because actually, younger people generationally are interested in that in a different, more active and politicised way. But also, as part of that, if you’re going to do that activism, there’s conversations I have about activism, having worked with some very, very full on activists – with a capital A – (about) how unhealthy activism is! Do you know what I mean? Unhealthy because of the sheer focus of it, when you are working against something, specifically in health care and mental health. And that’s something we’re talking about in the next Sick! Festival. Are you looking after yourself if you are pushing this? Because it’s wearing. And you might not realise that in the moment but you will realise it, it could just creep up on you. So I think that a more activated cultural landscape is really interesting because lots of different intersections of themes are coming up. But also I think that those younger artists are demanding to be treated better, to be paid better. And I think that’s great. But also, is that equitably distributed? And can the arts afford it? 

That’s the big question isn’t? Every time you add on a wellbeing coordinator, or therapy, all these things add to a budget, at a point when arts budgets are more strained than ever. It’s a difficult balance.

A lot of people have gone ‘do less better’. That’s what we’ve done. And the funding landscape, for example, is very different, so we’ve got a duty of care with the festival to make sure that work can be seen. So we’re just paying the fees. We’re just making sure that it’s covered, and it’s safe, and it’s held in the right way. And we just have to work like that. Because otherwise it could unravel in other ways for us, for the risk of the festival, but also for the individual. Because people are not getting that additional funding. And it links to everything, doesn’t it? We’ve opened a box now. I was just thinking, I used to write a lot of applications around all sorts of stuff, and a lot about mental health. And just the the trauma of writing around ill health and inequality and stuff is really bad for your brain. And if you’re writing about your own constantly and trying to sell that, no matter how you look at it, it’s an exchange of money for that lived experience, or it’s being validated by getting you funding or getting your gig because of that lived experience. Yeah. We’ve commodified it. And that’s quite a dangerous space. We’re validating it by commodifying it. Yeah.

That opens up a tricky question for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival and the Sick! Festival. What we have in common is we are both showcasing work that deals with pain, and we have to market that work, we have to have to sell that work. So we are a part of that system too.

A hundred per cent. That’s why you go, well, what can you do? Because you believe that’s important for the world, and it is because we know what the arts can do in connecting people and that can have massive change in those individuals and in the communities that you work in. So you believe in it, but that’s why there’s a huge responsibility in that, to make sure it’s done well. And to keep that conversation central to the work always. Because actually you can’t expect that other people will do it for themselves, or know how to, or have the resources to do it. Especially if the framework is definitively about exploring mental health, it’s a huge responsibility. And therefore setting the tone for that, because we do get asked to share the documents that we have, (and that’s) fine, great. Bringing in people, making sure that the mental health practitioners are the right ones – because you can get the wrong ones – in that space for the art to survive within a more clinical setting. It’s that balance, isn’t it? ‘Do no harm’ is the thing. Ultimately that’s what you want, isn’t it? You don’t want to do any harm. 

You were saying that people ask to look at the documents and the systems that you put in place. So do you find that other festivals and programmers look to Sick! Festival for guidance and advice?

Yeah, people have asked us to do that. Something to Aim For, because it’s a support organisation, does that as part of its practice. I really loved the strategy that we did where we got Harry Clayton-Wright, FK Alexander and Demi Nandhra to write about going to the Fringe. I think Demi might have written about going there as a woman of colour, also getting a payday loan, and Harry wrote about how to set up his own space. Basically he did a call out and then got hosted in a home. And then FK Alexander did one about sober spaces, about being someone in recovery and how difficult it is, and the impacts on their Fringe experience. And a lot of the strands of that was about how to keep their mental health safe. And the response from that was amazing, actually, because the artists were leading that conversation. 

And then the Edinburgh Fringe society got in touch and said, these are giving us the lived experience depth that someone coming out with a sober space policy wouldn’t. Because I remember being at the Fringe, and the amount of alcohol that the delegates were drinking. And then I think that Fierce Festival, off the back of that, is thinking about sober space policies. So a lot of these things we’ve developed from speaking to the artists, and then the artists leading that, and then you can put it into a policy that is shared between the infrastructures and the artists demanding that. 

So yeah, things like that have come and been shared between networks, but most of it is informal. People are trying to write the best X policy, the best Y policy and at the moment, it’s fundamentally ‘what can people expect from you and what are you going to do to look after people and yourselves?’ It’s great being at Sick! Festival, because I didn’t found it. A lot of founders leave themselves out of the loop. Whereas the policy puts you in it – as the director, or the CEO, or the founder, you become inside of that. 

I’ve learned for myself how amazing policies are, and I don’t think that message is quite out there. But a lot of what I’m talking about is, you don’t have to be the best, and if you’ve got an organisation, every single person has to be within the support of those policies, including the founder, including the board, you know, and that’s really helpful because it gives you guidelines. And so it’s not resting on how nice a person you are. Because I think a lot of my early career was just being nice, being kind, caring, you know, and then you go, actually, that’s exhausting. Because everything you’re troubleshooting, if you write it down, then you can spread it out. And you can also be cared for within that framework.

That’s really interesting. It seems that a lot of what is becoming standard practice in terms of mental health care in the arts has come from trial and error, from artists figuring out how to balance their mental health needs with making work and finding things that work for them. And then passing that on, which is partly why this resource largely consists of interviews with people who made shows about their mental health a few years ago, talking about what they learned from that.

Yeah. Access riders! There must be people talking about access riders now, I forgot about that. That’s massive, isn’t it? We don’t request people’s access riders (but) we will give them a template to just think about those things. And we are working actually with an amazing psychotherapist who works in the cultural sector a lot, Dawn Estefan. She’s just made a self-care journal for A New Direction (London-based non-profit supporting young people to be creative). And she’s thinking about how we can create a tool that’s playful, that’s interactive, for people to look after themselves whilst they’re within our kind of care. And also sets the tone and gives people permission to ask. 

Can you talk a bit more about your approach to access riders?

So we have a framework, which will be like prompts of questions, that will be anything from like ‘how do you like to travel?’ if we’re booking people’s travel to ‘how do we work together to make this the best experience ever?’ Some people want to be in charge of their own experience, which is totally fine if it’s agreed. Some people are amazing at that, ‘this is the way you need to communicate with me’, everything from gender pronouns to every single aspect of the journey of presenting the show, things that they might need. (Some) people are really hot on that but some people are not. But (we can help them) by giving them a template of ‘these are the sorts of things…’ because we’ve also done that with the team members at Sick!, because people have different health status. If they’re happy to communicate, we share them so we know how to work with each other. So we invite other people to do that as well.

So yeah, you have a template. And there might be other things that people want to add. And don’t be afraid to add them. Because it’s really good for us to know. Because we’re curators and designers, and we can design an experience that works for everyone, and can flag things that might be challenging for us and where we might need a bit more support.

So for clarity, anyone who is going to participate in the Sick! Festival will be invited to fill in one of these forms. 

Which is really important, because admin is care. They go into the admin, so your contract will have it attached. So that is locked in. It’s got to be locked in, and then it’s agreed that we’ve seen this, and we’re aware of it, and this is what we’re going to provide. And it has to go like that. 

I ask because access riders have tended to be associated specifically with disability or neurodivergence. One question I’ve been posing is whether there is a version of them tailored to mental health. But it sounds like you’re just providing them for everybody.

Oh, yeah, because it’s not appropriate for me to know the ins and outs. It’s like, what’s the mechanism of care you need. It could be, I get anxious if I’ve got to travel far to the venue, or I work past this time. It could be anything. It’s harder because then you get access clashes and then you have to work them out. But you have to just work it out. But because we want to work with an intersectionally diverse team, as well as community of artists and audiences, we really need to know all of those things. It’s exciting. The exciting nature of that is that you’re making something that’s not just glossed over, like ‘We care.’ It’s that in action. 

You mentioned this phrase ‘access clash’ earlier. What would be an example of an access clash?

This is like a language that’s come in from Rose, our creative producer, who works a lot with disability. It might be anything, like people prefer the lights in the room to stay like this. And some people have different energies around holding the space to make that experience, and then there’s a slight, ‘turn the lights up, turn the lights down?’ It’s about how do you navigate the space if you want multiple people? And people have started to see that when people get into the nuance of their access needs, actually then you go, right, but you want all those people, where is the negotiation? Because we’ve all got to be in the same space, there has to be a negotiation of space. 

But it’s also about recognising that you’ve heard (people) and that you’re trying to find a balance within that. So I’ve not seen them happen a lot. But if you ask people what they need, and they have to share space with other people, it’s about actually what can we facilitate and if there’s a clash in that. And if every artist needs a breakout room of their own, you might be like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t do that.’ And then there’s a clash. It’s that sort of thing. 

So you get as much information as possible from each person about what their needs are, and perhaps you avoid uncomfortable situations at the event itself?

And you can just do your best. It’s not saying things don’t go wrong, the intention is to get it right. And that listening, which goes a long way. And not just seeing the work on stage and going ‘it was great’, it’s the whole experience, because we want people to feel safe, presenting work that is about difficult subjects. That’s what Sick! is about. So we have to make sure they’re supported in the whole journey of that. And we’re the hosts of that. So the invitation has to be like, ‘Yeah, we have to take the whole self.’

I had an interesting conversation with Bryony Kimmings where she took me through the making of her two mental health shows, Fake It Til You Make It and I’m a Phoenix Bitch. She put a lot of things in place to safeguard her own mental health and that of the people she was working with, particularly her partner Tim Grayburn who she worked with on the first show. But she said there were still things she got wrong, especially during Fake It, just from not knowing herself as well as she does now. And even with the learning from the first show there were things she got wrong with the second show. Do you think it’s possible to make a piece of work about mental health without an element of risk?

No I don’t think it is, because you’re exploring something that is fluid and unexpected, and you’re trying to mine lived experience, which is risky by nature. 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. 

And so basically that’s why I’m now at the policy piece, because I think there’s this mechanism where I can be inside something. And a lot of my work today is about exploring how we can put that in place. But it’s like a precious, you know, some sort of thing that could go off, you just don’t know what will come up. And also the best performances deal with risk and have risk inherent in them. If you’re trying to push something and communicate something that’s new thought, new ideas. So I don’t think it’s fully mitigatable. But we can try. And also if you can think about what happens after, you can put yourself in that and there’s a resilience in that. If you want to it’s your choice, if you want to be an artist or work around this space. But how do you then have space? How are you building in space afterwards?

That raises one last thing that we didn’t really cover, which is aftercare. Which is something that’s not talked about a lot, what happens at the end of creative projects.

Yeah. I mean I’m working at a festival so I think about what happens after a lot, because festivals are inherently unhealthy in their design. And so I think it’s also about how you create a space after the immediate show. You know, some people don’t want to be pulled out of spaces and stuff like that, but what happens on the day after? How are people travelling? But also, if you’re making a really intense piece of work, how are you going to avoid that burnout, and what’s on your to do list for the next day? 

And our lives are so quick, just because you’re doing something else, not performing, you might be dealing with the tax return, you still don’t have any time to decompress. So decompression is incredibly important. And that’s quite specific to the individual as well. How do people like to do that aftercare? Yeah, that’s a major thing. And I think that mechanism can probably determine how far you can push yourself. You’ve got to got to be mindful of all of these things, haven’t you? Peaks and troughs. I’m glad I’m not an artist! Doing a festival is just different type of landscape. But yeah, just that very intensely exploring something, day in day out, and it’s absorbing and you never switch off. How are you going to put in a mechanism so it allows you to let go?

Final question. Is there one piece of advice that you would give to somebody programming work about mental health or trauma?

Think about the sum of all the parts. 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. And I think if you lead with that then through giving your permission to yourself to look after yourself, you therefore can give other people permission through leading with that. Does that make sense at all? You have to lead with it. You lead with the intention, and you have to do that. I think the hardest thing is to live it. It’s easier to say it. So I think that that is the final piece of journey, that I’m like, how do you actually live this and make it sustainable? Leadership that portrays that, or a programme where you can feel that and the invitation is there is a beautiful thing. And it’s also safe for yourself and stops you from burning out.