Caitlin Skinner

Caitlin Skinner is artistic director and CEO of Stellar Quines, an intersectional feminist theatre company that has been active in Scotland for over 30 years.  

A significant creative force in Scottish theatre, she is also director of new writing company Pearlfisher, devising company Jordan and Skinner and formerly associate director at Pitlochry Festival Theatre and artistic director of the ground-breaking and acclaimed Village Pub Theatre in Leith, Edinburgh.

We interviewed Caitlin in December 2023 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource.

Your name came up when I was talking to Julia Taudevin, who was praising you as someone who was working to create a ‘culture of wellbeing’ at Stellar Quines. How would you describe what that looks like? Is there a way you can sum it up?

I don’t think I know what it looks like yet. I can talk to where it starts from, really, which is our principles as an intersectional, feminist organisation, whereby we understand oppression in the world, and that it’s not an accident, the social construction of that we understand, and we also believe that it can change and that it can be different. So I guess we want to run our organisation the way we want the world to be, but we also run an organisation within the world, which can be a contradiction that can be really challenging. So we understand the world to have a lot of practices which are exploitative, and that oppressed people, marginalised people, are going to be at the sharpest end of that. Because we work with marginalised people it’s our job to try and mitigate that as much as possible and to try and live those values. 

I guess that’s where we start from. In an industry context, we’re very aware that audiences, particularly even 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, or to make work 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. 

So we’re interested in all kinds of work which is trauma informed, which understands that people are coming from different lived experiences, and that everything that we do is people centred, so that we can make adjustments, we can remove barriers that we know exist in the industry because, if they didn’t exist, there would be more marginalised people better represented. So that’s the principle that we work from. And it very intersectional. It overlaps and intertwines. The company has been involved for a long time with organisations like PiPA (Parents and Carers in the Performing Arts), looking at what it means to have caring responsibilities. And a lot of that stuff chimes in with work around disability access. And that chimes in, again, with working with folks with mental health conditions or mental health considerations, and working with young people. So I guess there’s all sorts of overlaps and intersections that mean it’s not necessarily about what it looks like but the questions that you’re asking, what are the processes that you’re putting in place, to get to the thing that you think it could look like.

It strikes me that there’s two cultural shifts that have happened over the past few years, and they’re connected. One is that there’s much less stigma about talking about mental health. And so we’ve gone from a place of ‘we should talk more about mental health’ to ‘everybody’s talking about mental health, how do we do that safely?’ And the other thing that’s going on is audiences wanting to hear more previously marginalised voices, arts funders understanding they should be supporting that and the culture recognising there’s been a lot of voices missing, and MeToo and Black Lives Matter have a lot to do with that. And while it’s creating opportunities for a wider variety of people to tell their stories, it’s also making those people vulnerable and so increasing the need for this kind of thinking about safeguarding. Is that something you’ve been conscious of in your work? 

Yeah massively. And for an audience as well, actually, how do you take care of the audience when they’re coming in to watch stories and work about oppression? And also work that’s trying to represent a marginalised community but can’t? How do you not re-traumatise people?

So what are the kinds of things you need to consider when making creative work about mental health?

I think there’s a really interesting thing – and I feel like no one’s really done this – about mental illness as a dramatic tool. It’s so within the canon, you know, the madness of Lady Macbeth or hearing voices being such a theatrical dramatic trope – Alice in Wonderland or whatever. I feel like no one’s really interacted with that enough, how we actually use mental ill health as a dramatic tool. And so I think when you’re making work about mental health, there’s questions around how do you not do that? How do you somehow represent authenticity without falling into those tropes, which actually have done nothing but contributed to stigma and misinformation about mental illness? So I think that’s a consideration.

And how do you balance the need for people to bring their own experience as expertise, and sometimes as artistic material, if that’s consensual, but also to sometimes leave it behind and leave it outside? I think that’s something to think about. When are you being asked to mine your own experience of own trauma? And when are you using that in an empowered way and in a  helpful way? And how do you create boundaries around that and allow them to shift and not necessarily know where they are but to check in and find them and allow them to change shape as you go?

I guess I would think about multiple perspectives. And how you represent multiple perspectives, not just one or two. And there’s a lot of stuff around access – working hours, different rehearsal models. We just did a big staggered rehearsal process on a show which was really about making room for people’s caring responsibilities but actually there are all sorts of other potential benefits, and potential stresses with other rehearsal models.

One of the things that came out of the last show we did was that there can be a lot of space and time for people’s access needs at the beginning, and then not so much at the end, because you’ve just got to get it done. So how do you make sure, that when we’re making work about mental health, it doesn’t all start to slip and slide? Because there’s always a hard deadline, that thing of ‘the show must go on’. Live performance can be cancelled – how do you make space for that? 

We’ve just done a model around rehearsal stand ins. And we’re also working with a pilot artists group of women who live with chronic illness, and one of the things they’re looking at is surrogate performers. If you have chronic ill health, the big thing is unreliability. You could put all the access in that you would ever need but actually at the end of the day, you just don’t know. So you could be booked for a performance and there’s always a surrogate who can stand in for you. 

Is that a different thing to an understudy?

In theatre it probably would be the same thing. I guess what we’re thinking about with a surrogate is you’re getting another artist who’s also linked to that artist, rather than someone who’s just standing in. I’m thinking more for someone who’s a solo performer, where an understudy just isn’t going to cut it. You know, someone who’s a total auteur and an understudy isn’t going to do the job, but if there’s someone who’s sort of artistically linked to their practice…

Is that quite a new idea? Had you come across it before? 

It’s actually a poet who we’re working with. She doesn’t necessarily have the language of understudies. She was like, ‘it needs to be more like this, not an understudy.’ So yeah, I don’t know anyone that’s doing that.

You’ve touched on this a bit already but how do you safeguard the mental health of artists who are making work about mental health?

Therapy. I think wellbeing practitioners are brilliant.

Have you had have you had much experience of working with wellbeing practitioners?

Just once on a recent show, and it was on quite a small level. And I was like, ‘oh we just need this more.’ And I guess my other experience is actually not a wellbeing practitioner, but I used to work a lot with Lung Ha (Edinburgh-based theatre company for actors with learning disabilities) and they have a whole support team, including a key support worker who – actually now I think about it – very much like a wellbeing practitioner for the performing company. And so I think (it’s a good thing) having someone for folks to go to, who’s part of the team, but is also external. 

I’m hearing more and more examples of people using wellbeing coordinators or practitioners. But it does seem to be quite a recent phenomenon? 

Yeah, really recent, in the last few years. But I also think other people, largely women, in creative teams have been doing that role for a long time. People talk a lot about folk working in costume fulfilling that role. I was in a conversation the other day about a company masseuse, who was always the same person, and people would get sent to the masseuse. It was just kind of an understanding that that person and that place was a space to talk about things that were difficult. And I quite liked that idea. It’s not like it’s disguised, but when we think about stigma, the stigma of going to the wellbeing practitioner and booking a session is still different from going to the masseuse, right? And so I quite like that as well. Is that easier somehow and fulfilling a different role? And company stage managers as well are often women, also fulfilling that role. So I think people have been doing it, I think it’s just not been called that and it’s not been valued, remunerated or specialised. 

That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about the difficulty in naming something and how that might actually stigmatise it. What I’m finding with these interviews is that there are no simple answers to anything. It’s not an automatic solution just to get in a wellbeing co-ordinator.

No it isn’t, and will look different every time, for every production; it would never look the same in any room, depending on what’s needed and the dynamic of the show. You know, I’m really committed to safeguarding and to wellbeing within my practice, as a director, I have always worked like that, but I’ve needed to more recently because of the work that I’ve been making. I’ve been trying to get more qualified in that. And I think anyone who’s in a leadership position should be doing that. But I also think there are limits to my expertise and I’m always going to be prioritising the show. So, having someone else whose sole job is that you can challenge me is vital.

If every situation is different, how do you as a director and an organisational leader make consistent decisions to how to safeguard the people working for you? 

Well, I hope we will get to a place where we are able to make more consistent decisions. 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. Because as an organisation, we run productions but we also do artist development, engagement projects, and we also do sector work, we do sort of take from all of those strands and use them across each other. And we see what works. What we want to do now is to put more things in place strategically so we have more of a menu or a framework within which we make decisions. At the moment, it feels more like we’re still using a bunch of different ingredients and seeing what works.

What consideration do we need to give to the mental health of audiences who are being encouraged to engage with work that is touching on mental health or trauma?

I think you should really know who it’s for. Is the work for an audience who are likely to have experienced that trauma? Is your show for people who experience mental health? Or is it actually for people who don’t know anything about that experience? And if it’s both of those things, how do you make it work for both? How do you still make sure it works for someone who has experienced that? I think that would be my priority. For example, if we are making work about sexual violence, how do you make sure it works for survivors?

The thing that we do with everything now is put content warnings. When we ca we will make it clear that people are okay to leave. There’ll be a quiet space for folks to go to and we’ll be clear about where that is. And I think there are bigger things around how you make a theatre space informal enough to leave, to come back. How do you invite people and really give people permission to do that? And to respond in different ways and set up the space in the same way you might do with a relaxed performance, like keeping the lights on. And just generally an invitation to respond to things in a different way. 

In your experience, how prepared are venues to accommodate all this? 

Not really. We took a show to Northern Stage this year, and actually they were really into it, thinking a lot about their audience. They run a project called the Welcome Project, when they really think about how they welcome audiences. People can use their phones in the back row, things like that, just really trying to make it a more open environment, a more inclusive environment. So when we came in and talked about what we wanted to do with a relaxed performance, they were really up for it. Other theatres, I would say, are responsive to the things that we want to do, but it’s not a given. We have to kind of figure all those out. It’s only because we bring the expertise, and we have to work with venues in order to achieve that. I think more (venues) do have breakout spaces and things like that. That does seem to have changed. And there’s definitely more of an openness and a willingness. 

I had an interesting experience last summer where I went to a show and at the beginning they said ‘you can leave any time if you’re triggered by the performance, but the amount of disruption I would have caused by actually trying to do get out of this situation. And I’d already sat down by that point! Perhaps even if they’d said that on the way in, or if there was a designated space? And this was a venue that you’d expect to have been one of the most thoughtful about this kind of thing.

We’ve just not got there yet. We’re just quite traditional, aren’t we? So we’ve created this kind of new tradition where we sort of say ‘you’re welcome to leave at any point, and there’s going to be this content,’ but actually the tradition that we need is like, ‘right, this next bit is going to be about this, so this is your opportunity to get out of the theatre, you know what I mean? We need to be doing more, it needs to be much more integrated. We can’t reduce it to ‘we do trigger warnings in the brochure, the programme, or at the beginning of it.’ It’s not a real offer, just covering our backs.

Well, this is perhaps a problem with this research. What we said we were going to do at the start is create a set of guidelines. And actually it’s more that we need a wholesale cultural shift in the way we think about the live experience of theatre. We need to rethink it entirely.

Yeah. I think there’s something in that. I think that thing about guidelines is really interesting, isn’t it? We do absolutely want to create a list of things for people, like ‘that’s what we should do’. I think actually with this we just need to accept that we don’t know. We don’t know enough as a sector and that’s exciting in a way, isn’t it? That’s creative, and the best work around mental health is the work that supports its artists and supports its audience and is innovative in how it does that. That when it’s gonna get really exciting. It’s not seeing mad Lady Macbeth.

Julia Taudevin said an interesting thing, which is that if you’re talking about bringing more marginalised voices into theatre and telling more stories of people whose stories haven’t been told before, you are always going to be talking about mental health, because if you’ve been marginalised – whatever you understand that word to mean – then that’s a mental health issue.

Yeah, exactly. And any time you put that experience on stage you’re at risk of re-traumatising someone. It has to be done absolutely with care and thought and with responsibility. So we need to get better fast, right? We’re in that process at the moment. 

This must be a particularly key thing for a company like Stellar Quines.

Yeah, it’s vital for us. We talk about it literally all the time.

When I was putting together a list of people to interview, I was going in search principally for people who were making creative work, or had made creative work, about mental health. And almost everybody on that list was female.

Yeah, that’s interesting.

It wasn’t entirely female, there were a small number of men. But it was a lot of women, and in a lot of cases women making work about male mental health. I’m yet to find an example of a man making creative work about women’s mental health.

It’s so funny. So now I’ve just got this idea of, how would I feel if it was a man making a show about women’s mental health? Would I be like, ‘go away, what do you know? Or would that actually be great? Would that actually be really interesting? 

It seems, for the most part, that it wouldn’t occur to men to do that.

Exactly, I think. And then I’d be so excited that someone wanted to do it. But then also I would be a bit like, ‘who are you?’ I’d be suspicious of it as well!

We’ve touched on this a bit already, but what steps do you think venues hosting work about mental health need to take to ensure it’s properly presented?

It’s about relationships with audiences, and communication with audiences. Birds of Paradise did a big research project on relaxed performances, and the big thing that came out of that was that theatre makers and venues don’t really know what a relaxed performances is, and audiences don’t really know what a relaxed performance is, so there isn’t a clear expectation on either side. And so if you write ‘relaxed performance’ on something, apparently nobody actually knows what that means! So if you’re putting trigger warnings on something, does the audience know what that means? And do you know what that means? 

I think there’s a big question for venues around how they take care of their audiences when they’re seeing difficult material, challenging material, upsetting material. There could be loads of work, great stuff to be done, around signposting. And we always think about, when we take our stuff to venues, are the venues learning from anything that we’ve done here with their audience? Because we think about our audience a lot. It would be awesome for venues to work with those companies who are doing it really well and learn from them. And wouldn’t that be an awesome experience as a touring theatre company to turn up to a venue and for them to say ‘cool, in order to put this show on, this is what we would put in place for our audience, because we want to take care of them.

A couple of general questions to finish. What barriers do you think exist in the art world to people living with mental health issues, and how can these be overcome? 

Low pay, insecure work. A difficult relationship between the art and the self, and traditional ideas of success and what that does to your mental health. Yeah, work life balance, all those kind of fair workplace things, which are big issues for our industry. I think they can be removed by paying people really well, and by better relationships between artists and organisations and institutions. I think redefining what success might look like, what a career as an artist might look like. What’s the big conversation? There’s a statistic going around at the moment about the huge number of people working in the arts who have a mental health condition. What’s the wider conversation we need to have about that? Let’s not just make it more comfortable, let’s redefine it somehow. It’s getting harder. When I started out there more or less was enough audience, enough money, and enough opportunity and I would argue that there isn’t that now. So what’s that bigger conversation about how the ecology works?

There’s an irony here, isn’t there, in that we’re talking so much more about mental health and wellbeing in the arts, at a point when there’s so much less money to actually create that culture? That’s a big challenge, right?

Yeah, I mean, it’s broken. It is busted. What’s the future like? Is actually the future an arts practice which is uncoupled from money making, an arts practice that’s actually about community, about building something more anti-capitalist, something that’s about the wellbeing of the people who take part in it, that’s not actually connected to an industry? And what do we need in this moment in order to get there, to get to something that’s actually democratic and that’s accessible to everybody? What’s our responsibility to that vision? I just get to the point where I think we’re just tinkering with a system which is always going to be exploitative, that’s actually always going to make life a lot worse for people with mental health issues to be a part of. But there definitely are things that we can do because we’re trying to do them. It’s not saying ‘there’s nothing, we should just give up.’ I guess I’m just saying, how do we make sure we don’t tinker around the edges, and we’re actually somehow contributing towards longer term equity, which isn’t exploitative?

What are the things you feel hopeful about? Let’s end on that.

I do feel really hopeful. I do 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 and in a positive direction. But I also don’t think we’re gonna get there in my lifetime. So how do you make that satisfying? 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 in 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 ‘well, we could talk about mental health, how exciting’. So I’m looking forward to moving to more of a nuanced place. And I’m excited about the new generations of artists for whom the arts will be an option and they will be able to be more of themselves as an artist. I think that’s massive.

Can you explain what you mean by that? It’s a really interesting observation.

Well, yeah, I just think if you’re hiding your mental health, then you’re not allowing a part of yourself to be recognised at work, or recognised in your art. And I’m also really interested in positive psychology, which takes a look at the science of mental wellbeing and not just the science of mental illness. And that’s still a really new field. So the possibilities of that, I think, are massive. And so, I guess, 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 and not just a dramatic device, or something negative that we have to make really hardcore traumatic theatre about, 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.