Selina Thompson is a writer, performer and the founder of Selina Thompson Ltd, which is based in Birmingham and has made theatre shows, installations, workshops and performances for radio since 2016.

Her best known show, salt, traces a personal journey retracing transatlantic slave trade routes from Britain to Ghana and Jamaica; the show, which explores the impact of trauma across generations and centuries of history, was critically acclaimed and has toured internationally.

Selina lives with epilepsy as well as depression, anxiety and CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and has been open about the challenges of balancing creative work with mental health. 

This interview took place in November 2023 as we developed our Performing Anxiety good practice resource.

In recent years there’s been a big increase in the number of creative projects that explicitly address mental health. Is this something you’ve observed yourself and if so what do you make of it?

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve felt really aware of that. What do I make of it? Some of it, I think, is to do with the fact that cuts during the age of austerity pushed a lot of people away from making work as a collective and into making solo work, which leads them to explicit autobiography. And if you are trying to make autobiographical work, and build stories, you’re going to be looking for conflict and trauma, and there is mental health almost immediately. So I think that it’s inevitable that when you make a shift to autobiographical work, you are going to find more people talking about trauma and, as such, mental health. I think that a lot of the conversation around the political in the 2010s and the late noughties was very deeply invested in the personal and the very intimately personal, which again I think moves you into the realm of mental health.

Also, there’s just been a broader cultural shift around anti-depressants and therapy. I think we are we’re in a very particular place – and when I’m saying we, I am, in general, referring to Western societies. Our capitalism is in a very specific place, in terms of how much we work and how much time we’re expected to spend on working. And I feel like there’s a real toll that working in the conditions that we currently work in, that having access to the sheer amount of information we all have access to, is having on people’s lives and how they feel and their health. And if people have easier access to the tools to talk about mental health problems and suffering, they’re going to name it when they come across it. And a lot of it is also a sort of cultural shift towards confession, right? Confession, and maybe disclosure? But someone like Beyonce, who’s kind of like, ‘here’s my album about my husband cheating on me’, deeply intimate, kind of suggests the tone of that line between private and public. And also just people having the language for it. You can’t talk about something you can’t name. As soon as you can name it, you’re off. 

What would you say to an artist who wants to make a piece of work about their mental health?

I guess I would say the same thing I’d say to anybody making anything else. So the first question is why? Why is this the story that you want to tell? Why do you want to tell it now? Why are people coming to hear you tell that story rather than, you know, staying in bed watching Sex and the City re-runs? And just because of the kind of artist I am, what is the political purpose of telling it beyond you? I think it’s really important to be specific about who your work is for. Obviously all work is for anyone that comes to watch it, right, but do you have an audience in mind? You almost always do. And if you don’t it’s you. So who are these people? And why do they need this? Having real clarity about that, and also thinking about the political ramifications of what you are putting out into the world.

And then the next thing almost immediately is, what care have you put in place for yourself? Because when I first started making work, I did not have the tools and the language, and the approach to making work that I now have. And I feel that I did myself a great deal of harm. I almost feel like I’m a bit of a weirdo about it when young artists come to me, early, early career – they’re not always young – and ask for opinions. (I say) have you thought about you need to have in the room with you? Have you thought about which bits of the process you could hold? And which bits you can’t? What looks after your mental health in your private life and non-work life? And what needs to be in your work life? Can you work long days? If you can’t, how does that change the length of the process? Are you going to need coaching and counselling, because the Arts Council can pay for that. Are you going to need a gym membership, are you going to need to be near to a pool? Are you going to need to ensure that you write a certain amount of it somewhere where you can look up, look out the window and see green things? 

Also, the care can’t just be in the process, it has to be in the show. So, what are the bits that are going to feel intense and triggering for you? And how are you going to remind yourself, the performer in that moment, that you are just in a room talking about things? Not necessarily experiencing them again. What does the space need to be like before the show? What does the space need to be like after the show? Are you going to need human connection? Are you going to need human connection but feel like you don’t need it? Are you going to need space to be alone? What does it look like to cancel the show? Are you going to be able to tour it? If so, for how long? Are you going to need to pay a friend to come on tour with you who’s not doing very much other than being there and making sure you eat three meals a day? 

So, I think trying to ask a bunch of questions with a load of suggestions in it is the next thing that happens because there are many beautiful, lofty, deeply meaningful reasons why people make art, but if you are making it to get paid, if it’s work, if it’s labour, then you’ve got to make sure you don’t get sick, you’ve got to honour your body and mind as tools that you work with that must not be harmed as much as possible.

To turn to your own work, what are the kinds of things you need to put in place to allow you to make the work that you make? 

That’s a question we are asking ourselves at all times and that we will never have a simple answer to because as I, as a person, change, the answers to that question change. So I will tell you what I need to make work in the here and now, which might be different in a year. I have worked with an access assistant since 2019. And that is somebody who travels with me, who is in the rehearsal room with me, who advocates for the things that I need for my access with the venue and with the rest of the company, who takes over comms for me when I’m overwhelmed and things are really intense. They help me with domestic things I needed to work. So sometimes there will be weeks where, whether I like it or not, I’m going to be at the studio most of the day. So they will make sure that meals happen at the right time. And I don’t do the weird thing that I used to do, where I just wouldn’t eat and then be really sick. 

I can’t perform projects about my mental health anymore. And that’s not a forever thing, I hope. I hope that one day I’ll be back in the saddle. I take a lot of inspiration and comfort from looking at Bobby Baker‘s process and how she has returned to performing after a long break. But right now it is too triggering for me to perform a lot of my work so other people perform it for me. For me, at the moment, the safest place I can be in the process is as a writer, because theatre is like a trigger chamber, right? You go, ‘I’m gonna have the right lighting, sound and environment to make people feel things’. And sometimes that’s the worst possible thing. Part of the reason I had to stop performing salt was because I remember saying to my therapist, ‘do you know what, I’ll be doing better, I’ll be recovering, and then we’d have some international tour dates for salt. And when I come back my mental health is shot to shit again.’ And my very brilliant and patient counsellor was like, ‘why do you think that might be?’ And I was like, ‘oh, it’s going over these things that were really traumatic for me again. I can’t do it anymore.’

So at the moment, we’re working on a show that is about adoption, using my adoption as a starting poin to think about adoption as a political mechanism, think about the history of the family and the future of the family. You always know something’s going to be triggering, but you never really know just how triggering it’s gonna be. So we had a really wild summer of me just being feeling like those sirens from Kill Bill were playing in the background of my life constantly. So it came out of that, yeah, like somebody else has to be the lead artist on this. All I can do within this is write and then hand it over to a director. I can’t spend too long in the room. Because it’s making me crazy. I use words like ‘crazy’ and ‘mad’ a lot; I’m really comfortable with them. I know that other people aren’t, but I like them. 

At the moment we’re trying, and this comes from the privilege of having a company infrastructure, but we’re trying to make as much work as possible in Birmingham. To bring people to where I live, and where my support networks are, where my cat and my parents and my counsellor are. Because I think one of the most difficult things – and I don’t know how you fix this or challenge this… well I do, but they’re big changes – but so much of being an artist is being on the road, travelling here, there and everywhere, which is inherently destabilising, right? Like even when you watch the autobiographies of Whitney Houston or Nina Simone or Amy Winehouse, the tour is always when they reached the breaking point. And I can’t do that. I can’t do that. If we are going to be on the road, I need to be somewhere for a long time. So like a minimum that I can be away from home is two weeks. We have to be able to go somewhere, set up, live there for two weeks. If it’s international, we are looking even longer, like three weeks, maybe four, trying to be places for longer periods of time. 

What else do I need? The company pays for my counselling via the Arts Council because the work doesn’t get made without that therapeutic support. So the work has to pay for it. I have a swimming pool membership, which came free with our studios so the company doesn’t pay for it, but it feels like a really important part of the provision that the company puts in place for me. Because it’s such an effective way of letting work out of the body. I can’t work super long days. Now on the work, I can do about five hours. But that’s to do with other access stuff.

Tracy Gentles (artistic director of Sick! Festival) said the other day that one of the real challenges of trying to look after your mental health in this industry, of trying to build a framework of care, is that frameworks of care are often at odds with frameworks of production and productivity. So you’re constantly trying to make these two things work together that are pushing against each other. For me this really resonated with as really essential change in perspective that we had to adopt as a company:  which is that the show might not go on, you know? That imperative is at odds with having a disabled body, and everyone has to be at peace with that, and potentially primed for that.

This was a piece of advice I got from Bryony Kimmings really early on: make sure that you know what it looks like to cancel a show, if it’s not safe for you to perform it. Because if you know what the steps are, you tell your access assistant, your access assistant tells the producer, the producer tells the venue, the venue will not contact you until a week after, we will get you home at this point. It stops being this terrifying thing you can’t do, and becomes just another process. You don’t have to have this horrifying Katy Perry-esque moment where you’re crying underneath the stage. And then you have to put on a smile like a Barbie doll while they lift you up to perform (watch her film, Part of Me, the scene I’m talking about is horrific!). You know what it looks like to say, no, I’m not willing to do this. And you need a company-wide sort of attitude around this, that the show must not go on, you need to believe that any new people working around you believe that, including the venues that you work with. 

One of the things that has been really clarifying about working with my disabilities and mental health stuff up front is that the kind of partners that you have change, and often partners that we work with are partners where we’ve been able to say, ‘Listen, Selina might get sick, and that might f*** up our plans.’ So whenever we plan anything, we have a matrix of things that might happen to get it all up. And you’re going to have to be responsive. And it’s not going to look like what it looks like when an able bodied person, with no care responsibilities, makes a show with other able bodied people who either have no care responsibilities or have found other people that can sort those out outside of their work. It’s going to look different. 

And luckily, we’ve got partners who understand that, or at least are open to understanding and getting that. But that’s a big need. And I want to say that I wouldn’t have access to any of this if I hadn’t made a show (salt) that was internationally successful. And if we weren’t now an NPO (Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation). And that’s something that I feel a real responsibility about. How are you sending these things beyond yourself? How are you advocating for these things beyond yourself?

I had a long conversation with Bryony Kimmings about this. She’s also someone who had a very successful show and therefore was able to ask for these things. But one problem is that the people who most need the kind of support you’re talking about are often the people who feel least able to ask for it. 

Absolutely. Something that I didn’t say that feels really important is that the very first thing you need to be able to make work about your mental health, as somebody that experiences mental health difficulties, is a community of other people in the same boat, because you need to be sharing. When I think about my journey to being able to advocate and speak for what I wanted, I worked with Bobby Baker, my first year out, and I was very, very lucky to have that instant connection with somebody making work explicitly about mental health. I was also really lucky to meet James Leadbitter, and to be struck by the work he was making the structures he was putting around himself, even before I got to know him as a peer. Within a year of starting I was friends with Bryony Kimmings when she was making that was starting to take more of a toll friends with Scottee as well, and I was also in dialogue with lots of people of colour who were kind of like ‘this work is making us sick, should we talk about it?’ So I think it’s really important to speak with other people who can ask these questions, and who can tell you, ‘I know that this is available because I’ve had it’. Even things like having a production matrix, which is a series of plans that’s like ‘if this then this, if this then this’. 

Before I got my other diagnoses, when I had just my mental health diagnoses, I never really felt able to describe it as a disability, I felt I was taking up space that wasn’t mine to take up. And I think that can be really unhelpful when you’re trying to put things in place for yourself, and when you’re trying to seek out advice and support. Because so many of the frameworks that are in place to support other disabilities can be so incredibly useful when it comes to mental health or any other needs that you might need, if you are neurodiverse in any way. 

Something that comes up a lot in my conversations with artists is access riders, which have increasingly become standard practice for disabled artists. One question that keeps coming up is, what would a mental health access rider look like? Should it even be called an access rider? Someone I spoke to suggested it should be a ‘what I need to do my best’ document.  

It’s interesting, because ‘rider’ calls to mind the excess of a celebrity, right? Like only pink M&Ms, rose candles, etc. Whereas actually an access rider is a list of needs. So I’m working with a leadership coach at the moment, and she sent across this really great document that she called a ‘me user manual’. So it’s ‘this is what I need, this is what can’t work.’ I remember thinking it was such a great way to start a working relationship. And that’s a huge part of what an access rider is. But for me there are two things that I come up against with access riders – and mine are in my contract, there’s a separate page that has to be signed and agreed upon. We send them out to collaborators and to core team members, as well as to the venues and organisations. But number one, do people read it? Because that’s a big thing. I think a lot of the time people don’t. Do they understand it? And do they recognise it as something that is going to apply to them? Because I find the assumption with access needs, disabilities, whatever, is that people kind of go, ‘Oh, yeah, I see that this person has these diagnoses, I see that these things can happen, but that’s not going to happen on this project with me. That’s what’s gonna happen on their other project with other people. With me, they will work in a completely able-bodied way. And none of these things will be problems.’

And something which I feel that we have to keep doubling down on when we go into really early negotiations is the worst case scenario will happen. You have commissioned me to make a work about a traumatic subject, a traumatic subject impacts me personally, it will impact our work in processes in ways that I cannot predict. It can be stressful and unpredictable. That is going to happen. Not might happen. It will happen. And that’s a real shift for people. But yeah, the reading of access riders, the understanding of it. There was a moment (on a previous project) when we had to pause, when I had to step away from the rehearsal room for two days because I’d had a seizure. And somebody in the room went, ‘I didn’t know Selina had epilepsy’. And my access assistant was like, ‘mate, you signed an access rider that said that Selina had epilepsy, and that this thing that had happened before and might happen.’ And she went ‘Oh, yeah, I didn’t read it’. 

So yeah, how do you make them so they’re more widely available to people? How are they read and understood? And also, you know, at their very best they’re extremely unique, tailored to the individual documents, and that requires care and resource. Something that I really reject is the notion – and it feels a bit messy – that putting the things in place that people need to work well isn’t easy. Actually I think it’s challenging. It requires a really big shift in how you think. And in an overstretched sector, meeting those challenges can feel really hard. 

What would you say, then, to venues and institutions that want to programme work about mental health? 

I had a really difficult interaction recently, where someone invited me on something that just wasn’t accessible. And I had a list of suggestions about how it could be more accessible. But I also was kind of like, the question you have to ask yourself is, are you genuinely interested in this being more accessible? I have my access needs that make this difficult, but they’re quite low on the scheme of access needs. Do you actually want to do the work? Are you actually genuinely invested in it? Because if you are, you are going to have to put it first at every level. The first thing you’re going to have to ask about is ‘how’s this going to work in terms of access? Is this going to be safe for this person? What’s going to happen? Are you willing to commission somebody who might, three hours before the show goes up, cancel it? Because that can happen. Are you willing to find ways of working that mitigate that,  that might mean that the show doesn’t look how you think it’s going to look? What do you think it’s going to be? I think that’s the first thing.

And also, are you looking after your staff? Because if you’re not looking after your core staff, your core staff can’t look after me. Something that 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. Those people are already carrying a huge amount, and often struggle to find the resources to provide what we know we need. And Bobby’s always like, ‘you’ve got to put on your own oxygen mask before you put in anybody 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.

And that that’s not to say that it’s impossible, or it can’t be done, but I think it’s long, slow, constant work. This is at odds with our employment cycles, and with an artistic director, who maybe is going to be around for three, four or five years, they want to have a quick turnaround of results in the organisation so that by the time they leave the impact is tangible, but we’re talking about actually remaking the foundation of how the arts works, if you really want to change things, and that that can’t be rushed. That’s the big picture, but maybe the place to start is that you are working with a person. How are you working with them in a way that isn’t extractive? That’s what’s at the core of it: seeing the person in front of you, not just an art machine.

I read a provocation you wrote that describes how all the work you make is psychologically taxing, and that there’s “very little currently in place within the industry to create safer, healthier conditions for creating such work”. Can you describe what it is within the industry that you feel is unhealthy and unsafe?

I think the biggest thing that is, like, the flashing arrow around ‘unhealthy’, is the culture of overwork as a kind of badge of honour. Ten to 12 to 15 hour days, tech days where like you get in the theatre when it’s dark, and you leave and it’s dark again. There used to be someone I worked with who would wake up to emails that had been sent at 5am, and then at 7am she’d get another email that asked her why she hadn’t responded to the emails that came at 5am. The expectation that people will work across the weekend and late into the evening. The expectation of overwork and a sort of fetishising and celebrating of it. 

What is the framework that is needed to show autobiographical work safely? Well, there isn’t a framework, that’s the first thing. I had a conversation with one of the partner venues on the adoption work and the impact that it had on me. We finished in July and I started to feel normal around the end of October, And he said ‘so that’s three months? That’s quite worrying.’ I was like, I can understand that. And then there was an awkward pause and I realised that he didn’t know what to suggest to make that less worrying for him as a venue. And I remember thinking that’s interesting, where are the tools to be able to be like, ‘okay, cool, so what can I put in place for you as an organisation?

So I think there’s that – what is the best practice for an organisation if you want to programme autobiographical work? Who is spending the time developing that? I think artists should be consulting on it. But could we not lead it, please? Because we’re kind of busy. So that not being in place feels unsafe. There’s something about the way that we talk about work and contextualise work. So, again, because salt was successful, I got to a place where I was like, well, I will not be doing any press around this because it’s crazy. And I will not be doing any after show talks because it brings up a load of stuff for people that I can’t hold after doing the show. I think that’s something that has really improved in my time. I think that people are better at post show holding spaces and asking other people to hold them and creating a barrier between themselves and a potentially triggered public. I think that’s really improved. 

But I think people need to be paid more. I know that sounds like ‘that’s not health, that’s not our physical safety.’ But it kind of is. Because if you haven’t got the resources to put the things in place that you need to make the work safely and healthily, then that’s really risky, that’s really dangerous. So there has to be resource that is ring fenced for that and that is easily accessible. 

But then I wonder, what needs to be in place in house? A really interesting thing that we’ve noticed lately is that because I am I’m 33, a lot of the collaborators I want to work with around my age are women and all of a sudden everybody’s having babies, everyone’s on maternity leave, or it’s their first job back after having a kid. And so we’re like, ah, we’ve got to think about childcare now if we’re a feminist company, and we’re committed to these frameworks, we have to prepare that. I was having a conversation with (arts journalist) Maddy Costa where I was kind of like, you know, it’s become a budget line for us. And I’m really aware of the fact that that childcare being so expensive feels like a real thing for the company now. And she was kind of like, actually, in an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to sort out childcare because theatres would provide a creche for workers. 

I think about the Bush Theatre for example, having an in house person that is thinking about therapy and wellbeing that’s built into the processes, like what does a company like ours need to provide in house? What does a company like the Royal Court need to provide? If I know that the Royal Court has a wellbeing practitioner, who my director can sit down with as they plan a piece of work, and that person can go ‘Okay, so here and here and here are some things that you can put in place to support your cast’s mental health, to think about your creative team, that really changes things, and initially it is more money, it’s difficult, but how do you get away from the arts being a gauntlet, from ‘how long can you survive before you burn out or go too crazy to make the work anymore?’ What does it look like to incorporate approaches to sick leave and disability leave? This is something we’re trying to figure out. If I spend like three months making a wildly triggering project, then don’t I need at least a month off after that to recover? So what are our approaches to how we understand my salary? It’s this real change in values. And yeah, I know, it’s really expensive. That’s all I can say. I know it’s expensive, I don’t have a solution to that expense.

One last thing I wanted to ask you about is that there seems to be an increasing desire among industry gatekeepers, shall we say, to platform more autobiographical work by artists of colour, and that comes from a positive place in some ways, but the other side is that it puts more artists of colour in the vulnerable position of performing very personal work about trauma to a largely white audience that doesn’t necessarily understand what’s at stake for them. I’m thinking of a blog that performer Demi Nandhra wrote in 2019 called ‘Why do white people like watching trauma so much?’ Do you have thoughts on this?

Here are some messy thoughts, or half formed thoughts. 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. So 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. So I guess I always want to stay centred in the person that has made that work and why they’ve made it and to not dismiss them or have them become like an object that is acted upon as opposed to someone with agency. 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 because every time you approach someone and say that you want to do it, they’re like, ‘yeah, no, we don’t want to see that from you, please make another show about abjection and pain.’

So that’s one half formed thought and the other half formed thought is marketing is gross, and it kind of always is, because what it does is it flatten and cheapen work so as to sell it. I’m not saying that to justify anything, but I am always thinking like, what is the conversation here that it’s about marketing? What is the conversation that is here that is about commissioning? What is the conversation about audiences? And what is the conversation that’s about Zeitgeist, right? Because again, I know what Demi means, why do you want to watch trauma all day? But also, why do we make this work when we know that we live in a country where 90% of the people are white? Because we know that those people are impacted by this stuff too. If I stand on stage and talk about the transatlantic slave trade, and you are a white person sat in the audience, I’m not just talking to you, I’m talking about you. We share this society. If it impacts me, it impacts you too.

Something which I find liberating and helpful is knowing that all of my activism doesn’t have to happen in my artwork. I still have a responsibility to protest or write to my MP or be involved in direct action but there’s a bunch of other things I need to do. And I think that a danger in the arts sometimes is that we think that all of our activism has to be in our art. So it means that you hear about Black Lives Matter and your first thought is, ‘well, what I need to do is commission work about Black Lives Matter.’ And I’m like, that’s a part of it. But another thing that you could do is be like, oh, I am a venue with rooms that are empty. Do I hold a space where people can come and make signs? Do I host public meetings?

I think that where it feels extractive is that these movements, these political questions, are still resonant and important and need a multitude of support that isn’t just artwork about it. So, number one, what can your organisation do other than show work about it which can feel extractive and exploitative and like you’re making money out of that pain? What work are you doing to get audiences who are directly impacted by these issues into your building, so that when you seek to respond it is coming from a place of already built community?

No one’s ever going to go to the Bernie Grant Arts Centre and say ‘all your work is about black pain’, even if they programmed a season where it was all black pain, because it it wouldn’t matter, the audiences that they serve give that work credibility and necessity. They change that work from something where people passively consume and spectate into something where people come together to grieve or to be activated. So I think, for me, there are really big questions in there that are about what we think that work is for and what has to go around programming that work to enable it to do something. And you know, I also think it can act as a really useful clarion call to commissioners and programmers and artistic directors and whoever to really challenge themselves about what they think black art is and what they think that art from traditionally marginalised people is.