Stephanie
Katie
Hunter

Stephanie Katie Hunter is artistic director of Scissor Kick, a production company that “champions artists that make observant, transformative and unsettling work”.

As a freelance producer she has worked with Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the National Theatre of Scotland, Tramway, Citizens Theatre, Pepperdine University, Glas(s) Performance, and many more, often on projects addressing mental health.

We interviewed Stephanie in January 2024 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource.

We’re much more aware now of the mental health impact on artists of sharing difficult or traumatic experiences. How does that impact on your work as a producer?

I think, broadly speaking, I no longer think of myself as a producer who works on a range of projects, some of which are connected to, or in response to, questions or concerns or personal experiences of mental health. I think in every aspect of what I do it’s my responsibility to think about the needs of those that I work with, and that includes mental health needs. 

And I think that’s to say that, in all of the ways that we know, broadly speaking, or hopefully know as a society that everyone comes in contact with mental health at some point or other, personally, or in connection with someone else. It strikes me that working as a producer, and working within the arts, means that everything I do is connected to personal challenge in some way or another. 

So I could be making a show that it’s exceptionally light hearted, and the nature of working with artists means that I will be having conversations about mental health and mental wellbeing at least once on that project, if not frequently. And so I’m always having to think about what my responsibilities are, and in relation to mental health and how I support other people. I think crucially, something that feels really alive right now in the work that I’m doing or feels really poignant with where I’m at as a producer, working in collaboration with other producers under the banner of Scissor Kick, is that it feels like we internally are having conversations about mental health and mental wellbeing perhaps more so than we are having in conversation with artists. 

And what I mean by that, really specifically, is that the nature of making art, as we all know, can be really challenging for a range of different reasons. And we have to, as artists, make ourselves vulnerable in order to create work, and that’s not necessarily putting ourselves into tricky positions, but it’s more the act of making something and sharing it with someone else and going ‘What do you think?’ It’s an offering, there’s a transaction there, there’s an opportunity for connection. And that can put someone in a position of giving up a part of themselves. 

Even if it’s like, ‘I’ve made the thing and it’s totally fine’, there is still an offering there, there is still opportunity for that thing to be disrespected. And so what that means is, because of that vulnerability, as producers working with artists, and with the specific type of producing services and support we provide, it feels like we’re constantly reflecting as a team about how our colleagues and collaborators are doing. 

And I don’t know if it’s because of how much work we have done in the past which relates to mental health and mental wellbeing. I don’t know if it’s because of the issue based nature of some of our work, that people seek us out and go, “You’ve got processes in place to tackle these very specific things, we think we think you’re good people, we want to be involved with you,” and therefore feel more open coming to us knowing that they have personal baggage they’d like to bring or whether or not just all of that context opens somebody up. But what it means is we can be in the business of engaging in a day to day conversation of logistics, budget, risk assessments, and within these very trivial topics someone can disclose pretty sensitive information relating to their wellbeing or their personal circumstances. So I think there’s something for me, which is that all of the work that we do, or indirectly has something to do with mental health and mental wellbeing. Either us thinking directly about how we support other people, how we support ourselves, what are the processes we have in place to support ourselves and others who didn’t communicate those processes. So we’re really transparent about how we navigate our procedures, and how we make decisions if decisions need to be made, all those sorts of things. Because that’s a really core tenet of how we produce and how we think about what it is we do as producers. 

Scissor Kick describes itself as a company that ‘champions artists that make observant, transformative and unsettling work’. Can you talk a bit about the thinking behind that? 

Yeah, sure. I think just to start at the beginning, ‘champion’, I think we’re really keen to make sure that artists know that we are there for them, that we are their cheerleaders. I think it’s really important that as a company that works in collaboration with artists from different backgrounds and different fields, that those people know that we get behind them. And I think that getting behind them is about them knowing that folks have their backs with the logistics, that there are people who are there to cheerlead to them to support them in the art they’re making. But it’s also about having people whom you can fall back on to have challenging conversations with if needs be, you know.

For instance, you’re doing a show at the Fringe, and you’re getting good reviews, but some reviewers haven’t come in yet, box office has dipped the second week, whatever it is, and you’re having a really tough time. And if that person’s a solo artist not working in collaboration with anyone else, I think, for us, championing that person means that we’re doing all the outward stuff, but in our transaction with each other, they also know they can come to us. And we know that fundamentally our priority is that and their wellbeing, and the work they’ve made and how they want it to be received. 

And then in terms of the work that we’re interested in – you know, observant, unsettling, challenging – I think I think we’re interested in notions of spectacle. Because when you see spectacle on stage, there’s something that can be quite transformative about that, in terms of how it makes you feel or the way it makes you think about the world. But spectacle doesn’t have to be massive and visual, sometimes it can be a really small movement that is created with craft that you’re drawn into. And within that transaction, whether it’s this really unique thing that’s happening in a small space, or whether it’s this big thing with bells and whistles, we’re very much interested in supporting work that speaks to the world we live in. And if it doesn’t do so directly, either politically or socially, then it speaks to the world we live in by acknowledging that we just really need to be entertained. And if we’re going to be entertained, it’s got to be bloody brilliant. And so I think that’s kind of where the work sits. It’s about being in response to something, it’s got to mean something, you know, and if it’s not about allowing audiences to think and reimagine their position to something else, then it’s got to just take us on a whale of a tape, it’s got to offer some respite.

Okay, so if somebody comes to you, for example, with an idea for a show that is about mental health, perhaps it’s dealing with something traumatic that has happened to them, what are the kinds of conversations you would have with that person?

It’s totally changed over time. I think first let’s sit and have a chat, you know, let’s just get together either through Zoom, or in person, to talk about the work that you’re making, the work that you have made, what has led you to that point. So we can get more into the mindset of you as the artist, so that we can understand the world you’re wanting to create through this new piece, and in turn how we fit into that. 

But before we even get to that point now, we kind of thank them for that submission of interest and we talk internally about what we’re doing. We’re so conscious that there’s so much we’re making that, as we’ve said, that involves mental health, either explicitly or implicitly, directly, indirectly, we now have a chat and go, where does this sit for us? What are our personal responsibilities and our professional responsibilities? You know, if my entire year could be programmed working on pieces of heavy subject matter, I know, as a person, I’m going to need a lot more days off. Because I will really struggle to detach myself and think about my own needs before I’m thinking about the artists needs. 

So I don’t know whether it goes back again to there’s something in the water that everyone’s making work in this way, or whether or not we really specifically are in receipt of more queries about production support for work of that nature, whatever it is, it feels like it comes in every week. So we as a team kind of go ‘Where are we at? What are we doing?’ first. And then if we do have capacity, what is that capacity? And how can we be exceptionally clear about that from word go?

So going back to that thing of let’s have a conversation with an artist, if we’ve now had that new internal conversation, this new step for us, and we go, right, we do have capacity, but we do not have capacity to be creative producers, we can only be logistical producers, you know – like we’re going to not necessarily be involved through the R&D process really hands on, but we can do the budgets, the risk assessments, the contracting those sorts of things –  what we’ll do is we’ll preface that conversation with artists with really clear boundaries. Because we’re very keen to make sure that the artist knows that we’re talking about their work because we want to learn about them and their artistry, their intentions, their goals, but we have this internal criteria that we’re looking for. 

Because it can be really challenging, we know that if we don’t set up the conversation with ‘we’re very busy, it’s quite unlikely we’ve got the space right now, we might have the space for some projects where we’re only doing this, this and this, or it would need to go in the back burner for a very long period of time. If it does feel like we’re good, we’re just like, we’re a good fit for each other’  it can sometimes feel as if we’ve asked someone to excavate some personal trauma, or personal information, sensitive information and we’ve then went, ‘nah’.

And if it’s someone who you’ve never met before, as well, we don’t necessarily know how emotive it will be recounting that subject matter. We don’t know whether or not it is in relationship to their everyday now, or whether or not it’s about something from their past that they’ve dealt with, that kind of sets aside from their everyday life. 

So those are kind of the very brief preliminary steps we have. We talk internally about our capacity, we clarify the space that we have, in the broader sense for making work, but then very specifically what parts of ourselves we’re able to give dependent on the nature of the material that’s involved, We’ll then talk to the artist to set up a meeting, try and create a conversation, which is clear about what we can do and what we can’t do at this time, ahead of talking about the art, because then any potential rejection – for lack of a better word – or decision that we’re not the right fit for one another is not, at that point, adding an extra personal challenge for anybody. It’s trying to make that conversation a bit more formal and objective than subjective. If that makes sense.

Yes, absolutely. One thing that’s come up in previous conversations is that it can feel very person when a show about mental health faces rejection, whether it’s by funders, or audiences, or whatever. It can be very tied up with your sense of self. And so that’s something that needs to be handled carefully, which is something you’re clearly doing. Assuming that you do get to the point of working with somebody, what sort of processes do you have in place? Things that have come up in other conversations include check ins, access riders, and wellbeing practitioners.

So we’ve got access riders, we’ve got a very thorough safeguarding policy. As producers we’re often brought on as employees – so the lead artist fundraises, and then we get brought in as producer, depending on the size of that R&D or that project, we could be the main point of contact for every other member of staff, despite us not being the employer. 

So something we do is we have a very thorough safeguarding policy and if the project requires that we write a specific safeguarding policy which carries forward that information and amends it accordingly. We also have an accompanying declaration form and a contract clause. So say, for example, you are the lead artist, you’ve applied for funding, we would get you to put a clause in our contract – but also with everyone else’s contract that we negotiate on behalf of you – which basically gets everyone in the project to agree to our safeguarding policy, and note in confirmation that they have signed it and agree to those standards. 

And within that clause, there’s also something about noting the access rider, and that only particular individuals will have access to that. And specifically, in the instances of that kind of project, it would be the employer and us at Scissor Kick as main point of contact. 

We also talk with the lead artist, with the employer, about what their responsibility is in terms of employment. So this is something that, while not new for us, there is consistent learning on, because of the nature of every project and where everyone comes from – like what experience they have in coming to be the employer on a gig like this, when we are so keen to uphold certain levels of certain standards, certain benchmarks. 

So we can be the main point of contact, we can support you to ensure you have insurance in place, we can support you to ensure that all these bits and pieces are ticked, we can oversee health and safety in regards to a project or whatever. But in the instance that something goes wrong, we have to be really clear about what that line of communication is. We think it’s very important that the worst case scenarios are played out, so that we’re never in a situation of having a conversation with someone who’s in distress or in crisis and we don’t know, or the employer doesn’t know, what their responsibility is, or how they might be involved in the conversations with that person who’s in crisis. 

We try to make that process as simple and as clear as possible through the negotiation in the contracting stages. So that while it can be reiterated through information packs, when a whole staff team gets brought on board, we just kind of lay all that groundwork.

In terms of in the room, and how we collaborate, depending on the nature of the work sometimes we’ve brought on board a consultant, and we’ve commissioned them to support us through some workshops, and write a report about what their professional assessment is on our ability to support staff through that specific project or presenting. 

And what that has looked like has been us and a lead artist having workshops online with the consultant, talking through what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, questions we have, fears we have, having questions afterwards, so we can kind of crowbar into the detail. We’ve also then had that consultant have a separate Zoom meeting, which was organised with a separate fee as part of the contract, for the entire team involved. And this is for one specific R&D I’ve got in mind, we’ve done this twice now, we’ve had two iterations of an R&D with a very similar process. And then the lead artists and us as producers have been involved in a chat and every other member of the team has had a meeting, either one on one, or a group Zoom, where they can all meet with each other and meet with a consultant. And then after that the consultant has written us a paper saying, these are the concerns people have at every stage of the project, these are the things that people are excited for every stage of the project, these are the things in my professional recommendation I recommend you do. Then we have a meeting to talk it through, we do the project, and then we evaluate.

Really specifically, and I appreciate that this is pedantic detail, the first R&D we did with a consultant, it was predominantly people of colour, except for the lead artist and ourselves as producer. So the reason we had a full group workshop without any of us present was because it was really important for us that there was a space where people could talk freely amongst other people of colour about the concerns they might have about working with white people; fundamentally, that space was not for us, it was our job to level up and to meet their needs and expectations. 

And then in the second R&D where we had a really similar process, it was because the team was expanding, and there was sensitive subject matter, and we wanted everyone to feel that they could talk openly. But what we learned, through us not being present in that, was it created a weird divide. And it wasn’t quite right. So we’ll revisit that in future. 

But both those processes were really, really useful. I’m talking about a 10 to 20 page report in both instances, really thorough, and it really helped us think about how we communicate about the project before people get in the room, to alleviate the anxiety, the different needs people have in the room, and how do we structure the day to support individuals’ needs. Also it highlighted to us where there could be a clash of personalities, or politics, or values, because that conversation happened before, which meant that for a relatively small scale R&D, when time is of the essence, you didn’t finish day one with that learning going ‘shit, how do we get to where we want to be by the end of Friday?’ Instead, we started the R&D with all of that knowledge, which was really useful because it meant that that didn’t come in the way of the making of the art. Instead we could hold people’s needs, and work around what people had to offer, without impacting the thing. 

But all of that’s really, really procedural. In terms of check ins, we have done check ins and we will continue to do check ins but we try and be really specific on the framing, of what the purpose of the check in is. We try to ask questions. We try to ask facilitators of check ins to clearly frame what the purpose of a check in is. So to say, this isn’t a diary entry. It’s not necessarily said in that way, but this isn’t a diary entry, this is an opportunity for you to share something you’re excited about the day or anything that might be frustrating that you wish to leave at the door. That they wish to share with the group, to acknowledge you might have a concern about this, which is why you might be a little bit absent minded at a particular time of the day or whatever. 

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

So a lot of what we do – and, you know, what I’m sharing is so procedural, it’s so formal, it’s before we even get in the room – but it’s really about us trying to safeguard ourselves, all of the artists involved, and trying to democratise people’s needs in a certain way. So we’re not just, as producers, working with the lead creators and thinking about their needs first and foremost; we try and set up how we do what we do in a way that, yes, those people are leading the room but what about that technician who comes into the space for the last three days, who’s then going to be dropping into a room that’s perhaps discussing really sensitive subject matter? 

So all of our processes are about trying to do this so we’re considering everyone’s needs equally, and not necessarily being led by the lead artist who’s like, ‘this is the story I want to tell.’ Instead, we go, ‘this is the story you want to tell, we’re going to help you try and tell it, but in order for us to do that, to the best of our ability, here’s all this research we need to do, so we can feed that back and go, here are the parameters we can do what you want to do in, and how does that sound?

And then that’s a negotiation process. Because through information shared with us by artists working in collaboration with other producers and other companies and other artists, there’s a lot of bad practice. And I’m sure we’ve done things that have been unhelpful. So now we’re so keen to really be formal in our processes. 

Is it a process of trial and error, to an extent, trying things, seeing if they work, and then adjusting from project to project?

Yeah, and I think that’s what we’ve been doing for years. And I think we’re now at this point of being like ‘this is how we do what we do’, whether it’s mental health related or not. You know, because there’s always something. That’s the joy of what we do, the joy of working in an industry that welcomes everybody to communicate their needs openly. But then you kind of have to be ready to respond to that with the best you’ve got, you know. 

What we hear is a lot of people work in collaboration with others who are like, ‘we’re here to support your needs, let us know your access needs, something’s going on in your life that might restrict your ability to be your full self in the rehearsal room, let us know.  And what we hear about, albeit on the grapevine, or kind of indirectly, through somebody who’s had an experience elsewhere, information can be disclosed and then there’ll be no follow up. Or someone’s had a coffee in the foyer of a theatre building and that’s all they’ve ever experienced in terms of support, so they don’t know how to pick up that conversation again and they also don’t know if they do what that ask actually would be. 

Because what we acknowledge is that, because of the changing nature of mental health, if it’s not necessarily a long term or chronic condition that somebody’s had, if it’s short term or in response to particular circumstances, someone’s not going to know what their needs are and they’re not going to know what they need to be could even asked for. They just know they’re struggling. And so we’re trying everything we do to make it as easy as possible for somebody to know what they can ask for support with or what our likely approach will be to subject matter that we’re not expecting to be brought up being brought up in conversation, like, do they know that they’re going to be safe? Do they know that we’re going to be discreet? How are we signposting through everything that we do that we truly care about their needs?

The idea that’s been sort of threaded through this whole conversation is that wellbeing is at the heart of everything you do, right? Was there a moment in your history as a producer, an experience that pointed you towards that way of thinking?

I think it might have been a thread I’ve always been aware of, in my practice, perhaps because of the nature of some of those initial creative collaborations, those initial relationships that I was a part of, when I started to produce, very early on. As I was working with independent artists, I became aware of the fact that either the work I was interested in making, or the individuals I was working with, were dealing with issues relating to mental health. And as someone who is calling themselves a producer, you know, suddenly you’re the person who’s accountable. 

You know, even when you’re early career, just out of drama school, you know, someone is looking to you – whether or not they even know what a producer can or can’t do – they’re looking to you, kind of through the lens of boss or employer or fundraiser. And so, being aware of that, from word go, and thinking through the consequences that that had on me as an individual navigating new professional relationships, or thinking about my capacity, you know, I’ve always been aware of it – whether that’s me thinking entirely pragmatically and professionally, ‘how can I support this person or what questions might I be asked that I might need to find an answer for?’ or whether it’s the personal part, which is, ‘this person is looking at me with a lot of distress on their face – how do I wish to respond?’ 

I’m going to say something which I’m not sure I will mean, because it might be clumsy, but I’m just going to try and say out loud, and then I’ll judge myself. But I think that artists can be so desperate for support. They’re not necessarily thinking about what the capacity is for the person in front of them to provide it. And I think it’s a human thing. We’re desperate for connection. I also think it’s that thing about working with someone who is a ‘problem solver’. So if you’ve got a friendship or a professional relationship with someone that you feel comfortable disclosing stuff to, and then you disclose it, and then the nature of your relationship is, you know, I’m the thinker, they’re the solver, it can lead to a dynamic whereby there can be certain expectations on you as an individual. 

So I wouldn’t say that I’ve had a project that made me go, I need to think about this differently. Instead, I’ve had the experience of absorbing, and in each thing, there being a new thing that’s expected of me, or a new challenge, and dealing with that has personal consequences, either on my mental health or on the mental health of somebody else. So it’s been a through line across everything that I’ve worked on.

What was the first mental health themed project you worked on? Was it Shrimp Dance?

I’ve worked on things related to mental health at university but I would say Shrimp Dance would be the first thing. 

And what did you learn from that? 

I learned that through seeing how touched people were by seeing conversations around depression, and mental health explored through art, and through such a visual medium as dance, that just showed me 100%, that everything that I knew to be true about work I could make having an impact emotionally and intellectually, that that was true. 

How do you look back on Drone, another project you produced hat very much dealt with mental health? 

I would say really positively. And I think that’s because on that project I had a lot more experience as a producer fundamentally, but I was able to really understand or observe what the needs were of individual artists on that project. I was much less hands on than I am now as a producer with the art. But because of that I could just talk to people, and it not at all be personal. It was deeply personal but it was never a judgement on the work they were making. Instead it was ‘are you alright, do you just need five minutes for a coffee then we can get started?’ Is everyone alright?’ Yeah, soft things like that, which were really pleasurable. And then by the time we got to present the show at the festival because we’d done the Spring Tour.

The Edinburgh festival?

Yeah, so we did the Edinburgh festival, we did the national Spring Tour, we did Edinburgh, and then it was going to go to Hong Kong in New Zealand, it was going to open a literary festival in Hong Kong, but we ended up having to reroute it, because of the riots taking place at that time. So we never went. But by the time we got to the (Edinburgh) Fringe, we were in a really great place. And I have very fond memories of presenting that work. Because at that point I knew the artists really well. And I knew the nature of the festival really well. And so I could speak frankly to each of them about ‘I think this is what you’re asking me but  I’m telling you that this is what I think you’re needing’. And there was that symbiosis really trusting. There are moments where Harry Jo was like ‘ what about these press? Can we get so and so, when can we do X, Y, and Z?’ And I was like, I think that’s really important, trust me when I say I’ve got emails in my inbox about that, and I will happily talk to you about this half an hour after the show when you’ve had a cup of tea. But right now you’re in the dressing room doing your makeup. I don’t think now’s the time for us to have this conversation. I know you need to start doing your vocal warm up soon. And I think it’s really important that we value that time for you to get ready. And they’d be like, yeah, cool.

So it sounds as if you are able to do what you do now, which is quite a sophisticated operation of understanding how to hold space for lots of different people and manage all these different relationships, because you’ve spent a long time working individually and collectively with people who can be quite vulnerable and have different needs, and you’ve got to know what those different needs are. What advice would you give to somebody who wants to be a producer, about managing those sorts of situations? 

I think fundamentally be open about what you can and can’t do. And sometimes you’ll know that instinctively. Sometimes you’ll know that through experience. And sometimes you’ll find that out through doing. And each opportunity you find yourself against a crossroads, provide yourself with the grace to step away. Be clear about what you’re able to offer and then come back. 

And so if someone approaches you with a project they want to make, be clear about what your capacity is, what are the skills you can offer. What part of yourself can you offer? What can you not offer? And you might be aware of practices in the sector. And if you’re like, oh, I don’t have enough money in the bank, or I don’t know the contact of that well being coordinator or whatever, then say, ‘that’s not something I personally I have experience in providing, we could look at doing that together, but I don’t have experience in that.’ 

So being really clear about what you can and can’t do. And as part of that, finding ways of formalising language. I think there’s a real joy in stepping into it, because fundamentally it’s about safeguarding, it’s about supporting people. And in an industry with so much socialising, and work takes place in informal contexts, it can be really hard to navigate boundaries. And it’s a very simple way of creating boundaries from word go by utilising a formal language. So something I do is I communicate really up front with artists and say, let’s just have a chat, let’s talk about the work. And then I go well, moving forward, this is how we’re now going to start talking. Like, I won’t accept texts, I’m really interested in your work but this is the way in which we can talk about things, is that alright with you? I tried to create boundaries and parameters.

Can you give me an example of the kind of formal language you’re talking about?

It’s not too dissimilar from the way in which we’re talking to each other now. We can be colloquial with one another, for sure, we can use slang, but in offerings of what we can and can’t do, I will be formal. So what I mean by that is, I will summarise. I will say thank you very much for disclosing this information. I really appreciate it, I’d like to confirm that the things that I’ve heard from you are that you’re feeling like time is really tight right now. Can you let me know that this is what you intended to communicate? You know, I don’t kind of slip in ‘thanks so much, that must be so hard, let me give you a big cuddle.’ Let’s have and then that’s it. Yeah, I try and treat it. It’s a balance, isn’t it, between being personable then also being held accountable.

So it’s about clarity and also setting boundaries.

Yeah, setting boundaries, clarity. Communicating with kindness, I think, helps. So even when you’re establishing a boundary, you can do that from a place of kindness. That’s something that I would say to producers. I think producers can feel guilty for not giving everything they have over to somebody, especially when it’s a piece of art that is so worthy. And I think what I didn’t say I’d say is, you’re not going to be in the best position to support that person if you yourself aren’t looked after. So, so it’s all of those sorts of things, which are generalisations, but it’s very similar to what the approach would be if someone was to disclose to you a safeguarding concern. The way in which you would conduct that conversation, I think, is a very similar way to one in which you should approach having conversations about mental health in the workplace. 

You know, it’s open, it’s transparent, it’s relatively formal, so people can be clear about what it is they actually are disclosing to you. Because you are not a diary. And I think that’s really important, to establish some of those boundaries, especially when you’re working in an industry where, at the end of the day, someone has to sign the dotted line. And if it’s producers, or specifically independent producers, sometimes we’re signing the dotted line, sometimes that’s someone else. And there has to be a mechanism whereby if the lead artist is vulnerable, for whatever reason, but at the end of the day, they need to pay someone else’s invoice, of you being able to switch that language, so that the work still gets done while  looking after that person. And for me, that’s where it’s so important to be really clear about how we’re doing what we’re doing. I try wherever possible to remove the kind of social aspect. We can catch up through an appreciation for each other. But that’s a work related conversation. It’s not a friendship. 

I’d like to finish with a few quickfire questions. What are your thoughts on the use of wellbeing co-ordinators?

Really cool. We’ve never worked with one. 

That’s interesting. I assumed that you might have done given the work that you do, but also it seems increasingly common.

Yeah, totally. It’s just something we’ve never fundraised for. And I also think that with the projects where there have been specific concerns relating to wellbeing, and with one of the projects that we’ll hopefully have out this year, funding dependent, I think it’s so important that people in the room are folks we know. And I think with a wellbeing coordinator, the purpose of having one is that folks have someone to turn to that isn’t me or Nicola. But actually it then has to be someone with whom we’ve spent the time setting up that relationship. That person is only going to be as good at their job as we invest in time for them. So if we’ve only got 200 quid for someone to have a couple of sessions we’ve not done it.

Indeed. It can’t just be a tickbox exercise. On a similar note, one of the discussions I’ve had with a few people is, is there a mental health version of an access rider, because access riders tend to be about disability or neurodivergence, not necessarily about mental health in a broader sense. What are your thoughts on that?

I like to think ours is quite comprehensive, but we’re always adding to it. So ours is like, is there anything you’d like to disclose in relation to addiction to drugs or alcohol or other substances? And in each section it says there’s no need to disclose information should you not wish to, but if you would wish to please communicate it, and any things that you might like to be implemented that could support you. So we’ve got things there to do with Perimenopause and Postmenopause, and things like that. So our access rider is pretty broad ranging.

So as a company you have a ready made access rider that artists and collaborators can fill in. 

So this is what we do. It doesn’t matter whether or not you say ‘I might have extra needs’. With every contract we send out, we send out our form and say, please fill this out. And we do that for every project, even if we’ve already worked with somebody. 

Can you explain the thinking behind that? Because I’m not aware of a lot of other companies that use access riders in that way, rather than artists having to write them themselves.

I think some people do. But I don’t know if they do it in the same way we do it, or perhaps as thoroughly. I don’t mean that to sound sassy, but what we hear is ‘oh it’s really unique, thanks for doing this.’ So some people have an access form that they have, they say ‘these are my access needs, I want to send this to you upfront, here you go.’ We now have a form where we have a range of different questions. What’s your preferred means of communication? What are your preferred pronouns? Do you have any – not in this order – any addictions, any mental health conditions you wish to disclose? Do you have any care responsibilities that are useful for us to know? Do you require a particular changing place and bathrooms? If you are touring with the work are you going to require support getting to and from public transport to your accommodation, etc? Would you benefit from having someone talk through verbally what all of the travel and accommodation plans are ahead of the going out on tour? Things like that. So it’s a really wide spreading document, so that folks can just go ‘not applicable,’ ‘not applicable’, ‘not applicable’, blah, blah, blah. Or we can get quite solid responses. 

And the thinking behind that is that a lot of folks don’t know what they can ask for. Or a lot of folks think that their needs are explicit with the condition they see that they have. And so we find that this is really useful to have, levelling the ground, and also at the top of our access rider we say, we are likely unable to provide all of the support you need relating to any of the information you disclose, however, we will always endeavour to meet your needs to the best of our ability, we use this form as a place to start a conversation. So that from the beginning of your contract, we are trying to support your needs as much as possible.

And how did you come up with that as a way of doing things? Had you seen anyone else doing something like that?

We always knew that access riders were a thing. And we’re so aware that when you implement access, like support with access and inclusion in mind, everybody benefits. And we were also very keen to try and eliminate the risk of finding out information after some preparatory work had already taken place, you know, and then there’ll be additional hidden costs, for example. So again, we ask for this to be signed with the contract. So we send out our safeguarding policy, our contract, our safeguarding declaration form and the access requirement, and we should get three signed and completed documents back. And it means that from word go on contract, we can kind of go, this is what that person’s needs are moving forward.

You’ve perhaps answered this question already, but do you think that work that explicitly addresses mental health should be presented in a different way to other work? In terms of how its presented by venues and how it’s presented to audiences?

I don’t think so. But I am a big fan of trigger warnings, I suppose there is something for me, which is like, how do we approach that? Because I’ve got to be honest. At points I’m fine with particular subject matter on stage. At other points I’m less resilient than I usually am, I don’t want to watch that show. And I have found myself opting out of seeing something that might otherwise be right up my street because of a paragraph of trigger warnings, you know. And so I don’t think in the broadest way that we should be presenting work that deals with mental health in a different way than other work. Instead, I think we should be considering how we present work to all audiences, how we factor in the needs of audiences across all that we do. I do think there is a little bit of work to be done about how we do that. I think there can be a little bit of like, ‘somebody else is doing it, therefore, I will do it that way.’ You know? And I don’t always think that’s right, actually, it doesn’t always serve the needs of the audience member.

Do you think there are things venues could be doing which they’re not doing in this regard?

For audiences or artists?

Both.

For artists, I think we should… Oh, god, this is such a big conversation. This is more about sector upheaval. I’m going to be very flippant with my language, broad brushstrokes. I think artists can sometimes interpret communications from venues in a very different way than producers might. Artists can sometimes read the email, and go, this venue wants to partner with me on this project. And a producer might read that email and go, they think it’s an interesting title. They said we’ll talk about it at their next programming meeting, we will need to harass them for the next five months. And the knock on effect of those unclear communications for artists can be substantial. And I think that following on from that, venues can not talk to you for ages, and then will have a real sense of urgency. Producers broadly will be like, that’s a pain in the arse, we’ll get it done when we can, or I can get it done. This is really annoying. I don’t get to watch EastEnders this evening, because I’m sitting during this. 

For artists – again broad brushstrokes – (it can be) a real moment of panic, anxiety, frustration, suddenly wanting to make the best work they’ve ever made. And it could be they’ve been asked to submit copy for something, you know, and suddenly they’re up all night, wanting to do something because they’re like, oh, this is going to have an impact on my relationship with this venue who’s already signed the contract and wants my work. I think that has a really big knock on effect with artists. There’s an artist who I spoke with recently who cancelled a couple of days of their holiday, that they’d booked to take time off work, because they were anticipating receiving emails that were alluding to time sensitive activities that were by no means time sensitive. 

So I think venues can be clearer with artists as to what they’re actually asking for, and the timelines they’re requesting that information on. We’re always get something that’s last minute, but I think artists also need to know that you can set an ‘out of office’ and if somebody receives an out of office, they’ve not given you notice.

In terms of venues and audiences…. Actually I can show you this (Stephanie shows me a postcard). I went to see a thing at the Royal Court recently (Talking About the Fire by Chris Thorpe and Claire O’Reilly). We all got this thing at the end of it, which was like ‘you’ve just seen the show. If you want to sign up to the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, this is where you go. If you want to lobby the government, this is where you go. If you need support, this is where you go,’ but it’s five different actions to respond. And I thought that was amazing. And I’ve kept it on my desk since. Basically it’s like over a cup of tea let’s talk about nuclear weapons, that’s the imagery. And so it’s a really beautiful postcard. But the fact that the support mechanisms are so varied, some  are action based, some are internal, some are external, I love that. And it wasn’t the Royal Court that did that, it was China Plate the producer. But I thought it was really cool. So in terms of doing more for audiences, I think there’s something about going, if you feel troubled by this, here’s support. And actually I think if we’re talking about theatre agitating society, we’re assuming that our audiences come and see this thing that’s really triggering and then feel quite passive about it. And instead, if it’s empowering: ‘We’ve just spoken about miscarriage, that’s awful, but here are these charities you could support, here are these charities making beautiful work. That’s really resonant, you could follow them on Instagram,’ instead of ‘here’s the link for Samaritans.’ Instead being much more like ‘this is important, this is how you embed it into your life.’

Yeah, that feels more proactive, doesn’t it? I sometimes think that when people put phone numbers for the Samaritans or Breathing Space with publicity material, it’s because they’re afraid that they will have triggered their audience but don’t quite know what to do about that. But it feels like what you were showing me there is almost part of the art, it’s not an afterthought

It’s a movement. But I feel like that’s art leading. In terms of what venues can do, that still feels like a question. But I just literally looked over to my desk and saw it sticking out of my stuff, and I thought yeah, that’s a banger.