Hacking the Gauntlet

Selina Thompson on leadership, mental health
and art-making in a time of permanent crisis

I want to start by defining a few of the terms above – leadership, mental health, a time of permanent crisis. 

I would describe good mental health as being OK, most of the time: regulated nervous systems, a body not riddled with inflammation that is able to sleep and rest, being able to connect with others if so desired, having space to appreciate and enjoy our one and only lives. This is a deceptively simple definition, but every single word in that sentence is contestable. I’m putting it there, I guess, as an entry point into what I think one needs to have good mental health, which is:

  • Your basic material needs and comforts met without an excess of hardship, humiliation or suffering
  • Agency, Freedom, Self-Determination
  • Community, Love, Companionship 
  • A sense of yourself as a part of the glorious biosphere that includes all fauna, all flora, the vastness of the cosmos, and other things beyond our conception 
  • A meaningful and fulfilling way to pass the day to day. 

The world of work is one of the things that can provide the first and last of these requirements. The only thing any ‘sector’ can truly, tangibly offer to its workers to enable that is an approach to work that pushes back against doctrines of capitalism and neoliberalism, that is actively engaged in organised political agitation, and experiments in building and living otherwise that seed those changes. Even these offers are made messy by their entanglement in the exchange of labour for money, but they’re a start. 

When all of this is kept in mind, I believe that the only ethical approach to leadership is to see it as a service job, rooted in care. I would define this care in the following terms: 

When I say I want to work from a place of care, I am saying that I do not want to work in a way that extracts from your body until you are ill, extracts from your mind until you are burnt out, and extracts from your soul until you are alienated and despair. I want to try to work with you as a human, I want you to work with me in that way too, and I want you to stay here, in the arts, if that’s where you want to be. I do not want working for me to be a gauntlet.

You are tasked with responsibility and trust, and at the very least you must seek to pay people, and treat them well, and to go further even than this, and try to create meaningful work to do with them. You are also entrusted with a mandate, a task that your organisation is committed to. As the leader of a publicly funded arts institution, the mandate I have is one that is supposed to contribute to society as a whole, to make the world a better place. This feels like a particularly tall order in a time of near constant crisis. 

I think you could argue that since it took root, capitalism has been a state of crisis for most humans – whether your land was being stolen and your people were being wiped out, or you were being displaced from your land to harvest the cotton being grown on that land, or working as an impoverished child in the factory that was processing that cotton. So I don’t refer to the current time as a change, as such, more of an acceleration as numerous of capitalism’s bills come due: pandemics, climate catastrophe, constant war, a continuous stream of genocides, the growth of fascism across the west led by politicians who are exuberant in their corruption, and the rapidly growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the resulting polarisation of societies across the world because of it. 

How does one maintain ‘good mental health’ in the shadow of this? How does one meaningfully live with ‘a sense of themselves as a part of the glorious creation that includes all fauna, all flora, the vastness of the cosmos, and other things beyond our conception’ when our species seems determined to inflict maximum damage on most of it? 

These are the three poles I pinball between. 1. the material: basic things I want for all those connected to my work. 2. the political: my responsibility as someone tasked with choosing a direction and getting us there, and 3. the existential: the context that we are all moving through, one in which it is hard to hold on to why all this matters with clarity. 

There are specific and significant mental health challenges that leaders have to carry. You are, of course, dealing with a huge amount of pressure; many leadership roles are full of busy work that takes you away from the work that you seek to do. There is always this sort of constant background scream of how important and urgent everything is, and if you are not careful, you forget that it is not the work, rather a series of gates and barriers and borders between you and the work. When an artist becomes ‘a leader’ they are alienated from their work and themselves: your practice becomes a product that you are responsible for selling, and that is an ugly mindset to be in. There is a lot of things that many of the most radical artists push against that sneak in alongside the label leader. 

This is not to say that leadership is inherently bad: on the contrary, leadership in the arts comes with a huge amount of benefits, not least that you have more autonomy than anybody else in your organisation to make positive change. You can build care structures around you, often far better than the ones that could be provided for you by the state or another employer. You can set the pace of the work, the tone of each meeting, and the priorities of your organisation. You are paid the most, which increases your access to care, and you are listened to the most by the sector as a whole, which gives you a platform, and the affirmation of being listened to. You are valued, in a sector that offers very little regard to most of its workers. Your autonomy and agency remind you of your inherent worth, and this in itself stabilises, heals and motivates. A little pressure is more than worth the exchange. 

So I find myself thinking about what the responsibilities are that leaders have to the rest of their sector, what we must start moving towards with urgency and focus. 

Four day work weeks. Longer tech rehearsals. More money for less work. For venues to focus on the artists in their own localities first and foremost, so that folks do not have to travel away from their support networks to live and work in the sector. Money to support the childcare costs of our workers, to support the therapeutic and healthcare costs of my workers, to support the need for respite that those who work with me that have caring responsibilities have. I want the people I work with to have access to green space when they need it, workloads that do not inhibit their time off. I need them to have wages that mean that they don’t worry about money, that they have the things they need and want for their own mental health wellbeing, that travelling to work, and living in comfort as they work are simple. I want them to be able to afford to see as much art as possible, and to be working within a sector that is placed in a location of importance in public life, that genuinely feels bound up in every other struggle and fight and need our society has. I need more people to work with, to spread labour around, so we can lessen our workloads, and live a life. And as we do all of this, we must also see that much of what is above should be provided by the state, not an employer, so we must be part of actively demanding it from our elected officials, and being willing to go above and beyond if that does not work. 

None of this can happen in isolation. It is sector change, national, maybe international change, it requires us as an industry to change direction together like a great shoal of fish. We need completely new models, and we needed them yesterday: and a huge part of building that will be changing what we understand a leader to be, and what we understand leadership to be. It will be reshaping our sector so that it is no longer a gauntlet of making in a space of high pressure which literally makes us sick, and is designed for most folks to drop off around the age of 30, especially those of us that can get pregnant and give birth. 

I believe that once we have that, we will have the space and capacity to go even further, and to do what the arts are supposed to do: reimagine the world, instigating the changes that will enable us to deal with the existential crises of the day. As things stand, we can barely look after ourselves and each other, so how can we expect to make the art that the world so desperately needs? How could we possibly have the space to reflect and refract, transforming the chaos we see around us? 

This isn’t what I thought I would write, when I sat down with this provocation. I think I expected something more personal and rooted in autobiography for myself. But to be honest, I’m as OK as I can be as an individual. What I need now is for my community to be OK, for the sector as a whole to recalibrate, heal and start doing things differently. 

And that is going to take all of us. 

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, and has been open about the challenges of balancing creative work with mental health.

This written provocation was commissioned as part of our Performing Anxiety project, supported by the Baring Foundation.