#WhatNow

In the wake of #metoo and #timesup I’ve been thinking a lot about how to realistically deal with harassment and abuse, particularly in the Arts. It’s challenging enough in ‘normal’ workplaces, but in ours there are so many complications. Situations arise in which artists very willingly participate in activities that would be utterly unacceptable in just about any other circumstance but are perfectly legitimate creative tools. Think of a director encouraging swearing and shouting at an actor to help them access the defensive rage for a scene, but with both parties coming out smiling and happy with the result. That kind of situation is just not relevant in the vast majority of workplaces and makes prescriptive safeguarding a huge problem in theatres and on sets.

Let me clarify what I meant by prescriptive safeguarding. I am talking about organisations prohibiting or encouraging specific actions (including use of particular language) in a way that is usual quite clear and simple (think ‘you’re not allowed to punch your boss’). This kind of protective rule has made a huge difference and is, sadly, still very needed – there are far too many people who will do horrific things if they aren’t overtly told no (and sometimes even then). But they are problematic – they are aimed at the average of a population (leaving people on the outer edges of any group poorly represented) and tend to be oversimplified, meaning they do not address the myriad abusive actions too vast to be put onto a written list. You can end up with some quite odd situations.

You can’t invite an actor to your house to do a read-through but there’s nothing to stop you grabbing her boobs to make a point in rehearsal. 

If you are not from a theatre background you may assume that the above is ridiculous, that the boundaries in the Arts are far more comparable to anywhere else. Here’s a scenario to help you understand the fine line often trodden during a creative process:

A company is portraying the violent treatment of trafficked women. They are referencing Trump’s infamous ‘grab em by the pussy’ line and incorporating it into the piece, with the criminal characters assaulting the women whilst laughing. 
Without anything else this already dictates one actor touching the genital area of another actor, something totally unacceptable in an office or on a building site, but quite relevant and acceptable in this instance.
The company discuss the fact that they’re unclear what this would do to someone in reality and the director suggests an exercise: the actors are to walk around the room and randomly grab at each other in way that would normally be unacceptable,  mocking any sign of discomfort. By the end of this each actor has been groped and has groped. 

Whilst this is a deliberately graphic (and made up) scenario I’m sure many of the creatives reading this will be aware that it’s by no means an impossible picture. Intimacy is a tool in this kind of work, not a protected personal experience.

It’s fair to say that standard safeguarding will not work for much of the Arts.

It may seem like we’ve got ourselves into an impossibly complex situation, but to my mind we have an incredible opportunity to explore and clarify ways that Arts communities can identify, prevent and root out abuse. Our work relies on individuals being emotionally safe enough to work so we have a vested interest in doing everything possible to create a safe environment.

Take the above scenario – there is no reason to assume that the participants would consider the exercise abusive. A safe professional environment could quite feasibly make this possible without hurting anyone. How?

CONSENT
Being informed of what’s happening, why it’s happening and being able to refuse without threat of disproportionate consequences.

A good company will be made up of people who understand the need for reduced inhibitions as well as the limitations of that; they will have spent time getting to know each other; each person will have a voice, have been asked their opinion and will have been shown respect and consideration up to and during this stage of the process. By the time you get to the situation above an actor will be prepared, well versed and feel trust for the people around them so this exercise to explore a sensitive part of the production will be safe.
And, crucially, if it’s not they will be able to say no.

Of every industry we are one of the best positioned to show the world EXACTLY what abuse is in all its forms. If a director wants to make an audience see discomfort and suffering they can work with actors to generate the right tone of voice, position of hand, length of pause to do exactly that.

One of the huge problems in harassment and abuse cases is what we consider ‘fact’. Often we’re told that those involved were at a lively party together or that they were working together on a project, but we’re not told what was being presented by the person being subjected to abusive behaviour at the time: their tone of voice, bodily tension, eye contact, fidgeting, facial expression… the list goes on. These things are often dismissed as opinion but most people without training in human behaviour would pick up on them. As specialists in portraying and sharing emotion we really have no excuse for failing to identify them.

Yet we still find ourselves saying ‘He just looked uncomfortable’, a phrase that is easily dismissed as a misunderstanding. What if we were to say this instead?

He was repeatedly turning his face away from her. He was consistently avoiding eye contact and, although his mouth was smiling, the expression did not reach the rest of his face. Several times he turned his body outwards then stiffened his shoulders, arms and neck, when she touched him and turned him back towards her.

Would it still be dismissed as opinion?

What if, in presenting a case, we were asked to use other performers to clarify what we saw or experienced? If demonstration recordings were used, with specific intonations to show what was implied as much as what was said? It’s the 21st Century and most of us have smartphones with cameras and voice recorders. If a friend of mine needed a set of recordings of the sentence ‘I’m not very happy with that’ to help explain the way they’ve been treated it would take me all of 10 minutes to get it to them.

We are trained to do this. We could do it for a character. What’s stopping us doing it for each other? If we want to change our industry we have to change our own attitudes and behaviour.

Everyone deserves to feel safe at work. The Arts are always a tough career master, with saturated markets, lack of funding and a constant battle for the recognition of skills and ability. The last thing we should be doing is dealing with abuse and cruelty to boot. We need to use our skills and creativity to keep ourselves and each other safe, and it’s not complicated, it’s little more than just paying attention.

That, and being prepared to keep speaking up.

Advertisements

Time To Talk Day 2018

NOTE: Some people may find this triggering. Please take care of yourselves.

Right now I’m overwhelmed and exhausted.

My fatigue is playing up, not helped by the night sweats many of us taking certain medications (in my case an SSRI) get to enjoy. I’m trying to keep on top of a busy schedule despite needing much more sleep than the average 8 hours (including regularly having to stop and sleep for hours in the day) and having virtually no time when my body isn’t stiff, my eyes aching and my mind needing to simply shut down.

In recent weeks I have woken with violent images of self-harm in my head and a dread that I’m just not doing what I’m meant to be doing. I am hyper-aware of every failure because my brain is running in threat mode. Every little mistake is demanding to be examined and answered in a way the average person will (thankfully) never experience. My bank account is being sapped away as I comfort spend (luckily I have never been one to go into the bankrupting or unable to pay the rent area but it still causes significant problems) and I am desperately trying to stop my weight ballooning while I can’t really exercise and just want to eat things that will help it go away. Well, I want to eat when I’m not feeling physically nauseous anyway.

In short, I’m struggling.

Why am I sharing this? Because 1st February is Time to Talk Day and I am committed to speaking up.

Around the world in 2013 depression was the second leading cause of disability behind back pain, yet services in the UK are beyond strained. Many people who desperately need help are on waiting lists or are being offered treatments that are just not fit for their needs. The professionals are working against a system that limits what they can do and means everyone is fire-fighting constantly.

Now, more than ever, it is essential that we learn to help each other.

I am very lucky:

  • I live with a friend who gets it, who doesn’t remotely care if I’m too tired to clean and tidy or if I’m overloaded and regularly talking rubbish.
  • In my office job I have a manager who has gone out of her way to understand and who has been exemplary in her treatment of me.
  • I have a sister who I check in with every day who listens and who I hear ‘I love you’ from every time we talk.
  • In my creative life people I work with are respectful and considerate and have learned not to hound me if I say I can’t.
  • My friends are not offended if I don’t come to events or cancel plans. They have to do it too and know we will catch up when we can.
  • I have received some excellent treatment over the years, treatment that is helping me now.

Let’s be clear how lucky these things make me.

In the UK suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50.

Suicide is preventable.

It can be prevented by a thousand simple acts of respect and kindness – asking a colleague how they are, seeing if your neighbour would like a coffee and a chat, saying good morning to a stranger in the street. Those of you who have never dealt with serious mental health issues may not realise the difference these things can make. Keeping someone safe is about letting them know they are wanted, needed and have a place to turn. When everybody offers what they can no-one gets drowned in someone else’s problems but people who are ill are still supported.

So here’s my request: on the 1st February 2018 try talking to someone about mental health and well-being. It doesn’t have to be formal, just a chat by the kettle about being worried your partner is burning out or not being sure your child is coping with their exams. These are the kinds of things we all deal with all the time, and it’s about time we acknowledged that and started helping each other out. Try it, and if it’s OK maybe try something similar again the next day, then the next. Talking can prevent problems escalating in to illness or disability and can save lives where that’s already happened.

It’s time to talk and today’s the day.

Working for the NHS – a very current reminder

Earlier today I was feeling grumpy and a little sorry for myself and I posted the following on an app called Whisper.

For those of you not familiar with this app you basically communicate through these meme type photos, but there is a chat facility if you want to private message. Generally I avoid private messages because, as you might expect, they usually end with some kind of sexual advance. However, this post had some rather lovely, supportive responses so I  gave them a bit of time.

I’d like to share one in particular (my messages are in the purple boxes).

    

I’m proud of myself for walking away and not asking what a proper university is (as opposed to the magical fairy ones the rest of us attend I suppose).

I’m not going to lie, I was a little taken aback by how quickly this escalated from a sympathetic chat about chronic fatigue. It brought me up slightly short, mostly because of how vehement this person’s feelings on the NHS are.

I don’t want to deconstruct the arguments – you’re quite capable of doing that yourselves. I’m posting this as a reminder of the battles we are facing if we want to protect our NHS and other public services. This man has health issues that would benefit hugely from a strengthened NHS yet this is still his attitude, and there are many people who feel the same way.

If we want to keep our public services these are the attitudes we have to change, these are the people we need to convince.

There’s a lot of work to do.

Theatre and long-term mental health issues

The relationship between mental health and creativity is a strong and well established one. Just do a quick Internet search and thousands of articles come up so it would be easy to assume that the Arts would be tolerant and supportive of those of us with long-term mental health issues. Unfortunately I, like many others, have found that to be sadly untrue. At best we are often required to hide our needs, or our creativity is reduced to being nothing more than a therapy that other people don’t need to engage with.

A performer is expected to seem in control, present, confident and open at all times. Signs of nerves or hesitation are often the difference between getting a job and not, yet there are many facets of mental health issues that could manifest in this way – social anxiety looking like nerves or depression looking like a lack of interest or care. As an experienced performer I know categorically that these things can be worked around, even used, to generate really great performances. I also know how often that opportunity is missed.

There are a number of elements that create this situation:

  • A saturated industry where the smallest negative can be used as an excuse not to use people.
  • A general resistance to discussing mental health that’s still very prevalent throughout society (improving but still very present).
  • An industry constantly in flux with people moving around all the time, making establishing assistance challenging.
  • Time pressures on people creating work including directors, producers, casting directors etc. meaning that making time allowances can be difficult.

And there’s a further complication: long-term mental health issues rarely come on their own. A lot of people will develop more than one issue (or comorbidity) and there is an increased risk of physical problems when mental health issues are prolonged. These aren’t necessarily the obvious, stress related ones such as IBS or high blood pressure – one of the factors considered in my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis was my history of depression. Often we get to the point where we have to stop thinking about the diagnosed condition and deal day-to-day with the current collection of symptoms.

Put this together and you have quite a complex, fluctuating set of problems to deal with.

Recently I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about how this can be tackled so people with long-term mental health issues are more included both as audience and performer in theatres. For all the reasons above it’s a tough challenge, but if any industry is up for a tough challenge it’s this one! I’m starting to think that first and foremost we need to start understanding and respecting the need for emotional safety in order for someone with this kind of background to function.

For a performer a traditional audition can be brutal: we are expected to rapidly access emotions with people who are often strangers in close proximity who are judging you in a way that is unlike any other performance experience. This is fairly difficult for someone without this kind of issue but can be almost impossible for someone with it. If I use myself as an example – one of my symptoms is dissociation (emotionally disconnecting) when I feel overloaded, stressed or threatened. It’s automatic and there is little or nothing I can do to prevent it happening. In an audition context even a minor dissociation is going to stop me doing my best work but the structure is exactly the kind of thing that will trigger it. What do I do? Tell the audition panel? They are time pressured and need to find a person who they can quickly see will be able to do the job. Me asking to have a five-minute chat with them to help is hardly going to go down well.

And an audience experience can be just as problematic. A lot of individuals find large groups of people overwhelming or even frightening and their only option when that happens is to leave, meaning they are denied the experience all together. I have a dear friend with complex issues who loves to see things but has often reached the door and had to turn around and come away.

All this might sound pretty bleak but there are some good things going on. For performers the use of workshop auditions can be really useful, as they include chances to get to know the people around you before having to be vulnerable. They also have the emphasis on seeing what a person can do and exploring that rather than getting a person to stand and do it ‘right’. I suspect there are also a whole lot of possibilities for creatives employing performers to meet and get to know people outside an audition so a degree of trust can be built before the situation arises. For audiences, theatres are increasingly introducing relaxed performances where people can fidget or step out without there being a problem (incidentally, these can be brilliant for mothers with babies too).

It’s by no means hopeless but there is a lot of work to do if people like myself, managing long-term mental health issues, are fully embraced as a valuable part of the theatre and wider Arts community.

OK, let’s get back on this.

I’ve been quiet for a while. Very quiet. Largely because I, like so many others, have spent the last few months with my head in my hands trying desperately to keep nausea under control whenever I catch a glimpse of the news.

It’s been brutal.

And so far 2017 isn’t shaping up all that much better is it? The First terrorist attack happening in Turkey before most of us had even finished generating our hangovers, Trump about to become President for real, Brexit hanging over everything like the stench of rotting food and the NHS needing Red Cross assistance to function.

It’s quite difficult to write about, well, pretty much anything without concluding that we’re basically screwed.

So what do you do when you look out and see nothing but problems coming? Here are some suggestions:

  • Just stop reading the news. This option gets thrown my way fairly regularly. Definitely has it’s upsides but clashes with the notion that ignoring important things is just refusing to take responsibility for your part in them. You can’t change things you don’t know about.
  • Focus on the good things. Always a great idea. The problem at the moment is finding the good things…
  • Recognise the impermanence – this too shall pass. But possibly not in my lifetime…

Yeah, this isn’t really helping is it?

I honestly don’t have any answers or even suggestions on this one. As far as I can tell the human race is rapidly losing it’s collective marbles and I’m pretty convinced things are going to get worse before they get better. The decision now is whether to passively take what’s happening and hope for the best or to actively try to limit the damage.

I’m not a very passive person.

Sorry, the Gestapo Head is right.

logoweb

Back when I was at university or school if you’d asked me my feelings on uniforms I probably would have blown a raspberry at you, and as an adult I generally do my best to avoid them. With that in mind it may come as a surprise when I say that I completely agree with the strict stance taken by Matthew Tate, the ‘Gestapo Headmaster‘ of Hartsdown Academy in Margate.

A few  years back I did some work in a state all-girls school run by a very strict headmistress. All the girls were in skirts, no make-up, hair bobbles to match their uniform etc. I was absolutely dreading it… right until I walked in and began to realise what the strictness was doing for the students.

Here are some of the things that changed my mind:

  1. It made the students feel attended to. Of course pupils whinge about being made to wear certain clothes. Heck, most of us do! But if you notice what they’re wearing it means you’re paying attention to them and showing you care about what they’re doing. You want them to look good and be included. You consider them important and worth the effort of arguing with. So much of working with troubled children comes down to giving them positive attention and building their self-worth. I had never realised how useful a uniform could be in doing that.
  2. It provides a healthy form of rebellion. Children and teenagers are forging their own identities and they will inevitably rebel against authority. By focussing that rebellion on a uniform and other ‘disciplines’ you keep it away from rebellions that can be much more detrimental to the student and those around them – if you’re fighting about their hair bobbles your less likely to need to fight about them punching the kid next to them.
  3. It gives them a safe way of getting one up on the teachers. This leads on from the rebellion issue. Young people need to feel empowered just like anyone else. The school environment can be extremely disempowering for a lot of students, making them feel like just one name on a list. Being able to take back some control and say ‘no’ can be really important. Saying no to tucking a shirt in is better than saying no to putting a cigarette out or to attending at all.
  4. It can be used to really build confidence and possibilities. For example, girls shouldn’t wear make-up because they’re beautiful young women and we want to see their faces, not paint. Pupils need to wear blazers to get used to how suits feel for when they’re working as barristers or CEOs or for when they’re presenting their amazing invention to a room full of potential investors. Again, many students have very low self-esteem. Most of the ‘trouble makers’  I dealt with considered themselves stupid and would never have believed they could achieve anything. Using a uniform/dress-code as a tool like this can really help support them and open a dialogue to introduce possibilities they had ruled out.
  5. It gives boundaries. Children and young people are increasingly sexualised  and uniforms can be a really good way of countering that. No, it doesn’t prevent it or change what happens outside of school, but it can help create a safe space for the students to be kids without the pressure of getting a look right. That is taken out of their hands. For the students who are more mature this kind of restriction may be frustrating but does little lasting damage. However, for those who need such a safe space it can be invaluable. The other important boundary is between teacher and pupil. Yes, the teachers can wear make-up because they’re adults and because their roles are different, not more or less important, but different.

I could go on.

After a short time of seeing how well these kind of discipline rules could work I was a total convert. It takes effort to establish and maintain but it is so, so worth it.

And there is no need to hide what’s going on from the students. I would happily discuss the rules with the students and listen to their dislikes – they should absolutely have a voice in the way they have to spend their days. But I would always be able to give them positive reasons for the uniforms and as far as I can remember I never had a student disagree in the end.

So I support Mr. Tate. I wish him and his school the best of luck. It’s a hard slog but he’s setting those children up far better than many other teachers would even attempt to. Well done and keep up the good work!

The Labour Leadership Election: or What is democracy?

Last September I blogged about the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and how excited I was for the change it represented. Something I didn’t say was that, at the time, I wasn’t a member of the Labour Party. Whilst I have had a politically aware upbringing (just now my mother is Chief Whip for Lincolnshire County Council) I had always felt slightly uncomfortable with party politics. I never really saw myself represented and felt like I would be compromising if I had to support my party rather than the individuals I believed in. On Corbyn’s election I was very tempted to join Labour but wanted to wait and see if he would be got rid of. After Brexit however, I no longer felt that it was acceptable to participate in this way. I felt that it was necessary to join a national body to prevent the coming changes sliding into abusive, money grabbing policies so I joined the Labour Party.

And then the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) decided to implode.

Since Brexit the Labour Party has been in absolute disarray. I have looked at the news daily with an increasing sinking feeling in my stomach as I watch the party that I committed to undermine the changes I was so excited for. I have been dismissed as a Corbynista (whatever the hell that is) or an unwitting Trot and every attempt has been made to disenfranchise me. Why? Because they don’t like Corbyn and I do.

Now, let’s just think this through a minute. Corbyn won a huge victory to become leader (but remember, he’s unelectable) and from the word go there were people from the Labour Party complaining and saying he shouldn’t stay. How is that good politics? If watching American elections over the last few decades has taught us anything it should be this: a popular leader can be worked with, even when they’re pretty appalling, as long as those around them close ranks and work together. George W. Bush is a perfect example of this (I would say Trump but I have no idea how he’s got this far).

Why, why, why didn’t the PLP get behind Corbyn? Not a strong leader? That’s fine, we have a strong team. Not charismatic? No problem, his colleagues are.

Fast forward to the referendum: instead of using the collapse of the Conservative leadership to push a popular leader forward the PLP use the situation for a vote of no confidence, but one that came with NO VIABLE ALTERNATIVE CANDIDATE.

Again, think it through. If you’re going to out a massively popular leader surely the first thing you do is figure out who you’re going to put in their place. Surely?!?

But this was never about thinking it through or doing the right thing, it was simply about getting rid of Corbyn. There is no doubt in my mind that there have been uncalled for, systematic attacks on his leadership from all sides since the word go*. He represents a kind of politics the centre/right of the Labour Party have worked hard to kill. Hell, this is why I didn’t vote for them for a long time – they were more right wing than the Lib Dems! Corbyn is a genuine Socialist, a conviction politician quite unlike the ‘Statesmen’ we’ve been subjected to for decades and there is a whole swathe of the country that have been desperate for a representative like this. Yet we are being put through a Labour Leadership Election.

But let’s be clear, this election is not about a leader, it’s about what we believe democracy is.

  • Is democracy voting for representatives who then rule us, lead us or work for us?
  • Is the job of a representative to help us be heard or to tell us what we need because they know better?
  • Should a minority be able to overrule a majority simply because they don’t like the choice?
  • Should money be allowed to disenfranchise voters?
  • Should our representatives be allowed to change the rules depending on what suits them?
  • Should richer members have a louder voice because they can pay for expensive lawyers?

As far as I’m concerned Owen Smith, the people who put him there and those supporting him are completely missing the point. There are hundreds of thousands of us who are tired of the ‘Statesmen’ you want us to vote for, your shiny, well rehearsed career politicians with business ties and a book deal waiting. They have led us into horrific conflicts costing thousands of lives, they have paved the way for the austerity measures so many of us are now suffering under, they have ‘relationships’ with the unscrupulous media powers who shamelessly misinform the population and now they are disenfranchising their own members to get their own way.

Then they ask us to trust them.

At this stage I genuinely don’t care what Corbyn or Smith have to say. It’s no longer about them. This is a much bigger issue than who should or shouldn’t lose to the Conservatives in the next election (at this rate we’ll be lucky if there’s a party to stand in the next election). This is about us demanding a better standard of politics, one that the population can rely on. This is about us having faith that the people we vote into power are there for us not for themselves.

The Labour Leadership Election is not about a leader, it is about what we believe democracy is. I know what I think, now I have to wait to see if I’ll be allowed to vote.

 

* This article written by Bart Cammaerts, an Associate Professor and PhD Director at the London School of Economics and Political Science is just one piece that expresses similar concerns: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-media-bias-labour-mainstream-press-lse-study-misrepresentation-we-cant-ignore-bias-a7144381.html