When we make art, often our aim is to reflect the world around us, or reveal some truth about what it means to be human.
WORDS BY MADELEINE DORE | First published in Spotlight: The Arts Wellbeing Collective Magazine, Edition 1
When we make art, often our aim is to reflect the world around us, or reveal some truth about what it means to be human. This may mean delving into difficult subject matter – grief, violence, injustice, relationship breakdowns and other challenging content.
This can be a difficult or straining process, not only for creators of work, but all the performers, production crew, contractors, and front of house team involved in a production, explains psychologist Dr Alison Robb.
‘When you’re faced with it day after day, show after show, it can have an impact on your wellbeing,’ says Dr Robb.
Such work can occasionally provoke a kind of vicarious trauma, a term used to describe the effects of repeated exposure to traumatic content whereby you empathically and emotionally connect with the material.
‘You may be vulnerable in a similar way to a therapist hearing trauma stories over and over, or a paramedic turning up to the scene of an accident day after day,’ adds Dr Robb.
To protect team members from the adverse effects of working with such difficult material, the Arts Wellbeing Collective supported Melbourne Theatre Company on the production of Gloria, a play by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Lee Lewis.
The production is set in the office of a New York City periodical. The day’s discussion between colleagues centres around a party that Gloria – the ‘office loser’ – threw the night before that no one went to except Dean. Bitter and angry, Gloria’s actions propel the plot into a confronting scene depicting graphic violence, which is then referred to throughout the production.
Given the challenges of the production, Executive Director and Co-CEO of the Melbourne Theatre Company, Virginia Lovett, said it was crucial to ensure all team members had access to the right support. ‘We needed to make sure that our staff were supported first and foremost, so that in turn they could act sensitively and confidently with our audiences.’
Melbourne Theatre Company undertook several initiatives across all stages of the production. In addition to taking their code of conduct, workplace policies, and Employee Assistance Program seriously for all employees, the company also have an Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) framework with a dedicated EHS Coordinator on staff.
All front line team members were included in a special briefing with the director and production team to not only illustrate the visuals and logistics of the most graphic scenes, but to share why those scenes are included. This briefing also included a video of the company run so that the team could watch the sequence in a safe space rather than seeing it for the first time when working as an usher. It was also essential the team had a holistic understanding of how various elements of the scenes worked and could ask any questions.
‘This exercise was also beneficial to cast and crew, as it reassured them that the content they were communicating would be received with maximum impact, and maximum consideration for those experiencing it,’ said Lovett.
During the rehearsal process, the cast worked with a firearms expert to help understand ways to deliver the scene in both a physically and mentally safe way. An onsite psychologist was briefed about the challenges that the team might face. She also watched the company run, so that anyone who sought support didn’t have to explain the content of the show.
In addition, the Melbourne Theatre Company’s stage and production managers had recently completed Mental Health First Aid training through the Arts Wellbeing Collective, with more team members set to complete the course.
Tips and tricks that arts organisations can learn from Melbourne Theatre Company’s experience
The approach taken by Melbourne Theatre Company contains lessons for all arts organisations to support not only their team members dealing with difficult subject matter, but also to prepare audiences.
Even having read the script, Virginia Lovett says she felt anxious about how the production would be received by the public. ‘Lee Lewis, the cast and our production team had made it so realistic, it was indeed shocking for the wider audience,’ she said.
In addition to including a content warning about coarse language, sexual references and a scene depicting graphic violence, a content guide for audience members was made available upon request. ‘Various details of mental health support services were also available at the theatre for those who felt they might need support following the performance. At the heart of it, looking after audiences starts with looking after the team,’ says Lovett.
Initiatives such as the Arts Wellbeing Collective have been integral in this regard – raising awareness and encouraging organisations to learn from one another.
‘It is wonderful to have a collective that unites arts organisations in their shared experience of working in the arts. It allows space for arts workers to learn from each other about issues that may be affecting them, and any wellbeing solutions that may be beneficial. It’s also encouraging for us as a Company that benchmarks are put in place across our industry, which keep us moving forward together,’ she said.
Lovett would encourage all organisations, companies and individuals dealing with traumatic subject matter to plan both holistically, and in great detail. ‘Starting on the front foot with difficult content is invaluable, as it sets all involved on the right path to making sure every eventuation is accounted for,’ she said. Such precautions and planning can enable better productions, she adds.
‘I would also say that never let difficult content deter you from executing it; Gloria was extremely well received, and for all our preparation, audiences demonstrated that they were hardy, curious and resilient. We banded together as a Company to take a creative risk, and collectively we reaped the rewards of this difficult challenge.’
Signs and symptoms of possible vicarious trauma – spot it early
While there is little research regarding vicarious trauma in the performing arts context, working with confronting or difficult work may create risk. This is particularly poignant for performers, as they may undertake extensive processes to develop character.
‘This inner world is effectively a skillfully constructed trauma memory and with enough repetition, may become as solid as your own life memories, especially if you have used material from your own life to create it,’ says Dr Alison Robb.
Whether you’re a performing artist, follow spot operator or front of house team member watching the performance night after night, there are several warning signs to watch out for.
Spotting signs early means you can quickly seek professional help and put strategies in place to best deal with difficult subject matter.
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Intrusions: Unwelcome recurring thoughts, flashbacks, body sensations or dreams and nightmares related to the show.
- Avoidance: Avoiding things that remind you of the traumatic content, cutting off your emotions, using substances to cope.
- Hyper-vigilance: Feeling under threat, on-edge, over-reacting to loud or unexpected sounds, or scanning your environment for danger.
- Changes in your beliefs: Changes from your previous beliefs where you may start to perceive the world to be more dangerous and/or yourself to be more powerless or helpless.
No matter what art form you’re working in, or what production you’re working on, or what role you play, you don’t need to suffer in silence.
If you experience a negative impact or change in your daily life, behaviour, feelings, mood, or experience intrusive thoughts, it is important to recognise you’re not alone.
If there is someone in the company that you feel comfortable speaking with, reach out. If not, talk to a loved one or support service.
No matter what, Dr Robb’s advice is to get connected with a health professional and see a GP if you don’t already have a psychologist. ‘There are robust ways of dealing with the symptoms of trauma – don’t struggle alone,’ concludes Dr Robb.