Design thinking for performance thriving


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Of all the professions in the world, surely there are few so shrouded in mythology and glamour as the performing arts industry.

The idioms, ‘there’s no business like show business’ or ‘the show must go on’ are so widely known as to have become part of the vernacular of everyday life. For many, the idea of working in the performing arts conjures glamorous notions of fame and fortune and dreams come true.

And yet the statistics tell us that symptoms of mental health problems are significantly higher for people working in the entertainment industry compared to the national average. As well, recent allegations of bullying and sexual misconduct have shone a spotlight on the many things that can contribute to the mental health challenges we face in our industry.

Performance thriving

I was invited to be part of a workshop with the Arts Wellbeing Collective in February 2020 where we spent three days building a detailed understanding of the reality of working in the performing arts, specifically in commercial music theatre in this instance, and asking the question ‘What is needed to enable performing arts workers to thrive?’

We spoke of all the things we love about working in the performing arts as well as the frustrations, fears, stresses and challenges. We examined our experiences around education, auditioning and employment conditions and posed questions about structures and roles within the industry.

We explored fundamental belief systems and how these work to hold us back. We asked, why are highly skilled graduates often ill equipped for the realities of the industry?

Finally, we looked at new models of best corporate practice and asked how the performing arts industry compares in supporting the mental wellness of employees.

It stands to reason that with eight people in a room for three days, all enthusiastic and passionate and coming from different perspectives, backgrounds, experiences, and angles, that things might get a little chaotic, making it challenging to keep the focus on building outcomes. This is where Design Thinking came into play.

Design thinking

The principles of Design Thinking provide a framework for focusing on the people for whom solutions are being created, thus leading to better outcomes. Our focus was always ‘what is the human need?’

Design Thinking is collaborative, optimistic and experimental. It encourages everyone on the team to bring every perspective of empathy and understanding and to keep exploring together to uncover the solutions.

In this way it’s possible to really to get to the heart of what’s needed, and the risk involved in launching new, possibly revolutionary ideas and solutions is reduced. Throughout our investigations we followed the Design Thinking framework, ensuring we worked efficiently without indulging in storytelling or reminiscing.

We continually collated and restructured our findings, building a road map of human experience, and always returning to refocus on our purpose. Recurring themes and challenges began to emerge, around the perceived glamour of our industry; the mythology that surrounds the art; building self-worth; and how to establish industry best practices. Let’s unpack these further.

Debunking the glamour

The word ‘glamour’ in its ancient origins, referred to a magic spell or enchantment. You could say that there is indeed a type of spell on the entertainment industry preventing many from seeing beyond the product to the skills and the mental strength required to sustain a career in the industry.

In our workshop we uncovered the myriad of ways artists must work to keep their minds, bodies and their high level skills ‘show fit’ even when they are unemployed.

How they must navigate relationships with agents, producers and social media while managing their own expectations and those of family and peers.

We noted that new graduates, perhaps initially bewitched by the glamour of the music theatre industry can quickly become disillusioned when they find themselves unprepared for its realities, and the slog of the eight-show week.

And we discussed the glamour around hierarchy within the industry, the ‘star’ system and the shame many feel in considering a ‘Plan B’ or taking a ‘job to pay the bills’.


We dug into the mythology surrounding the performing arts industry and how it contributes to the dominant logic of the business.

Dominant logic refers to the stories people tell themselves and others about the company or business they’re involved in. These stories form the mindset and beliefs of the business and can be the key to its success.

However in a shifting landscape the dominant logic of a business can be a barrier to change and innovation and growth. The world of professional music theatre has changed dramatically in the last 30 years but the experiences shared in this workshop alone revealed that the age old beliefs of ‘suffering for your art’ and ‘the show must go on’ are still deeply ingrained in the psyche of the business and its people.

These myths are often so much a part of the bedrock of our work that they hold influence even when they don’t support us to build best practice or to sustain optimal quality of work or health.

For example, ‘the show must go on’ originated in the world of circus as a signal to the band to keep playing when the lion had escaped. Over time the phrase has come to take on a more literal meaning, that the show continues no matter what problem or obstacle may arise: forgotten lines, broken revolve, wardrobe malfunction. The idea that a show might stop in the middle or worse, be cancelled one night, for whatever reason, strikes horror into the hearts and minds of everyone involved – not just the producer who stands to lose financially.

And yet ‘the show must go on’ has another undertone that influences our decisions to keep going even though every indication is telling us we need to stop or at least slow down and consider another way forward.

It hints at personal disregard, ignoring the conditions of the moment, like pain in the body or emotional needs and pushing on, despite the risk of making a bad situation worse. In the past it’s even formed part of our long held acceptance that we were not entitled to time off to attend an important family event, if it fell on a matinee day.


If your sense of self worth is largely associated with your profession then it hurts more when you perceive failure in the work place.

This is demonstrated time and again in the performing arts where the potential for ‘failure’ is ever present and rejection is systemic.

Unemployment in the industry is high and judgment – from the audition panel, the audience, families, peers and ourselves – is constant. Surely ours is one of the few work places where consideration for a job routinely involves judgment of physical appearance. And where weight gain can be forbidden in a contract of employment. Opportunities to perceive our own failure abound and if we don’t have a solid sense of ourselves outside the workplace then who are we when the applause stops or the contract ends?

This problem can be compounded by the fact that we are often working with highly emotional content and expected to be open and vulnerable in front of many people. These challenges can lead to feeling overly sensitive in the face of every day workplace experiences like directorial critique or audience reaction.


There is much to learn from cutting edge corporations who are leading the way in best practices for mental health support.

There are organisations which have developed a range of initiatives from the simple, like welcoming pets into the office, to the more formalised, such as peer to peer support and awareness training programs. Some organisations regularly survey their employees with specific regard to mental health and wellbeing, and in doing so, help destigmatise mental health discussions in the workplace and build understanding of where best to respond to need. In a recent example, Google found that many of their workers were at risk of burning out while working from home through COVID-19. In response, they implemented additional paid leave, and $1,000 for each team member to spend on equipment to improve work from home arrangements.

It is critical that organisations engage with a mix of reasonable adjustments and long term initiatives that can grow over time. Interestingly many corporations are recognising the business benefits of mental health programs through increased productivity and work quality, better work relationships, and lowered business costs through reduced absenteeism and healthcare claims.

In our final stages of the workshop, we examined how the business end of the performing arts needs to take steps to ensure their own practices are not contributing to mental health issues. There are also many ways the industry can appropriately support everyone to take responsibility for their own mental wellness, and create environments in which everyone can do their best work. The results of our workshop are providing focus for resources and programs now in development as the Arts Wellbeing Collective continues its work in the Performing Arts community.

None of us know how long our industry will take to recover from the effects of COVID-19 and the associated public health response, but recover it will, inspired by resilient, responsive and passionate people who have already spent their working lives adapting to constantly changing conditions.

Perhaps right now we are being offered an opportunity to reflect on the old paradigms that no longer support us. From this understanding we can begin building new foundations with stronger more open relationships and more holistic outcomes.

With thanks

The Arts Wellbeing Collective is developing several resources following on from these sessions. We are grateful for the generosity of the performing arts community in sharing their knowledge and insights to help ensure our resources are relevant, helpful and meaningful.

This article appeared in Spotlight, the Arts Wellbeing Collective magazine:


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