True grit in the arts: resilience can be found where passion meets boundaries

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Words by Fernanda Fain-Binda

“Instability is the enemy of good mental health,” says psychologist Chris Cheers. The performing arts may convey to outsiders that it’s the epitome of rejection – surviving resilience, or that job satisfaction makes up for a gig economy. The reality is that the structural and financial instability prevalent in the arts in Australia takes a toll on our mental health.

In order to appreciate the resilience this sector demands we need to accept what is within our control, and what we can contest.

As individuals we can celebrate how we practice ‘adaptive resilience’; learning from each challenge we face and then applying that knowledge to our next stage of growth. Awareness of this learning, and its many, unwritten, time-consuming forms, should give performing arts professionals considerable pride.

We spoke to five professionals on the difference between surviving and thriving, and how they negotiate potential risk factors in their head.

Acceptance

“In the arts you put so much of yourself into your work, which is often undervalued,” says Cheers, from his Melbourne psychology practice. “The interesting challenge is naming and (then) accepting that it’s very difficult to find stability (in the performing arts), and that you need to find security in other areas of your life.”

Acceptance of what you can change, and maintaining a life outside your art form, is key. So is normalizing diverse income streams. We have to get away from this idea that to take jobs outside the arts is somehow a failure. It’s seen as ‘less than’, and I just see it as a necessary part of the current capitalist society,” says Cheers.

This rings true for script supervisor Sabi, a twenty-year film industry veteran. “For me, it’s a matter of accepting that it’s one of the negative parts of this industry,” she says. When faced with cancelled jobs, or lack of control, she reminds herself that she has power.

“I say to myself: Do I accept this, or do I pull out?”

Doing more than one thing

Living life with an element of risk becomes a choice that you lean into, rather than resent, says a passionate musician.

“It’s never not risky,” says Tess Crow, 35, from Inglewood, WA. “It’s really hard to be a musician in this town, but if you love it, you’re going to keep doing it regardless. This is my passion, and it helps my mental health to realise that I’m doing what I love, as well as what I need to survive.”

Tess performs and composes music, while also working as a music teacher, managing bands, doing graphic design, and working at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre.

The five creatives who spoke to Spotlight for this piece had eighteen separate income streams among them in order to mitigate the risks of low pay, irregular work and long hours. Plus three unpaid jobs: Parent, Board Member, Volunteer.

Romi Kupfer, aged 30, a theatremaker, director and producer, held down seven jobs before the pandemic changed life in Melbourne. This mix allowed her to focus on producing the art that she wanted and pay her rent and bills with work as a drama teacher, synagogue events producer and writer. “I’ve chosen not to rely on my artistic work for any income,” she says.

But then COVID-19 happened.

Romi will increase her rates now that, as she puts it, “I’ve got one-and-a-half-jobs left”. She’s also aware that applying for funding has limited return on investment. “I got four grants last year,” she says, “but I applied for thirty.”

One tip that Romi’s learnt is that rejection shouldn’t mean too much. “It’s not about whether you’re good enough or not, it’s about if you’re right or not for that role. I think it’s much better to be in the places that need you, and where you can grow,” she advises.

Romi Kupfer in rehearsals. Image by Pia Johnson.
Getting the most out of your networks

One of the counterbalances to financial instability and rejection is networking, which works through the power of likeability. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re social or shy: you have to let people know you’re there.

Harriet Oxley, 45, is an established costume designer for clients such as Chunky Move, Victorian Opera and Stephanie Lake. Harriet describes herself as “not a great networker, but with the confidence to just reach out to people, send some emails or make some cold calls.”

She puts that confidence down to her fashion training. In terms of what works when building your network, Harriet says “It’s not just talent, you have to be reliable, and likeable.”

Harriet worked her way in and up in the live performance industry while raising three kids, although she’s quick to point out that it cost her many sleepless nights of worry. “Looking back,” she says, “I’d tell myself that it’s all going to work out. And to try not to be insecure.”

Networks pay back for script supervisor Sabi, too, who will protect the working relationships she’s invested in. Jobs with those in her network are worth more, even if they’re paid less, than jobs outside her network.

Theatremaker Romi casts her plays from people she meets rather than relying on a brief audition. Potential for strong collaboration takes time to judge, she says.

Harriet Oxley (right) and team at Circus Oz. Image by Aaron Walker.
Adaptive resilience

A networked person, with a clear sense of mission, who reflects on experiences to respond better next time, is the definition of what former Arts Council England North Director Mark Robinson terms ‘Adaptive Resilience’.

Since 2010, his paper Making Adaptive Resilience Real has been used to promote entrepreneurial strategies for arts organisations. Robinson is exploring how this can be used by individuals working in the arts today.

“There’s something about purpose, about the skills of someone looking positively at whatever is there, but thinking: ‘How do I make this as positive as possible?’ The habits and construction of that is really key to adaptive resilience,” he says from Stockton-on-Tees, in North East England.

As well as a strong sense of being in the right job, and learning from experiences, being part of a network is key to learning healthy survival, says Robinson. “Artists are in a pretty good position to do that, because it’s almost part of the artistic process to find ways through a cultural experience.”

“Who can I establish equitable and lasting relationships with? Who can I connect to? People that are isolated are going to struggle. Ultimately, who loves you enough to save you?”

Abe Watson and Willow at MTC. Image supplied.
Burn-out is a systemic issue

The need to play an active role in one’s professional community, while coping with low wages, long hours, and a lack of job stability heightens the potential for burn-out. Not everyone gets a chance to enter the arts, and to start making those networks. Part of what Robinson wants to explore is who has the agency to be resilient. Diversity is key for a healthy arts industry. Low wages can support a heteronormative economy, where the arts are seen as ‘female’ or optional.

Abe Watson, 25, a production manager with Melbourne Theatre Company, wrote his MA thesis on the topic of burn-out. “I love this industry, but it makes me so angry to see how many people have left it,” he says.

For Abe, sweeping industry change is needed.

“When you look at the electoral cycle of every three years or so, that just isn’t enough to set up a consistent, long-term Arts and Culture Policy,” he argues.

Greater government support would help the sector as a whole, undeniably. Self-care cannot just be an individual responsibility. “We need to talk about organisational self-care, too,” says psychologist Chris Cheers. “What is the organisation doing for the self-care of the individual?”

There is an age element here, too. Gaining experience in the performing arts can seem a young person’s game: lots of passion and almost no wages. The reality is that learning through experience, understanding networks, and choosing self-care are all skills that favour maturity.

Perhaps resilience is passion, matured. This means that it’s the newest, and most isolated, people in our community who need our help the most. We need to communicate that the learning along the way takes time, but it’s worth it, before the end.

Tips and tools for resilient thinking

A photo of Tess Crow wearing a black face mask, sitting on the floor surrounded by audio equipment.
Tess Crow. Image supplied.

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