Walking the talk: leading by example


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Words by Claire Pearson and Jess Jellie

As the Company Manager of The Australian Ballet, for Jess Jellie, every day is different. From working out touring schedules, to liaising with venues on behalf of the company (and ensuring they are COVIDSafe), to working out why there is a funny smell in the dressing rooms, Jess does what she can to make The Australian Ballet the best it can be. Lately, Jess has found her role is also critically important in assisting the company to support their mental health and wellbeing, particularly through what has been a most challenging time.

The Australian Ballet, like all performing arts companies, took a hit in 2020 when their opening season for the year was cancelled only three shows in. With staff and artists sent home, and classes and rehearsals being completed online, a global pandemic played out with the future unknown. Jess had to adapt to support the company and take on new responsibilities in her role.

“I tend to be the one who looks at operational processes. That’s an area I can see black holes quite easily and effectively, compared to the artistic staff who are focused on which bit of repertoire are we going to teach or how are we going to get class done today, I’ll be asking what’s our process for all the COVIDSafe plans we’ve had to put in place? How do we report if someone must go off and get a test, who needs to know this? How do we all notify each other if people need time off or need support?”

“We had to be flexible, we took some of our regular meetings and re-purposed them. Instead of talking about our to do lists we put more emphasis on our mental health and wellbeing. How are people feeling working from home? Have the dancers got everything they need? What can we do to support them in this transition?”

“I spent a lot of time pre-empting the next set of changes and how to help facilitate that, so it was smooth for everybody. At times I also became the tracker of the people to be honest, especially with border closures and dancers returning to be with their families throughout the longer lockdowns. Where is everybody? How is everybody in those places and spaces, both physically and mentally?”

“Early on I became very aware of the sense of purpose. That was a big thing that shifted in everybody. I spent many conversations on the phone or online with dancers and staff talking about how to get comfortable with the un-comfortableness of not knowing when we were going to perform again and get back to doing what we love.”

Image by Budgeron Bach.

Jump forward to March 2021 – The Australian Ballet was one of the first major companies to have a live and COVIDSafe show in Melbourne, opening up with their Summer Series at the Margaret Court Arena.

“Nearly 50% of tickets sold were to first time ticket buyers” Jess says, with the general public hungry for forms of live entertainment.

“It was amazing to see new faces in the audience wanting to participate and experience something different to what may have interested them pre pandemic. Then mix this with our loyal subscribers and audience members, it just made for such a warm and welcoming return back to the stage. It was really special”.

The year of 2020 highlighted to Jess that her role as Company Manager was an important one to keep supporting staff and company members through an incredibly challenging time. This includes the area of mental health and wellbeing support, which as Company Manager, she had already been attempting to include more into the conversation over the past few years.

Prior to COVID-19, Jess’s interest in supporting technical and artistic staff was evident. As someone who has worked with various touring companies over the years (Including Bell Shakespeare and Poetry In Action), she was one of the primary voices in the creation of the Tour Well resource, one of the first and most popular resources published by the Arts Wellbeing Collective.

“That was a space I could really give back to the industry. I’ve had so many great mentors over the years help support me in this industry, using my touring experiences I knew I could really help the next set of touring parties hit the road and put some suggestions out there”.

She is now assisting the Arts Wellbeing Collective on a new resource called Support Well which is all about how performing arts workers can support themselves and each other in looking after their mental health and wellbeing in one easy resource.

“We started to unpick this space, what are the barriers which really stop us from asking for help? It was really interesting to see why we hold back.

Is it because we all compare ourselves to each other thinking everyone else has it worse off than us? Is it because of a financial concern? Is it because we don’t know where to go for help or what kind of help is actually helpful?”

Jess hopes the resource will assist in debunking myths or truisms within the industry and clarify incorrect assumptions arts workers may have about mental health. The resource also aims to improve mental health literacy in the arts.

“So, an example of the resource might be, showing people the difference between a counsellor, a psychologist and a psychiatrist because with so many options it’s confusing. Or providing easy tips on what you can do yourself to monitor your own wellbeing and mental health.”

Image by Kam Greville.

Since graduating from NIDA’s Theatre Production course in 2008, Jess now has many years of experience working within the diverse arts landscape and has seen common trends when arts workers need support.

“Being on the inside of many different companies and organisation over the years I’ve witnessed the day to day hurdles of what we all go through. A blessing for me throughout COVID-19 lockdowns was that I had some dedicated time to investigate these.”

So, what are the main barriers to seeking help or support?

“From the research, surveys, and interviews I did I think the most common takeaway was that everyone thought their problems weren’t big enough to be a problem or an issue.”

“It’s about de-bunking the fact that you don’t have to get to crisis point to get help. People tend to think it has to be a big life episode – a major relationship breakdown or the loss of someone dear, unexpected trauma or a breakdown needs to happen in order to get help.”

“Whereas it could just be you and a co-worker have two different communication styles and that doesn’t work well in your working relationship. So, then you get anxious every time you have to meet with them and over time that anxiety builds and builds and builds. That’s something which might trigger your mental health to slide.”

So, it is about recognising the little everyday things can also affect us and if we can catch these things earlier, then we can all be in a happier and safer place.”

“A lot of the time it’s easier for us to think, “Oh, it will fix itself, it will blow over.” But sometimes we actually have to be brave and go, “No. Let’s fix it.” Let’s put the effort and the time in now, instead of brushing it away or putting a band aid solution on things.”

Jess talks about how she often heard artists and co-workers say they were unsure about how they were feeling and unable to identify what felt wrong. “It’s easier to explain to ourselves or others when we think we know what the root of the problem is, but sometimes we don’t know.”

Jess thinks the more we have open and frank conversations about mental health and wellbeing, and that the more we do, the more we normalise that it is ok not to be ok.

“We see people in our lives and we think, “They seem to have it all together,” but no one actually has it all together. I think the more we hear from the people around us talking about their problems too, the more we can go, “Oh, maybe there are things in my life I can improve by talking to someone or reaching out for help as well.”

Wooden scramble tiles spell the words 'Ask for help'
Image by Brett Jordan.

But these conversations and scenarios are not easy, and so it is important that there is support to learn more about mental health literacy or how to start a conversation.

“At The Australian Ballet we’ve had some staff complete their Mental Health First Aid training. I’ve seen shifts of conversations change from, “I don’t know how to talk to that person. I don’t know how to approach that,” to people identifying, “That person seems different lately, what can I do to support them?”

Jess is very aware of her role as a leader in this space and talks about what she does in her role to lead by example.

“I am very mindful that I need to ‘walk the talk’. I talk about it all the time, so I need to make sure that I follow through. So, there have been days when I say, “I’m really sorry, I can’t come in today, just need a mental health day,” and I call it instead of pretending I’m unwell.”

“Or if someone at work asks how I am, I respond honestly with how I’m feeling instead of faking smiling followed with a “Fine!” I think the more people who see other colleagues talking openly like this in the workplace then the more likely it is they will do so too. Leading by example is the biggest thing I try to do. It can be extremely hard because you’re under so many pressures as well, but you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.”

In fact, that was one of the biggest lessons Jess had whilst compiling self-care tips for others – she realised how much she needed to look after herself, and have boundaries within a busy role.

“As someone who cares for a lot of people, it’s also in my power to care for myself in that space.”

Jess highlights going forward into 2021 and beyond will be a new reality for performing arts companies.

“How do you keep bringing people together when you can’t all be in one place? How can we all think a little bit differently and outside of the box? We’ve gone through a new wave of change and with that should come new ways of working and new ways of thinking.”

“And change is exciting – using that excitement as an impetus to change the culture or look at how we can invigorate our companies. And that invigoration then also leads to an amazing new product on the stage or an amazing piece of art.”

Jess cites how COVID-19 has meant that now going on tour requires a new level of organisation and awareness for companies, as well as the mind shift that comes with operating throughout a pandemic. And, that we all play a role in keeping an ongoing awareness of the wellbeing challenges.

“It’s just being mindful as an industry –we’ve each gone through a really different experience. Everyone one of us had our own personal experience within this time and as an industry we’ve all had vastly different experiences. In terms of what companies were allowed to do and what they weren’t allowed to do, how we as individuals lost our purpose or found it, how they’ve come together or how they’ve drifted apart. I think it’s just about approaching everyone with a kindness, so that we can come together and move forward.” And when we do bounce back, we will go, “Wow, that was pretty amazing what we all just did and that we did it together!”

Support Well will be available soon on the Arts Wellbeing Collective website. For more information on The Australian Ballet, visit australianballet.com.au


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