We have been catapulted into an uncertain new world. Both inside our homes and out, the conditions have changed as we negotiate rituals that will avoid exposure or put others at risk. New rules re-shape all human transactions. The virus hogs most conversations and with everything but a few shops shut, and so many people already in line for support, new disparities emerge.
Trust is now the only stock with any currency. Information is everywhere but sometimes not to be trusted. Time ticks slower. People can’t remember what day it is since little but the weather makes any day unique. And behind the daily news reports moans a persistent, existential fugue of fatalities and pain, reminding us that no matter how brave or optimistic we are, the world as we have known it will never be the same again.
As a playwright, I am obsessed and fascinated with transactions between people and these are currently overwhelming, revealing extremes of humanity’s most compassionate and shameful behaviour. People keep saying to me, ‘This must be giving you a lot to write about’. In reality, I’m struggling to concentrate on much simpler matters.
As the world suffers and people who are part of the gig economy begin to experience further financial stress and genuine concern about their chosen field’s future and their place in it, why would we pressure ourselves to make art about the early stages of COVID-19?
We all struggle to absorb this new reality.
Clarity is hard to find but a focus can help. I choose to focus on the notion of care in our industry by reflecting on my own experiences. When I see what others are going through now, I hope that reflecting on pain and healing based on my own experience may help others feel less alone or better equipped to offer genuine care.
A STRUGGLING SECTOR
The sector as a whole not only needs to deal with overwhelming external challenges; we also need to take responsibility for consciously caring for one another more genuinely. We need to connect to and reflect upon the industry-wide issues that cause struggle and pain and confront some of the patterns that contribute to them.
I have been considering the evolving struggles of many arts companies after the recent announcement of the latest four-year funding round. The losses are tangible, divisive, and the impact they will have on the sector are unquestionable.
I still struggle to imagine the difficult conversations that went on behind the scenes at the Australia Council and which concluded with the decision to announce funding cuts to many companies just weeks after the pandemic had begun.
At a time when venues had closed, contracts were cut short and the sector had begun to struggle, surely it would have made sense to defer or reconsider announcements, or the decisions behind them, and instead invest in supporting the sector to find strategies to survive these times and adapt to the world post-COVID-19?
The sector as a whole needs to take responsibility for consciously caring for one another more genuinely.
This is not the space to speculate at length upon the various pressures that shape funding bodies’ decisions. So let's take a moment instead to imagine the fierce slap and the ringing pain after being informed that, on top of all this Coronavirus bullshit, funding to your employer – or the company you lead or are part of – will not flow for much longer. Maybe that’s you, and, if it is, my heart reaches out to you.
At safe physical distance, I recently met with a mate who leads one of the companies to lose their funding. Like all of us, my friend was struggling to take on the rapidly changing world, juggling the kids’ home schooling and baulking at how to survive the upcoming holidays, while concurrently working from home, managing their own workload and their remotely working staff. After our chat, this person suggested that what I had offered them in that moment might be worth sharing with others.
I know that moment was over a week ago and so much may have changed since then, but this is an attempt to talk about trauma, care and finding ways forward.
LIVING THROUGH CRISIS
While the current times are strange for many, the circumstances of job loss and long periods of isolation are not new. They became my unexpected reality in early 2019.
I had known for a long time that being a playwright in Australia is unsustainable and so worked hard to build skills that might find me in a position to shift that somehow.
I was subsequently appointed as the Artistic Director/CEO of an essential and unique play development organisation. When I began in July 2018, I would never have anticipated that, less than one year later, the organisation would also announce their planned closure and subsequent staff redundancies.
Denied of vital information that would allow me to understand and reconcile what had occurred, the subsequent year has seen me go through different combinations of trauma, uncertainty, stress, anxiety, depression, and self-isolation. I felt silenced. I carried a heavy sense of failure that was never mine to own; I felt anger, confusion, sadness, and a deep sense of loss. I have learnt the hard way about the damaging silence of complicity.
I still struggle with lowered self-esteem and a lack of confidence due to a sudden decrease in agency because, like many of us, my work is tied tight to my social life and, for much of this period, I was unable to see people at all. Going to the theatre became impossible since I was either too anxious, too low, or too afraid to speak.
The sector’s culture is complicated but most interactions happen when we come together in places like foyers. I quickly learnt that if you are fragile, you can’t take part. How is it our sector feels feel like a club when we are in the business of understanding humanity?
How is it our sector feels feel like a club when we are in the business of understanding humanity?
It is my duty to speak up so others might be spared unnecessary pain.
It is not pleasant to say but it needs to be acknowledged that mine is not an isolated experience. Our industry can chew people up and spit them out.
I saw this happen in very traumatic ways to two peers last year. One of these peers said to me, ‘Well, you find out who your actual friends are and who was just being a part of the theatre world.’ Survivors in the industry must prioritise others’ duty of care to mitigate further future trauma. And in the current climate, I hope that my reflections might offer some way to help those in need right now.
RESPONDING WITH EMPATHY AND CARE
Through everything I went through, what remained steady was having the support of a few patient, responsive, loving peers checking in on me, cajoling me to meet them for coffee or join them and their dog for a walk.
I have thought a lot about what they did to get me through. It isn’t complicated. Essentially, the people who really helped were those who had either been through a similar situation or were able to think deeply about what had occurred, the impact it was having and would have on me, and were able to put themselves and the things they were going through aside during our interactions.
Because their support came from a place of generosity and compassion, it made more impact. They made contact with regularity, mostly listening and keeping their personal opinions, advice and questions minimal. When they offered to do something, they did it. If they said they would call, they always did, accepting on occasion that if I didn’t answer I didn’t feel up to talking.
They weren’t looking to fix the situation or me, surrogate my anger or be the best carer. Their mostly quiet actions were things that looked out for my well-being as a person. They were things which they could manage (and while I know they all put themselves out tremendously, they never made me aware of it).
I would like to think that I have helped or supported a friend in a similar situation before. That what came to me was somehow payback. But the truth is, until I came to understand the experience of trauma and the resulting mental health issues that reared up, I didn’t have a clue.
THE COST OF CREATIVITY
In the arts, we all work absurd hours, quickly learning ‘resilience’ to manage insecurities, rejection, stress and life balance. We are all driven by passion and hope that what we do or make or have to say will be heard and that this might be enough to lead somewhere. We don’t go on like this until we make it: for most, ‘making it’ is a myth long exposed. We go on until for one reason or another we can no longer sustain it.
During good times we rarely ask ourselves why we have devoted so much time and energy to our individual art-cult. Accepting we will never have material wealth, our currency is less tangible: a combination of relevance or agency, energy, integrity, reputation, and striving to satisfy a sense of one’s own legacy. If one of these is off kilter, we struggle, but when a major change hits us, our tools of resilience may not be enough.
Should our currency also include our capacity to be generous to others, to show care in our community? Recently in our culture and sector alike, the questions have shifted from the nerve-inducing ‘What are you up to?’, to ‘Are you ok?’ We must take this further and make sure we listen to the response and then act on it. If you can’t do all that, then you are best not to ask in the first place. Because being a small sector and knowing a lot of people who you drink free wine with in a foyer doesn’t make us closely knit. It’s the quality of our solidarity, reflected in the care and compassion we can provide one another, that will get us through tough times.
It’s the quality of our solidarity, reflected in the care and compassion we can provide one another, that will get us through tough times.
We all know how damaging funding cuts are. After successive rounds of cuts, people still say they regret that they didn’t speak up earlier. It’s much easier to say so after the fact. It is a paradox that the theatre world seems populated by many who are scared of speaking up and saying things clearly. This has reduced the power of our collective voice as well.
In this moment, this lack of voice will be debilitating. The fear of speaking up and the complicit silence it has manifested are commonly understood but if it is allowed to continue in these times, silence will not just corrode us – it will end us. Let it be enough that this silence has been a symptom of many recent issues that left both individuals and the industry damaged. Changing this silence begins with each of our voices and all of our ears.
The arts will survive and we all hope that they can thrive. Those privileged to know they will be able to continue begin to plan for that new reality. Any viable future must have better care at its core. In so many contexts it must be a shift from the complicity of silence to the complicity of caring.