Congratulations. You’ve finished your degree and you are about to enter a truly wonderful industry. There is so much support and love within our community. There is playfulness, joy, adrenaline, terror, celebration and plenty of sweaty hugs in your future.
But this is also an industry that values overwork, demands vulnerability and offers little stability. It is an industry with incredibly high rates of mental illness, stress, anxiety, depression and even suicide. Because of this, I can’t let you leave the relative safety of the university without saying a few words about self-care.
Depression, isolation and mania are woven into the mythology of arts. The concept of late-18th Century, romanticised melancholy, is still caught up in our ideas of how art gets made: that genius goes hand-in-hand with darkness and insanity.
Melancholy was also a state of being reserved for those who were intellectually and spiritually superior. Did you know that? Back in the day, not all people could experience all emotions. Grief, depression, sorrow, melancholy and even love – real grand, noble love – those were things reserved for the rich, the royal, the educated, the knighted and, yes, the artistic. The rest of us experienced drunkenness, laziness and malcontent. Isn’t that the most extreme form of elitism you’ve ever heard of? Some emotions are too complex for the rough of hand.
And I know: depression and melancholy are two different things today. One is an emotional state and the other is a mental illness. But I just had to say all that because history glorifies them and it weaves them into the mythology of my industry and that scares me. Accepting darkness as part of artistic practice can lead to some scary stuff.
It can lead to artists not seeking help when they need it. Not saying, “this doesn’t feel like a healthy way to work.” Not carving out a space for their own well being within their practice.
These are some truths I know:
- Art is too hard to feel shit whilst making it.
- Art is too hard to make with people who do not respect you and your work.
- Art is too wonderful not to do joyously.
As an artist, your mind and body are your tools. They deserve to be looked after. If, however, you are someone who struggles to justify spending time on yourself, look at it as time spent on your colleagues and collaborators: in this collaborative art form, the best gift you can bring to the rehearsal room, the thing that will give your cast and crew confidence, courage and a sense of freedom, is a mind and body that is ready to work.
Now is the time to put in place systems and practices that will help you create a sustainable career. This will look different for everyone (some exercises meant to lull me to sleep only served to make me lie awake thinking about how I was so bad at sleep that I needed exercises) so it is worth putting time and effort into establishing a routine that works for you. Prioritise this. Prioritise this now. Mid-crisis is not going to be the best time to work out a system.
Here are some tips or pieces of advice that have helped me. They may not work for you but hopefully they might start you thinking.
- Enjoy the journey to where you are heading. You probably won’t graduate and instantly step into an established company or funded solo practice and that is fine. Enjoy. Be playful. Take the risks it is hard to take once you have money and a company behind you.
- Try to be inspired instead of jealous when your peers achieve.
- Know that your self-worth is not dependent on your creative output. If you are between projects, working slowly or taking time off art to ensure your financial stability, that is so, so fine. Every artist ever has done this. Remember that you deserve your own kindness and consideration whether you are making art or not.
- Listen to your body. I and so many other artists out there have bodies that tell them when they are working too hard. For me it is muscle spasms in my face and pain in my arm. As soon as I feel these things, I try to rectify the situation: get a massage, go for a walk, take a day off, have an early night. Your body knows when you are under too much stress. Listen to it. It is trying to tell you something.
- Prioritise sleep. Make time for washing. Do your food shopping. Pack your lunch. Have a safe, comfortable home or place to retreat to.
- Put an end to the work day. If you are free-lance it is so easy to let work bleed into your evenings then into your nights. This was what led to years of chronic insomnia for me. These days, I won’t work past 9pm and it has done wonders for me.
- Remember the goals of the project or job you are doing. It is not all encompassing. I am yet to see a project with the goal “save the world and permanently change the lives of every person who walks through that door.” Don’t tell yourself that the project is bigger than it is and set achievable goals for your art.
- Carve out time, even ten minutes, for your own creativity. When you are not doing creative work or when you are working on a project that isn’t your driving passion, it can be easy to become exasperated. On the days when I am busiest, I set my alarm and do ten minutes of fast creative writing. This is the most efficient way to remind myself of my creativity and of how exciting art can be.
- Go for walks. Pat dogs.
- Ask, “What do I need help with?” at the beginning of a project or job. Acknowledging that you don’t have all the skills is really important. Further, acknowledging that there are people around you who can fill in the knowledge you lack is vital.
- When working in fringe theatre on a project where you are undertaking many roles (say, actor plus set builder plus publicist or director plus designer) remind yourself that you are doing multiple roles. Know that this is a massive task and not something that would be demanded of you by a professional company. That’s fine – we all do it – but just acknowledging this can help. Remind yourself that you are justified in feeling tired and stressed. Sometimes we think there is something wrong with us when actually we are responding in exactly the way anyone would if they were to take on such a massive workload.
- Remember that your colleagues and the wider community are there to support you. No one wants someone else’s project to fail. Your friends and audiences walk into the theatre wanting to have an excellent night and enjoy the skill and effort you have put into the project. Don’t invent a narrative in which you are isolated and the people around you want you to fail. Stick to the facts.
- Build space for congratulations into your projects.
- Don’t be afraid of saying ‘no’. People will respect you for taking on the right kind and right amount of work.
- Don’t glorify being busy and overwhelmed. It isn’t something to aspire too.
- Forgive yourself.
- Remember that you’re not on this journey alone. Connect with your peers. Ask for help when you need it.
And now, enjoy some tips from other artists:
I try to make exercise one of the major priorities in my day. If I start the day going, ‘Okay, I’m definitely going to this 12:15 yoga class’, or ‘I’m going to swim at 8 pm’, it means that I schedule the rest of my life around that, and it makes me a happier person.
I find that work-wise, using the 52/17 technique is quite good – you set an alarm and work completely uninterrupted for 52 minutes, then have 17 minutes of totally different leisure – reading a book, going for a short walk, sitting in the sun, drinking a cup of tea – away from screens and from the place where you’re working. It feels quite decadent and recharges you for the next period of work.
I also schedule the occasional day off, where I’m not allowed to do work at all – it means that I’m productive in the days preceding, and I get to spend the whole day playing music, pottering around, drawing, cooking – being totally screen-free and totally outside my work headspace.
Also, knowing that being incredibly busy isn’t actually a sign that you’re succeeding – being able to get your stuff done and then clock off in the evening, to see friends, to have a glass of wine and read a book – that’s actual success, because it means that you have balance.
Do not be guilty when you have to take up a non-creative job to provide for your monetary needs whilst you are making art on the side. Do NOT beat yourself up about it, and see it as an opportunity to use your transferable skills from the studio into the real world and the skills you acquire from the real world back onto the stage. Blur the binaries. They were always constructs anyway.
Understand that ‘doing well’ is easy when you’re ‘doing well’, so practicing the things that keep you grounded or that calm you is extra important when you’re ‘well’ so that you can automatically do them when you’re stressed and it’s harder.
Know your own stress early warning signs. You’re probably cleaning more/snapping more/ more annoyed at your mum’s SMSs than usual because you’re anxious, not because it’s actually dirty/everyone’s an idiot/your mother is actually insufferable.
Don’t be sanctimonious about being busy – the most functional and successful people are those that take the time for themselves. Also, it makes you ‘that guy’, and we love artists who have time for/interest in others’ ideas too. Be the person someone wants to go to to share excitement about their idea.
And don’t make ‘what are you working on at the moment?’ your only question. There’s more to life than just art and talking about the broader world will only improve your practice. And you.
Don’t spread yourself thin. Yes means yes. If you commit to a project, you have to give it your best shot. Therefore, be very careful what you say yes to, because you have to be accountable to each ‘yes’ you say.
Be mindful of staying kind and fair to yourself. Never compare yourself to your peers: remember we are all on an individual journey. Remember that you are not your work, and rejection isn’t personal: you are just not the right fit for the project. Cultivate long-term relationships. It is not competition, it is a community. Being an arts worker is a long game.
Remind yourself that this is supposed to be fun. Play!
Keep going! We are the world needs artists – be brave enough to exist as one. xx
All photos in this post are from Sarah Walker’s CLUTCH series. Her work can be found here.
I wrote this for the Monash graduates of the Centre for Theatre and Performance but decided to share it publicly here because it isn’t just graduates that need to think about self-care. Look after yourselves!