creativity, education, Monash, self care, Theatre

on starting your own company and working with friends

It is that time of year where students are leaving us and we are all just really hoping they don’t take our jobs too soon. 

Most years, as they get ready to leave us I send out an email filled with self-care tips sourced from the broader arts community. But this year’s cohort have had me rattle on about self-care a lot and since they are already filled with excellent collaborative teams I decided that this year’s parting email could be crowd-sourced tips on starting your own company. And I thought I would share it here too because the wisdom of the crowd is beautiful, thoughtful and generous. 

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AFTER HERO, photo by Sarah Walker

To kick them off, a couple of tips from me: firstly, talk about money! I think the biggest mistake I made early on was not spelling out what things like ‘profit share’ actually meant: it doesn’t mean we split 100% of the box office takings, we split 100% of the profits, so all the costs of the show are taken out of that. One simple conversation could have made that clear.

I would also advise that you follow up phone conversations with venues and organisations with an email:

‘Thanks for the phone call. Just to put in writing what we discussed…’ Leave a written record of everything.

Now for smart words from some generous artists:

Anastasia Ryan, production manager:

Contracts! Even if you’re doing it with your best mate, just a super simple 1 page thing saying what each persons job is, the expectations and the agreed money (if there is any) helps so much.

Nithya Nagarajan, neo-classical Indian dancer, producer and arts educator:

Go to grant writing info sessions, often hosted for free by City of Melbourne, Australia Council for the Arts and Auspicious Arts. And if you go into arts work, keep your arts administratior and performance maker hats very, very separate.

Rebekah Montague, playwright and (strange combo) financial educator:

Have a separate bank account for your art.

Izzy Roberts-Orr, poet, playwright and artistic director of Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival:

Clear communication, structured meetings if that’s your style, and a record – get things in writing (e.g. minutes / letters of agreement / emails clearly stating what’s happening) it feels silly having meetings / agendas / defined roles as you’re starting out, but before you know it you might have actual money on the table and need a bank account or be running projects at a scale where everyone needs to know their role in order to do it. Also if they’re your friends, make sure you have friend hangs outside of work! Plus space as friends to talk about your work practices if needed, and make sure you’re still nurturing each other in both your role as a collaborator and your role as a friend.

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FIGMENT, photo by Theresa Harrison

Tim Byrne, arts journalist:

Try your very best to temper ambition with a tiny bit of clear-eyed perspective. One (or two at the most) little shows a year, honed into perfection, are worth far more than some grand vision of cultural dominance. That ties into money too: the greatest art comes from thinking your way around obstacles, so treat lack of funds as a challenge. Oh, and don’t give all your time to your work, even if your work is your love. Get a walk in there, or some lying about watching trees. Perspective.

Patrick McCarthy, director and playwright:

I’d say most of the problems people run into early on (and even later) occur because not enough time was spent talking in the lead up to the project. Spend as much time as you can talking with your collaborators, about practical things like money, schedules, venues, personnel, marketing, publicity, insurance, etc. But also spend as much time, if not more, talking about methodology. How are you going to work together both in and outside of rehearsal, how will you communicate with each other, who has decision making responsibility around what elements of the work? Have some rules about how your process/room will operate (including things that need to be zero tolerance, even if they seem like they should be obvious). Schedule time to sit down and talk throughout the process, to see how everyone’s tracking and problem solve things that aren’t going well. Eat together. Have alone time if you need it. Have a review process once the season’s done to figure out what worked and what didn’t so you can adjust for the next show. Don’t let things fester.

Mohammad Hash, theatre and film producer, now living in Cairo:

Delve into diversity and create minimal sets that spell big works. Understand grant applications and go to as many arts talks as possible. Australia Council is fantastic support and always look for international opportunities. It worked for me.

Indira Carmichael, visual artist and community arts administrator and advocate:

MOUs (memorandum of understanding) are great if contracts between mates seems a bit heavy. It’s a good way of getting everyone on the same page. Sometimes you don’t realise that your motives for doing a show are different to others until it all falls apart.

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THE DRESSMAKER: A MUSICAL ADAPTATION, photo: Sarah Walker

Goldele Rayment, director and company director:

Don’t be afraid to let projects take time. There is less rush than you think. It’s less stressful and more satisfying to take a bit more time with development and forward planning. Be kind, be gentle, be generous but also learn it’s ok to say “no”. I don’t like that creatively, that’s not for me or please don’t treat me like that.

Pippa Bainbridge, venue manager and production manager:

Values. Interrogate what they are for you, and make sure they are aligned with those of your collaborators and of each project you work on. Values. Articulate them, share them, uphold them, tend to them…and you’ll never be disappointed with what is returned.

Mike Greaney, animator:

I think the thing that is really important to work out early on is set in writing the structure of ownership over the venture. Have the hard conversations at the start when you are talking about % ownerships of nothing, because once money and ego get involved down the line, those conversations become very difficult. Talk about these things with your collaborators as well, and make clear what they are trading their time for/ getting out of working with you.

Stephanie Speirs, producer, production manager and venue manager of the Fringe Hub:

When you agree to anything (a new venture, the mission/direction of your project, helping someone out, donating stuff/money/time) be explicit in what that agreement entails. If you can’t stomach writing things down yet, at the VERY LEAST make sure you’ve all said out loud what you understand by what’s been said, and clarify exactly what that means to you. Any project will possibly mean hundreds of hours of work for those involved – so be sure that everyone with a stake understands WHAT those hours of work are and WHO has agreed to do them. (Or if NO-ONE wants to do the work, then the project shouldn’t happen!)

Libby Klyse, performer, writer, manager:

Know who is the boss for each project. Someone needs to be the director and/or producer, with the ultimate decision-making and budget control.

Georgia Carter, performer:

Understand budgets and pay attention to the numbers. You need to have someone that understands it… and audiences don’t just happen. They take work and strategic planning is essential.

Ramona Barry, artist and writer:

Written agreements – I’ve seen many a friendship fall foul of business mistakes. Even if you are the very best of friends get it all in writing

Natalie Wadwell, arts administrator:

Get a shareholders/partnership agreement, friends don’t always make best business partners and skill sets should compliment not duplicate, talk about money. To add to that really talk about your personal and business values. Where do they see themselves and the biz in 1, 3 and 5 yrs time? Do it separately and then discuss. Have an exit strategy upfront and a plan of what milestones you need to hit to maintain working together.

 

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ALL THAT IS RIGHT, photo: Sarah Walker

Individually, these are great tips for professional practice. As a whole, they mean something even better: they mean that all of these artists want to see you succeed. They want to see you build partnerships and careers that are sustainable, caring, productive and healthy. It is easy to think that you have to fight your way into the industry (and it is a tough industry) but remember that people wish you well. Great artists support artists, advocate for artists, mentor artists and enjoy the successes of artists. Remember you’re not alone out there. Hold onto the relationships you have made and get ready to meet some amazing new people who are excited to see what you make next.

Wishing you all the best,

Fleur

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letters, mental health, Monash, personal, self care

a letter: to new artists, graduates and emerging theatre makers

Dear graduates,

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. Try to be inspired instead of jealous when your peers achieve.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Prioritise sleep. Make time for washing. Do your food shopping. Pack your lunch. Have a safe, comfortable home or place to retreat to.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Go for walks. Pat dogs.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. Build space for congratulations into your projects.
  14. Don’t be afraid of saying ‘no’. People will respect you for taking on the right kind and right amount of work.
  15. Don’t glorify being busy and overwhelmed. It isn’t something to aspire too.
  16. Forgive yourself.
  17. Remember that you’re not on this journey alone. Connect with your peers. Ask for help when you need it.

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And now, enjoy some tips from other artists:

Sarah Walker:

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.

Nithya Nagarajan

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.

Chrissie Robinson

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.

Jana Perkovic:

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.

Anna Kennedy:

Remind yourself that this is supposed to be fun. Play!

Eloise Maree:

Keep going! We are the world needs artists – be brave enough to exist as one. xx

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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!  

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