I recently attended a virtual panel conversation hosted by The Playwrights’ Center called, “Artists In Conversation: Healthy Creation Space.” In this panel both the questions of, “What is our work?” and, “How can we care for ourselves in making it?” were deeply interrogated and discussed. The esteemed panel was facilitated by Hayley Finn and included Ann James, Amrita Ramanan, and Rachel Bonds. Ann James is an international stage director and an intimacy coordinator, founder of Intimacy Coordinators of Color, and recently named Artistic Director of Celebration Theatre in LA. Amrita Ramanan is a creative producer, dramaturg, and multidisciplinary artistic leader and strategist who recently joined The Playwrights’ Center staff as a Core Apprentice Dramaturg. Rachel Bonds is a playwright, parent, and Artist Ambassador for PAAL (Parent Artist Advocacy League for Performing Arts + Media). Together, they addressed the need for a culture of care within our industry and the important overlaps across intimacy direction, dramaturgy, and arts advocacy.
A core component of this panel was naming the invisible labor that goes into making creative work. We often think of the final product, like the show or concert or painting, as the real “work.” But James, Ramanan, and Bonds asked us to reimagine what our work is. What does it take to make creative work? And, what does it actually require of us to do it well? If we value making and maintaining healthy work spaces, then we must first redefine what are the necessary parts of our work processes and what is the labor required to make that work possible.
So, what is the work? The craft is a huge piece of it; actually making the work in the room with your body and mind. This could include the rehearsals, meetings, sketching, writing sessions, coaching sessions, practice time, and many others. But it requires a lot of our bodies and our minds to make thoughtful and resonant artistry. I am going to assume if you are an artist or storyteller of any kind who makes things, you’ve personally felt the immense drain and exhaustion that comes from the intensive labor needed to make creative work happen.
I’m also going to assume you’ve felt the replenishing and accelerated growth that’s possible when we slow down, rest, and care for this vessel that makes our work. When we stop or take time to observe or have an “active refueling,” such as reading a book, or visiting a museum, or people-watching at the park, or going for a run, or just taking a nap on the couch, we actually recharge and further our creative process. This is an essential part of the work too. If art-making is intended to reflect and/or be in conversation with our world, then frequently participating in, consuming, and filling ourselves with pieces of that world is essential to making the art.
In the industry, this time for refueling is not included as part of our “work process,” and yet we know it is a critical part of the creation process. Our current work culture expects that if we value these things, if we value this kind of personal and artistic care, then it must happen outside of our scheduled “work time.” And so, if we aim to make healthier creative spaces, our values must shift. We have to value and embrace the full spectrum of labor needed to sustain the creation process.
Artist workers are too often reduced to their economic and creative output. Societally, we have an obsession with productivity and as artists, too often, we link the value of our work or our craft to the rate of our productivity or output. In centering productivity and urgency, we are truly centering white supremacy and capitalism as values in our creative process. If our values are to be rooted in health and care, then there is no place for white supremacy characteristics or capitalistic principles in our creation process.
In the panel, this radical kind of care was named by Ramanan in calling out the NYT’s article, “You Are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything,” by Bonnie Tsui. The author, Tsui, argues that, “Fallow time [meaning a time for rest, or dormancy, or idling] is necessary to grow everything from actual crops to figurative ones, like books and children. To do the work, we need to rest, to read, to reconnect. It is the invisible labor that makes creative life possible.”
The cycle feeds itself: productivity leads to a need for rest, which refuels and allows for more productivity, which then requires rest, and so on and so on. We cannot reach the full potential of our artistic work without valuing time for rest and recuperation. We cannot create healthy work spaces if we don’t include caring for ourselves as a vital part of our work processes. Making good creative work cannot exist without a culture of care. And that’s the key to a healthy creation space; putting people first.
Hayley Finn, the panel facilitator, guided us through the whole creation process from pre-production all the way through post-mortems and next steps. Some clear examples arose in the panel of how to create this healthy work environment and how to maintain it over time. At each stage of the production process, there are numerous things we can do to build and maintain our healthy work spaces.
In pre-production, it is important to ask lots of questions of your director, producer, cast and team. We must set the stage and put the necessary resources in place to uphold the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health of all involved so it is never sacrificed at the cost of the production value. Ramanan stressed the importance of wondering, “What are the structures at play that add to the process, and what areas can we make change?” to really get at the root question of, “How can we make this the most healthy process for every artist involved?” We must start our processes with the same goal we hope to end, with everyone’s well-being intact and preserved. The more we are able to ask questions first and prepare, the better we set ourselves up for success in the creation process.
The first day of rehearsal, or first day of any collaborative creation process, is critical for setting our work culture. As Rachel Bonds named, “The first day is community building. Not just for the cast, but for everybody. We want to just get to work, but the work is monumentally better if we set that tone first.”
Ann James touched on the fundamental need for community agreements. Our rehearsal rooms are often full of people who come from varied backgrounds and different walks of life, so we have to name what our plan is when we get into difficult or challenging moments when working together. James said, “We have to move through it in a kind and loving way as a family instead of as people who just signed contracts to do a thing.” We have to see each other as people, complicated and messy, with our own journeys that landed us in this room together. In caring for each other, we also care for the environment in which we’re working. We want to leave the process stronger than when we entered it.
In the thick of it, deep into the rehearsal or creation process, is very frequently when we start to lose sight of ourselves and our values. The urgency creeps back in as we near tech week; and the goals and priorities start to shift towards our final product rather than those in front of us. If community agreements have been made they usually take a back seat and are never reread or revisited as the process hurries along. When our work starts to pick up, when we feel the stress start to build, this is when we need to center our values of health and care the most.
Ann James shared a powerful story around her process working on Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith at Signature Theatre this fall. Due to the nature of the play, there were some specific moments showing projections of the uprisings in LA following the acquittal of the officers who brutally beat and attacked Rodney King. Having this content on stage is incredibly taxing both mentally and emotionally. It impacts not only the actors who are in the scene, but also the artists and technicians backstage and those in the house and the booth during tech. James discussed this with the sound and video designers and had them build a placeholder cue with static or white noise of exactly the same length so they could tech the moment without replaying this footage over and over again. This is a huge act of care by James, to the actors, to all collaborators involved, and to the creation process.
James also brought up the importance of including a boundary practice. This practice is frequently used when staging moments of emotional or physical intimacy but James mentions how essential this can be for all parts of our creative process, especially when dealing with charged content.
Ramanan specifically mentioned that she’s a firm believer in snacks throughout the creative process. Ask everyone’s dietary restrictions first, but Ramanan said she has two tables for food and drinks always available in the room. “I don’t want to take sustenance for granted. It’s important in the creation process and in creating work.”
The panelists followed up during the Q&A with several other ways you can carry your values into the room even when you don’t have a leadership role:
- Lead by example. Don’t just say something, actually do the thing you want to see in the room.
- If you need a break, just ask for a break.
- There is strength in observation, be a good bystander. If someone is being bullied, speak up and say something. If we don’t, the behavior continues.
- Be an example by showing loving attention to yourself in a situation where your needs aren’t being met. This is not the same as taking up space.
- Step away from spaces that continue to promote more harm.
In closing out a process, celebration is critical! There are always challenges and hardships, but we must have moments of joy and celebration to recognize that we created something together. We must also honor the rest that is required after completing, or closing one part of, the creative journey.
Ramanan spoke about the need for deep reflection. Really taking time to assess the process, and the work, is vital. We have to be able to reflect and critique to be able to be better and grow our creative practice.
The end of the process shouldn’t be the end of relationships formed. Ramanan said she often asks playwrights, “What is the desired next step for the play’s journey, and how can I support you in that?” She said later, these relationships “can’t be transactional,” which was echoed by James and Bonds as well. We should be asking, “What can continue beyond?” How can the relationships extend past the final moment of production?
James brought up the process of de-rolling, one of my favorite takeaways. James studied with Theatrical Intimacy Education, or TIE, founded by Chelsea Pace and Laura Rikard. She named de-rolling as a part of drama therapy as well as her intimacy training. De-rolling can be any form of closure to be able to, “put the characters away for the night.” This could be anything like a gesture, or blowing out a candle, or taking off a specific prop or costume piece, anything that allows an artist to put the character or role away for the night and, “come back to self,” as James put it. At the end of the creation process, James posed the idea of going through a de-rolling ritual with the entire team. What would it mean to have a chance to gather and say farewell to the story or piece, to embrace a moment of closure together? James said she’s, “going to go try it immediately.”
Creating a culture of care is simple, and yet profound. We must embrace a work space that does not promote guilt or shame for taking time off and caring for ourselves. If I’m not healthy, how can I create and maintain a healthy work space? We have to make time for taking space for ourselves, for fallow time, for hibernation, for rejuvenation, and active refueling, replenishing our bodies. If we honor this necessary time and care, then we can return to the work in a place of better health. And from a place of better health, we can care for our collaborators and our creative process more holistically.
Watch the panel here.