Sunday, 31 July 2016

#time4change If Just One Person

#time4change the #mentalhealthcharter is now 3 weeks old. To date 46 companies have signed the Charter. In the wings are 3 colleges seriously looking at it (none of them Drama UK colleges I should add), and a few production companies and a couple of agencies.  

Being in charge of a small organisation it never ceases to amaze me how much discussion has to go on in other companies to make things happen.  EG in our recent Senior Faculty meeting it was suggested by our Health and Welfare consultant that we should offer our students a quiet space during the lunch hour for those people that wanted it.  Within the hour that suggestion was implemented, because I could unilaterally make a decision to take a studio and designate it to be that time.  Now I'm not saying that this is good...if I suddenly became power crazed I could equally have opted to make that studio something far less helpful to the students' welfare.  Fortunately though I'm reined in by a very opinionated faculty, and an extremely interested Board of Trustees who watch my every move.

Having worked in larger organisations, I know that big decisions like opting into the #time4change Charter can take a lot of work. For example Rose Bruford signed the Charter this week. A massive decision by a major and prolific UK college.  Behind the scenes I'm aware that Pat O'Toole worked patiently within her role there until the college were comfortable enough with the Charter to sign. Here's my point really - are YOU in an organisation that needs to sign the Charter? If so....please get that bit between your teeth and stay with it. Don't take no for an answer. Come back to us if there are bits that you disagree with, and let's find a way together that will enable your organisation to sign up.  
The world will only change if each and every one of us takes  a stand for what we believe in.

Should your college sign the charter? Let them know your feelings about it. Ask them to read it. Send it to them. Explain to them how it works.  Take a collective responsibility to get this discussion up and running.

If you do one tweet in support of the charter, as amazing as that is, it is lost within seconds. Social media dictates that we live in a 'rolling news' world, everything lives for around 1 minute(if that really)....after which more news comes in, and the original post is already forgotten.  Those people that follow me on twitter must dread those couple of hours that I've spent every day trying to get this message across, as there's suddenly a deluge of posts talking about Mental Health.  Yes, there are better ways of spreading the word, but we have no budget, and that's all I can spend is time. . . time to keep talking, because I know that I just have the hit the right people on their TimeLines once.  It's a bit like the roulette wheel. I have to keep rolling that ball.

I said today in a tweet that if Equity, Spotlight, the ITC and Drama UK got behind this initiative it would be job done for me.  Imagine a world where with your annual Equity diary you got a copy of the #time4change Charter and a Mental Health MOT sheet (Angie Peake's idea again....not mine).  Check in with yourself how you were doing, and have an annual check that things are ticking along nicely. Any niggles that raise the red flat on the MOT sheet, get yourself along to the Doctors for a check up. Simple.  Go safe in the knowledge that our industry understands mental health issues as well as we understand physical health issues.  

We almost need a mental health equivalent to 'Physio Ed's' don't we? A one stop place where people can get affordable therapy without feeling any shame or embarrasment for being there.  

So...the campaign wades on.  Suddenly organisations that have forgotten about my emails are suddenly responding with me, and arranging meetings...which is just brilliant.  Here's hoping that for each of these organisations there is a Pat O'Toole amongst them, that won't give up until the company/college/organisation is signed up. To be continued ;-)

Friday, 22 July 2016

Drama UK - it's #time4change

Wow what a difference a week makes.  Last week Mark Shenton kindly 'launched' the #time4change Mental Health charter in a nicely worded piece in The Stage:

Mark had visited The MTA a week earlier and as usual our discussion came around to Mental Health issues, as Mark has a well documented fight with depression, and he knows that I've been campaigning for a number of years to improve Mental Health education in drama colleges. In passing I had mentioned the Charter, and, given his history, was interested in his view on it.  So we arranged for me to send it onto him.  It was then a pleasant surprise when I found out that he was going to write about it in The Stage.

The Charter, as seen by Mark, needed a little bit of refining, so Angie Peake ( who had written the document hurried on with the edits so that I could send it out to the various people who had already committed to sign up to it.

Like with the fund raising the year before I remembered how much I hated emailing people asking them to do something so public, however if the truth be told, I'm getting really tired of the fight to get this matter 'out there', so this became the final push to make a small difference. The final mile of my own personal marathon if you like.

Fast forward a week and we have 19 agencies all signed up, which means if they only had 30 clients each - 570 performers this week have received a document, highlighting Mental Health issues. 570 performers have discovered that their agents take Mental Health and the welfare of their clients seriously.  In addition to that we have the Theatre Royal Stratford East signed up...which means that every one of their visiting companies will have a Mental Health reference as part of their orientation package (including Well being/ it's easy to think that the campaign is all about illness, as in reality it's about prevention).

6 production companies have signed up, meaning that everyone that works for them in future will receive the Charter, and will again be reassured that they're working for an employer who takes Mental Health seriously.

Finally, in the area where this whole bloody campaign started just one college has taken up the mantle.  Rose Bruford, which already had a robust Mental Health policy and pastoral care system, led by the rather amazing Pat O'Toole. Pat came to the conference and has stayed engaged with the process ever since. She instantly went back to work and implemented just some  suggestions that came up in the conference.  Regardless of whether or not they officially adopt the Charter - they have, via Pat, attempted to do something above and beyond, which after all is what this Charter is really about.

In an ideal world of course I would have presented the Charter to Drama UK and asked them to make it mandatory in all of their accredited colleges.  Sadly Drama UK has instead,  resolutely refused to sit down and discuss the Mental Health provision all of their colleges currently provide.  The creme de la creme colleges have no mandatory policies as dictated under the terms of their accreditation (which probably explains why the approach differs from college to college).

Once again back in 2014 I wrote about how I thought that the current system for accrediting colleges was outdated and irrelevant to today's industry Fast forward two years and 12 colleges have left (included the jewels in the drama college crown that are LAMDA, Bristol Old Vic and RADA) whilst the others limp home with the chocolate teapot that is Drama UK.

So how much longer do we all talk about accreditation in such glowing terms? How much longer before colleges get to throw away the shackles of accreditation and simply adopt a policy of transparency? How much longer do we pay for an antiquated system to dictate what is excellent in drama training in the UK? Those remaining colleges need to step out from the shadows, and declare exactly what it is they are providing, and what their results truly are.  Maybe, just maybe, they could also be accountable for their pastoral care too?

The #time4change Charter in essence takes on a life of its own now - it has got nothing more to do with The MTA, we're merely passing the relay baton if you like, in a bid to get everyone running at the same pace.  Why waste months debating policy....just adopt the charter...job done.  The colleges that pride themselves on getting this performer into the West End and that performer into film, at some point will be accountable for the care that they've provided ALL of their students with along the way. Anecdotally at best this is haphazard, at worse it's downright dangerous.  ALL staff need to be trained, cultures have to change to allow for curiosity to permeate throughout the seats of learning.

I have a handful of batons that I'm desperate to give out. Maybe a few more colleges could follow Rose Bruford's lead and realise that it's people that's important. . . not performers. Maybe they could also see that an addition to their policies could be a good thing, it doesn't say that they've got it wrong up until now - it just says that they want to be better from now on.

My idea? Save your Drama UK subs and put the the money you save into Mental Health ;-)

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

It's #time4change?

Back in March I blogged about a Mental Health conference, that we, at The MTA had instigated: This had been borne out of 7 years of quiet, and then not so quiet campaigning to encourage drama colleges to think differently about their 'Mental Health Policies'.  Back in Christmas 2014 I wrote this: It was meant to be an impassioned plea to get colleges to look at this ongoing issue anew, but instead I discovered that it did nothing more than raise certain hackles,  It felt like however I approached the subject it was wrong.

Since actively campaigning I have been told (and I confess that I'm paraphrasing here), that I should stop 'going on' about Mental Health, as I'd run the risk of becoming digital wall paper (I should quickly add that this was from someone most definitely supporting the campaign); My stance came across as too aggressive, turning people off from the content (said by the person that practically gave me a geographical reference point when I asked the question where young performers could go when in crises, missing the fact entirely that I was speaking much more metaphorically, and having missed the critical sentence that I'd written, about the fact that when in a mental health crises, some people couldn't get out of bed, let alone go to their GP's for help).  I've written letters to various organisations which have been met with a resounding 'we do all of this...haven't you read our policy?' failing to stay curious for just one moment that whilst their intentions couldn't be faulted, maybe their services were failing to follow through somehow?  I've been patronised, placated and down right insulted by the best of the best.  Whilst screaming from the rafters that we, as an industry need to keep doing more, I've felt my head patted several times, like some naughty but playful dog that just won't 'stop playing'.

Then there are the amazing people that I've met along the way, some long standing associates, some very new, who have reinvigorated the campaign at times when they probably didn't even know that I was just about to throw in the towel (again). How did they do it? Well they just listened and then reiterated that we really MUST do something.

For the conference, I attempted to collate some informal empirical evidence about the silent epidemic that was hitting our industry.  The emails that I received have literally kept me fighting these past 3 months. Story after story of people that had been let down by these so called 'policies', people who had left our industry prematurely due to Mental Illness.  Colleges (or more specifically, unskilled staff at respected colleges) offering up helpful advice like 'the industry is tough get used to it'..right through to the classic 'if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen'.  Brilliant advice for young performers struggling with their own sense of self, and in some instances, even their grasp on reality?

Whilst discussing the campaign with industry friends and colleagues every single person, without exception, has acknowledged that we have an issue in our industry.  People that are struggling, entering our industry (or indeed have been in it for years)...clearly needing help and guidance.  The MTA graduates are constantly returning to college with various anecdotes about how much mental illness they are seeing out there, and how that, even more scary, when they broach the subject with their new found friends, they are being answered with the same scared voices that have engulfed our industry for too long.  Mental illness is not a thing to be talked about . . . it is our industry's taboo.

When famous performers become infamous overnight by breakdowns and illnesses that we can't even name, then we are doing something wrong aren't we?  Stephen Fry walked off a set in 1995 due to illness, and the press nailed him to the nearest cross. The language that they used just last year to explain the 'walk out' included that classic 'admitted' word. He 'admitted' to being Bipolar.  I'm asthmatic - I've never had to 'admit' to that fact...I've sometimes told people about this physical impairment, but it's never involved a full confession.  I was extremely short sighted for years...I never 'admitted' that I wore contact lenses, I told people so that they could share in the same relief that I had when I put my lenses in.

The goldfish bowl of social media has magnified the issue to a crazy degree (pun intended). We no longer wait for a newspaper to publish the 'facts', the audience of that night will tell you within minutes what's gone down at a theatre. We have twitter accounts helpfully telling us the news 'as and when it happens'. We have speculation and rumours flying around before the curtain has come down on Act One.  At least pop stars get a warning from 'an insider' that someone is going to grass on them, so that their management have time to put together a damage limitation plan (usually dressed up as a scoop for one of the tabloids).  Theatre folk don't have that luxury. Live theatre nowadays equals live, real time, gossip.  It doesn't matter what you write, as we have forgotten that we're actually writing about humans...and probably humans in so much pain at that time.  Those same humans go home and read the crap that's been written about them,  if they're foolish they'll try to answer their critics. . . but it's lost. At that moment the 'battle is lost'. The next thing you know what should have been a discrete issue between you and a maximum of 2000 people (usually much less), has become a headline. . . a news story.

Let's go back to my critics though . . . as we don't have a problem in our industry. . . do we? Sarcastic? Moi?

In other words Mental Health and the stigma around it, is still prevalent in our industry.  This amazing industry that accepts everyone for who and what they are, just as long as they have talent. We not only accept, but we embrace flaws. . . maybe to the point that it quashes our desire to fix this problem?

So for all the people out there struggling today, for all the people out there that feel just a bit out of kilter with the rest of the world, but you can't just put your finger on the issue, we've come up with an industry wide Mental Health Charter.  We are looking for colleges, production companies, theatres and agents to sign up to the Charter.  It costs you nothing. . . it contains simple guidelines for each of those areas.  It contains a Fact Sheet that we want to get out there to as many industry folk as possible.  It's your 'break glass in an emergency' piece of virtual paper.  A simple PDF that we ask you to download onto your desktop, or add to a well used folder, so that IF you find yourself with an issue that you're going to need to 'admit to' now have an instant reference point to attempt to try and find out exactly what you're 'admitting to'. A reference point that isn't a generic Google search (which is in itself enough to make anyone ill), but a list of criteria drawn up by Angie Peake our Health and Welfare Consultant (who I should add, volunteered her services to do this work), but designed to 'keep it real'.

The #time4change initiative is not the answer  to the difficulties that we all face in this industry - but if it helps one person then it's been worth all of the above, and then some.

We should celebrate ill performers fighting their inner demons, be they dressed up in comedy, addiction, or even meltdowns, in order to go back into work.  To return to a job, which let's not forget, holds each and every one of us, up to public scrutiny night after night.  Or if currently looking for work, an occupation that puts you up for scrutiny and rejection every day. . .without ever telling you why.  A career, which for most people, means only being able to engage in it a few times a year, and even then probably won't be paying you a decent wage.

All of this and yet STILL we brush mental health under the carpet, because I guess it's the ultimate monster.  If it got a hold of so and so. . . are you next? PR machines go into overtime to deny that their clients are 'ill'.  Agents feel the need to cover up a truth, and discretely try to let their client know that there might be something wrong.

It's #time4change.

It's time for all of us within the industry to at least have an open dialogue about Mental Health.  To be able to say, without recrimination that we have depression or anxiety or bipolar or. . . whatever.  For our industry to understand those words without fleeing in a stricken panic. I am asthmatic, I have a pump, I am OK. People will know where to find the little blue plastic thing that I occasionally need to breath.  I am short sighted. In my pre-laser days, people knew where my lenses were for those 'special mornings' when I maybe, just maybe, I'd lost the ability to be thoughtful the night before in disposing of them.  If people suffer from a mental illness they should have the freedom to name it, and we should have the knowledge to understand what that means, and what support, if any that person needs.

It's #time4change

If you'd like a copy of the Charter, and think that it could help inform you, your clients, your production company - just drop me a line at naming the subject as #time4change. It won't cost you anything, but it might make a huge difference to somebody's life. . . if not your own

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

What Society?

How the world can change with a X on a ballot paper eh?  Of course the world changed before that. . . it changed the moment we all knew that there would be a referendum on the EU.  Sad that this  appalling decision/amazing opportunity (depending on your viewpoint) has descended into this inter party squabble over who's going to be in charge next, never mind 'us', the British public attempting to work our way through the maze of lies and media bias, let's just press all the buttons and see what happens shall we?

Clearly all of the next bit is hypothesis, based on some known and agreed facts; but this is a situation created by one person's sense of they were destined to 'rule the land', it was just semantics how they were going to achieve this aim.   The hand might have been initially forced by UKiP, and their creeping (literally) infiltration into the UK political scene.  I mean even as I'm writing this, I feel like I'm writing the plot to some great Shakespearean play, or given the absurdity of some of the fodder that was fed to us, some epic Brechtian satirical masterpiece, with a simple message of 'be careful they're out there' at the end.

What's obvious now is that one of the main protagonists was playing this 'card' safe in the knowledge that the UK public would never actually vote Leave - it was the ultimate bluff by a deftly crafted jovial, political buffoon.  He just hadn't bargained on Feral Farage somehow being so charismatic that people of the UK would believe his lies.  I refuse to call it spin as that's too kind a word for it.  They all spouted their crap (both sides it has to be said), with neither side really working with the positives.

This was a country being wound up like a coiled spring, with none of the leading players stopping to look at what was really happening, because that's all they wanted to think about was themselves and their interests.

The bit that interests me in all of this though is that this political farce that is currently being played out at our expense feels to me, like a magnification of what society has turned into.  It's all about 'me', what can 'I' get out of the world.  There was once talk about the Big Society, but where did that go? Hell, did it really start?

The older I get, the harder I have to work to remain positive and outwardly focussed.  I'm beginning to see how people become cynical, and that's scary.  Our industry is full of people that have an inward focus, yet who throughout this tumultuous time, I see people sharing posts in disgust of people that are just doing what they've done but on a much bigger scale.

The MTA is a charity, we receive no funding at all other than the students' fees, so we do things like offer room hire to attempt to create a Hardship Fund for those students who can't pay.  The amount of people who contact me pointing out that they're  a charity, or they're just starting out on a venture, or they simply have no money so can we  help them? My favorite over the past few years, are the people that are essentially asking us to bet on them.  Give them a room for a reduced price now, and when/if they strike gold, then we will too, as they'll keep coming back to hire spaces from us.  Sounds too good to be true right? Well you're right. Those people (and I should add that a fair percentage of them are mates and colleagues, who know how much we struggle to raise money for the Hardship Fund) never return.  Maybe they've found somewhere cheaper, which increases their profit, maybe they've found somewhere closer to 'home', hell maybe they've just found somewhere better - but do we hear from them? Do we get a quick email saying sorry, but? Of course we don't. Yet those very same people will share a FB post saying that our industry is quickly becoming the playground of the rich.  They don't see that in their own way, they just contributed to that culture.  Their sense of entitlement to 'do the deal', 'make a bigger profit' superseded their desire to add to the 'big society'.

I seem to recall a time when our industry stuck together, we looked after one another, and we looked after one another's interests? I seldom see that now.  Increasingly people are out for themselves. Yet what I find fascinating is that in their own way, they 'spin' their lives via social media, so they appear to be outward looking, but in fact when you scratch the surface it is literally everybody just fighting for survival.

Regardless of what happens next, the country is now in difficulty.  In fighting has overtaken the greater good.  We're about to be presented with a new Prime Minister - 2 of the candidates have said in the last few days, that they couldn't write off the the suggestion that immigrants who have settled in the UK might be required to 'go home' (missing the fact of course, that they are already 'home'), with another candidate proudly supporting the fact that homosexuality can be cured? Bad news for Old Compton Street right there. I mean what the hell?? Our leaders are being applauded by the majority of the European far right parties.  Never has a name been more ironic - they are far from right.

My timeline and my FB feed is full of people sharing articles galore, each one claiming to have an explanation as to what's going on now, or why 'now' happened in the first place.  Actually it's rather simple isn't it? We just forgot to stick together, we forgot that the UK wasn't just London, we forgot to give people facts before a referendum, be that a Pythonesque 'what did the EU do for us?', or a 'this is what we're going to do after'.  Living in the here and now I see and hear people getting excited at the prospect of a female PM, celebrating that if Hilary gets in over in the US too, the women would have taken over.  I can't celebrate that as I read what the UK 'female' can't 'take off the table' right now, I heard her say that people's future in this country were no longer secured, I've read her voting record on all things gay (in a nutshell she's voted against everything including equalising the age of consent back in 1998, and in 2002 she voted against gay couple's adopting children).   I can't celebrate her gender as the bigger picture is too frightening. Let's not forget the last time a woman was in charge over here. Clearly I'm Welsh, so I have very strong feelings about the last time 'we' (the women) took over. Why do I see posts that even celebrate that fact - listen to what the hell she's saying!! Why do people think that it's OK to actively support the lesser of all evils. We should not be celebrating this news!

In spite of my blogging rant I refuse to grow cynical, I will keep metabolising my own feelings when somebody attempts to shaft us for their own gain, and I will fight the urge not to comment on their social media feed about their hypocrisy. However I can't help but feel sad about what we've become and why we've allowed personal ambition to overtake the 'greater good'.

In the tough times ahead, I really hope that we can all look outside of ourselves to support one another, and indeed to fight for one another, as opposed to fight with one another.  We should always be striving for a better 'us', which in turn would surely turn us into a better society?  So I'll naively (aka knowingly) keep attempting to help out people when they come asking for favours, in the hope that one day someone might return that favour to the college which would enable us to keep running a college that's available to everyone.

Meanwhile if you are one of the people sharing articles on the political crises with a running commentary on what we all should be doing to sort this mess out, firstly please check the date on the article, as we don't need nostalgia at the moment, we need today's facts, but then secondly maybe stop for a moment, and check that mirror, as you might not be attempting to take over a government with your own 'spin', but you might have contributed to the society that we currently find ourselves in, the society that let this situation happen.

I'm certainly not being sanctimonious in this thought, I also need to stand in front of the mirror and work out what I need to do differently in order to perpetuate small changes which might just have a ripple effect.  We hashtag #lovewins what if we started hashtagging #society? Better still let that love create the society - that way we'll all win.