Tuesday, 7 July 2015

A response to Ruby: how honest should you be about your mental health?

Image via Rex Features

I'd planned a response to Ruby's piece in my head.

A response saying:

I get it. I get that I've been lucky, and many others haven't. But that I'm not naive in wanting to be honest, because surely that's how we move past stigma. And people aren't all bad.

That would have been the crux of it. Optimistic and probably quite pushy.

I angrily titled it in my head, "Why Ruby is wrong, and you should be honest about your mental health."

A bit of context, mental health campaigner and OBE recipient Ruby Wax recently told The Times:

“When people say, ‘Should you tell them at work?’, I say: ‘Are you crazy?’ You have to lie. If you have someone who is physically ill, they can’t fire you. They can’t fire you for mental health problems but they’ll say it’s for another reason. Just say you have emphysema."

Reflecting on Ruby's piece and my ideas for a response, I then saw @MarkOneInFour asking on Twitter, why is the tendency to talk in imperatives when we talk about mental health. "You must do this, you mustn't do that."

And I realised he was right. Completely right. And I wondered why that was. Maybe that our experiences around these issues feel so loaded, fueled either by anger around a negative reaction, or gratitude around a positive one. The reactions can vary so vastly, but our reaction either way will be strong, particularly around the negative feelings.

All we have is our world view, backed up by our experiences. We can listen to others but we're going to be shaped emotionally by what we know and what has happened to us. For me in this case that's heightened by a sense of optimism (people aren't all bad; we're moving on) and such a strong desire for change (we have to move through this: honesty is the way).

Then how we share these thoughts online is filtered through what's worth clicking on: something to be angry at, or to ardently agree with, but something strong and plosive, and not necessarily balanced. Essentially click-bait, and that doesn't feel right: it's black and white, and not how the world works.

So, how honest should you be about your mental health to an employer? It depends. The cop-out answer but the reality.

Personally, I would hope people could feel they could be honest but it does depend on so many things.

It can depend on how open you are generally as a person but specifically regarding mental health. Personally I'm now very open, something that started in person, at Ruby's theatre show Losing It. (Sidenote: I think she's generally brilliant, I just don't agree with her statements on this issue) Then, online - blogging about my experiences.

From there talking about these issues in real life became a lot easier. I also became such a strong supporter of shattering the stigma around mental health, even when that's difficult, so that's inevitably going to give me a bit of a different answer to the question of honesty.

Another factor in honesty is how you experience your illness, which could mean many things but specifically meaning whether episodic or chronic. For me, it's been acute and episodic, but at the time - when I had to be honest about it (I needed time off, I was falling apart, I felt like I couldn't not say) - I didn't know it was acute. It felt like it would go on forever, and I felt in no place to reassure my employer.

I've told three separate managers when I've been having mental health problems, causing varying degrees of impact on my ability to do my job, and all three were fantastic. I had good relationships with all three but believe they would have reacted the same to anyone.

So was I just lucky, or are things in a better position than people think? Maybe we talk about the worst case scenarios more than the quiet moments of acceptance?

I just don't know. I'd love to know the statistics but that's problematic in itself.

I also have the comparison point of having a physical chronic illness. This made Ruby's suggestion of inventing a physical ailment ("just say you have emphysema") to mask the mental health difficulties an uncomfortable one.

My condition, POTS, used to be unpredictable and pretty intense, causing me pain and fatigue but also very public fainting episodes, which felt like an inconvenience to both myself and my colleagues. I let my manager know after I'd got the job and he was great: so supportive and understanding.

Surprisingly I found it a lot more scary to talk to my manager for the first time about this then anything mental health related, perhaps because of the ongoing nature of it, and it being a daunting thing for others to see and experience.

Comparisons of what is better or worse in terms of living with the conditions and the stigmas involved are ridiculous, but let's just say that talking about a physical condition is not the easy option.

So there are lots of factors at play as to whether someone would be honest and why, but in terms of whether people should be honest about mental health I'd say (cards on the table, acknowledging this is just my view point): yes.

Because stigma is probably more about ignorance than malice, and if we're all honest the stigma has to lessen.

Because our expectation shouldn't be the worst case scenario, even if that is a possibility and does happen (if anything is going to make you anxious this will).

Because you're protected by the law.

But crucially because it's about looking after yourself. If your manager knows what's going on and what you need they can help you. They can back off, swoop in or lessen the workload - if they're supportive - or at the very least they can listen and be aware.

And maybe if it's the first time they've experienced the situation, they'll learn and be more prepared the next time.

So, essentially this article has been a mash-up of conflicts, anxieties and uncertainties. I was wary of sharing anything at all but I wanted to, to put my experiences forward. To say that being honest can work out just fine. But that I acknowledge I'm not in a position to tell you what to do, because no one is.

Articles like Ruby's, and even like some of the response pieces, can make speaking up and continuing the conversation around mental illness incredibly daunting: you worry you'll say the wrong thing, but there is no wrong thing, only multiple, conflicting truths.

Every person is different, with different experiences and different opinions and that is valid: so let's hear them all. Let's put it out there and give people the confidence to do whatever they want (when they feel able).

Mental health stigma has moved on so much, even in the past five years. So let's keep going. I think we're getting somewhere.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

My Contiki Asian Adventure

The Grand Palace, Bangkok

Around 8 months ago I was having a lazy Sunday afternoon catching up on blogs and social media when I stumbled across a post from fashion blogger Lily Melrose about her "Contiki Asian Adventure".

I clicked through and found out about her two-week group tour through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. She'd had an amazing time, and I was jealous.

Before then, I didn't know travel could work this way. I thought of "going travelling" as something you did for months at a time, by yourself or with a friend, but definitely not suiting working full-time.

Suddenly it became entirely plausible. I decided pretty immediately to do it and that month I booked the trip for May, leaving a day after my 25th birthday.

After months of saving, excitement and anxiety, the trip finally came around, and then went way too quick: I didn't want it to end!

contiki asian adventure route

One of the best parts of the trip was that I didn't experience it alone but with a group of 28 others, mostly solo travellers with some groups, all 18-35 years, and from all around the world. They started as strangers but very quickly we got so close and I now feel lucky to consider them friends.

Ahead of the trip I'd been a little nervous about meeting so many new people in one go but I needn't have worried. Everyone was so lovely!

(If you think this trip would be out of your comfort zone you're probably right, but it's the same for everyone, which makes for a really welcoming, curious and fun group mindset. You'll be fine.)

The trip has something for everyone too, suiting any personality with stunning sights, culture, history and just plain old good times.

We saw so many temples, from impressive gold constructs to intricate stone carvings. We were blessed by a monk, sailed down the Mekong river, bartered at night markets and ate street food.

We did too much to tell you but all of it wonderful! Which is why it's hard to pin down highlights, but something really special was the Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai.

A local chef showed us around the food market, with as much banter (such a joker) as knowledge on the fresh ingredients he was showing us.

At the market, learning about and smelling all the produce.

Then in an open-air kitchen in the countryside, we learned how to make authentic Thai food. With guidance we made our own dinner consisting of four separate dishes, and it was genuinely one of the best meals on the trip!

Cooking with fire!
Another really special moment came on the last day when we experienced sunrise at Angkor Wat. Bleary eyed from lack of sleep we stumbled along, to be met by the most stunning view. We were just blown away by the beauty of the place and it felt like a real privilege to be there. Here's the view from Rainbow Bridge, "where earth meets heaven".

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

We just generally had the best time with great meals and nights out, and constant laughs along the way. And the last night really was the best.

Amidst all the sights and experiences, I loved just seeing the everyday in the places we went: children playing outside their houses, cows walking down the street, buddhist monks going about their day, families living in houses on the lake surrounded by water, and even the kind of infuriating tuk tuk drivers!

While the trip is fast-paced, you really get to soak up the atmosphere of each place you go: the sights, smells and sounds of a place worlds away from home. We also had lovely and often funny local guides who'd talk to us about their lives, their town, the culture and the history of a place.

And the history was both fascinating and devastating. Having fallen in love with these countries it was awful to hear what they've been through, and what they're still going through now.

In Laos we visited the COPE centre and learned about how between 1964 to 1973 two million tons of ordnance were dropped on the country: every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. A third of these bombs did not go off at the time, and are still risks today. This rehabilitation clinic provides necessary, life-changing support, including prosthetic limbs, to those affected.

Then in Cambodia we heard about the reign of Pol Pot, when 3 out of the 8 million population were killed over the space of four years. We visited The Killing Fields where over 20000 innocent people were brutally murdered, and also the genocide museum, which was the prison at the time. It was so disturbing to hear of what happened, and really made us stop and think.

The fact these atrocities are unknown to most of us makes them all the more shocking.

The view from Laos' version of the Arc de Triomphe, in capital city Vientiane.

So, a really varied fortnight. I would recommend this trip to anyone, and with this company. We saw so much, were looked after, met amazing people and just had the best time. You won't regret it!

For a full day-by-day itinerary and trip details, visit the Contiki website here.

And for anyone interested, in terms of my health - I mostly coped! For those that don't know I have a chronic illness called POTS which causes a fast heart rate, fatigue and fainting. I'm doing really well on my meds but knew this trip would be a challenge as heat is a trigger.

I doubled my medications up to maximum dose (with approval from my doctor) and just tried to stay hydrated and know my limits. The trip was exhausting, I did pass out (but only once!), and sure I struggled a little, but I still had the time of my life. Even a year ago I would not have been able to make this trip, and knowing that made me appreciate it all the more.

I'll post a few more photos, but if you're curious about the trip and have any questions, please do comment below, tweet me @amyjanesmith or drop me an email!

Wat Rong Khun, or, the White Temple, in Chiang Rai.
Wat Rong Khun, or, the White Temple, in Chiang Rai.

With some creepy/cool detailing!
Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep
A Buddha for each day of the week, at Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep.

Bayon temple in Siem Reap
The Bayon temple in Siem Reap, one of my
favourites, and covered in over 200 faces sculpted in.

Ta Prohm temple
Ta Prohm: a 900-year-old temple with a massive tree right in the centre.
This was the temple in Tomb Raider!

Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang, Laos
The gorgeous (and very refreshing!) Kuang Si Falls in
Luang Prabang, Laos, where we also visited the Bear Sanctuary.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Little poems on theatre and stigma

I've done something a little bit different. Something a little bit scary to share, but enjoyable to make.

I'm wary of calling them poems because I don't know that they are, but here they are anyhow!

So, here's a piece I wrote about the experience, and love, of going to the theatre:

And here's one I wrote following the stigma-provoking coverage of the Germanwings flight 9525 crash and the mental health of pilot Andreas Lubitz. This is not in defence of him or his actions, but rather an attack on the media's damaging delivery of this story.

I don't know if I'll do any more of these, maybe, but either way it was nice to try something new!

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Lessons learned from Karren Brady (the ultimate #GirlBoss)

Karren Brady autobiography

She's the strong, silent and ever-so sassy advisor on The Apprentice. That's how I knew her and not much more.

Browsing for my next read I stumbled across Karren's autobiography and thought it might make an interesting read. And that it was!

Having skipped the traditional route of university Karren went straight into the world of business and was Managing Director of Birmingham City by the age of 23. 

She's built up an overwhelmingly impressive career and has learned a lot. She shares this with solid advice to inspire confidence and behaviours that will help guide you through life and work (not just business). Just to look at her life and career is inspiring but the way she writes is genuinely rousing and energising. 

Karren dismisses the idea that a good leader is founded in gender-related qualities (obvs), yet she doesn't shy away from engaging with issues surrounding being a woman in business, specifically in football-based business: both raising a family and dealing with other people's bullshit. She's a proud feminist, fighting to get more women on boards. And that's wonderful.

Anyhow, I found myself constantly underlining little pieces of wisdom so I thought I'd do a post to share some of those. But do go read the book.

On confidence

"I learnt never to belittle my contributions, and to say thank you when people paid me a compliment about my work. I didn't say, 'It's nothing', because it wasn't nothing. And if I didn't value it, who would?"

"Self-esteem eliminates fear... [it's] about valuing yourself and your opinions and not being afraid to voice them."

"...nobody will champion you or your career if you don't. I never waited for someone to say, 'You did a good job.' I'd be saying to people, 'Look at what I've done! Isn't it great? Shouldn't I head up the next project?' To me, that was a more straightforward approach."

On dealing with difficult people

"I have never let people put me down, make me feel inferior or say that I wasn't good at something. It's about being able to say, 'I'm sorry, you may think that's acceptable, but I don't.' I think that comes from that inner belief in myself."

"Handle the difficult men with class. It's important to be decisive and shut down a problem effectively and quickly. You must stand up for yourself and show that you cannot and will not be intimidated."

On determination and hard work being the most important factors to success

"I meet a lot of people with great ideas, but they lack the energy and determination to see them through. But if you're determined, with a steely core and a can-do attitude, you're an entrepreneur."

"People should do the things that need to be done, when they need to be done, whether they like it or not."

On taking risks

"A lot of people fear failure so much that they can't achieve anything."

"Calculate the worst thing that can happen and be comfortable with it."

On dealing with difficulty

"If you panic in the face of a problem, you're going to have an unhappy life because life is a series of problems. How happy you are relates to the solutions you find to deal with them...For me, a problem is an opportunity to show off my talent and put everything I know into action."

"No matter how bad things are, no matter how hard the battle you face, you have to accept the reality of the situation and embrace the pressure. You just have to take the view that it has to be done."

"Before you achieve success you nearly always face temporary defeat - sometimes total failure....success is about having the backbone to work a way through."

On the power of personality

"No matter how much you know, you have to have the personality to deliver it. People need to have confidence in what you're saying."

On leadership & team work

"It was about creating an environment where everybody had a role...every role was respected and every role was important."

"Great leadership is as much about paying attention to the nitty-gritty as it is about sounding the part."

"The best leaders are not afraid to work with and listen to people across a broad spectrum, and they get excited when they meet people better than them. That's because they are confident in their own ability."

On gratitude 

"...in an ideal world everyone would have a near-death experience that turns out all right. It teaches you an awful lot about yourself....it teaches you the importance of doing the things you want to do. About aiming high and asking a lot from life."

On feminism

"There's this idea that if you're a woman and you put yourself out there, you've got to take on the chin whatever anyone wants to throw at you. But why?"

"I want to defeat this view that successful women are a special breed - actually you just to have to work bloody hard, to have an idea, go for it and be dedicated to it."

"Have confidence. Walk tall. Be direct. Never be afraid to be a woman."

On balancing having a family with a career 

"What I now appreciate, and didn't understand then, was that a career spans a lifetime, and that taking a few months off would not have harmed mine." [Karren took just three days' maternity after her first child.]

"In my experience, there is never an ideal time and worrying about when will often mean you leave it too late and miss out. If you think about things for ever, you can come up with as many reasons not to do something as to do it, so you have to just go for it."

And a reassuring truth

"Sometimes I just think, oh shit."

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Some thoughts on Caroline Horton's Islands

Caroline Horton Islands
Photo: Ed Collier

"It failed/Failed to hit the mark/To solve the problem/To represent the issue/So much more could have been said/What a waste."

I came out of Islands feeling jubilant. It was exciting, it was crazy, and I'd loved it. I'd gone alone and felt the need to talk about it. So I turned to Google and to reviews.

I knew it had divided critics and opinions in general but reading the reviews felt so disheartening.

Many of the critics felt they hadn't got what they'd expected but also seemed to imply a certain kind of obligation when making political theatre.

Perhaps it was an expectations thing. To go in when the show began, having read the copy, you'd expect a play about these issues. It wasn't that. 

It feels futile to labour over what something is sometimes. It's a play but it's not. It's the Rocky Horror Show meets Shunt meets The Dresden Dolls meets Ubi Roi meets something entirely new.

It's not people discussing tax havens in a straight, dramatic but angered manner.

[Maybe it's like when you go to drink what you think is orange juice and it's actually water and it tastes disgusting. But it's not. It's just a surprise and yet it tastes grim.]

I went on the last night of the show. I'd not been too aware of reviews but seen a lot of buzz on Twitter and in person too, talk of it riling people up, of it being shocking, of walk outs and it being something you should see, even if you won't necessarily like it.

With all that in mind my idea of what Islands would be was inevitably different to what those first audiences would have expected. I went in pretty open. If anything, really ready to be shocked, which I'm not sure that I was.

So sure, I get that expectations affect enjoyment. But I reject the notion that this should have been more political.

Politics in art doesn't have to be, and probably shouldn't be, stuffy. It doesn't have to be subtle or didactic or anything else for that matter. It should just say something. Somehow.

I don't get what the critics wanted. Or how it was a missed opportunity.

Did they want facts? Did they want opinions and anger? The latter was there I feel, but really, we can watch the news and read the paper and watch Question Time and we all know it's wrong, but is that what you want to put on a stage? 

Surely the exciting question is what can theatre do that journalism can't?

And the answer is this. It's visceral, grotesque, ugly, garish and wonderful. It makes you feel as well think and that's entirely necessary. 

It's also very funny. ("Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious." Peter Ustinov.)

It's glamorous and nightmarish and you feel on side with Mary to begin with, she's an outsider, she's an anarchist, and yes she's right, it is a bit of a "shit world". Something needs to be done. And then we realise she's just as bad. And it doesn't matter if you're an artist, "a good person that went to university". It doesn't matter that it's a legal loophole. Even if you think the whole system's shit and you're riding above.

And there's the scary real-world voiceover and they're put in their place with a slapped wrist but then they bounce back and celebrate being good and order out, a flight to LA, caviar, whatever, and it's infuriating. And it's this party, and no one is stopping them, and we're watching it happen.

It plays with ideas about power and the media circus and politics and how it's all linked. 

I don't even want to write too much more about the show because I'm not sure I know how, but I do think that this is exactly the kind of theatre we should be seeing, even, and especially, in relation to big issues. It's exciting, it's new, and for me, it was really enjoyable.

Challenging is fine. Not liking something is also fine. Maybe you didn't get what you wanted from it, but what did you get? Look at that.

And if you're still not convinced, can we still please celebrate theatre that is trying something new? Yeah? Cool.

Do check out Dan Rebellato's review - a brilliant, worthwhile read.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

I was depressed, I'm not now

Depression: it gets better
Image via Uplift Magazine.

I was depressed.

I was sad and and numb and slow and frantic and scared and angry and sometimes drunk but always hopeless.

But I'm not now. I'm well, quite content, and worlds away from these feelings.

Sure, I get sad now and then, like we all do - but it's not all-consuming. It's healthy. It's normal.

In March 2012 I wrote a blogpost about the day to day experiences of living with depression and how it felt.

It resonated with people and seemed to help. It was how they felt too and so maybe it made them feel less alone. But I didn't really talk about moving forward. So now I wanted to do that.

Because if I would have known back then how different I would be now, to leave that depression but also to be more comfortable in my own skin, confident even, well - I wouldn't have believed it. Because hopelessness really is part of the depression package.

But I want to tell you, if you are struggling, that it can, and does, get better.

I can't tell you exactly how, because that will vary for everyone, but I can tell you that it can and does, and how it was for me.

The first time I was depressed (2009) I went for ten sessions of counselling but struggled to get anything out of it. I just couldn't engage. I stopped going to work and I stopped going to university. I basically put my life on pause.

Over time and having to help other people I came through it, and made some big changes in my life. I took a year out of university and worked full time in my retail job. The pressure was off and I got myself together. Or at least I thought I had.

Around a year later, when I was back at university, it came back. Less sudden this time and more of a creeping sensation, slowly being dragged down and knowing of what was happening without being able to stop it.

It was worse this time. It was horrible. I dreaded each day, not wanting to go to bed because it would bring the next day closer. Again, I'd started counselling but it wasn't enough.

At this point my mum encouraged me to go to the doctors. I couldn't just stop everything again, and yet I couldn't keep going like this.

So I started on citalopram. It didn't work immediately, but then, it did. Slowly but surely I started to feel better. I'd really resisted it, for no good reason, but it was what dragged me out of that terrible depression.

Once the depression began to lift I could engage with the counselling: I was open to it rather than completely hopeless about anything helping.

Then, I read self-help books. I've talked about this before, but if you're new here then basically Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers changed a lot for me.

It sounds very peppy and it is, but ride out the twee and you get some incredible life lessons. Rather than being about seeking the courage to do something specific, it explores how life is more about how you respond to what happens to you than it is about what happens to you.

It gives you practical exercises to find a healthier way of thinking and to feel more positive.

I think if I was still in the midst of depression I wouldn't have seen it through, it would have seemed a bit too much so maybe it's one to start on when a bit better.

And maybe that won't be the book for you, but maybe another will. You might cringe at the idea of self-help books but it could really help.

Once I was better I started having Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (the waiting list was long). The principles were familiar to me but the process was so helpful, even though I was by this point not depressed. I had issues to work out in terms of my behaviours and attitudes.

While my depression was acute, my self-esteem issues were pretty chronic and I was able to work on this. I learned how to know I was good enough. Even little behaviours I had that bugged me I could work on.

The other thing that helped me get and stay well was being wary of alcohol. If I was feeling low and then drank, I'd drink to excess, feel terrible emotionally that night and the next day, I'd cry, I'd do stupid things and it wouldn't help - not at all. As much as I seemed to think it was a good idea each time.

I still drink now, but not if I'm feeling sad, and not all that often. I don't need it now, because I'm ok with being myself, on a normal playing field. That was a big change.

Something else that comes into moving on from depression is remembering it. Even though I've actively fought the stigma through things like blogging, until recently I still felt a lingering sense of guilt.

I felt bad about how I acted at the time, for some of the things I did. I thought if some of that was "post-depression" then it wasn't an excuse. I realise now I really wasn't well for a good while, and that wasn't my fault.

I can't even recall what made that click into place but it felt like such a relief. It wasn't my fault, I wasn't well. I could move on. Properly.

By helping myself I've helped others, which still helps me. When depressed, or even if not, in this big old world it's easy to feel insignificant, and think why bother, but in a million ways you can help.

Firstly your loved ones - you can be there for them and also they can just generally enjoy your company. You're more valued than you know.

But also in a broader sense. You don't have to have money to give, or even all that much time. Just you.

You could give blood or your time or your truth (a tweet or a blogpost, you wouldn't think it but it could be just what someone needs) or a bit of organising (collecting for a foodbank/refuge/homeless shelter).

You'll feel involved and you'll be doing something.

And that's not coming from a preachy place. It's just true what they say about helping others helping you and boosting your mood. It really does - and also gives you many much-needed moments of having your faith in humanity restored. Depression is a dark place to be, so seeing how wonderful people can be is a brilliant antidote to that.

However you get there, you will get there. 

And you will look back and it will all seem quite strange, and maybe a little sad.

I'm able to talk about this easily now, online or in real life, but once in a while I'll remember certain aspects of it and it will be upsetting. I'll feel upset for my past self, that I used to think that way, that when depressed I didn't know I was worth anything.

I know now, and I am so very glad of that. Life can be quite brilliant, or even just plain old fine, once you get past depression. And it feels all the more special for it.

Basically, you matter. Your shame is wrapped up in your illness, it is not you. You are good enough, you are more than enough, you are wonderful. And you will see that again.

For information, resources and where to get support, visit the Mind website.

I've also written some general advice on how to stay positive, incorporating what I've learned from CBT and reading. You can also read more about my experiences with depression and anxiety.

Please share your thoughts in the comments if you feel able: where you've been, where you're at now and what helped you get through depression if you did. Let's try and help eachother.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Who Are Our Audiences and How Can We Engage with Them Better?

Yesterday I spent an afternoon at Canada Water Culture Space in brilliant company: a room full of theatre marketers, critics, writers, artists and even audiences themselves - all wanting to talk about how to engage better with audiences and also with each other.

The event was courtesy of Dialogue leaders Jake Orr and Maddy Costa, and Amber Massie-Blomfield, Executive Director of Camden People's Theatre.

I'm not going to attempt to draw any coherent conclusions from what we talked about. There was so much discussed and from completely different perspectives, which felt like a real rare opportunity.

I might delve deeper into specific issues another time but for now, these are pretty much my notes. Just little fragments of interesting things which could lead somewhere. As we talked about, each venue and each artist will have different objectives when it comes to engagement: it's not one size fits all.

I'm sure the organisers themselves will get something up, which will be much better articulated, but I thought it might be helpful to share these, even as a long, rambley, and very note-based post. So here goes...

We kicked off with a brief talk from The Guardian's Lyn Gardner coming at the discussion from a press perspective.

She shared her thoughts on the current state of relationships between critics and venues/artists, that it's not very grown up and a bit of a with-or-against situation.

There was a sense of frustration at the idea from venues that it'd be the critic's job to help sell tickets - that without four or five star reviews their show will flounder. That's not the responsibility of the critic. From this, the issue of star ratings came up and how problematic and simplistic they can be.

Then, crucially - how do you tackle the idea of people thinking theatre is "not for me".

We discussed:

Social media & online platforms for discussion
  • Twitter/blogs and the collation of these via Storify to give a voice to the audience: more diverse.
  • Social media being social, not just a broadcasting medium. Interesting content, questions and knowing your voice.
  • Taking Q&As online, not just post-show: engage people beyond those who already know the show or the area. Link up with publications to host.
  • Example of Forced Entertainment's Quizoola24 with new people clicking on as it took over Twitter. People shared quotes and discussed and became part of the event.
Ways to look at reviews & star ratings
  • The Rotten Tomatoes style of giving an average out of five from all reviews.
  • Word Bubbles to pick up common words/phrasing from reviews and social media.
  • Exeunt having collaboratively written and creative reviews.
  • Stars are difficult to pin down but a concise indicator for audience.
  • Economic impact of star ratings, particularly on London venues and smaller companies.
Encouraging new audiences
  • Press using plus ones to take people who wouldn't ordinarily attend, or to different types of theatre. How to encourage this behaviour outside of press.
  • Issue based theatre providing marketing and post-show discussion (in venue and online) opportunities, as well as different press angles.
    ie Finding Joy and NHS/dementia charities: a way into mask and theatre generally.
  • Theatre as a destination and as a night out. Show as after thought. Takes pressure off venue. A sense of trust in programming/willing to take a risk.
  • Theme nights ie Soho's twenties night with fashion bloggers.
  • Comps/dynamic pricing to encourage attending in beginning of run, to try something new.
  • Who is the man on the street? What does he want?
  • Company's responses to critics: conversation is good.
  • Blogger and theatre relationships: only the big bloggers? Newspapers writing for everyone, bloggers writing for arts elite? 
  • A relationship beyond press night invite/reception. Following up ideas, and keeping a show interesting.

We then had Stewart Pringle, Artistic Director at the Old Red Lion Theatre, to talk us through forward thinking, using Caroline Horton's Islands as a springboard. How much is revealed to the audience pre-show? How much is helpful?

There is a common perception that new writing, new work in general, should "speak for itself" - is this fair? The idea of other voices available at point of purchase beyond marketing copy, and curated by the artists themselves. Then following this with interesting and informative freesheets/programmes.

We discussed:

Additional content
  • Feeling involved in the theatrical journey can lead to a sense of personal investment in, and engagement with, the production. This could be via rehearsal videos, blogs, work-in-progress/open rehearsals, etc.
  • Education packs are emailed to schools, but what about the rest of the audience?
  • Additional information not as a paid for luxury or a one-off preview piece but as an essential offer (then up to audience to decide). Helping new audiences feel comfortable.
  • Targeted routes for content, not just social media.
  • Brochures that are also magazines with editorial content. Or at least links to extra content.
  • Linking up different mediums. More interesting content in emails and print: not just for social media or blogs.
Creativity & making the most of limited funds
  • Same level of creative thinking to marketing a programmed work as to a produced piece. 
  • Thinking beyond limited budgets: what can you do that's exciting and linked to the show, and maybe even free?
  • Guerilla marketing ie Northern Stage's 1984: reading the book in shop windows.
  • Old Red Lion Theatre running photography exhibitions alongside show - thematic or specific to production. Small, simple, old-fashioned but makes it an experience, plus an interesting press angle.
  • Dynamic websites: how does it open to a new booker? A regular booker? A genre-specific booker? Can certain people unlock extra content?
  • Training smaller theatre companies to upskill with their marketing/press.
  • Theatre trailers developing: what you'll get/themes/mood of piece. 
  • In cinema, people enjoy pre-film trailers as part of their overall experience. Directly affects their booking. What can we learn from this?
  • Are trailers newsworthy? Maybe only if provocative. 
  • RSC trailer release --> increase in sales.
PR firms & press nights
  • The expense and effectiveness of PR firms. Sometimes myth that you're buying the benefit of personal contacts. Lyn wouldn't necessarily be persuaded any more so than by press release first coming through.
  • Presence of Artistic Director at press nights. A chance for a rich exchange.

We finished with Amber, Executive Director of Camden People's Theatre and Head of Communications at The Albany, talking through her experiences from both venues. 

She discussed focuses on supporting new artists, and the community too - with examples such as homeless groups using a culture space. There's no naive assumptions they will go on to be bookers, but just a genuine, alternative way of engaging in the arts.

Helpfully, she asserted that you can't be all things to all people. For example, visiting a venue on one night and seeing a not very diverse audience and presuming there's no thought/strategy - it's not realistic.

It's about specific schemes, specific shows and venues - what are they looking and planning to achieve? Then it's also about clarity around this and transparency as to what you're doing.

We discussed:
  • Journalism on the business of theatres - this is lacking, but The Stage as good example.
  • Data and accountability: for small organisations as well as large.
  • The sharing of statistics and certain venues reluctance to share. The use of Freedom Of Information where applicable and if this would lead to conflict (it shouldn't).
  • Purple Seven reports being shared, but then these don't tell the whole story: what is the audience's behaviour across other venues? (Particularly with London) How else can we find out about our audiences?
  • Artists' fear around sharing of their process and business.
  • How we keep our cards close to our chests, and how we could be better with open-ness about successes and failures, in general but relating to audience development projects to help each other. Culture Hive as one way of sharing.

So, a lot to think about! As I say, these were just my (limited) notes from what was said, but perhaps helpful anyhow, if only to prompt further ideas.

Hopefully I'll get to another of these - it was so nice to share frustrations and potential ways forward, with such a wide range of people.

Find out about Dialogue here.