Over the past months, the TCG Conference team has been at work with collaborator/co-curator Viviana Vargas of Advancing Arts Forward, putting together a Conference space dedicated to self and community care. This year's Conference WellSpace offers the unique opportunity to explore financially sustainable models of self-care, while also acting as a launching pad to setting up an affordable self-care practice in an industry where compensation is not always a top priority. What follows is a conversation facilitated by Viviana Vargas and featuring several of the practitioners who will bring their skills and personal commitments to well-being into the WellSpace as one of its activations. At the beginning of the conversation, Viviana led the group in offering land acknowledgment. They offered this site as a means of helping current occupants learn about the history of the land where they live and work. For more on land acknowledgment, we encourage you to use this resource.
Viviana Vargas: In preparation for the Theatre Communications Group Miami Conference, we're here discussing the WellSpace that we have spent the past few months curating. Today, we're talking to many of the practitioners, facilitators, who will be offering some self-care strategies and personal practices with many of the Conference attendees in our WellSpace. So, to get started I'd love to have everyone introduce themselves. If you could say your name you go by, your pronouns, and then a brief understanding or history of your wellness practice. Maybe it's around how you got to where you are now or anything you'd like to share about yourself in that sense.
Amara: I'm Amara Brady. My pronouns are she/her/hers. I am the conference associate here at TCG,primarily identify as a theater maker and artist. My degree is in acting, and I write a lot, so the session I'm leading is Guided Journaling. One thing that I struggle with profusely is anxiety and depression. One thing that I find that grounds me is to do these things I call "mind dumps". I do them whenever I feel overwhelmed or my brain is too full of things and I can't concentrate or I can't focus, or I'm struggling with those. I just sit and I write. I don't get to judge it and I don't get to stop the streamline of consciousness. Whatever is happening is what I write. I come at self-care from that way. I especially have been promoting conversations around self-care that is financially and fiscally sustainable and responsible, because I am poor, and because I think that self-care shouldn't be reserved to those who can afford
Stokely: My name is Stokely, or JD Stokely, but I just use my last name. I use the pronouns they/them and he/him, but they/them is my preference please. I'm the associate producer at HowlRound Theatre Commons, which is based in Boston. I'm coming to this to facilitation and also just bringing my artist self. I'm a co-founder of UnBound Bodies Collective, which is for queer and trans folks of color in the Boston area. It's like a multi-disciplinary art space. I also come to this work as someone with a background in devising and writing and mostly working on devising theater with queer youth.
I'm thinking a lot through what it means to play. To use play as a form of wellness. Also as a way of coming back to one's body through this play and exploration of performing through trauma and all that good stuff. So, I will be facilitating the Affinity Space for People of Color. I'm going to be framing it around the idea of: What does it mean to thrive as people of color? What does a thriving space look like for us?
Irina: This is Irina Kruzhilina. My pronouns are she/her/hers. I am a designer for all kinds of performing arts. I'm very inspired by everything you all said. I feel like my wellbeing and spiritual practice is much more simple. In addition to my theatre work I'm also a yoga teacher and that's my main wellbeing process in a way. I teach yoga to a lot to artists because I believe there is a great connection between practicing yoga and doing art. I think that artists of all people can benefit greatly from the practice of yoga. And by yoga, I mean not just physical exercises for physical effect, but rather a full spiritual practice and the understanding of oneness. Oneness of your body, your breath, your soul, and oneness of the whole planet.
I'm very much looking forward to contribute to the WellSpace by teaching a workshop focused on making things together, and share how I believe the act of visual expression and visual creativity can help us unlock fresh points of view, new insights. We will be doing some fun interactive exercises to explore how non-verbal expression can inspire creative solutions for life's familiar and unfamiliar challenges. Something I believe we cannot have enough of as creative beings
Deena: Hi, I'm Deena Selenow. She/her/hers. I'll be facilitating Self-Care for Caregivers. I'm excited to come back to the conference. I wasn't there last year because I had just had the baby. So, I'm excited to come back and connect with everyone. In terms of wellness practice, I'm struggling. I'm not going to lie. I'm a director and I'm also an educator. I'm relearning what self-care means, while also being a parent and engaging in a rigorous practice of having said yes to a lot of projects in a short amount of time.
Something that I'm looking forward to in this facilitation is connecting with other parent-artists and parent-practitioners and administrators, who are also in this sticky place of the before and after part. What are aspects of self-care that we've been working with and how that adjusts when this new human is in the world. I'm excited to be facilitating that space and I'm thinking to myself, I'm going to be learning just as much as everyone else about how to create focused questions and bullet points for all of us to share what we've been doing. Even if it's tiny things, then maybe we'll all have a slightly larger toolbox. Right now, personally, I've been practicing saying no more often.
Jess: My name is Jess Pillmore. My pronouns are she/her/hers. I'm a mom of two, a nine and a four year old. I'm just ridiculously excited about this space because I'm the founder of Creatively Independent and will be facilitating Creative Charge in WellSpace. It's a revolutionary arts education company that focuses on sustainable artistry and creative ownership, which is taking personal responsibility for something and caring deeply about it. I'm an interdisciplinary artist. So, dance, creative writing, theater, physical theater, ensemble devising-- I use all of that to call on the collective consciousness, get it to play, and then be mindful about it. What I want to bring to this space is how to spark creativity. That is not just in our art form, but in everyday living. How do I awaken all of my senses so that I remember why I'm alive and where I'm making my choices? Then I can take ownership of that and be totally able to do that for other people. So, when I facilitate it's really important for me to work with people where they are right now.
The empathy, the embodying their own learning playfully. I love the brain dump that was offered and saying no, absolutely. I reinforce all of that. Mine has been laughing and I've been laughing in the face of ridiculousness. So, I don't necessarily have to feel happy about it, but it is absolutely insane sometimes what life throws at us. "Laughing and crying, you know it's the same release", as Joni Mitchell says. Releasing the pressure is key.
Annalisa: My name is Annalisa Dias. My pronouns are she/her/hers. I'm going to be facilitating a session on Contemplative Movement and Climate Justice. It's a practice that I've had for a long time, sort of individually but have been developing over the last few years with many different communities in the DC area. It's a movement practice where people embody different kinds of water. So like a lake or how a river moves, and we think about what a mountain river feels like in our bodies. Or what the mouth of, for example, the Mississippi feels like. The tempo of that feels very different in your body. It's a practice that really helps get people not just thinking with their minds, but feeling with their bodies and the connections that we all have to land and place.
Then, after we do some of that movement practice, there's a bit more meditation and reflection on relationships to land and place, and what the movement actually brought up in our mind and heart spaces. For me, this is a form of self-care because I tend to think of self-care as relational. I'm really interested in the ways in which caring for ourselves is the same thing as caring for the planet. Or for caring for our relations, our relatives. That all of those things are intimately connected. So, that's the practice that I'm going to be offering in the well space.Amy: My name is Amy Smith, I use she/her pronouns. I am an artist first, but also an educator and one of the things I teach/lead/co-facilitate is financial well-being for artists. My personal mission is to share what I've learned from 25 years of business and financial management in the non-profit and for profit worlds and more than 15 years doing tax prep for artists with other artists so they can have more balanced and sustainable lives as artists. My own situation right now is that I am about to leave (in June) the non-profit I co-founded in 1993 after a very difficult time of conflict with my Co-Director. So I am practicing radical self-care right now and trying to SLOW DOWN and take some time to determine what will be the next phase of my work life.
Viviana: I'm Viviana, also Yura Sapi, which is also the name I'm using to create most of my art these days. I use they/them pronouns. My relationship with TCG for this conference started off with the proposal for workshop called Self-Care = Self Love: Creating a New Kind of To-Do List with my platform Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion and justice through the arts. The workshop comes from a practice that I've developed over the past year. Last year I found myself in a hole in terms of my wellness and my self-care. I ended up gathering with a few different community groups that helped me figure out how to take care of myself better. One of the groups called the Melanin Collective in D.C., specifically introduced me to this idea of that self-care has many different aspects to it. So, you have your mental health, your physical health, your emotional relationships. You have your financial self-care which is a valid form of self-care. You have your sexual self-care, spiritual self-care. You have workplace, home life. I've developed a workshop around these eight different areas of self-care. In the workshop, we are able to individually process each of our current states of self care and then we look at where we can improve. As a group, we help each other in the moment. I've done this workshop in person at a space called MINKA Brooklyn in New York. It's an incredible POC owned wellness space. I've also done my Self-Care = Self Love workshop online via video conferencing softwares like Zoom. I found it very successful. That's the kind of practice that I'm coming from and coming into these WellSpace discussions with. A big part of the reason I found myself in this hole was because I was working at an organizationthat ultimately was taking advantage of me, and I wasn't sticking up for myself. I wasn't being my own best ally and advocate. A big part of my self-care was about choosing to do that. To say this is not right for me. This is not right to do in the arts. So, I'd love to hear from this group: What are your thoughts on the current state of wellness for art workers, for theater workers?
Jess: I feel that the community and the industry is really needing creatives and artists right now. To disseminate all the information, to tap into empathy, to really connect the community. And because of that, as if we weren't overworked already, now we're really stressed out. What I've been noticing on the people that I've been coaching and facilitating is that there is such a dire need to see the ripple effects of what we can do to help ourselves and our community that there's a bit of martyrdom going on. We can be so flexible and adaptable, we're fluid. Liz Lerman talked about the energy that it takes to go from form to fluidity. And that in and of itself takes a lot out of a person.
I'll speak for myself: I'll jump to it if I know that it'll help a group and it'll help a thing. Next thing you know, I've put oxygen masks on everybody but me. So, I feel like there is a shift that needs to happen in our training as artists that makes it okay to be selfish and selfless. I trip out on the infinity sign. If I can hold both of polars in my body and keep fluid, then they meet in the sweet spot where I'm both selfish and selfless. I can only give as much as I have the resources for, which means I have to keep fueling myself. Whether that's financially, emotionally, physically, spiritually, artistically, so that I can then give. Otherwise, I become an empty well.
To step up and go I really do need more fuel and not just fumes. The question I ask a lot is: how soon can I start to call when I'm getting close to empty? I've got to give myself an emergency tank and know how to ask for that.
Stokely: I'm thinking about your original prompts around where our own self care practice is, which is something I really struggle with just thinking through. And I really like what you were saying, Annalisa, about the relational being. Self-care actually being relational, about the collective. I'm at this point in my life where I think that my artistic practice is collaboration. It's space-making, especially as someone who is, at least in my nine to five, an arts administrator. My practice is really focused on this idea of commenting on what can we do together that we can't do individually.
I am also thinking about one of the most famous quotes on self-care, an Audre Lorde quote, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." I think often that quote is taken so out of context and without the fact that Audre Lorde was not only a black queer woman, but also someone who was chronically ill, who had cancer. When we talk about wellness and self-care, are we're leaving space for folks to show up in all of our identities? Are we making sure that we're centering disabled folks, folks of color?
What does it mean for us to care for our community in those ways and really show up fully for each other? And to let those folks lead the conversation, or centering the conversation around them? So I'm thinking about wellness and solidarity. One that is not centering mainstream, not centering whiteness or Cis-ness or straightness, but centering itself as something in opposition to those powers that be. Really finding ways of focusing on people in our communities who are the marginalized "folks".Amara: I've been struggling a lot just because I think there's this weird complex duality of existence, especially if you identify as a multi-hyphenate artist. I was in a show on Monday night which started at 9:30pm. We got out at 11:30pm and I had to be at work at 10:00am and I was like, "I feel like I'm living these different lives." And it's really been an eye-opening experience for me to see how my friends who have the opportunity to do this full-time treat their sleep schedule versus me who's like, "I don't know that I can do these shows that get out at midnight and then take a train back to Brooklyn." I don't get home until 2:00am, which means I don't sleep until 3:00am. It's been really interesting for me just to figure out how all of it can work together and if it can work together. I don't like living separate lives and I've tried to make everything as streamlined as possible and I'm still finding the failure in that. And I think a lot of us are doing that.Annalisa: I think what you're getting at is a little bit is about the systems that are in place in the industry. One of them is related to the change of leadership that is happening within some of the larger theaters and the sort of domino effect that is happening among all the leaders who are moving up and around and over and sideways into new positions.
We're starting to see people with different identities being tapped for leadership positions, which is Amazing. There is immense, immense pressure that leaders of color, and women and people with other marginalized identities are experiencing when they're taking over historically white institutions. And now it's like, "Okay well now you're the leader so fix it." And that's a huge amount of pressure to deal with. It's causing people to go and seek counseling. I wonder if that's the question around the state of our self care in the field. That the huge system that's at play is causing people to need, to seek out, additional care. And I wonder what is it about the system that is causing this need? I'm really happy that people are going to seek therapy and whatever their needs are, but what if we transformed the system so that it didn't cause harm in that way?
That's one train of thought that I've had, and the other piece that I wanted to share is about a project that I'm working on right now (www.sufficientearth.com). It's an iterative performance project around climate change with a decentralized leadership structure. One of our leaders identifies as Crip and Mad and is an amazing advocate around disability justice. I've been learning so, so much from her about relationship to time and labor. I think that maybe that's a point of questioning that I'd love to continue in and around the WellSpace at the conference. What are our assumptions about relationships between time and productivity, and how are those assumptions maybe contributing to harm disproportionately for people of various identities?
Irina: Thank you for bringing that up and I completely agree with you. I think that in most theatre structures there is a huge hierarchy. Even within artistic teams this hierarchy still exists with designers and dramaturgs and the way they work with directors, much more so than in Russian theatre where I got my initial training. In most American theatre most members of a creative team are supposed to support the director's vision, so in a way there is an attitude of service towards the "boss". In the majority of American theatre - which just like you said brings this expectation - directors and producers pretty much decide how much designers work, how much actors work. It's deep within the structure of the theatre, and it won't be just completely changed with change in leadership. And I think the idea of everybody serving someone else' goal vision would be great one to challenge.
I teach, so I see a lot of designers and dramaturgs. The idea that designers exist and contribute to a vision only because directors allow them to be there, or a playwright brings them along, causes this mentality that they're going to do anything they can to please and justify their presence. And that causes a lot of emotional, physical, and financial harm. It's something that I would like to bring up in conversation for people to notice, so that maybe that structure can somehow start shifting to a more inclusive process, not only because I think the, "let's do something, together, with shared ownership" creates better art, but also because the it promoted the personal wellbeing of artists involved when working in a more sharing structure. Something to be aware of. Thank you.
Amy: I see a lot of trauma, shame and dysfunction. Our culture doesn't value the arts or artists and many artists have internalized that undervaluation. Especially women, trans and non-binary artists and artists of color. Also the playing field is un-level and getting worse in terms of income and wealth inequality in our nation (and in our arts community). The middle class has been hollowed out. When artists do "make it" to a level of material/financial success, it is often accompanied by impostor syndrome and worries about the precariousness and instability of that success. In our culture it is considered shameful to talk about money. Also, the world of financial services has been intentionally designed to exclude and confuse "laypeople," so folks are intimidated by how to manage debt, save for retirement, etc. And financial literacy is not well taught in universities, even MFA programs. For all these reasons, I find the state of financial wellness for theater workers to be very precarious.
Viviana: We've articulated various problems that we've seen personally and from others in the fieldwhen it comes to where we're at for wellness for theater workers. I'd love to take time for us to think about possible solutions or suggestions, combining our personal practices that will be in WellSpace at TCG Miami but also other ideas we may not have articulated before.
Deena: I want to bring attention to, I'm sure a lot of people know about her, but Rachel Spencer-Hewitt with Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL), she's really just kind of blown the lid off of the way organizations and individuals are thinking about parent-artists and inclusion. I think in a way that work could be thought of in other ways too, not just in terms of parent-artists. We often say as an organization or as a leader that we want to be inclusive, to represent a myriad of different kinds of people, but then keep the system the same. How do things shift in general to create the tapestry that we want and the theater landscape that we want?
I want to name the incredible work that Rachel is doing. And I think lots of initiatives can look towards her. In my own practice something I've been recently trying is when I work with a theatre I talk to their marketing staff and say "hey just like movies do, let's put an age on the piece-- as in, this is appropriate for 13 and up, 15 and up, 18 and up," to say to parents and families that this can be a family activity. Now my son is a little young, but later I want to know that at age 13 he's included and it's okay. So that's a little thing I've been doing and marketing people usually go, "What?". But I've been seeing theatres doing this more and more!
Stokely: I really appreciate Deena for saying that. One of the things we've been thinking about at HowlRound and I've been thinking about is this kind of cookie cutter process, especially for art administrators. I'm an administrator right now. I'm not necessarily living and working as an artist in the same way. So we all host a bunch of events and conferences, and the idea of a cookie cutter template of how to hold space for people, especially when partnering with folks of different identities or interests is really rooted in supremacy. You start at 9:00am and you do this and you have 15 minutes and then you have dinner and then you end at night, etc. That's white supremacy culture. We've really been thinking about: if you're holding space for people how do you actually truly partner with folks to build space that serves the needs of the people in the room?
I've been really drawn to the idea of what a phone conference looks like or what it means to show up and know you're trusting the people in the room to hold the space for each other and hold the space in ways that are necessary. Holding space for disruption and dissent as natural things that emerge in a group as you kind of shift and figure out what it means to be in community with each other is a way, a super powerful way to do this. I think it's scary because it means that you're not necessarily in control of the space, but that's also what it means to be in relation with folks.
The second thing is really thinking about accessibility and recognizing that time is very capitalist because it's telling us that we have to be productive in a particular way. We just did a convening for about 35 deaf and deafblind theater makers, and one of my biggest takeaways in helping to produce that event was that accessibility is not a checkbox. It's not a form. It's not like we have done these 3 things and therefore we're good. Accessibility is about the people. Often when we think about what it means to hold space for folks who need accessibility or folks of color, whoever, we're often thinking that we have to follow this very specific guideline and we can't break away from that.
Accessibility is more than just making sure there is an interpreter. It's also making sure that that interpreter has an Uber or Lyft there so they can get there on time. That there are interpreters at the bar so that after hours people can hang out and get a drink. Things like that really go back to who you're serving. It's why talking to each other is one thing I'd like to see us do more. It's a really easy step.
Amy: When I teach financial well-being it always starts with encouraging folks to feel more empowered to self-educate and ask questions. Artists and arts workers are all good problem solvers and smart enough to figure out how to deal with financial issues, it's just a matter of knowing where to go for trust-worthy information. Together we need to end the practice of unpaid internships, improve our hiring practices, and identify and solve the many ways that we disadvantage low income folks and keep them out of our field. Artists and arts workers need to know the value of our time and say no to opportunities that neither compensate us adequately nor advance our careers in a clear and measurable way. I'm also doing a lot of self-education lately around historic practices of collective economic models and trying to identify ways we can learn from those models to build more powerful collective responses to the financial issues that impact many of us in the field. I'm talking about susus and other ways for folks to participate in lending and saving outside of the banking system; debt jubilees; community land trusts as a response to gentrification; etc.
Viviana: What are other things we can do in creating WellSpace at TCG Miami that might be shifts from the templates, the cookie cutter processes? What can we do to create a space for self care, for wellness, for community care that is a decolonized space? A space that uplifts historically and currently marginalized people and the planet at the same time?
Annalisa: Let's think about how to hold space for each other inside of the WellSpace, which is inside of the Conference which is inside of this giant hotel. Every year for the past couple of years at the TCG conference I have skipped a whole bunch of sessions and just gone outside to some area nearby that is an outdoor location and just spent time with the earth. I don't know if there's a way to prompt people to think about the possibility of doing that for themselves inside of the WellSpace.. It doesn't have to be something that's organized necessarily. Grab a buddy, grab someone in the well space and go outside.
Jess: I think these are great ideas and my wonder is also: "What is it to be well?" Everybody's got a different definition on how they even know that they're well right now. I need to connect to something bigger than me. So someone might go outside to the park or someone might find five people they've never met before and realize how connected we all are. How can we distill down what it is to be well and can we go out and actively find it? It could be kind of fun and also a ridiculously tricksterish disruption.
I have play partners and especially in really big conferences we set little tasks for ourselves to make sure that we're having fun. If they ever see me in serious work mode, "I am uber professional right now," they'll like throw something at me or I'll find a sticker on my back. I'll just remember I chose to be here, that I evolve through play and the unknown and that actually makes me more of a professional than my game face and my elevator speech. Amy: Naming income and wealth inequality is radical in and of itself. I know that many of us at the TCG conference will be middle class and upper middle class because that's who can afford to be there, but we all have an obligation, and all can participate in building systems that create a better tomorrow for everyone in our field. We need to widen the circle so that more low income folks and other folks who have been historically marginalized (black, Indigenous, folks of color, people with disabilities, trans and non-binary folks, etc) are able to "succeed" in our field, whatever that definition of "success" is.
Viviana: Thank you everyone for participating in the conversation. We'll be continuing this work all throughout WellSpace. And to everyone, including those of you reading our blog online, we'll see you at WellSpace!
Join the WellSpace Conversation!Are you thinking about or already writing about wellness for art workers? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org with you suggestions for continuing the conversation. And don't forget to visit us at WellSpace at the 2019 TCG Miami National Conference.
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