"We can make art whilst also caring for each other."
The Cost of Living is about our rights and the many attacks upon them. It’s about how we might resist together.
We have a real desire to share real-life and authentic stories, but how do we make sure we look after people when sometimes these stories are painfully relatable? How do we make sure that care and consideration is central to creation? And how can we make sure our audiences feel that in the room?
We asked Bronwen to share her thoughts, and grabbed Kel and Anthony for five to tell us what it’s like working with a wellbeing coordinator…
Hey Bronwen! Let’s start at the top - what is a wellbeing coordinator?
That’s a pretty good question, because it’s such a new thing in theatre and film. The way I understand it and am approaching it, is that pretty much anything is wellbeing - physical and mental health and all the things that impact these - pay, housing, protected characteristics, respect, hierarchy, working in a boundary-pushing industry.
So some of the work is about knowing and holding the knowledge of what to do in emergencies or when procedure needs to be followed, but more of it is about establishing a culture in a production that looks after and protects everyone involved so we don’t get to a point of crisis. This could be working with the team to create a group agreement of expected behaviour and what to do if this isn’t being adhered to. It could be noticing things happening in the room before the participants do and helping to resolve that potential problem before it becomes one. It could be offering to advocate for someone when they feel unable to. The way I like to think of it is a bit like being a doula at a birth - the artistic team are the midwife labouring to bring this new creation into the world and I’m there, slightly on the outside, but also trusted, only stepping in when I’m needed and when it’s called for, giving confidence to and advocating for everyone in the room, no matter who they are.
What led you to getting into this field?
Sometimes my ‘career’ path has confused me as much as anyone else! But I have worked in social justice and mental health and theatre for almost 20 years now. I was often that person that people who come to about a problem and I’ve never been that worried about speaking up, especially for others. Over the years that annoying trait became more formalised with me working for a large youth mental health service in Bristol where I worked directly with 5000 teenagers and trained 2000 professionals who work in youth services. I do not have a therapeutic qualification, preferring to see myself as a lay expert in mental health and I am firmly of the belief that we have a false distinction between physical and mental health. All health is biological, social, and psychological. We only have to look at the entire purpose behind this production - the conditions people live in affect their whole lives. Also, I trained as a dancer and work with theatre companies doing movement work, as well as with the Perinatal Mental Health Team in Aneurin Bevan - for me bringing some physical aspects into wellbeing is really key. But I would say that as a dancer!
What can a wellbeing coordinator bring to a rehearsal room, and in turn, performances?
Intentionality, strength and bravery. It’s a well-known fact that in hierarchical industries that are also boundary-pushing, abuse can be rife. The police, army, fire service and… theatre and film. No support structure will ever be perfect, I often say there is no such thing as a safe space, only an intentional one. But I think even starting to have this role in the industry is a start to challenging some of the power structures and processes we’ve all turned a blind eye to. We can make art whilst also caring for each other.
They can also bring fruit. Or coffee. We can do a lot!
Anthony, Kel - what’s it like for you to work with a wellbeing coordinator?
Having the presence of a wellbeing coordinator has been incredibly crucial. As a society, we all went through a lot of change during 2020. The ripples from that rapid change has forever shifted how we approach our health both mentally and physically. It then makes sense that the way we approach work must evolve too.
Most people are in this industry because they love everything about it. From the cast, creatives and crew, we all put our all into making one production better than the last. However, this innate need to do our best in the arts often leads to a lack of self-care. We work through breaks and lunches, spent late nights filling in applications and sacrifice a healthy body and mind for a “good and emotive” performance. Bronwen has been key in reminding us all of the processes we can take to look after ourselves and others around us. In effect, this has allowed us to create work beyond our imagined capacity without having to push for our desired outcomes.
The subject matter of this play is also very live. We are living through it, you only have to walk into a grocery store after rehearsals to be reminded of the context of the play. So much of the play is filled with lived experiences that the performers can immediately recall. Subject matter of this kind can very easily create an emotionally charged space if not consciously approached. Bronwen has been a joy to work with in this sense. She is like an Osprey, gliding above the rehearsal room and bravely diving into the water to catch out an issue and resolve it before it rises from under the water.
We’re hearing about new roles in film and theatre like intimacy coordinators and sensitivity readers. Are you noticing a shift across the arts sector, Bronwen?
Yes… although I am going to wait a few years before I start leaping around celebrating. We need some kind of external ombudsman to oversee our industry from a legal perspective and one that isn’t attached to how organisations are funded. And I do think on some productions there is a school of thought of “oh we’ve hired a Wellbeing coordinator, our work here is done” and it is tokenistic. This work takes a long time and will require difficult conversations and we will make mistakes along the way, the important thing is to keep alive the drive to get better. That everyone in the industry deserves safety and respect.
Finally... Bronwen, what are you most looking forward to on The Cost of Living?
Well, I’m going to fangirl the Matsena brothers because I’ve loved their work for ages, so that’ll be suitably embarrassing. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the three pieces weave together. I can’t wait to have lots of interesting and challenging conversations and most of all, I’m looking forward to having a chance to live with my parents for a few weeks in Ystradgynlais and commuting to my old home town of Swansea.