My name is Jules Oakshett and I am an HCPC registered Dramatherapist, Systemic Practitioner and Parent Coach. Alongside my therapeutic work, I am also a dramaturg who has worked with The Orange Tree and Theatre 503’s literary departments. When I was approached by Suzanne Bell at The Royal Exchange to run a series of workshops for theatre professionals from literary departments across the UK and Ireland, I jumped at the opportunity to finally bring together my two worlds. With the support of The Bruntwood Prize, Suz invited me to run a series of workshops over the course of 6 months that addressed the career crisis and burnout being experienced by so many theatre professionals during the pandemic. This is the story of what we created.
Self-care is a complicated (and lucrative) business. I have been struck, over the past 18 months, by how much the conversation has evolved. Without gyms, spas and hairdressers, we have had to rethink what it means to look after ourselves and confront some difficult home truths. Was your social life masking a lack of career fulfilment? Were your long hours at work allowing you to avoid thinking about your personal relationships? Stuck inside, with literally nowhere to go, many of us began to fragment without our usual coping mechanisms. It became clear that these sticky plasters, which we were using to bring about short term quick-fixes to our mental health, were masking deeper problems.
Five years ago, I started a business focusing on early-intervention, preventative mental health care. Years of private practice working with children, adolescents and families had taught me that most people had a limited understanding of the workings of their emotional world. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are at work or school, if you don’t look after your thoughts and feelings, and listen to your body, chances are you will find it hard to cope when life throws you a curve ball.
It isn’t complicated. In fact, we often know some of the basics but are conditioned to ignore the signals that warn of overwhelm. We live in a society that values exhaustion and overload above rest and boundaries. Feeling lonely, full of rage or crippled with anxiety has become something we just live with and try to manage using a range of self-help tools that we don’t fully understand. A bit of meditation here, some deep breathing there, a gruelling exercise regime to condition our bodies.
How do we bring about systemic change? How do we find the difference that makes the difference so that we can move away from the stuck position of plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose? Put simply, if it ain’t working – you need to do something different, but letting go of a lifetime of bad habits, intrusive thoughts and narratives that do not serve us well, is not easy. As a psychotherapist, I use my clinical supervision to both reflect on my caseload and notice patterns that might be impeding my work. It can be painful, recognising my blind spots and confronting ugly truths about myself, but it is essential if I want to ensure I am practicing ethically, maintaining curiosity and always being client focused. If something feels uncomfortable or unpleasant, chances are I need to examine it carefully to see what is really going on under the surface.
I have always wondered why other caring professions do not employ this clinical supervision model. I have introduced it to the school in which I work and have noticed how much change is brought about when teachers feel listened to and they have a chance to process difficulties. Ultimately you cannot possibly do your job well if you are overwhelmed with personal trauma, stress or fear. They act like white noise across all aspects of life, making it impossible to make good decisions and employ logical thought processes.
What is needed, in times of emotional stress, are the skills to self soothe, self-regulate and then (and only then) to reflect on how we might do things differently. This is why the self-care
industry is ultimately broken, because we use it to treat the symptom rather than the cause. It is no use using breathing techniques at times of high stress if you aren’t practicing them daily. Equally that holiday/massage might make you feel better in the short term but if you aren’t addressing the root cause of your stress, you will be back to square one in no time. As for the ways we self-medicate our troubled minds…I don’t need to tell you how ineffectual and counterproductive this is to our long-term wellbeing.
What we need is the opportunity to stop, to reflect, to challenge our assumptions about what is possible and to think about ourselves in the context of the many systems within which we operate. It was with this framework in mind that the creative supervision sessions came into being. We agreed to create a small, closed group to engender a feeling of safety and trust. This group was not therapy but would involve deep self-reflection and an obligation on participants to hold confidentiality for each other. The sessions ran monthly for six-months on a Friday lunchtime, for 90 minutes, from January to June 2021. Each session contained a creative element, some systemic theory and the opportunity to share both content and process. Spanning the second national lockdown, the eventual reintegration into society and the gradual reopening of theatres, the sessions allowed participants the chance to think about themselves and their roles in the context of the wider societal shifts that were taking place.
To begin with, I asked the group to reflect on their own mental health and the personal journey they were on. Taking a narrative approach, I invited them to reflect on the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we want to be. Using two stories, one Navajo myth and one fairy tale, we explored the ideas of ‘enough’ and ‘too much’, reflecting on the need for self-care not as a nicety but as an essential component of our ability to function at work.
What I noticed in those first few sessions was how much anxiety the group members were holding, alongside a sense of personal and professional overwhelm. This was something shared by many of us during this time, but I was struck by the peculiar bind in which literary departments found themselves. After years of battling the stereotype of ‘gatekeeper’, they were now understanding the extent to which they were in fact the bridge between their organisation and the outside world. The introduction of the furlough scheme meant that many were legally not allowed to reply to or contact the artists who were reaching out for help. Those still working found conversations with artists increasingly stressful because they were having to find positivity amongst the ruins of despair. In short, they were emotionally exhausted, overwhelmed and carrying feelings of guilt, responsibility and powerlessness.
The middle part of our journey was a chance to think outside of self and to reflect on the culture of the organisation in which they worked. I introduced the cultural genogram, a systemic tool used to encourage reflection on how conversations around culture, ethnicity, gender, race and sexuality (amongst other topics) are managed at work and how our mental health is looked after systemically. This tool allows us to tease out patterns that can be gently (or directly) unpicked to create more inclusive and supportive working environments.
Finally, we had a chance to look out to the wider world and the people whose work and lives we support. The theme of boundaries came up repeatedly and how important it is to make and maintain boundaries in our working and personal lives. Without them, we not only risk burn out, but we also open ourselves up to unsafe working practices that harm the people around us. How is it possible, for example, to look after the emotional needs of others if you are struggling with your own mental health? How can you make time for people if you feel there aren’t enough hours in the day? How do you maintain a work/life balance if there is no clear boundary between the two? In a nutshell, you have to practice real, consistent, regular self-care. This means learning to say no, prioritising your needs and managing anger and anxiety for yourself and others.
It was here that this supervision model really began to bear fruit. I was moved to hear stories of ways in which participants were starting to put down boundaries and feel confident to express their needs without recourse to guilt or shame. We explored the ways in which anger is a positive emotion but that we often need help expressing it in a way that feels safe to us and those around us. We discussed why, if anxiety begins to take over in a meeting, it is always ok to press pause while everyone takes a breather. Along the way, it became clear that the jobs they do carry a huge amount of emotional labour. They are responsible for holding the candle of hope and possibility, keeping an eye to the future whilst also keeping feet firmly in the realities of the here and now. They nurture and protect artists, often acting as intermediaries and midwives, translating intention into action.
Dramaturg and playwright Jesse Weaver has recently introduced me, through his research into emotional labour in dramaturgy, to the idea of ‘invisiturgy’, which he defines as the hidden emotional labour of literary managers and dramaturgs. The unpaid coffees, meetings, phone calls, emails, stolen moments in rehearsal – all times when the dramaturg must nurture, cajole, support, care for others. There is an expectation that they will also take a role as mediator, diplomat, matchmaker and friend – all tasks that exist outside their job description and allocated hours.
Many dramaturgs would say that they love this emotional work and recognise it as part of the job description – and I want to underline that there is no inherent problem with doing the work. The problem comes in how we recognise this (largely invisible) work and how we make sure that we are robust enough in ourselves to be able to carry it out without causing self-harm. When everything is good, when we feel in control and safe in our worlds, this work is manageable. But what happens when the world feels unsafe, when the pillars of certainty are dismantled and we don’t have the inner resources to take care of ourselves, let alone anyone around us? What happens in times of crisis?
The process has been creative, moving and cathartic. Over the course of the six months, I had the opportunity to meet with most members of the group 1-2-1 and to help them move away from feelings of being stuck or frustrated, and to find ways to move forward with hope and a clear sense of what their story could be. There are not always easy answers, but through this process of reflection and with the opportunity to reframe and reassess, I have witnessed individuals begin to change the narrative of should/ought/must and to re-write a story that tells of self-determination and belief. My hope is that they can now take on the emotional work without feeling depleted and have ways to look after themselves, know how to put down rules to keep them safe and have ways to articulate their needs without guilt or shame.
My thanks to the generous support of The Bruntwood Prize and to Suzanne Bell for her endless creativity and resourcefulness. Finally a thank you to the participants of the inaugural Literary Managers Creative Supervision Group who have taught me so much and allowed me the privilege of being part of their worlds over the past six months.
If you would like any more information about this supervision model, or would like to chat to Jules about the ways she could support mental wellbeing in your organisation, you can contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.eqprep.co.uk