Journal and News

Guest Blog: We Made Ourselves A Promise And Now Is The Time To Keep It

By Gareth Nicholls (ITC Chair)

He sits among the cabbages and peas…

I stepped into the role of ITC Chair two months ago and for our first CEO & Chair catch-up, Charlotte invited me to her allotment in South East London. It was an unusual but fitting office for the day: sitting among rows of delicate seedlings, we talked about the last two COVID-stricken years and our hopes for a more abundant future.

As summer approaches, there is lots to be cheerful about. Artists, producers, audiences and participants are regaining long-lost confidence in live events and activities. Restrictions that were imposed upon us at the height of the pandemic fostered innovative new forms of theatre which continue to advance the artform. Any hybrid home/office working that is still in place supports more flexible and democratic opportunities for the workforce.

Nobody can blame us for running headlong towards this brighter future when the last two years have been so challenging, but as we move forward, it’s crucial that we don’t forget the promise we made to ourselves in the darkest days of the pandemic.

The forgotten promise…

When we entered the first lockdown, an already exhausted sector was forced to deploy a new skill: Un-producing, the term coined for the process of dismantling, reworking, cancelling and postponing projects. Outwardly, we felt the need to put a positive spin on this: we were dynamic, innovative, responsive. Inwardly, most of the sector was on its knees. The disruptions and trauma caused by COVID (both professionally and personally) forced many to re-evaluate their needs and priorities. 

For some this meant a heart-breaking decision to leave the sector altogether, taking their skills and expertise elsewhere. Those who stayed made a heart-felt call-to-arms about things needing to be different in the future. In countless online meetings, pale Zoom-fatigued faces peered out from laptop screens and promised: When this is all over, we need to start doing less, but better; When this is all over, we need to start looking after one another; When this is all over, we need to find a healthier way to work.

Skip forward and a perfect storm of ongoing challenges is making those promises hard to keep: the economics of independent theatre-making are already stacked against it while competition for subsidy is staggeringly high; supply of work is outstripping demand more than ever as promoters try to honour their two-year backlog; we have a new ACE strategy to implement and new funding application forms to get our heads around; we have additional health and safety measures to consider for our teams and audiences… the list goes on. If you can stomach it, a quick look at the #NPOLove and #NPO hashtags on Twitter will highlight how particularly gruelling this year’s process has been for those applying to be part of ACE’s National Portfolio.

Despite our desperate need to take better care of ourselves, it seems things just keep conspiring against us.

Three questions towards a healthier way of working…

So, what does this near-mythical healthier way of working look like? And when we know what it looks like, how can we make sure that day-to-day challenges don’t scupper our wellbeing? Clearly there are no easy answers here, and perhaps there are different answers for each individual member of ITC.

Listed below are three brilliant (and deceptively simple) questions that I’ve stolen from people who are far cleverer than I am. Collectively I hope these questions might lead you, your Board or advisory group towards a practice that puts wellbeing first.

Question 1: What if everything we did resulted in regeneration rather than sustainability?

Thanks to Talking Birds for this one! Talking Birds is a wonderful company based in Coventry, and in a film introducing their new home and creation space, they gently pose a radical provocation: “We’ve created The Nest to help support artists to develop more regenerative ways of working – we’re not sure it’s worth settling for just sustainable anymore”.

If I understand them correctly, they’re proposing a shift to a producing and making model in which every element is in a healthier place at the end of the project than it was at the beginning. Think about a project that is intentionally designed from the ground up so that by the end each team member feels rejuvenated rather than exhausted, and each freelancer has developed new skills and self-confidence. The participants feel a greater sense of pride in where they live, the organisation is more financially secure, and the environment has also benefitted in some way.

Designing projects that look beyond sustainability towards regeneration will no doubt take more time to develop, resource and deliver, but it’s an approach that demonstrates a commitment to looking after one another (and the planet) above all else.  

To find out more about Talking Birds’ regenerative producing ecology, click here.

Question 2: If this was easy, what would it look like?

This is arguably the most famous and deceptively simple quote by author and podcaster Tim Ferris. It’s a question which encourages you to think about any situation from a hindsight perspective before you actually have the benefit of hindsight! Just like Talking Birds’ provocation above, it asks you to be more intentional about how you design your process. Rather than regeneration, the focus here is on increasing efficiency and reducing stress from the outset.

Darren Matthews has written more about this question here.

Question 3: If I say ‘yes’ to this, what am I saying ‘no’ to?

This is a question that has been posed by many, not least by James ClearMichael Bungay Stanier and Ryan Holiday.

Ultimately, we work in a service industry and we’ve become accustomed to providing the best service we possibly can on limited resources. We can often feel selfish if we want to say ‘no’ to a request and thus end up over-committing ourselves.

This question reminds us that we aren’t machines. We each have limited time and capacity in which to do our work and if we exceed that, quality begins to suffer. If quality is to remain high, each and every time we agree to give our time and attention to something, we must sacrifice the attention we give to something else. This question is our antidote to busyness and speaks to our desire to do less, but better.

The hungry gap…

Back on Charlotte’s allotment, I learned about The Hungry Gap: the period in spring when there is little or no fresh produce available from a veg patch. There is still lots of hard graft to be done: planting, tending, weeding and watering. All of this preparation work will give you the best chance for a bumper harvest later in the year.

As we slowly emerge from the pandemic and look towards a brighter and more abundant summer, we need to prioritise our wellbeing. We only have a brief opportunity to reset and break the gruelling cycle we found ourselves in before and during the pandemic. We made ourselves a promise, and now is the time to keep it. 

And if the questions above don’t help you along the way, here’s another suggestion: start holding your meetings on an allotment.

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