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Come Hell or High Water: a conversation between Isobel Marmion, Caitlin Ellen Moore & Kidaan Zelleke

Isobel, Caitlin, and Kidaan are theatre-makers in Tarntanya (Adelaide). They are currently working on a performance work titled BUMBLING about bees, dating, loneliness and the climate crisis, and recently undertook residency with InSPACE at the Adelaide Festival Centre. For our twenty-ninth issue ACCESS, Isobel, Caitlin and Kidaan have a conversation about accessible processes in theatre-making around safe spaces, timelines, environments and pressures as they relate to the lived experiences of mental illness.

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A group of people sit in a large circle, some sitting on orange chairs and others sitting on the floorboards watching and listening to a smaller group of people in the centre of the photograph. The four people are in front of a cream coloured wall and large black panel looking in different directions.

Isobel Marmion, Caitlin Ellen Moore, Kidaan Zelleke, BUMBLING, 2022. Photo: Fotonaut (Shane Reid)

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ISOBEL: Years ago, I was in an emerging industry workshop and the producer leading the workshop told us all a story. After a lengthy investment of time to develop and rehearse a show, immediately before the production was due to open a lead performer became very ill (psychologically as opposed to physically). The producer asks us, “what do you think we did?”. The group murmured sympathetic noises—we shared a variety of mental illnesses amongst us, so of course we understood. “That’s so hard” we answer. “But the show must go on.”

She shook her head, exasperated. “No, she was sick. We cancelled the show.”
It had never occurred to me that you could just cancel a show. It had never occurred to me that my mental health could take priority over theatre.

CAITLIN:  I think the idea that ‘the show must go on’ is something that’s being fundamentally redefined and reconsidered as our value of mental health rises. If that lead artist had a serious physical injury, I think the answer would have been an immediate rescheduling or cancelling. But now, as our understanding and appreciation of mental health shifts, so must the notion that projects must be completed at all costs. In this time of mental health crisis, climate crisis, pandemics, we have to challenge the presumption that art is the most important thing and shatter this idea of ‘dying for your art’.

KIDAAN: I remember in drama school we had a lecturer talk about how the more you serve ‘the craft’ the better the actor you’ll be. He wasn’t necessarily suggesting that that’s what we should do, but he was saying that a life in service to ‘the craft’ will always make you a better actor than if it was in service to you. I may be paraphrasing but all I was left thinking was that I never want to be in a position where I’m falling apart for the sake of my art. If that happens I don’t want to be doing it…

ISOBEL: Dead or in a ditch. The only two reasons to miss rehearsal, according to drama school, right?

KIDAAN: Literally. And now; COVID-19. I really thought COVID would have the industry re-assessing how we treat illness and sustainability mental, or physical. It certainly changed things in my mind.

CAITLIN: I think it has on an independent level, or at least I’m hoping it has. I think we’re less at the mercy of systemic structures in this [independent] space, where we can dictate and take those risks and decide what our priorities are. But I’m speaking as someone who isn’t an actor and has that privilege of choice and decision-making.

KIDAAN: I think you’re right, given my experiences of late. When I was producing last year (1) (in the indie space of course) I said from the very beginning to the company and the whole team that the priority was us—if for whatever reason we needed to cancel, we would. Everyone understood and felt safe and comfortable with that. As we got closer to the season and getting down to the wire I again reminded everyone that we would cancel if it meant preserving our own wellbeing and suddenly that was a foreign concept. It might have been the idea that we’d done all this work for nothing, or simply, like you said Isobel, it had never occurred to them that they could take priority. It’s just a show in the end and it’s simply never going to be worth more than you.

ISOBEL: I’m not sure I’d handle cancellation very well to be honest, I think I absolutely struggle with a ‘come hell or high water’ mentality, but it was such a blessing working on BUMBLING with the two of you; my first work in four years and to be able to approach it with a mental health first attitude. My previous work (2) was about my own relationship to my mental health; I’m bipolar, and it was a very rewarding experience, but, hugely draining. It was a relief to sit down on the first day of our first development and discuss our needs and preferences, frankly and without judgement.

CAITLIN: As someone who has had to cancel/re-jig shows (3), can confirm that it SUCKS. But in both cases we absolutely made the right decision and it always came down to team safety. The BUMBLING development in April 2022 was such a divine experience—I think that it came from this openness to be vulnerable with each other, outside of the demands of the show.

KIDAAN: I don’t know if I’d noticed this until this very moment but I think that the April BUMBLING development, and our approach to it, set in motion a change in perspective for me. I mean, to begin with, I’m in the process of getting a mental health assessment; a step I took after open conversations we’d had. I’m currently working on a show as an assistant director/under-study and felt safe enough to have a conversation with my director about my mental health and capacity so that we would have a short hand, however brief, if needed (whether that be me saying I don't have the capacity for certain things or that I simply am struggling without her needing to question why). I think the way forward would be to re-imagine, or rather, re-focus our practices on people—meet each other and check-in where we’re at.

ISOBEL: I would love for change in regards to health access to occur in a few ways. Firstly, I would love for mental illness to be reacted to in a similar manner to bog-standard illness. Perhaps I need time off or accommodations because I have a throat infection, or perhaps it’s because my anxiety is peaking. Mental illness (and more broadly disability) is not unusual, in fact, it is arguably, the norm, and treating it as normal, would go a long way to facilitating needs and the ability to ask for what is needed. Secondly, I would love for the arts sector to get substantially better at prioritising health full stop. If you’re sick—stay home. These attitudes are entwined in my head I think, and glorifying ‘the hustle’ or insisting on powering through sickness, be that chronic or a miscellaneous head cold, ultimately does us all a disservice.

CAITLIN: It comes back to this place of needing to be effortless and embedded. Build it into your contracts, into your show/production plans, into the list of questions you ask before taking on a role. Isobel, you’re right, it is a disservice. And moving into this space of people first, rather than arts first, will change and enrich all of us for the better.

KIDAAN: Capitalism; killing us as well as the bees.