Creating Care-Fully

Apr 2, 2024 | Blog, Wellbeing

By Charley Allanah

Artists often talk about our work as a social service; a public good; with value beyond dollars. But are we genuinely making art in a way that merits such a claim? Work grounded in social good, of which surely the fundament is care?

The efficacy of art programs in nursing homes, schools, community cultural centres and elsewhere is rightly lauded, but what it shows is that art practices work in environments of care. It fails to answer whether the practice of care has an intrinsic place in professional artistic practice.

I’d contend that too often it doesn’t, but it can.

In 2020 my company House of Sand embarked on a mammoth creative undertaking: creating an epic new theatrical work that would be multi-modal, multi-artform, and feature an inter-cultural (and inter-continental) team. We also had experience in care-based or care-forward work. My co-director in body-based care and healing practices, and I in industrial relations, particularly diversity, equity, access, and inclusion advocacy.

Due to a heady concoction of circumstances—the COVID pivot, the unwieldiness of the artistic task, and our histories in healing & community work—we began to bring cohesion to the sprawling exploration (and pursue creative calm for our team in the COVID maelstrom) by placing a guiding principal beneath every choice: care.

Care for our creative team—their physical, mental, and financial wellbeing; for our eventual audience; and, as far as reasonably possible within an extractive socio-economy, for the communities and environments we worked within.

This didn’t mean we stopped seeking to make exemplary artistic work. A nurse’s focus on care doesn’t negate his pursuit of best-practice medicine, nor does a child-care worker’s focus on care contravene her expertise in early childhood education. I humbly believe it helped us make better art; more complex and complete, more an expression of lived truths, and certainly performed by a more content team, with more ownership of the work.

Some of the adjustments to practice and production were simple. We carbon-offset everything and travelled artists sparingly; we worked with and within community structures; we created a culture of open reporting of injuries, tender spots, and external stressors, and adjusted the work to account. These adjustments are among many other small shifts of focus or priority.

Others were more radical. Over time we implemented a ‘care caveat’; an assurance that no issue would be moved past until everyone was satisfied (including re. the work’s content). This necessitated time to work slowly—care-fully—through the prickly bits. And the discipline to never pull rank. We made allowances above PCA (Performers’ Collective Agreement) rates and conditions where care dictated it. When it came time to present the work to audiences—marketing, ticketing and what we put on stage—our guiding principles were emotional and cultural safety, financial and physical accessibility, and enthusiastic consent-to-witness.

And yes, making care our priority radically reshaped the work. During our final creative development, a team member whose personal story was central to the work found herself in pressurised life circumstances and with deep fatigue, partly from endlessly re-iterating past trauma. With our full support, she withdrew from active participation in the project. In part due to her experience of our care-based approach, she nonetheless invited us to tell parts of her story. We negotiated a process that honoured her need to disengage but periodically secured her ongoing consent to the form and content of her story as told. Her trust allowed us to tell her truth and our mutual honouring of her care complicated and deepened the fact and form of that truth. Finally, both process and product became a little bit ‘about’ the capacity to refuse to forever tell our trauma, and the opportunity we have to get to know another deeply enough to tell their story when they aren’t able—a care-based theme.

Sometimes we failed to take sufficient care. One substantial failure of note: we didn’t always foresee the additional expense and company-management labour of implementing a care-based approach. Where required, we made up the gap with our own labour, and both my co-director and I experienced burnout after the project.

However, we’ve continued to work with care as a central ethic and focus, and we include our own labour in the calculation more effectively. It sometimes slows our work down. It always deepens it and makes the spaces we facilitate more joyful and honest. It irrevocably sharpens our focus on how, and for whom, our work is ‘good’.

In parts of the creative industries, the notion of care is in vogue. The practicalities of how to turn a notion into a practice are being discovered in many rooms like ours. A large-scale commitment to and exploration of embedded care—care as a fundament—and sharing of our discoveries could transform our industry, the work we make, and the lives of artists and audiences, for the better.


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