Sarah Emmott: A year ‘Developed With’ The Lowry

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It feels like yesterday we were signing our agreement with The Lowry and setting our aims for the year. We’ve achieved so much under the wings of The Lowry, both artistically and as an organisation, and we wanted to be able to talk about what we’ve learnt over this year in some bitesize, useful chunks.

The ‘Developed With The Lowry’ scheme is really important and unique; it offers artists and companies a space within a creative family to stretch your wings, test things out and grow. Support for administrative/organisational growth is hard to come by and organisational development is a scary bridge to cross alone. Working project to project doesn’t leave much time to think of business structures, policies and value proposition, but to grow and remain sustainable it’s something we all need to go through on some level to make sure we don’t burn out.

Most artist support schemes are more commission based, with the focus on a package to help support the creation of a new product. The Lowry have supported both our artistic and professional development over the course of a year; the creation of a new production and our own personal and professional development. As freelancers it’s rare that you have the freedom to cherry pick courses for your own development because you’re usually financing it yourself (and with most courses in London, being based in the North make a lot unachievable when you account for travel and other expenses). ‘Developed With’ gave us a list of aims, deadlines and funds to develop ourselves, which at the start felt like a bit of a luxury, but now, at the other end of it, feels like a real necessity.

We have developed a business plan, internal structures, created more solid roles, built new relationships with other venues and got to know so many more people in the building from programming, marketing, fundraising, technical, learning and engagement, to VIPs and security guards! The Lowry has become our second home and for most of the year you could find us working away in that second booth in the middle of Pier Eight.

For the first time we’ve been able to look at long-term strategic planning. We’ve had the capacity to learn, reflect and grow which has enabled us to start to shape what the future looks like for Art with Heart and how we can achieve it. When you’re working project to project you can get tunnel-visioned, this year has given us the opportunity to take a step back, look at where we are and start a route map for where we want to be. That in itself has been absolutely invaluable.

Premiering Declaration was a huge step up for us and has raised our profile. We’ve grown artistically and developed new areas of our practice. I’ve never made a piece of work so personal. It’s been a nerve-wracking but incredibly liberating and supported process. That said, making Declaration was tough; often when you make work your home is your respite, but when you’re making a production about your personal mental health there isn’t any escape from it; the safety of ‘work’ (where you can put on a brave happy face if you’re feeling low) actually becomes the most exposing place.

We were aware as a company of how tough it would be and did everything we could to ease it. We made a promise to each other to always check in, that I could stop at any time if I needed to, and that Rachel and The Lowry would filter any questions or enquiries that I didn’t feel comfortable responding to. I had regular counselling, a mentor I could check in with and we started every day with a ‘check in chat’ to gauge the days work. All of those things kept me safe, comfortable and productive. It might seem like a lot to do on paper but when you’re in it, you need to feel as safe as possible in order to have the freedom to let people in, think creatively and pragmatically.

We took the preparation before going into rehearsals really seriously and kept pushing the ‘worst case scenario’ so that we made sure we were never caught short and we took the same approach with our audiences too. We provided a curated ‘Wellbeing Room’ for audiences to visit before, during (if they needed to) and afterwards where they could start to process their own needs. Ran by a qualified mental health worker it was a quiet space to reflect and included wellbeing activities, information for further support and a nice hot cup of tea. All of this took a lot of time, planning and dedication to that ‘worst case scenario’, but by doing that, we provided the audience with a warm, welcoming ‘best case’ scenario where we could relax and feel like we were all in it together.

As a company, we’re really passionate about the wellbeing of audiences and often see it as our duty of care to provide additional wraparound activities to projects. Declaration has pushed our practice and challenged us to up our game when it comes to artist care and wellbeing too. We’ve been part of quite a few conversations around responsibility and audience engagement. Rachel contributed to this article by Ziggy’s Wish and we’ve been active in talking to venues and artists about how important it is.

Our Wellbeing Contract formed a huge part of understanding our personal, collective and audience’s needs. This learning process is much easier when you’re in the safety and security of a building who understands what you’re trying to do, but that’s not always the case when you’re touring out to other venues. It’s been part of our commitment to be able to replicate this wellbeing on tour; regular breaks in the tour schedule, shared job roles, allowances for cancelations if my mental health isn’t well enough, and a Wellbeing Room at each venue with a Mental Health professional who will come on the road with us. Most venues we’ve spoken to have looked really positively on this and have found a way to make this work, it might not be something they have come across before, but having the The Lowry advocate for its importance has really helped us.

In terms of our passion for artist’s wellbeing, it has grown ten-fold, but what we’ve also experienced is a learning experience from both our side and The Lowry’s side creating a real two-way working relationship between company and venue. What we’re really interested in now is how we can move forward together with The Lowry and start to develop best practice for artists/companies and venues when working together. We’re really looking forward to seeing how our relationship grows, because if the last year is anything to go by, there are plenty of exciting peaks to come.

Thank you to The Lowry, Arts Council England, The Manchester Guardian Society Charitable Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation and our 44 Kickstarter backers. Without our funders and advocates, this year really wouldn’t have been possible.

Written by Sarah Emmott, Art with Heart

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