Jun. 14th 2023

Not the what but the how – Creating the right environment for the best work to flourish?

by Nathan Curry



Exploring new processes/procedures trialled on Belongings for ensuring well-being and creating a healthy rehearsal room culture. 


Listen to the recording of this blog post here


As an ensemble of artists, working together across many projects and years and often alongside young people and community volunteers, trust and well-being is central to what we do. However, without deliberate acts and interventions it’s quite easy for well-being to become side-lined and the unrelenting pressure of show creation, the event deadline and funding timelines to take over.

In the past year we have been refocusing our creative model to make sure we place as much importance on how we work with each other in rehearsal (the relationships, the space for vulnerability and anxiety, the communication) as we spend on the content of what we are making. 


This journey is part of a longer-term change and development for Tangled Feet to analyse where we’ve made mistakes in the past (which we have) and explore ways of making improvements that centre care, effective communication and allow space for vulnerability and anxiety within safe support structures.  We’ve recently adopted sending Access Riders before all productions and established a Freelance Steering Group (more on those in later blogs) alongside establishing rehearsal processes to create heathier working environments.


It is often expected that Directors will lead rehearsal room culture but that feat of facilitation, safeguarding, pastoral care and reading the room is a complex job. Is it impossible for a Director to be aware of everyone’s needs (including their own), manage the content creation and timetable as well as negotiating external rehearsal room pressures. Director’s may get training in acting technique and scene changes (which is what they often get praised or criticised for) but do they ever get any training to look after a team well, to plan effectively and to structure a process so that the environment enables everyone to do their best work? 


Designing an Alliance


Thanks to some fantastic training on Designing an Alliance from Support Squad and Creating Inclusive Environments from Tonic Theatre in 2022 on our latest production Belongings we trialled a process whereby the creative team designed an alliance on how we would work through rehearsals:


 On Day 1 of rehearsals we spent the first morning exploring two questions:

-How do we want the process to feel?

-If there is disagreement, anxiety or concerns – how do we deal with it?


The opening of a rehearsal process in this way allowed us to explore how we would work together not necessarily what we were working on. In answer to the first question there were responses one would imagine such as “supportive” and “playful” but also words that led to healthy discussions on what we needed from each other “transparent” “safe” “with clear communication”.


The second question gave us a platform to explore how we’d all cope when things were more difficult. Phrases such as “acceptance not defensiveness”, “compassionate curiosity” “space” allowed us to talk about what we all needed to support each other when the path got rocky. But other things came up too that were almost instructions for how we may approach these moments as a group:


“you never know what’s happening in people’s lives”

“come back to why we are here”

“set aside a time to deal with these things”

“are all our needs being met?”



By opening this discussion we are accepting that creative processes are embedded with challenges – differing viewpoints, creative difference, pressure, anxiety, the challenge to create the ‘new’. In scripted work it is often said the text is the arbitrator on any disagreement but on devised work there often isn’t a text everyone is responding to – it may be themes, a set of relationships and lived experience. 


Devising new work is hard and there are many moments where you all feel lost and alone. At these points anxiety can quickly seep in and the atmosphere can change. When we had difficult moments on Belongingswe were able to look back at our lists and talk about how we wanted to deal with these moments together – to be curious in others ideas, to allow some space to process and to accept not defend. 


Criticism, defensiveness & silence are three elements that can lead to toxic atmospheres. However rehearsal processes are full of constructive criticism, defence of ideas and passion for new ones and silence as people process, reflect and plan.  Toxicity can appear when it was no ones intention. By designing an alliance we are asking the production teams to take responsibility of this atmosphere and culture. As it said on the wall in the Belongings rehearsal room “We are all responsible for creating an inclusive working environment”. There are hierarchies at play in a rehearsal room and especially in founder led theatre companies – there is a risk that this hierarchy creates the working dynamic in the room. By making it everyone’s responsibility that power can be shared and challenged and more equitable spaces exist. 


Dramatherapy and Reflective Practice


Tangled Feet are very proud to run a large Dramatherapy offer, employing 9 Dramatherapists across 6 educational sites. We also run a Mindfulness Programme in Primary and Secondary Schools. We have often looked for ways to connect our Dramatherapy work with our productions and the creation of our Therapeutic Theatre pieces for children (Need A Little HelpButterflies and Belongings) have connected those we were working with through therapy with our creative acts. 


During the rehearsal phase of Belongings we started to bring in Dramatherapy style exercises and a considered reflective process alongside content creation. The TF Lead Dramatherapist Alex Ramsden was embedded in all stages of Belongings creation process but in the final phase we gave time to specific reflective exercises to:

-name what our hopes and fears for the work were

-to discuss how we’d cope when the work became triggering

-to explore support structures

-to temperature check where our own resilience levels were

-to take part in simple meditation and regulation exercises


Alex was then on call for the entire rehearsal and tour period for anyone to continue these exercises or conversations one to one. Not many people needed more support but all mentioned knowing that the structure was in place was enough to alleviate most anxiety. 


By allowing space for a reflective practice within the rehearsal process I think the performances gained a new level of depth through trust and acceptance. This was one piece of feedback we got from a Dramatherapist in the audience of the show:


“Seeing Belongings twice, each time I have felt connected with the wonderful characterisation of the actors in role. The honesty and vulnerability the actors have enabled in their role telling conveys a truthful at times sorrowful, at times celebratory sense of the lived experience. “


Change takes time. Creating space in the theatre making processes for Designed Alliances and a Reflective Practice need proper planning and consideration but we can feel the difference its making. The sense of trust, shared responsibility and a safe way to have complex conversations is clear. Our Access Riders are already alerting us ahead of time to people needs to allow them to make their best work and the Freelance Steering Group will embed long term change, accountability and devolution of power. These things need time, space and funding allocating to them and we are committed to them in these ways. We’ll continue to share our learnings, do get in touch if you want to know more. 


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