Hi, I’m Selina Thompson, I am a performance artist, I have been making work since I graduated in 2012, so 5 years, I’m a fat black woman that grew up in a working class home and I make work with and around my depression/anxiety/PTSD, leaning around it, stretching under it, grasping above it – anyway.
I started out doing shows in my university theatre company. After the first show, everyone would go out for a meal, there would be embarrassing speeches, and essentially I’d be eating and singing and drunk in a room full of some of my favourite people in the world at the time.
So we’re warming up for the first show
And M turns to me and says ‘I’m really looking forward to tonight!’
And I say ‘the show or the meal?’
And M says ‘the show obviously! It would be pretty sad if I was more excited about the meal than the show’
And I was devastated, because I was definitely more excited about the meal.
And I felt really ashamed of this for a really long time, because I remain, more excited about the meal. And I love my job, as Selina Thompson, a performance artist, as a show off for money. But I also love my life, as Selly, as Sel, as Selina-weeny-whiney (which my mum still calls me on the days when I’m struggling to get out of bed) cooking, and watering plants, and reading books, and sleeping, and generally being at peace.
So, I guess that is my first feel good fact which is also a home truth – that I love my job, but my life is better and worth more.
When I started out, for a long time all of me went into my job, it was the only thing that mattered. And it produced, for me, anyway – intense work with a short life span, and took already fragile mental health, and turned it into the most delicate spun sugar, being perpetually rained on. I feel very good about the fact that I have found a way of resisting something which is pervasive in our industry, and pushed onto ‘emerging artists’ especially – the do or die attitude, the all or nothing, that has people checking emails on holiday, texting about work at 10pm and not knowing what is for them, and what is for an audience, venue, programmer, critic. I am getting better at those boundaries. But as I get better at holding them, the more I notice our industry pushing at them.
This brings me onto my second feel good fact which is also a home truth – that I am in therapy now, that that therapy is paid for by the arts council as an access cost, and that it has probably been the single most life changing thing that has happened to me. I did a research trip last year and returned with damage to my back, my knees, my feet and my brain. It became very clear to myself and my company that without proper support, I wouldn’t be able to make work anymore. But this puts me in a very lucky place.
The last panel talk I did also had a speaker from Equity present – Emmanuel De Lange, who stated that the majority of their members had said they had ‘concerns’ about their mental health, with double the national average having gone to their GP for support I emailed him to get confirmation of the statisitics, but he is currently on annual leave, so forgive my not being able to be as quotable as I’d like. As the equity average earning is 5k from arts and art related activity, this does not surprise me. And this doesn’t take on board people for whom equity is not the right union, such as myself.
The precarious nature of working in the arts must have devastating long term effects on the mental health of those that are working within it. My home truth here is a question – if the majority of the money in the arts is held in venues, and in NPOs in particular, what are they doing about mental healthcare provision for those that work with them in the freelance sector as well as for them in house? If our industry is disproportionately affected, then where should we be situated in campaigns that seek to divert more funding to mental healthcare – it currently gets 5.5% of the government pot, despite GPs saying that 80% of their patients are seeking mental healthcare support. If 20% of those that experience major depressive disorder will go on to experience psychotic symptoms, what is the ongoing work of demystifying and engaging with broader mental health taboos – and how does this need to change not just who makes work, but how work is made? If people from historically marginalised communities are more likely to experience financial difficulty and need greater care to be paid to their health care needs, what are we doing alongside campaigning for greater diversity that also makes the presence of multiple communities and voices in our sector sustainable as well as accessible?
My third feel good fact which is also a home truth is that this year I will be earning £17k from my job after tax! In February I thought it might be a little more than this, but I have put more money into my company than expected. There is a lot of debt that has to come off of this, about six grand (payday loans, catalogues, debts to friends, because the last 5 years has been hard, and I have made decisions that I now have to reckon with) but this is still good.
Before I subtract the debt, it puts me 5p above what the Living Wage Foundation describe as the Real Living Wage for outside of London – puts me on about £8.5 p/h, assuming I work 5 days a week, 8 hours a day.
After I subtract the debt, it puts me on quite a lot less. I talk about what I earn a lot, not enough people do, and it obscures all manner of bullshit.
I kind of feel good about it. My company is able to have a payroll now and pay me £1000 a month, consistently, it covers rent and utilities and the afore mentioned debt. But I’m aware that the other £9000, (the money I live on, that covers food, travel, clothes, toiletries, my attempts to have a social and love life) coming from various freelance gigs is still a nightmare to chase. Invoices get lost, are processed wrong, the request to pay within certain time scales is ignored. I draw attention to this, because for me, it reveals an implicit assumption held throughout the arts that everybody is middle class, and so can afford for there to be a six-week gap between asking for pay and receiving it, that there are parents or savings to fall back on. I have no savings, not a penny, live pay check to pay check. I financially support my Mum and Dad, as they are both in their 60s and unemployed – and it is worth nothing that the aforementioned debt is directly related to the problems of cash flow in the past five years. This is a problem. Attention must be paid. And artists in the freelance sector need to come together and organise to change this, and venues should want to support them in that.
I’m going to finish here, with one last feel good fact/ home truth – a bonus one that I have learnt this year, especially, which is that if you write the provocation a week in advance, it is so much easier to enjoy events like this one. Thank you for listening.