“The art of saying Yes to a No”
The art of saying Yes to a No. Or, what I would say to myself 20 years ago as an artist just starting out and what I say to all artists now…
Dear Artists, especially you performing artists. You have the right to say no. We are taught that in order to be good artists we have to say yes to everything and everyone. That that somehow means we are open. But sometimes that tears down boundaries that we are meant to have in order to protect our bodies, psyches and souls; in order to know when something isn’t right. Being open sometimes leaves us open for abuse. There is so much abuse and exploitation of artist, and especially of young women. We are NOT TOOLS to be used and discarded for a director’s vision. I believe that we need to know what is good for us and what is not good for us. If we feel something in our guts say that this isn’t right- it isn’t right. If we leave a rehearsal feeling even just a tiny bit confused, silenced, mistreated, exposed in a way that we feel broke or crossed something inside of us, then we need to have the courage to stand up and to say no.
Have the courage to stand up to directors that bully, exploit, and silence. You can walk away. You will find another community, you will find another job. We cannot continue to give permission to artists to be tyrants, bullies and abusers in the name of being “great artists”. It’s a lie and a lie that will only stop when we make it stop. Make it stop. Have courage. This model of creation, although long utilised, is on the way out.
This is indeed an “important and crucial stage of saying Yes to a No. For resistance also must be embraced. Not only accepting resistance but practicing it.” (MC Richards)
Say yes to yourself. Yes to your potential. Yes to your power. Yes to your voice. Yes to your emotions. Yes to your authenticity.
I wrote this letter in January of 2020 as a reflection of where I stood as an artist viewing my 20 year career. After nearly a decade of work in a successful theatre company, I had left and set out as an independent freelance artist in order to find my own voice as an artist and also to find healthier and more sustainable ways of working. In the two years of my renewed independence, I’ve had the good fortune of being in a presence of many other international artists, directors, companies and organisations and have been able to witness different ways of working and leading. After being so hermetic for those years of artistry within the walls of a company, this newfound independence felt like being born again; observing and immersing myself in these new environments of creativity. After essentially exclusively working under one director, in one methodology, through hundreds and hundreds of performances, world tours, and innumerable hours of rehearsals and practice, I was wide-eyed and in awe to discover this new world of different ways of working. I had been under the impression, through that decade of work, that I had found the best theatre in the world and that it was the only way to work. Also, during that time, I wasn’t exactly encouraged (or allowed) to do other work. It was expected and made very clear that my priority and time should be devoted to that company. And so I dutifully acquiesced, believing that I was contributing to and driving this powerful work forward, and I was. After intertwining my life so inextricably with that company, it was incredibly difficult for me to leave even when it was absolutely clear that it was time to go. It took about two years to find a way out. Meaning to not only reimagine a new artistic and personal life for myself, but to find other work because most of the invitations for other work that I received throughout those years, had slowly subsided because I was never available. So, I felt I needed to rebuild my career. But that wasn’t the most difficult aspect, I don’t want to discuss any details of what I experienced while I was a member of a theatre company because I want to discuss a bigger issue, which refers to the letter above. The art, or ability, of saying Yes to a No.
When I left that company, I felt so much pain. And it was pain that was deep inside of me, almost an irrational pain that I couldn’t explain. I only had a realisation recently that a huge part of my pain was because I left what felt like my place, my tribe, my community. The theatre company represented more than just a work place, it represented my home in the world. I was a foreigner in a country that was not mine, surrounding by a new culture, new language and history. But this place gave me purpose and a sense of belonging. That sense of belonging is so crucial for us. Belongingness is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers, a religion, or something else, people have an ‘inherent’ desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves.1 Think about it from a very basic evolutionary perspective; the community, or the tribe, represents survival. We help each other survive by means of protection, shelter and food. But leaving the tribe, means that we are exposed to much greater dangers and become vulnerable in ways that we would otherwise be immune to if we had the protection of the tribe. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, belonging is the fundamental basis of our psychological needs. Human beings are social animals by nature. “For all mammals, social distance from the group is every bit as dangerous as hunger, thirst, or physical injury. In human societies, ostracism can mean death if the target is regarded as being outside the protection of the law or cut off from group support, including access to food.”2 Biologically we are wired to need to belong to a tribe and even if the environment is unhealthy or we are abused. Being a part of a tribe is still better than being alone, exiled or ostracised and having to fend for oneself alone in this scary world full of threats. I can only begin to imagine the global psychological implications of the year 2020 and our social distancing requirements, which have in many cases forced us to be separate from our support structures. The need to belong is probably greater now, in this moment, than we’ve experienced in generations. This need to belong is so fundamental and biologically powerful in us and essential for our psychological and emotional wellbeing that I believe it leads to major life choices. Choices like where we live, work, go to school, if we belong to a religion or organisation, etc. Many people find this sense of belonging in their family, religion or community. But many people do not have environments that offer that kind of psychological safety or they feel that they just don’t belong anywhere (let me please tell you that artists often do not feel like they belong anywhere) and so they set out in search of their “place” in the world.
So what actually happens inside of us when we leave our place of belonging? Well, pain. “Emerging evidence in neuroscience has suggested that the physical feeling of pain (from, say, stubbing your toe) and the social/emotional feeling of pain (from ostracism) overlap in terms of how your brain processes it.” So, the same area of the brain that processes physical pain also reacts when people have just been excluded.”3 That is to say, we literally feel pain when we are excluded. This neurological process might drive actions as simple as trying to keep groups together. Think of the occasions when you have done a workshop or a seminar. Did you notice how reluctant you or others have been to let the group dissolve? Promising to keep in touch even if there’s no reason to? People also seem unwilling to let go of destructive relationships, for example when they’re abused by their spouse.4 It’s not revolutionary to say that this force and need within all of us for acceptance and belonging can be misused and exploited by those who hold positions of power.
What happens when this need to be included, or to find this sacred space of tribe and community is taken to the extreme? Of course we’ve all heard stories of cults that brainwash their followers into being a part of a community or system that can make them do things they ordinarily wouldn’t do. Religious cults, yoga gurus or spiritual leaders are most notorious for this. But this cult like mentality can certainly be found in more benign and innocent seeming organisations. The word cult can be understood as a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal.5 The reason why cults are so seductive is because of this sense of belonging or purpose that they offer people. Also, a sense that the cult member is a part of something exclusive, special and unique in all the world, that they have something that no one else does. A defining characteristic of a cult is that they often set up a we-they philosophy: we have the truth or the best way and they do not. But then slowly the will of the subordinate is bent to the will of the leader and the cult member begins to do things that serve the purpose of the leader in ways that might not be in line with their own innate wisdom or internal guide. And this happens in companies of all disciplines and forms around the world. Dr. Cath a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, defined a cult as a group of people joined together by a common ideological system fostered by a charismatic leader, where, he said, ”the expectation is that they can transcend the imperfections and finitude of life.’’6 And interestingly enough, according to various research, women make up 70% of cult members around the world. Emma Cline, the author of the bestselling cult-themed novel The Girls theorises that young women are often taught to seek the attention of men and to wait for “rescue”, and through joining a cult many young women to feel as if they are “seizing their destiny.”7 Agree with this or not, it’s worth pondering.
If we’re talking about this in relationship to artists and artistry, what theatre company doesn’t want to “transcend the imperfections and finitude of life.”? Artists are dreamers and ideologists and we want to deeply believe in the work that we do. We want to have purpose that gives our life meaning. So many of us believe that we can somehow change or influence the world with our art and for many artists, our work is not only our profession but it is actually a way of life. Please understand, I’m not saying that all theatre companies are cult like. But rather that these environments are ideal for cult like circumstances to emerge. The very nature of the actor’s craft is to learn to be open, malleable, pliable, cooperative, willing to adjust, change and transform, be willing to take risks and be vulnerable in front of others. This is the beauty and the danger of our work. This ability to transform our personality and identity in the process of becoming a character is the craft itself but it can also leave us extremely vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by abusive or dysfunctional leaders. All the while, we may think that we’re being professional by bending our will, bending our physical, emotional and psychological needs to the will of another. We may even see this as discipline or dedication. But when it becomes unhealthy is when our boundaries of safety are stripped away or bent little by little until we are in the hands of another, executing their desire at the detriment of our own personal lives or mental health. Recently, this has gained greater public recognition through artists (mostly women), who in the wake of the global “Me Too” movement, have begun to come forward and speak out about the hidden abuses they’ve endured at the hands of powerful leaders (mostly men). It is not always so binary, but this seems to be the overwhelming majority of experiences. This is either from long term systemic abuse or isolated abusive situations and moments that have left lasting damage. Month by month a new article, interview or public statement is released revealing the nature of this widespread systemic abuse. In the theatre world we hear constant stories of directors who abuse their power by sleeping with employees or directors who are tyrants and bullies and even drug addicts. Yet we still allow them to wield their power because for the moment the power lies in their hands and they are the ones who can create the conditions of work and income and also of community and belonging. It’s almost cliche in the art world to roll our eyes and sigh when we hear about this director or that director yet again abusing his power. It’s such an old story. A friend of mine said to me, “But it is involving two people, it’s not only the director’s fault.” I disagree. As a teacher, for example, I view my relationship with the student as a kind of coded contract. The student comes to me seeking something and it is my job to help guide the student in this process of discovery. The very nature of that relationship is that the student is vulnerable and open to my suggestion and I hold knowledge (power) and am able to guide the student. Sometimes there is an error in the perception of the student and they might project something onto me; that I am something to them that I am not. It is my job to correct this error in perception and adjust the student’s perspective in understanding what I can give and what I cannot. This is my job, not theirs. It is also my job to help the student to understand that any progress in their work, though accomplished through the meeting, is actually their achievement and belongs to them. They take ownership of their achievements, not me. Of course we can make mistakes. But dysfunctional leaders can exploit the perceptions of their students or their colleagues, manipulating the relationship and perception to their own will. Or take credit and recognition for shared work. But there are no codes of conduct for this in the majority of the art world as there might be in other realms.
Recently, I’ve been asking a diverse group of colleagues to allow me to interview them on the meaning and conditions of a “safe space” in an artistic working environment. I’m trying to speak with people from vastly different genres of work so that we can hear from different perspectives and be exposed to these different opinions. I asked one former university peer of mine who has gone on to do film and television in the States, whereas I have gone on to do avant-garde European theatre focusing on the world of Post-Grotowski Poland, we couldn’t have had a more different career trajectory. I thought it would be fascinating to hear from her on this subject. She said something that is extraordinary to me and probably normal to a lot of others. Which was that her work “comes after certain legal agreements have been made regarding the work environment and involves regulated teams to enforce them.” I just kind of blankly blinked after reading this. Really? Of course we have contracts that may or may not be negotiated. Meaning that we might not feel we are able to negotiate our contracts or speak openly about our terms. But TEAMS who regulate and enforce the agreements of the working terms creating not only safe but protected working environments, really? Well, it’s hard to imagine quality and safety control teams being present during the work that I do. Which leads me to believe that WE the artists need to be the quality safety control teams ourselves. So why don’t we speak out when either we ourselves are in a precarious or uncomfortable situation or when we witness it happening to others? Well, I believe it’s because one of these two issues I’m talking about, either we think we’re being professional by just saying “yes” all the time or we’re afraid of the consequences of speaking out which could mean being ostracised from the group (remember physical pain or fear of death?). So what can we, the multitude of artists who are not in regulated artistic environments do? I think it has something to do with first discussing this. I’ve seen something very interesting occur after all of these confessions of abuse coming out in the art world. There seems to be one of three main reactions:
There is a shared outrage and a stance of solidarity with the victim.
There is a plea for people to just accept each other and the work we all do although it takes on different versions of ethicality.
There is a kind of disgust that the whistleblower has broken this sacred and unspoken contract of “we don’t talk negatively about other artists and we don’t reveal the secrets of the working environment”.
Well, if we want to stay firmly anchored in the last century we support option 2 and 3. But if we want to move forward, evolve and create a healthier working environment for ALL involved (because I don’t think it’s good for abusers either to be perpetuating their abuse) then probably we need to adapt an attitude of solidarity with the victims, or at least make this subject less taboo. There are millions of artists who do not have unions to protect them. Can you imagine if we gathered and spoke about our visions for a healthier art world as a collective? What if we weren’t generally afraid to say no, I disagree, this makes me uncomfortable, I don’t want to do that? If you are an artist who feels empowered to do these things, then I am so happy for you. But there are many many who are not in cultures or communities that allow space for this. So, I imagine if those in power knew at all times that actors, dancers and singers felt supported and empowered enough to question their leadership. Think about my colleague who works with teams of people ensuring quality and safety. This evolved because of a need. A need to ensure safety of the actors at all times because safety wasn’t always obvious. Should directors be a bit afraid of us? Maybe? Maybe they shouldn´t have fear, but an omnipresent self awareness of the responsibility one has when they have power to not manipulate or exploit. But for some reason, I see time and time again this responsibility disappearing when we enter into the professional environment but it should be the opposite! It should be enforced and protected even more. I can’t offer answers now of policies we can adapt or systems of support we can harness. But I can say, we need to talk about this more, organise ourselves and recognise that we do have power. We need to take a deep breath and have the courage to say no. “For resistance also must be embraced. Not only accepting resistance but practicing it.”
2 Lynn Suart Parramore, https://truthout.org/articles/the-social-death-penalty-why-being-ostracized-hurts-even-more-than-bullying/
3 Andy Luttrell, PhD Social Psychology, http://socialpsychonline.com/2015/11/psychology-ostracism-feeling-excluded/
4 Margit Averdijk, social scientist PhD in criminology. https://criminologyweb.com/the-need-to-belong/
6 New York Times, Glenn Collins, https://www.nytimes.com/1982/03/15/style/the-psychology-of-the-cult-experience.html
Julianna Bloodgood is a multidisciplinary theatre creator and performer. She worked with the award winning and critically acclaimed Polish theatre company Song of the Goat Theatre from 2009-2018. She was an integral part of the development, devising, premiers of performances which have won international theatre awards and toured throughout the world. In Poland Julianna was also a founding member of the pedagogical and performance research company Odra Ensemble. Julianna is a resident artist with New York based Theater MITU, and collaborates with Slovakian theatre company Honey and Dust.
In 2019, Julianna was awarded a scholarship from the Poish Ministry of Culture for her artistic research and was one of ten European independent theatre makers chosen to participate in Creative Europe’s Make A Move project.
Julianna is the co-founder of The Dadaab Theater Project, a youth based theater project in Dadaab, Kenya, formerly the world’s largest refugee camp and is a founding member and co-artistic director of The Great Globe Foundation, a non-profit organization utilizing the power of creativity to inspire and empower the individual voice and to help build bridges between people and communities.
Julianna graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with high honors and holds an MA in Acting, a BFA in Dramatic Performance from the College Conservatory of Music, Department of Acting, University of Cincinnati; and is a graduate of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, California. Julianna regularly teaches workshops and masterclasses internationally.