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Change, grief and celebration

When my mum died I didn’t have the money to continue at my youth theatre. So I started assisting the teachers with the younger students and teaching classes in exchange for still having a place to attend. For the last 20 years, teaching, mentoring and holding space have always featured in my life in some way; teaching youth theatre, lecturing, being an outside eye for other artists, holding space for peoples stories and experiences in The Grief Series and as a leader of that team.

The Grief Series is a body of 7 arts projects across art forms including live performance, photography and installation. I started making The Grief Series in 2010 as a polite rebellion; a space for people to express grief using creative strategies. It started out as an ambition to make 7 projects about grief. I didn’t expect it to be a 13 year body of work or become a changing company of people I playfully refer to as ‘Team Grief’ made up of artists, audiences, chefs, funeral directors, historians and people from 5 to 85 years old. Holding space has been part of how I have formed my sense of identity. I’ve been a mentor without a mentor.

But how can someone continue to model ideas and inspire change when they aren’t actively seeking or prioritising their own growth?

Since July I’ve been mentored by the wonderful Dawn Langley. It has at times felt like all of these things:

A luxury, a joy, an uplifting feeling, a cause for celebration

A complete necessity without which something quite bad might have happened

A therapy session by the wrong name

An opportunity for me to be a learner rather than teacher

A heavy sigh out

And we’re only on our third session.

I have been dealing with a lot of organisational change within The Grief Series. Change is not something historically that has gone particularly well for me. Causes for celebration have been abruptly cut off by serious trauma. Sudden bereavements, serious health issues for myself and the people I love as well as the routine rejections and relentless pivoting that come along with precarious working and the arts ecology.

I started the Grief Series a decade ago by accident and it will be completed (I think) in 2023. I’m putting to bed what will be 13 years of daily work, energy, time and attention whilst simultaneously winding up to the most ambitious project of my career, the 7th and final project, a 9 day festival of grief called All That Lives. Winding up and winding down at the same time. It’s a disorientating feeling.

Feelings have been central to the success of the artworks and an engagement with the emotional landscape of my collaborators is a gift but I’ve felt less clear when it comes to the running of the organisation. Does my propensity to share and sometimes over share, make me less of a leader? Should I be developing a more hard nosed leadership style like the leaders I saw growing up. Stoic, shrewd, compartmentalised?

Dawn has given me tools that create space to name the feelings and look at them in the face but at the same time separate out the facts. The categories are Facts, Feelings, Findings and Future and you can see a related blog by Dawn here

Going in to the exercise, I had worried that the process of extricating facts from feelings might feel damning. That I would see all of my emotions and realise how irrational they were. That some of the ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings’ opinions of certain internet users might, in this case, have a point. And yet it has had the exact opposite effect. I have been able to cut myself some slack, zoom out and hold space for myself in the way I usually would for a student, emerging artist or mentee. In working with Dawn I am not only learning an immense amount from her but developing skills to apply the compassion and patience I have for my students to mentor myself. I’m still practising and sometimes I inevitably slip back into old habits but new ones are definitely forming.

Through work on The Grief Series we have prioritised giving our participants a ‘good end’ to the project as much as we possibly can, in the way they might not have had in bereavement. We knew that despite funding targets to ‘engage’ audience and beneficiaries there is as much art to disengaging them ethically, gently and with a bearing witness to the passing of our time together. We have worked our hardest to do that for others but have I been doing that for myself and my core team? How can we give The Grief Series the good ending it deserves and what might that look like for each of us? This process is unfolding as an application of our outward facing values to our everyday organisational workings. We are listening. We are changing and we are growing.

Dawn is not only mentoring me but building within me skills to mentor myself once our time together is over. Perhaps inspiring change is about sharing your workings out rather than glossing over the tricky bits to give the illusion of a sleek, linear process.

It’s a cause for celebration. I can’t thank Dawn enough. Now I need to work out how I want to mark and acknowledge these small, sometimes invisible, but deeply significant wins.

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