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Why mutual respect allows us to make better art

Artists do their best work when they feel confident to play, when they feel they are not being judged, when they are spoken to with respect.
Why mutual respect allows us to make better art

Photo credit: Union House Theatre’s Megaphone Democracy, performers Julia Frecker and Nicholas Kirkby. Photo by Sarah Walker.

A fun, playful, safe space in which to fail gloriously yields the riskiest and most exciting work in the arts. It is a hard space to create. As artists we put ourselves on the line, making ourselves vulnerable and open to being judged, which can be scary. In addition, the way arts funding is structured, and the lack of opportunities can create a competitive space, which only increases this feeling of vulnerability. And problematically, when negativity and fear encroach in the creative space the work is never as good, the conversation is poorer and the potential of the work is harder to realise.

Early in my career I had a terrible experience. I was engaged as a dramaturg with two incredible writers. They had been commissioned to write a play. The process was challenging from day one. The commissioning company were difficult. Ego and fear made conversation and constructive criticism impossible. I felt it was my job to protect the writers from the incessant negativity about their work and their ideas. It was an untenable position to be in.

In advocating for the work of the writers I was eviscerated by this room of egos. I was one person speaking to the quality and potential of the work in a room that had decided they did not like it, were not interested in it and that it held no value. The sad thing was, I think much of what this company had to say was actually good feedback – but they went about it in the worst possible way. I felt bullied and what I had to say carried very little weight. The lack of skill in being able to talk to the work, the attack on the artists and myself, got in the way of what could have been a really exciting, constructive conversation.

I have thick skin. I want robust conversation about work. I can count on one hand in a career of almost 20 years, the number of times I’ve left a working room, cried and had to re-compose myself. This was such a formative experience for me. It went on to inform the way I approached all my subsequent work.

I now go out of my way to make sure that all artists feel safe, supported and of value. In whatever capacity I am employed. I spent years working in an improvisational theatre company and the values of trusting your fellow creatives, thinking the best of them, saying ‘yes and,’ and making them look good are fundamental to my process. I do not always get it right. There have been some spectacular failures. However, I know now, that this space of trust, generosity and thinking the best of your peers, your fellow artists, creates the potential for yielding extraordinary results. Artists do their best work when they feel confident to play, when they feel they are not being judged, when they are spoken to with respect.

I think this way of working starts best from the inside out. If we can believe that we are of value, that we have something to offer and resist putting ourselves in competition with our peers, then we can create an industry where people do not exploit power imbalance. Where common courtesy and respect mean you can be direct and constructive. Where collaboration and consultation and consideration are pillars on which the work is made. Robust conversation about work can then happen in a meaningful way. We can give constructive criticism that is not received as a personal attack. People will feel it possible to stand up when someone oversteps, they will be listened to when they make a complaint about harassment. 

I think it starts with all of us taking responsibility. If we have been bullies, if we have let fear, competition and ego get in the way of treating people with respect – then step into the space, say sorry. Acknowledge that what we do is hard and sometimes we say or do things out of fear rather than compassion.

I want to work in an industry where we expect the highest quality work from our artists. This can only happen when we respect and value what each other has to offer. Sometimes that means leaving space, getting out of the way and letting other voices speak. Sometimes it means stepping in and saying, ‘I think you’re great – I don’t think this work is the greatest’. In a world of quick quips on social media, calculated trolling, and a lack of greater political and community support for the arts and what we do, let’s strengthen this community by treating each other with respect. The work will be better because of it.

Petra Kalive

Wednesday 13 June, 2018

About the author

Petra Kalive is Artistic Director of Union House Theatre. Most recently she directed the Melbourne Theatre Company production, Hungry Ghosts.