11 April 2024

Artists' wellbeing takes centre stage in the MERRIGONGX 2024 Artists Program

| Dione David
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Black and white image of Bonnie Curtis from Merrigong

Merrigong’s Artistic Associate Artist Wellbeing Bonnie Curtis is leading the charge on a new program to help the Illawarra’s artists find equilibrium in their profession. Photo: David Bonnell.

Higher rates of anxiety and depression have long been a problem in the performing arts sector, which is why this year’s MERRIGONGX Artists Program will not only showcase the incredible talent of the Illawarra’s artists, but help cultivate sustainable health and wellbeing habits in the region’s industry professionals.

Based on months of research, the wellbeing program will provide tailored support, accessibility services and workshops to nurture the holistic health of 2024 MERRIGONGX artists.

Artistic Associate Artist Wellbeing Bonnie Curtis says lack of funding and isolation due to odd or long hours are contributors to the industry’s poor mental health record – and COVID didn’t help.

“There have always been significant mental health challenges in the performing arts sector. People who work in the industry have been found to have higher rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse,” she says. “It was all amplified by the pandemic.”

Part of the program will see Bonnie working with MERRIGONGX artists and their collaborators to provide tools to cope with common issues encountered in creative industries.

“A lot of people in performing arts feel their occupations are not taken seriously. I’m a choreographer and dancer and can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘I didn’t know that was a job,'” she says.

“The general population in a stereotypical sense don’t understand that when they watch TV, listen to music or listen to a podcast, they’re experiencing the work of artists.

“I think COVID highlighted the value of this work. During lockdown, what would people have done without Netflix? The shows, the music concerts and comedians – they’re all artists, and without them, it would have been a very bleak time indeed.”

READ ALSO Theatre thrills as Merrigong releases its smashing 2024 season

There will also be a series of wellbeing workshops facilitated by Relationships Australia, targeting the “making process”.

“The idea will be to work with artists on developing wellbeing, and a clear picture of what that might look like while they’re in the process of making their work,” Bonnie says.

“We’ll be asking questions around what the work is about, for example. Are there complex or traumatic themes they’re exploring? Are there people they’re working with who have specific needs such as First Nations people, queer people or people living with disability? What kind of toll is making the work taking on their day-to-day life? And what are their goals outside of the typical hallmarks of ‘success’, like hitting box office targets?

“It’ll be about making their profession sustainable.”

READ ALSO Principals subject to threats, violence, poor mental health: survey

The second part of the program will focus on artist development, with creative business-to-business workshops that are free and open to everyone, including members of the public.

The workshops have been created by people in the creative industries for people in the creative industries.

“Part of having a rewarding and successful career as an independent artist is having skills and networks to help get you there,” Bonnie says.

At the same time, MERRIGONGX’s regular programming will, as always, provide independent artists with valuable financial, technical, marketing and artistic resources to produce everything from in-house creative developments to full-blown public presentations of new work, and everything in between.

Beginning the season in August is Josh Hinton’s A Place in the Sultan’s Kitchen or How To Make the Perfect One-Pot Chicken Curry. Weaving together childhood memories and family folklore passed down through the generations, Josh attempts to make his grandmother’s chicken curry live on stage.

Later that month, Nathan Harrison’s Birdsong of Tomorrow presents a playful and heartfelt look at the birds around us, and what they might sing when we’re gone.

Concluding the MERRIGONGX season is The Cardinal Rules. This nostalgic work of storytelling by Rose Maher, with Hurrah Hurrah, is a reckoning with an upbringing in the Australian Catholic Church circa 1990.

MERRIGONGX will also support developing work from the likes of performance-based collective Vaguely Adjacent, Alana Valentine, Catherine McKinnon and Aunty Barbara Nicholson, Siobhan Doran-Chaston and others.

The annual Made From Scratch multi-artform performance night, which has already seen one successful round in March, will return in June and September to offer artists space and support to test new ideas in front of a live audience.

For more information on the 2024 season visit MERRIGONGX.

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