Mark Bowman is a musician, actor, performing arts tutor and former stage school owner. Our paths crossed on the internet due to a shared interest in mental health awareness in our industry, something we care deeply about. Here, Mark provides a frank, yet heart-warming account of his experience as a school owner and the day to day pressures that came with the position, and gives his tips for individuals working in the Performing Arts Sector on how to improve on their mental health.
Statistics show that 1 in 4 people suffer from a mental health problem at some point in their lifetime. In 2017, you heard more in the media about “relieving pressure”, “talking to loved ones” and “speaking out”. But what if you work in an area that, (by no fault of its own) makes it quite difficult to be open about depression, anxiety and other disorders? Do you carry on and bury your feelings and emotions temporarily until your working day is over? Do you get scared of your own mental health issues and pretend they’re not happening? Or are you someone that is 100% open and honest in your line of work?
In the performing arts sector, many trained actors, singers, dancers, musicians & other arts professionals often have to supplement their income by teaching the younger generation how to craft their skills in these areas. Throughout my twenties, I would often chop and change between gigging weekends at weddings, functions and private events to then teaching various age groups during the week. I would find that when I was working at a teaching job, I would often think about doing gigs to Make my money and vice versa, then question if this is the right career for me.
Why didn’t I change careers you ask? Well, when you spend thousands of pounds at university, years of learning musical instruments, developing your vocals and following the one area you felt you were “born to do” since the age of 11, you stick with it out of trusting your gut and refusing to let your pride get in the way.
As a musician-actor & studio production specialist, I would often teach Musical Theatre Vocals at weekends & evenings to children as young as 4 , all the way up to 18. Now, from a distance, you would think earning £20-£30 an hour on a Saturday morning for teaching some singing to the younger generation would be easy right? Yep, me too…..before I actually did it consistently.
Teaching is no different to Performing, you need to know what you’re doing, and how to gauge your audience. You need to plan what you’re going to teach to engage your students, not only that, you also need to be prepared for your lesson not having the desired effect you thought it would (which happens frequently may I add).
..You’re in a classroom teaching, your class is flagging, so you need to carefully wind that activity up (without your students knowing that you know it’s not working) and start something new to fill the last 25 mins before your next group. There’s also correct technique to consider, making sure you’re teaching them the most ethical and safest way to learn this important performance skill from you. After all, they’re trusting you to follow through with your promise.
How do you and them know if you’re doing a good job? Ah yes, progression! Your manager and students’ parents want to know that they’re progressing over time. Don’t forget behaviour management and keeping a balanced respect between the class and yourself. How frustrating can it be when five 8 year olds think they can learn these skills when they’re talking and being disruptive? Along with all of these core skills, the most vital element is being aware of safeguarding procedures. Children and Young adults are vulnerable. As a teacher offering these services, it is your duty to know how and when to act whilst being responsible for children, teenagers and vulnerable adults. Safeguarding is something that requires separate training, which cannot just be learned whilst “on the job”. It’s vital that you know how you’re supposed to act in certain situations.
Still think it’s easy? It’s hard work writing about it, let alone actually doing it in a class!
It takes years and years of hard work and experience to be able to create & teach a lesson with an hour’s notice. This is why there are a lot of teachers that are in high demand. That’s wonderful for them! Or so some may think….
Many who’ve worked hard and wish to grow on this, may then decide to turn this into a business, often by expanding into a Theatre Academy or Performing Arts School. This was my job for 5 and a half years. I had always dreamed of running my own theatre school, and being able to make a difference to the younger generation. I wanted a tried and tested model, rather than have to spend years learning the business before I could do the ‘fun’ part. I began with one school, which was part of a larger network, and i was fortunate that I opened with enough students to run great activities and not have to work too hard to run at full capacity. The first school I opened was a dream come true. The brand I had taken on was impressive, and something that as a performer, I wanted to be a part of. I was passionate, positive, and felt like I was at the peak of my achievements. I was a leader, I had a team, I had lovely students, I had a brand and I had an income within 2 months. I was on top of the world, very ambitious and became hungry for success and expansion.
What could possibly burst my bubble? I was on a roll and nothing could stop me!
Until reality set in…………..
Then I had to take care of the “responsible” duties.
Below, I have made “THE LIST”. The “List” is a general list, in which every performing arts business owner can relate to!
We’ve all had the following issues (or similar):
• Teachers calling in sick,
• Teachers having to cancel their lessons due to a last minute audition,
• The venue complaining that one of our students had left a sweet wrapper in one of the rooms and threatening your venue contract,
• Parents complaining that their child was unstimulated or that they weren’t a “star” after 3 months,
• Teachers having issues with the behaviour of a certain child and refusing to teach,
• Lost lunchboxes,
• Nose bleeds/injuries,
• Parents texting & calling you at whatever hour they like (7am on a Sunday morning) telling you how they feel you should run your business,
• Having to discuss performance with teachers over late or poor lesson plans and..
• Team members treating your school as something they just turn up to after a night out for a bit of cash!
Who is the one that has to deal with all of these? Who do all of the above go to when these issues arise? Yes, you!
There are lots of rewards, worthwhile moments, and plenty of high emotion from developing the younger generation in confidence and skill. Parents DO compliment you on how much their child has developed, and how they support your ethos & methods……We’ve also just skimmed over that long list of “responsible duties”. See how easy it is to push all of those tasks to one side? This is why I’m writing this article……
I’m here to discuss a certain topic, one which not only I’ve experienced but many other professionals have been affected by it……mental health & wellbeing. As performers, for some reason, we often feel that we are superheroes. We can teach 10 different classes a week, gig at the weekend, earn money doing freelance voiceovers and backing vocals, as well as, oh yeah, taking care of ourselves!
MY EXPERIENCE AS A THEATRE SCHOOL OWNER
My theatre school model delivered 4 lessons to 4 different age groups all at the same time, on a carousel basis. I NEEDED to be in control of every single element of it all, and would often get upset when I couldn’t be. I would be hard on myself, and then I would start to doubt my abilities within my role. However, after 3 years, I sat back and I realised that this is where I must let go to make a difference! I contracted teachers for a reason, which was to deliver inspiring & exciting lessons, so in theory, my role wasn’t to plan the lessons for them. Support them, yes. Guide them, yes, but to deliver the whole student experience by myself , was certainly not a realistic goal, nor a healthy one. Saying that, there is certainly nothing wrong with being passionate, hands on, and involved. In fact, I whole heartedly encourage it. What I am trying to instill is that this is where you need to balance your duties, and delegate certain tasks to your team.
As a Theatre School Principal & Owner, you’re at the top, yet, when there’s a glitch in this hierarchy, you’re the one that it falls upon to correct. There is this illusion that because you’ve created a business in which you are at the top, that you can handle anything or any problems that can be thrown at you. Agree of Disagree? There is no doubt about it, it’s your business, so yes the buck is passed to you. However, it is well known that many people who are starting out in this business, set it up out of love & passion, not to immediately become the next Richard Branson, and often will make a loss in their first 1-2 years of trading, but stick at it to create something wonderful. So when you put so much passion into what you do, having to deal with “The List” can often be tough and very challenging at first, especially if you’re a sensitive but passionate person, like I was. It was getting to me how I couldn’t tackle this ongoing “list, and how personally I used to take every small comment. I was a people pleaser, and nothing anybody said could change that.
I quickly expanded into 4 schools, across 2 different locations, on a Saturday and a Sunday, which equalled around 300 students in total. I was warned by the Licensor that I would have no weekend left. As I was still enthusiastic, and had the desire to provide the best opportunities we could to our students, my attitude was that I could have time off during the week. However, the longer this went on , the more I was struggling emotionally. I became anxious the night before every school day, and actually found it more and more difficult each week. I was almost dreading the one phrase that every teacher / principal dreads from a parent “Oh,Can I have a word when you’ve got 5 minutes?”. In my head this was never good. It was often a parent providing “feedback” when you had 90 odd students signing in to their lessons at once, along with it being 10am, the exact time I would do my welcome assembly. Alternatively, to be fair, this phrase could have also meant that a parent was just informing me of something very simple, such as their child was having a tough time at school, home or that they were poorly.
I won’t go into all of my anxieties, but the bottom line was that I started to feel like my world was starting to close in on me. I always tried to take Mondays off, but I felt like I couldn’t switch off or relax. I would need to fill out online compliance reports anyway on a Monday, so I would do that and then have my day to myself. However, I would be on my sofa, treating myself to a Netflix afternoon, and then I would get a text from a teacher about their lesson plan, or a day they needed off etc. Sometimes, I would even get head office calling about an urgent enquiry, which sometimes needed answering immediately.
You see, due to my schools operating at a weekend, there was no filter or boundaries for when I could be contacted. Most people, especially parents, see Monday – Friday as normal working hours. I tried switching my phone off, setting an automated email response with certain office hours and including contact hours in a newsletter. However, even when I had my phone and the computer off, I was still worrying about things that could be urgent, or if someone needed to get hold of me. The majority of the time, things would be ok when I checked my e-mails & phone the day after. However, I would be so anxious downloading my e-mails after a day or two off!
In the end, I wasn’t coping well with 4 schools. I also couldn’t manage the big shows we had scheduled, the exams, The “List” plus the most important part I was overlooking, my mental health. I became neurotic, anxious, depressed and emotional. All in that order, around twice a week.
In the end, my state was having an effect on my relationships, my friendships and eventually destroyed my social life, simply because I wasn’t well enough to attend gatherings or evenings out. I would go out to the academies, take the dogs for a walk (if my dog walker couldn’t) and to the top of my road to pick up milk & necessities. I was a shadow of the person I was 3 years before.
If any of this resonates with you, then it is time to make changes before you burn out, as well as lose all passion for the role you once loved. After having time out to reflect, I feel I understand where I could have looked after myself better.
TIPS FOR BETTER MENTAL HEALTH
• Remember that your wellbeing & mental health is most important. Do not try and be a Superhero! There is only so much one person can manage. Listen to your intuition. You’re responsible for children, other staff members, and the running of your business. You are no good to them if you’re not feeling yourself.
• Hire a Manager / Assistant Principal / Team Leader to help you run your school/projects, and to relieve some of the pressure. This is often a great incentive for an existing member of your teaching team, who will often step up to the role. Remember that if you’re the type of person that takes a lot of comments to heart, this is often because you’ve created your school with blood, sweat and tears from scratch. When you hire someone to deal with the more senior tasks for you, they won’t be as attached, which is often a much better solution. The Manager doesn’t take feedback so personally, therefore, has a logical approach to solving problems quicker & easier.
• Decide when you’re having your time out, tell your parents & students and stick to it. If your school doesn’t run on a Sunday, then under no circumstances do you respond to e-mails, texts and phone calls. Those that enquire on your day off will soon learn that you do not respond on certain days. TIME OFF FROM WORK IS CRUCIAL! Have a day away from e-mails, texts and calls. Have a lie in, catch up with friends, have a lazy Netflix day! Ensure you adopt a healthy work-life balance.
• Invest in a separate work phone! This makes it so much easier to separate your work from your personal life. In the beginning, you may think that phone calls and texts are fine at 11.30pm and 5.30am, but it is not good for your mind. Your customers will call/text when it is convenient for them, not you, which is why you need to put boundaries in place.
• Avoid e-mails on your personal phone. Like most of our nation, I was glued to my phone, I’d refresh e-mails out of habit, and be checking my messages every 10 minutes. There is nothing worse sitting down to a movie, or spending time with your family & friends to be distracted by an important e-mail, often one from The “List”.
• Set specific working / office hours and stick to them. This gives your customers structure and you a more productive routine. I would often become frustrated when I would receive three e-mails from the same person in the space of 12 hours, because they assumed I checked my e-mails every 2 minutes. In their defence, I hadn’t set boundaries, and I hadn’t explained that I am not “in the office” every day. Once I had set these office hours, my work load was much easier to manage!
• Analyse when you’re more productive, and set your work routine around this part of the day. With depression, it’s very hard to want to get out of bed in the morning, especially when you know you’ve got phone calls and emails to respond to. I would often force myself to work during the morning, into the afternoon. What happened when I couldn’t manage? I collapsed into my state of neurosis, anxiety, depression, emotion cycle. After 6 months off of work, I soon realised that I am more productive in the later part of the afternoon and evenings. I can deal with problems more efficiently and adopt a calmer approach to tasks! Simply put, I’m not a morning person, I’m a night owl……and you know what, that’s absolutely fine! This took me years to accept, but I am more than ok with it now. Some people are morning people, and could not imagine working past 3pm, again, that is totally fine too! Why would you force yourself to work when you’re not in your most healthiest frame of mind? It will not be productive for your business, your clients, or your health. You wouldn’t go for a run when your body isn’t energised, your mind should be treated in this way too.
• Reach out to those that can help you. If you’re a franchised business, or part of a network or have business partners, then let them know if something is too much for you to cope with. It is their duty to support you considering they’ve invested in your business model. Discussing Mental Health issues is brave, and is nothing to be embarrassed about. Nobody has the right to judge what you’re going through or to tell you how to feel. Discuss a support plan, and how others can take the pressure off of your work load if possible.
• Listen to your intuition, and speak out! In 2017, I decided to hang up my shoes in a role I had loved so much over the years. It was the hardest decision I had to make, but I knew that it was the right decision, not only for me, but for my school. I needed to focus on my own mental wellbeing and make changes to cut back on stress. I can honestly say I am proud of myself for choosing the right path. By doing this, I’ve taken care of my wellbeing.
• If you have a day where you’re just not feeling yourself, then it’s ok to give into it. It’s better to have that one day to clear your mind and recharge your batteries. Everything will still be there tomorrow!
• Visit your GP or contact local support services in your area. If after a significant amount of time you feel that your stress & mental health issues aren’t improving, then do make an appointment to visit your doctor. You can also self-refer to talking therapies such as counselling and support groups set up by local Mental Health Charities such as MIND. If you struggle with making an appointment, then I used to find writing a letter to your surgery would always be a positive step. I would be offered an appointment immediately, and my GP already knew why I would be visiting.
Working in Performing Arts Training is stressful, but can be one the most rewarding experiences in your career! However, you are the most important component in that experience, your knowledge, skills and personality makes the experience you provide for your students such a unique one. Simply, just don’t lose sight of who YOU are!