We asked the playwright and creative director, Kate Walder, to reflect on the contribution of the arts to social cohesion and resilience. With a youth mental health crisis upon us and services under strain, what else can be done to provide outreach and uplift? This article is a soothing reflection on why, after all our disruptions, the arts matter more than ever.
I have been in the Australian arts industry since graduating from the Music Theatre BA at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in 2008. Although beginning my life as a performer, over the years I developed a passion for multiple facets of the creative process and have worked as a director, writer, choreographer and tutor with companies such as OperaAustralia, Legs on the Wall and for festivals in Australia, the UK and Japan.
For some time now I have been reflecting on the value of the arts in society and the role of the artist. Although brought into acute focus by the pandemic, it is something that an artist is forced to constantly contend with, as the need for resilience, reinvention and resolve is critical to the survival of a life in this profession.
I've always seen the arts as comparable to medicine for our inner lives; a salve for the feeling of aloneness or isolation, a space to release the emotional pressure of things that are too complex or frightening to give our lone voice to. Without connection to the arts, we become wound up, narrow and less able to work out the source of our suffering, or give it room to dissolve. The arts is a bountiful domain of creative connection points for the weary eye and tired soul; it revives us and restores our sense of what it is to be human.
History is littered with examples of the utility of the arts in the flourishing of civil discourse, the formation of robust social cohesion and prosperity. Artists are the healers and art is how we heal. Speaking more specifically as a theatre-maker, collective engagement with story-telling as distinct from sitting alone in front of a Netflix screen is a truly undervalued resource. Theatre takes apart and poetically reinterprets our truths, values and fallibility so that our gaze may be reset towards a shared horizon. It can stitch the frayed fabric of a society back together, particularly when there has been tremendous social or political upheaval.
But perhaps even more transformative than watching theatre is being an active participant. In my experience, the act of moving through a fiction with other people physically, vocally, psychologically and emotionally allows for a kind of collective catharsis that is hard to encounter elsewhere. A good creative process enables parts of ourselves to be traversed and explored in a safe, controlled environment. By inhabiting other characters, we can release things that we have no other meaningful way to navigate, as well as build empathy and insight. Furthermore, working towards a shared artistic goal that is greater than ourselves fosters innovation, flexibility, adaptability and creative thinking.
It is not hard to see how the qualities and skills developed in a creative process can directly support the shaping of resilient individuals, and the construction of associated systems. Coming together to tell stories is an ancient ritual for a reason and has a palpable effect on social cohesion. Not only does it strengthen our sense of self and our bonds with each other, it supports our capacity to think critically about the world and makes us more generous. I have witnessed this time and time again across a range of demographics, but most recently with a cast of young performers in Canberra.
In 2019 I was commissioned to write a play for 10-13 year olds by the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP). SoulTrading is a work which explores the value of our humanity in an increasingly technological world. It was inspired by my learning about the advancement of robotics engineering for childhood educational purposes and the development of gene selection technology. After several covid cancellations, the world premiere was presented by Canberra Youth Theatre last year and my company Steps & Holes will produce the Sydney season in September at the new Walsh Bay Arts Precinct. The feedback from parents of children in the production was very much in accordance with a recent report published by ATYP and Patternmakers, concerning youth engagement with the arts. The study found that:
1. Youth arts provides a platform for young people to explore important ideas - and boosts civic engagement.
2. Arts participation provides socio-emotional benefits for young people that can act as protective factors against mental illness.
3. Arts can be used therapeutically or ‘on prescription’ to fight depression, anxiety, and PTSD in young people.
4. Arts participation is associated with better educational outcomes for students, including stronger academic performance.
5. Arts-rich education improves students’ motivation, engagement, attendance, and school enjoyment.
But it's not just our youth that needs connection with the arts. Sometimes I think it's even more crucial for us as adults to reignite our playful spirit, remember how to listen and find creative ways to reimagine our futures.
Is what I do as vital or critical as a neurosurgeon? Probably not. But just like all the other classical disciplines, it serves a purpose in our society that should go far deeper than mere entertainment. Engaging with and participating in the arts has true power in cultivating more courageous, resilient and connected individuals and can offer much insight into how we construct our broader societal systems. In particular, how we remain adaptable, responsive, brave and hopeful in the face of the challenges presented by the modern world.
Artistic Director, Steps & HolesTheatre Company