Every year, Bell Shakespeare presents an extensive national tour to regional towns and capital cities around Australia.

WORDS BY CHARLOTTE BARRETT AND MADELEINE DORE | First published in Spotlight: The Arts Wellbeing Collective Magazine, Edition 1

Every year, Bell Shakespeare presents an extensive national tour to regional towns and capital cities around Australia.

While touring can be great fun, it also means being away from your family and friends for weeks – or even months – on end.

As with many things, preparation is key. The Bell Shakespeare company of Julius Caesar decided to do it a little differently.

Before embarking on the twenty-week tour of Julius Caesar, a special lunch and briefing session was hosted for family and friends of the team.

“Many of the cast had families and children, so we felt it was important for this tour to try to make them feel part of the process, considering we virtually take their loved ones away for half of the year,” said Company Manager Charlotte Barrett.

For Family and Friends Day, more than 30 guests including partners, children of all ages, mentors and friends gathered in the rehearsal room to see a glimpse behind the scenes of the performance, set and costumes.

The briefing session included an overview of the tour, introductions to the cast, creatives and crew, a rundown of the tour schedule and map of the venues, as well as sharing convenient times for family and friends to visit.

“I know the cast and crew appreciated meeting each other’s significant others so they could put faces to names before they went on tour,” said Barrett.

Such inclusion and detailed information is important for both staff and families, explains clinical psychologist, choreographer, and director Dr Jane Miskovic-Wheatley.

“When an artist accepts a touring contract, it offers them a great professional opportunity, but it also calls for significant separation from their families,” she says.

“Having a better understanding of what the arts practitioner is doing when they are at work, where they are touring to, and whom they are spending time with, can help families understand the opportunities but also the pressures of life on the road.”

Miskovic-Wheatley has worked closely with several arts organisations including Bell Shakespeare to help support their teams before, during and post-tour, and believes there are many benefits of including families in the process.

“This type of program provides opportunities for the families to meet, and potentially make supportive social connections between themselves,” she says.

It’s also particularly important for young children of touring practitioners. “It can assist the at-home carer to talk about the touring parent who is a bit abstract to the child when they are away,” she said.

Through creating a bridge between personal and professional life, Family and Friends Day could also reinforce the need for long-term wellness and support initiatives, explains Miskovic-Wheatley.

“It could help practitioners find greater balance for quality of life and mitigate some of the stress touring may bring to all involved.”

It’s the little things that make a difference

During the briefing sessions, the team also provided guests with some ideas for how they can support their loved ones while they are preparing for, or attending a tour.

Suggestions included small acts such as sending photos from home, making regular contact via email or text, sending care packages, attending a show, and acknowledging that their loved one may feel tired, pre-occupied and at times down during or after a production.

The response has been great, said Barrett. “We have had a couple of family members and friends contact us over the tour – either to organise care packages to be sent to their loved ones while on tour, or to find out when they will next be home.”

Maintaining communication has also been a key to the success of the initiative. As a supplement to the Family and Friends Day, the team have been sending regular newsletters to loved ones, sharing updates about the tour, including photos, details on where the team is heading to next, as well as highlights and lowlights.

Touching on the low-lights and stresses is especially important to encourage open communication between practitioners, family and friends.

“The arts tells stories of the full range of the human condition, and it should be ok for its story tellers to work with the same understanding, compassion and support, and for their families to be part of the story,” adds Miskovic-Wheatley.

Making it easier for all arts workers, families and friends

Recent research has indicated that anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviours are much higher in the arts, explains Miskovic-Wheatley.

Things will get better, the more we talk, she says. “We need to acknowledge the challenges, share ideas, and fight for support – the more we can empathise and help those that need it, and the more we might seek support ourselves when we have difficult days.”

While Bell Shakespeare’s Family and Friends Day and ongoing newsletter are simple and accessible in their delivery, similar examples are difficult to come across in the arts sector more broadly.

There is a growing awareness of the stresses faced by arts practitioners within the industry, says Miskovic-Wheatley.

“The arts sector is talking more openly about the particular stress the industry places on practitioners due to their personal engagement in the art making process, the subjective nature of one’s work, the specific stressors of touring, and the financial instability most artists live with.”

There are simple improvements the industry can make, from creating online support groups for family and friends of the touring company, to ensuring accommodation comes with efficient WiFi.

Miskovic-Wheatley would like to see industry and funding bodies working together to make touring schedules and budgets more flexible and generous to allow for a better work-life balance for practitioners.

“Hopefully more of an investment in the lives of touring and wider arts practitioners will mean people can not only survive but thrive in this industry, which would further enrich the sector,” she says.

Making self-care part of the puzzle

One thing individuals can do is to learn how to priortise self-care.

“Investing time, energy and – hopefully minimal – funds into self-care strategies is very important to support overall wellness for everyone, but especially in times of stress, such as when you are on tour,” said Miskovic-Wheatley.

Self-care is often underestimated, but Miskovic-Wheatley views it as the first line of defence for mental health, and the first strategies to engage in if you begin to feel physically or mentally unwell.

Strategies can include getting restful sleep, eating nutritious food, exercising, taking time out to get outdoors, meditate, read, and protect your immune system.

Feeling supported by and connected with your team is also important, adds Miskovic-Wheatley. “Everyone has bad days, so it is really important that everyone has someone that they know they can talk to, that support is available and offered by the team and company. If you begin to feel particularly anxious or depressed, it is important to seek professional help, and ideally, companies should be prepared to support this process”.

Ultimately, it’s about including people and acknowledging a person in the context of their entire lives, not just their work.

“I hope collectively, initiatives such as Family and Friends Day will become more commonplace, so touring company members and their loved ones experience that mutual support,” concludes Miskovic-Wheatley.

Tour preparation tips for your family and friends

Bell Shakespeare included the following tips during their Family and Friends Day – consider implementing some with your own family and friends before you head off on your next tour:

  • Identify and discuss challenges that might come up during the tour before the tour commences
  • Aim to spend quality time together before the tour kicks off, and during time off in your home town
  • Set ground rules and manage expectations – will there be days where you simply won’t be able to communicate easily?
  • Schedule fun things to do when at home
  • Schedule regular contact and be honest and open
  • Create a family blog or closed social media group and post comments and photos
  • Have steps in place for managing a crisis, should something happen and you can’t be there
  • Use social media sensitively
  • Acknowledge that touring can sometimes look and sound like 24/7 fun, but in reality it’s often exhausting, sometimes stressful, and hard work!
  • Expect that returning home will take adjusting – give yourself time to get ‘back to normal’


More Resources

View all Resources