Saturday 10 March 2018

How to make (artsy) friends and influence people when your social anxiety is crippling

‘So, what are you up to this weekend?’

That oft asked question from well-intentioned colleagues used to plague my waking hours during my previous job. My hands would become clammy, my face redden and my throat swell up so all I could manage to squeak out was ‘nothing’. Or, after weeks of ‘nothings’ I’d cave and say ‘just seeing a friend’ (I wasn’t. To be honest I don’t have any friends. How sad). I’m not one to lie, but the pressures of being seen to be sociable were, and still are, the toughest aspect of any job for me.

‘But what has this to do with theatre?’ you ask.

Well, not so long ago I had a job interview at a well-established arts organisation. I was qualified, prepared myself well for the interview, and, I hope, presented myself in a friendly but professional manner.

I didn’t get the job.

And that’s ok. The jobs market is a tough one right now and I know the odds are slim, especially when hoping to start a career in something you’re passionate about. Yet a few things continue to niggle me about the interview itself. Following the introductions, the conversation opened with the rather forthrightly put statement, ‘you’re an external candidate’ (yes, I’m well aware of that, thank you) ‘so we don’t expect you to know much about our procedures’. This may seem merely a case of awkwardly overstating the obvious, yet, to me and my admittedly anxious and paranoid mind, it seemed to be a passive-aggressive way of telling me not to bother because they were guaranteed to appoint an ‘internal candidate’ who already fits in well with the company. A pessimistic overreaction? 


I carried on with the interview, took a pretty straight-forward test to asses my service, observation and evaluation skills (after 3 years in a heavily customer service based retail job, I was pretty assured on this), and answered all questions in a succinct yet detailed way. Most questions were standard (‘give us an example of when you went out of your way to help someone’ etc.), but one question stumped me: ‘How well did you get on with your colleagues and what did you get up to together outside of work?’ (bear in mind this was a rather menial job – and I mean no disrespect here, I’ve only ever had menial jobs – and the majority of the time I would be working alone during very unsociable hours). To my mind as long as I have a professional and amicable working relationship with colleagues that’s as far as it needs to go, who cares whether I go out for a drink with them after work? (I did at my old job, occasionally, and under duress. I would spend the whole evening wishing for it to end and dreading the next question directed toward me – we were a small team). All of this suggested to me that no matter how well I fit the job criteria the priority was for me to be ‘one of the guys’. And that’s something that no matter how hard I try I can’t bring myself to be.

In the arts, much more than in any other sector, I’ve found, success depends not on what you know, but who you know. My sister is a techie and while she’s had a couple of opportunities through college placements, it is her class-mates’ inside connections that have got them theatre work over her (be it casual or something more permanent), often with no need for an interview. For her, the main draw of university is not to gain practical expertise in her trade, but to make those incredibly necessary ‘contacts’. At £9,000+ a year. Even in the world of blogging, it seems that you are required to be the life and soul of the party in an endless competition of who can gain the most twitter followers, who has the most connections (and therefore, scoops!), who can get that all important invite to the theatrical social event of the month…

We (two of us run this theatre blog) are beyond grateful for the theatres that have welcomed us warmly and graciously into their auditoriums and inboxes, often going out of their way to arrange alternative tickets for us (as a regional blog, and confined to public transport, we are rarely able to attend press nights), and, truly, they have made this blog what it is today. We are able to see around twice as much as we used to. Yet we struggle when it comes to gaining publicity for our blog. Last year we applied to join a well-known blogging platform. To qualify we needed three theatre contacts to give us references. That’s ok, we thought, we’ll ask ____, ____, and ____. Sadly one of the theatres refused to give us a reference. Do we not schmooze enough at performances? Do we not sycophantically gush about the theatre’s latest season to the director, producer or head of staff? Admittedly, we don’t do any of these things. We watch the show, discuss it quietly with our plus-one, mull it over on the train home, then write what we hope are entertaining and thoughtful reviews.

Personally, the thought of having to socialise – even with people that I have things in common with – fills me with dread. But it hasn’t always been like this. As a child I was confident, well-liked and precocious (read: annoying). When I was twelve years old I became very ill and while I like to think this hasn’t changed my personality, it has profoundly influenced my way of life. It’s impossible for all those years of hospital treatment, being shunted around CAMHS like a hot-potato, and having little contact with the outside world not to fundamentally impact my behaviour and thought-patterns. Fourteen years later, I’m pleased to say I have made much progress (fluoxetine is my saviour!), but I still struggle. In May I am due to partake in a Social Phobia course as part of my on-going CBT treatment – honestly, I’m bricking it, but I know it’s for the best in the long run. Therefore, what I hope to achieve with this blog post is to highlight the underrepresented marginalisation of people with mental health difficulties in the arts. When, in order to get ahead, whether professionally or as an invested hobby, the greatest importance is placed on knowing the right people and being able to endear yourself to those in power, I think it’s fair to say that those who suffer with anxiety, or depression, or any measure of specific problems, are left at a distinct disadvantage (one which is exacerbated by those suffering with mental health issues often being unemployed and therefore without the financial means to frequently participate in the arts).

I’m aware this is small beans compared with the current issues surrounding inclusivity (racial, gender, LGBT, class, for example) and I by no means intend to trivialise those. I just wanted to highlight that the arts world has become incredibly cliquey, and the reasons behind individuals perhaps not being part of that clique may be more complex than they initially seem. I’m a friendly person when you get to know me (or so I’ve been told), I just take a little longer than most to let my guard down. I adore theatre, and hope to continue enjoying it, and enjoying writing about it, for a long time to come.

So, in the words of Amos, Mr Cellophane himself, ‘I hope I haven’t taken too much of your time…’

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