What do today’s students need to do their best work?

head and shoulders portrait
Gina Abolins

Tonic’s Gina Abolins reflects on the creation of Participate: a training programme for schools, colleges and conservatoires in the performing arts.

Back in 2017, with the resurgence of #MeToo and conversations around safe space at their peak, Tonic began to evaluate what it could do to help make a change. As an organisation dedicated to improving the equality, diversity and inclusion of the arts and cultural sector, we wanted to utilise our knowledge and experience to help challenge the misuses of power and unhealthy cultural norms that had led to the current position of the industry. What could we do to examine the historic patterns of abuse that had occurred in the arts; and, most importantly, how could we be a part of paving the way for a safer future for the artists and practitioners working within it?

This is where our work with drama schools, colleges and conservatoires first began. In the autumn of 2018, we trialed a programme we entitled Empower. Working over 6 weeks in weekly sessions with a variety of third year students at Guildford School of Acting, the programme aimed to understand what within the working practices and culture of the performing arts had, historically, created opportunities for misuse  of power to arise. It offered students the chance to imagine how this could be different in the future. The work included solo reflection; prompting participants to think about the values they wished to embody in how they conducted themselves around others. And with part of Tonic’s work being the provision of tools to help participants work towards positive change themselves, the sessions shared a range of ideas to help students navigate challenging situations and have the confidence to side-step unhealthy or unprofessional ways of working.

That’s where we started with this work. But a lot has changed since then; both the industry, and the world. Since 2018, we have reflected on what next was needed to best support conservatoires to prepare their students for a shifting industry; taking many of the core elements of Empower and expanding upon them. What came out of these reflections was a new offering for a new time: Participate.

Participate as a programme is primarily designed to help both students and staff address a range of topics in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion. It helps them cultivate a safer and more inclusive training environment where they can prepare themselves for the realities of a career in the arts. Having worked in multiple drama schools and colleges across the country, and with over 1,700 students this academic year alone, we have seen the programme go from strength to strength. Working across a wide variety of courses and year groups, the work we provide through Participate ultimately aims to encourage students to engage with the wrap-around elements of working in the arts. The schools themselves are there to practically train students, and it’s Tonic’s aim to help support this training from a different perspective.

Through an EDI lens, we ask the question “what do today’s students need to do their best work?” Be it clearer boundaries, the tools to build their resilience when things get tough,  or a greater awareness and celebration of difference. Because let’s face it; we all could benefit from the time and space to develop these further. Participate offers the chance to do just that.

Written by Gina Abolins
May 2022

Tonic – For greater equality, diversity and inclusion in the arts