Your Festival (Anxiety) Survival Guide
By Monica Walsh
Flashback to fall, 2016. I was given the honour of being chosen as one of that year’s Incubator Project recipients, care of the St John's International Women's Film Festival! Wonderful! I was given the opportunity to pitch, to mingle, to meet and to produce (hopefully). It was a great feeling of being recognized for my work, and a very encouraging moment for me.
The only drawback---in the weeks that preceded it all, I had been seriously struggling with some mental health issues and had decided to take a break from the world. The idea was, “I will go do my day job, write, and attend some anxiety classes offered by Eastern Health, in an attempt to lessen my panic and anxiety.”
(Eastern Health offers some wonderful group classes in managing anxiety. You can be referred to them by calling the Mental Health crisis line at 1-888-737-4668.)
I knew my mental health needed it. However, when you are an artist and such opportunities come up, it’s hard to not feel like you are missing out on something huge. And so, often, you can push yourself in a way that you shouldn’t. Luckily, at the time I had decided to come clean about my struggle and explain that I may not always be myself. The Film Fest organizers couldn’t have been more helpful and understanding, and knowing that I had their support to scale back if I needed to was very helpful.
I’ve attempted to put down some things that have helped me over the years as I have learned to deal with my anxiety during times of high activity and professional networking. I am thrilled always to have these opportunities, but over the years have learned that going full tilt all day every day can take its toll on me. I also have a job, and a theatre company that I run full time. Scaling back over the years has helped me become a healthier and stronger artist and person.
There is the desire to see every film, and attend every party. I know the feeling. However, sometimes it can be a lot. Perhaps scale back the films you see. Sometimes, I write an email or message congratulating the filmmaker if they are a friend (or not) and explaining I just couldn’t be there. Maybe ask them for a link to their film, or when it’s screening next. Not being able to attend the Festival doesn’t mean you can’t see the films--that’s the great thing about film.
Also, sometimes I like to sneak in and then sneak out after the screening. Meaning, I would like to see the film, but I am there as an audience member only, and not to meet people or network my own film. It may feel weird to do, but I kind of enjoy it. And again, it lessens the social anxiety I sometimes feel in a large event. Buy your ticket in advance, and when you arrive, head straight to your seat, then leave quickly. My friends and co-workers love me, but they understand if I’m just there to see some films and not there to see them or exert myself socially. It’s ok.
As part of the Festival, there is the option to pitch your project to major producers, distributors and funders. It’s a very exciting opportunity and the room is filled with people and energy. It can be exhilarating but also intimidating to go and pitch yourself, your project, and your idea. It is very vulnerable. I try to keep that in mind, and I like to tell myself, “Your nerves are totally normal. Of course you’re nervous, why wouldn’t you be?" But one thing I have learned now is not to take anything personally.
Sometimes I used to imagine that the person that I was pitching to didn’t like my idea, or wasn’t that impressed by me. You can see how that would add to my stress level. Whether they were impressed by me or not isn’t up to you to decide—and it was most likely me projecting my nerves. It’s not about that. It’s your time to pitch an idea, get some feedback and some inspiration. Now, I like to tell myself that it’s a victory that I even have anything to pitch in the first place. Try and give yourself credit for that.
I find the [Interactive] Film Industry Forum workshops the best place for me. The Festival offers some really great ones. There’s not really the same opportunity for small talk or pitching your idea. You are there to learn, to meet others with similar interests, and to broaden your artist toolbox. Someone else is leading the discussion, which can be helpful too. The spotlight and focus is not on the attendee.
Again, if you do not have the time or cannot make it, don’t fall into the trap I used to. I would beat myself up for every lost opportunity I didn’t take, or in reality, what I thought I didn’t take. If you can’t make a workshop, contact the Festival and ask if they are offering any more throughout the year. Or, perhaps the facilitator of the workshop you are interested in has a webpage or some contact info. Find out more about the subject. If you really want to study something, you can find a way to do it and still respect your health boundaries.
Ah the parties. Last year, as I said, due to some health issues, I did not attend any. This year, I think I will. My main reason for going is to celebrate my own work and the work of others. Also, I am hoping to see some of the hard working crew and technical people who work so hard on film sets. (If anyone needs a break, it’s them!) However, you might wish to celebrate your hard work by staying home and watching Buffy. You are the only one who knows what is best for you. Either way, it is ok.
No way around it. Networking does help.
You might meet someone at a Festival who is looking for just the talent you offer. I can’t pretend that networking has no place in the art world, or that it won’t bring you opportunities. However, if networking makes your throw up a little bit in your mouth due to nerves, and if you’re simply just not good at it, what use it is to you? What I mean is, if it makes you panic, perhaps it isn’t such a benefit. Some people, like me, find it difficult and often stressful to think that their career depends on how charming or articulate they are at an event. I do not think that is the case. I used to, but I have grown older and wiser.
Perhaps I should ask myself, why does it make me panic? Why do I find this intimidating? I know I’m talented and I work hard, so why don’t I believe that my work speaks for myself? I used to let my panic take over and would hide in the bathroom at events. I still do that sometimes, but at least now I am more able to understand why. Again, I go back to what I said about the pitching. If you have a script and you wish to make the film, and you decide come hell or high water you are going to make that film, no one can stop you. Networking won’t necessarily make your film happen—you will do that. You may meet someone by networking who can help you, but it’s not the be all and end all.
If I have learned anything, it’s that there are no rules in this world. Rules are meant to be broken. Since you are the one putting yourself out there, you are also the one who has to decide your limits of social/professional output during Festival time. Also, I have discovered, mental health issues are more common than we think. I have gotten over feeling like people will judge me if I am open about my struggles, and I am grateful for that. The community wants the best for you, and if that means taking some time out, they will support you.
Enjoy the Festival. Do it at your own pace and you will get more out of it.
Monica Walsh has been an active member of the St. John’s arts scene for over ten years, acting in theatre, film, and radio. She holds a BA in Drama from Memorial University and a diploma in Communications Media. She has made both docs and short films, and is artistic director and founder of Kanutu Theatre.
Editor's note about our new Safer Space Policy: Our Festival hosts events at a variety of different venues and spaces which include free events open to the general public. The SJIWFF is dedicated to providing an inclusive environment in which all participants, staff and volunteers of our events may feel comfortable, safe, and free from harassment. Everyone deserves to feel safe while enjoying the Festival, so we have created a Safer Space Policy which is available on our website and will be posted at our venues. If you feel unsafe at our events or have in the past, please reach out to us so that we can do our best to help you and avoid any potential situations in the future. Our Safer Space policy is an ongoing initiative and priority of the Festival. We welcome your feedback and suggestions as we develop. Enjoy the Festival!