We Need To Stop Glorifying Burnout In Higher Education
By Becky Curl
The pause in the theatre industry over the last year has allowed us all time to thoroughly re-examine the way our industry operates. Rather than working 24/7, many of us were given the time to fully process what our careers in theatre had been like up until that point. Though I have deeply missed theatre throughout the last year, I have not missed the extreme exhaustion that comes along with it. I have not missed the burnout. As much as I cannot wait to work in a theatre again, I find myself questioning whether or not I will still be able to handle that type of demanding work schedule.
I attended a theatre conservatory for my undergraduate degree in technical theatre, and my humble high school theatre program did not prepare me for the rigorous conservatory schedule. I was a dedicated, hardworking student, and I still struggled to stay on top of all of my work. Attending classes from 8 am to 6 pm and working on shows from 7 pm onwards was no easy task, but we all did it because that was the way it had always been done.
I never questioned the intensity of this scheduling because no one there seemed to be concerned about it.
Everyone was equally exhausted, and we were all taught to just accept that fact. We all joked that it was impossible to have sleep, a social life, and good grades; you were only allowed to pick two. I did my best to choose sleep and good grades, but I would be lying if I said I made sleep the priority of those two. I rarely went out and socialized with my friends; I spent my weekends working just as much as I did every other day of the week. By the second semester of my senior year, I was only sleeping about three to five hours a night. My roommate and I would alternate taking short naps, just so we could make sure someone was always there to wake the other person up. None of this seemed wrong while I was in school, but I admit now looking back at this time in my life that I find it disturbing.
During my senior year of college, I once had a meeting that went on past midnight, after a full day of classes and show work. Sure, if that show were the only thing I was doing at that point in my life, maybe that would not have been the end of the world. However, this is not the case in conservatory programs. You are not just working on shows; you are attending your conservatory classes, your university classes, and potentially also working a job. At what point do any of these students have to sit down and take care of themselves? How could anyone prioritize their health or their mental health when they can’t even find time to sleep?
The answers to those questions are that they can’t.
There is no plausible way for any human being to adequately take care of themselves while maintaining a schedule like that. Yet, we continue to make our students do so. So they do it, and then they graduate and go out into the world and keep living on that same exhausting and destructive schedule. We foster this cycle of burnout within our higher education programs, and I think it is time we put an end to it.
There is no show nor any class that is worth the physical and mental toll that we have been taught is the norm within the theatre and performance world. Yes, college is a big step up from high school, and a rigorous workload is to be expected. We attend college to prepare us for our careers, and for many people, it is also a time where we are taught the importance of time management. However, there is no amount of time management that could ever save someone from the exhaustion they will face within these theatre programs. Even the best students will suffer at some point, so the argument that those students who are burning out just aren’t managing their time well or that they need to work “smarter” is ridiculous. We are not setting our students up for success; we are setting them up for a lifetime of sleep deprivation and burnout.
I will never forget the day in my senior year of college that one of my friends could barely even stand up because of the immense stress and pressure they were under on the show we were working on.
I remember watching them trying to speak to the director and barely being able to do so because they were in so much physical pain; one of our teachers had to make them sit down so that they could make it through the rest of the meeting. If this teacher hadn’t stepped in, I’m not sure if anyone else would have. We are so conditioned to see people exhausted and in pain that we don’t even notice it anymore; that is the standard of normal we have created in this industry. We have been taught that the work we are doing is more important than anything else going on in our lives and that no amount of physical illness or pain should ever come between us and our work. I will never forget that production meeting and the way my friend suffered during the entirety of that show. You never realize how bad burnout is until you are watching someone you care about fall apart in front of you.
As a current adjunct faculty member at two theatre conservatories, I fear the day that my students will suffer this same fate. While I know some flexibility has been given to them throughout the last year, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to them once that grace period is over. Whenever the world of higher education decides that everything is fine again, will they be forced to go back to the overwhelming conservatory schedule of the past? Will they continue to be graded according to what specific types of art their teachers prefer? Will they continue to be pitted against each other so that some of them are inevitably forced to feel inferior?
It pains me so much to see them struggling, and I never want any of them to feel the way that I did throughout college and my professional career thus far. I don’t want them to almost sleep through their finals because they have been awake for more than 24 hours straight. I don’t want them to be embarrassed and degraded by their teachers for not being the best at absolutely every skill they are taught. Most of all, I do not want them to finish their undergraduate years and regret their decisions to pursue theatre as a career. I have seen too many people who never want to do theatre again after finishing their college programs because of how toxic and harmful their programs were. Our students dedicate themselves to these programs, and many of them leave hating themselves. As educators and theatre professionals, is that really the outcome we want?
Theatre is a magical, life-changing career, but just like any other profession, it is not your entire life. No one’s life should be comprised solely of work, even when it is a job that you love. We all need and deserve to have a balance between our work lives and our personal lives. This includes our students.
What we all need to realize is that we have the power to change the theatre and performance world for the better. Just because it has existed one way for this long does not mean that it always has to stay this way. If something is hurting us, we should not keep going back to it. We need to sit down and seriously take a look at the way these programs and grading systems are taking a toll on our students and young theatre artists everywhere. With the current movements to get rid of 10 out of 12s and six-day work weeks, I am hopeful that we are moving towards a theatre industry that promotes safe, healthy working conditions. However, these movements will do nothing if we all do not work to embrace them, including within the world of higher education. We need to remember that as talented as our students are, they are just students. They are not seasoned professionals who are only working on productions. They are in school to learn, explore, and grow; we should not be working them until they burn out. What kind of productive learning can occur when you are barely able to sleep and eat?
Let us take this opportunity to create a better world for them than the one we all inherited. Nothing lasts forever and that includes the way we have run the theatre industry. If we as the working professionals of the industry are not happy within it, then how can we confidently send our students out into this world? We cannot keep pretending that it is normal to not sleep or take care of ourselves.
We need to stop glorifying burnout. Working 24/7 should not be the goal for anyone, in any industry. We have to do better for our students than what was done for us.
If we don’t fix our broken education system now, then when will we?