19th June 2021
The Global Media Site for Entertainment.

Anxiety & Theatre: Must The Show Go On?

By Ross Collins Mackay


‘The show must go on’ that’s the old stalwart phrase. It’s like a theatrical version of the old stiff upper lip or ‘Keep calm and…’ motifs. It speaks of something noble and virtuous. The chips are down but, by god, we keep on going. It’s admirable. We’ve all heard stories of actors muddling through. In the face of sickness or injury and ensuring the audience gets what it came for.

After all that is what we offer. Bodies in space. If the bodies aren’t there, there isn’t a show. So, it is essential that we band together and hold the spirit of ‘never say die’ close to our hearts.

But sometimes, we should be aware. Sometimes the show shouldn’t go on. Or at least the version which you wanted.

I have been very lucky, in my last two projects I have worked as a puppetry director and as more of a dramaturg. Important but not necessarily vital elements. Which has meant the show has gone on. But if I was a performer or a director on any project at this time, life would have been much different.

Officially, I have been signed off work until the 21st of January. I have been suffering from Anxiety with depression. This has meant more than a few nights in hospital and a terribly scary time for my family. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to revisit the details. But during this time, I was trying and failing to ensure that I fulfilled my roles to the two productions I was working on. The pressure of failing weighed heavily on me and fed into me ending up in hospital time after time.

I have received support, love and care from both Tortoise in a Nutshell and The Lyceum teams.

During a time when our industry is rightfully doing some much needed soul searching and questioning its morals and ethics, I have found it comforting to know that my needs have been so well supported when I really feared they may not be. Both also, it must be said supported me financially even when I failed to meet contractual requirements. This was hugely encouraging and only now as I’m officially signed off do I realise how important this was.

Currently, I am undertaking the herculean bureaucratic effort of applying as a freelancer to the new universal credit system as the only way to access any form of statutory sick pay for self-employed people in my area. It is not, for this blog, but it is one of the most stressful things about being signed off. I am so glad that when I was at my lowest point neither of the theatre shows looked to pay me less as this would have been devastating for me mentally.

So, what was the cause of this pressure? I wasn’t essential.

Both shows were being made both with and without my presence at various times. Progressing with my input well but managing just fine without. The people surrounding me who were in the know were taking care of me. So, the only thing I can say about the pressure was I think it was built in my head.

I am an artist. I must create the art. As a theatre maker, the show is the thing. That’s what we do. We carry on. We artists, make work to be shown. It’s like a weird artist machismo. We must bleed for our work.

Do everything we can to realise our creative ideas.  Cry out to the world all our feelings of laughter or sadness, through our work. This pressure is all in my head and it is utterly useless in making my work. I have an image like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man of the perfect artist. They are there with their oeuvre and their tale of suffering for each one, here I was impoverished, here I was persecuted, here, how I portrayed my mental anguish.

Holding up idols of artists, somehow thinking their ability to create in face of their repressions is what makes them great. The brightly burning, quickly diminished candles. The pure, fragile objects reflecting the world as it tears at them. Even as I type this, I find myself leaning to this model but we should fight this. Artists are not Prometheans with flames. They are humans. They identify with the common humanity. They reflect tribulations that a human can find themselves in. They are no set apart. And that means like all humans, it’s OK for things to get on top of them. To take a pause and take a breath.

The show must not be the be all and end all.

After all, the arts is about human interaction and it is so important that we keep the people at the centre of it. Cancelled or altered shows may mean bad box office and disgruntled audiences. But I need to learn that there will be another chance, another time for art. If all art is abandoned then make sure to abandon it at the right time. Abandon it before it starts taking your health with you. Abandon it, abandon the whole craft and know it will be there to pick up when you come back.

‘The show must go on,’ is foolish posturing.  To hell with the show. There will be another show, the artists must go on and sometimes that means the artists must allow themselves to stop.

Also on TheatreArtLife:

Let’s Talk: World Mental Health Day

Let’s Talk: Depression In Show Business

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