Performing Arts and Overworked Staff: Let’s Not Pretend We’re Okay
By Josh Loar
Perhaps you’ve witnessed this scene:
A person on a production team is huddled in an out of the way corner of a theater or a concert hall. Maybe, if they’re lucky, they are inside their own office, or more likely, they’ve simply found a spot where no one seems to be congregated for the moment, and where they will be less visible than in the main performance space. Maybe it’s a rack or equipment room, a costume storage room, or any other of a myriad small spaces. This person is often in low light, positioned as if they are hiding. Their posture is crumpled. Possibly, just possibly, there are quiet tears being shed.
When (if) you ask what’s wrong, they pull themselves momentarily together, and often choke out some version of: “oh, nothing, I’m just tired”.
I’ve been working in theater and other performing arts for more than two decades, and I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve walked into this scene for how common it is. I also probably couldn’t count the number of times the person huddled in a heap somewhere was me.
It is something of a truism to observe that performing arts professionals have difficult, exhausting work schedules. A friend of mine (a professional theatrical director) conducted an informal Facebook poll about a year ago of all of his performing arts friends (of which there are many), asking who among them regularly feels overworked and exhausted. The posts rolled in for days. Seemingly everyone in the business felt overworked, exhausted—and, what’s more—saw no remedy or end available.
It is also a truism that this is a difficult business to break into, that those of us who make our full-time living in the performing arts should be grateful for the immense luck that has befallen us that we are graced with the careers we possess. Don’t get me wrong, I do feel, in many ways, like a fortunate person. I get to wake up every day and do work I care about, with people I love—there are many in the world who are not afforded such benefits. However, I’ve been coming lately to the conclusion that more of our friends and colleagues in the business are overworked and exhausted than not. That while this is a part of the overall American culture of overwork, there is a specific glorification of overwork unique to the performing arts that is causing not only high rates of burnout but also the kind of schedules that lead to broken families, lack of social life, and sometimes plain old despair.
If exhaustion and burnout are so common in our business, why do we persist in pretending that this is not the case?
There seems to be a weirdly macho attitude towards exhaustion in the performing arts, we wear it as an odd badge of pride. “I just pulled three 10 out of 12s!” “Oh yeah, well I just got off 40 hours straight with no sleep!” “It’s been three months since I’ve had a day off!” Bragging about how overworked we are is a one-ups game—I can endure more, so I must be more hardcore than you.
This problem is often only compounded by the uncertainties of the lives of freelance performing arts workers. When you’re not sure if you’ll have work next month, you’re more likely to book yourself all of this month without a day off. We all have to pay the bills, and the cities fortunate enough to have robust theater and concert scenes are often extremely expensive places to live.
On a personal level, individual employees craft different strategies for dealing with this stress and exhaustion. Some turn to therapy (which can get expensive very quickly) to have someone to talk with. Some discuss their problems with their families (which, while helpful, can also place enormous burden on them). Some turn to drink or drugs, or other self-destructive habits to numb the pain or cope with the anxiety.
Talking is a good start, but just talking with our families and therapists isn’t going to change our industry. We need to start talking with each other, and not just, as is so often the case, in the alley outside the stage door sharing a smoke, or after hours at the bar. We need to talk inside our theaters, in our concert halls, in our production meetings, in our season planning, in our executive boards.
We need to evaluate our industry and ask why the arts—a disciplinary field known for attracting sensitive and empathetic souls—has devolved into a business where our basic human needs can be unmet and we’re supposed to remain silent about it.
I will begin: let’s question a basic tenet of our theatrical production lives—the 6-day show week. Why do we need to have a business that produces 8 shows over 6 days every week? Why isn’t it acceptable for performers and stage managers and run crew to ever get (gasp!) two days off in a row? There are many who will respond to this with vitriol, or with statements about the already tough economics of producing theater and needing to maximize attendance, or any other number of objections. In fact, I’m not certain that reducing our production weeks by one day is the answer, but it’s a starting point, and what we need, if we’re going to create the industry we so clearly want and need—an industry that cares for us as humans not just as workers—is more starting points. What works for my venue or school or company might not be what works for yours, but what we need to do is acknowledge that how most of us are running things right now isn’t really working.
We need to stop pretending we’re okay. We’re not. We’re tired, and crying in the dimmer room. Let’s come out of the shadows into the light and do something about it.
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