When Unhappy Exhaustion Kicks In

Pete Sheldon

About a month and a half ago, I was sharing breakfast with my fellow cast mates, and who I consider to be some the most dedicated theatre makers I’ve had the privilege to work with. While munching through bowls of cereal, because every philosophical discussion relating to theatre is done over a bowl of Lucky Charms, one of my friends touched upon an adage that was all too familiar in the theatre world. He remarked that theatre people are some of the most, if not the most, hardworking people there are, but due to the surrounding stigma that we never get paid, our hard work is often seen as trivial or even irrelevant.

When you think about it, the work to pay ratio for theatre is staggeringly unbalanced.

The directors, playwrights, actors, designers, stage managers, stagehands, and house managers etc. are all familiar with the state of perpetual motion they find themselves in with each new show.  They live from coffee cup to coffee cup while making lists in their head. They stay up all night cutting scripts, hanging lights, putting the finishing touches on props, and then head off to the early morning production meetings. Most theatre-makers have second jobs, and some are even trying to have a social life.

Don’t get me wrong, its wonderful work, and I wouldn’t want anything less than what I put out as an aspiring theatre artist, but when do theatre people know to slow down? Who tells them that they can slow down? Between the aforementioned people who judge them by their pay stub and the teachers that remind them how hard it is to be an artist in this world, how do we allow ourselves to the take the time we need to care for ourselves mentally and physically?

During my three years as an undergrad the principles of, “never stop working,” and, “always be looking for your next gig,” have practically been hammered into me since day one. Since then, I’ve been striving to keep myself overloaded with three to four projects each semester, and at least two during the summer. This year, I can say happily, and somewhat miraculously, say that I never stopped working on shows for six months. A few shows overlapped, and I even went to an audition while on dinner break for another show. It did, as it should, take a toll. When my parents came to see me after my last show of the sixth month period, my father said blatantly with concern, “You need a break.” At the time, even though I was probably wobbling from exhaustion, I thought, “Nah, I can keep going, if I had to.”

Even when I was supposed to be on vacation after the show, I still looked through plays looking for new monologue material. If I wasn’t practicing a monologue, I was writing a play. If I wasn’t writing a play, I was practicing or looking for new audition songs. I did this, so that when the beginning of senior year of undergrad rolled around, I would be confident in my abilities, and prepare again to reach for my three to four project quota. At the end of the first week of classes, I was already feeling exhausted. It was then I was told by my loving girlfriend, “If you’re already exhausted by the first week, you’re going to burn out.” So, I put my to-do list down, and closed the word document with all my current monologues. The next day, I took the morning off to meditate and do nothing for nothing’s sake. 

My point is; we need to take care ourselves as artists and as individuals. That was one of the biggest takeaways of my training this summer. My instructor, a truly intelligent and inspirational artist, reminded me of how precious we are, and how we shouldn’t neglect caring for ourselves.

Theatre work is so vital, and yes it requires discipline, but finding just a few minutes of time to say, “Ok, I need to rest now,” will make all the difference. Plus, it will revitalize the sense of focus and energy in the work. Even if it’s just for five minutes, wake up early and meditate before work. Go ahead and drink that glass of wine on a Tuesday night. Take what you need so that you can continue to grow and thrive as a theatre maker.

Photo: Barry University