Theatremaker burnout and slowing down in the arts

I mentioned in a previous post that I identify as a multipotentialite. What this means (in a very simplified nutshell) is I have very wide-ranging interests and creative pursuits, and am often actively pursuing a number of these at the same time. One of my areas is the arts, specifically theatre. I’ve been running my theatre company Witness Theatre for six years, and recently I’ve been thinking about my March Happiness Project Slow Down theme in relation to the theatre industry. Specifically in relation to theatremaker burnout.

To work in theatre you have to work hard

Since setting up my company after graduation I’ve worked really hard. When I’ve written previously about how I haven’t really known a day off for the past five years, that’s because of the company and pursuing other opportunities in theatre. I’ve worked full-time for money and on my real passion during evenings and weekends. At some point I came up with the metaphor that trying to get noticed by the Theatre Gods is like thousands of people all knocking on the same door, and you’ve just got to be the one who knocks the loudest for the longest.

What I’ve only quite recently realised is this isn’t making me happy. Actually, it’s been making me pretty miserable and stressed for a long time. I love making the work, and it’s not that I’m averse to hard work, but this viewpoint made me feel I had to make more and more and more all the time. Like some crazy theatre creating, application writing machine.

Creativity needs slowness

The funny thing is I’ve read lots of interviews with, and quotes from, artists of all kinds stating the benefit of slowing down.

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top” – Virginia Woolf

The virtue of long walks; meditation; even (dare I say it) procrastination has been extolled by many. I once interviewed the (in my opinion) excellent playwright Simon Stephens and he said his writing process involves procrastination. He says this is a useful tool and “part of the mulling process”.

So if I know, deep down, that my creative work will be so much better if I slow down why has it taken me so long to get to the point of trying that?

Theatremaker burnout is common

In the theatre world it seems to me that people are rushing all the time. They’re short on time and money, and deadlines are looming round every single corner. Very often they’re doing this work alongside other work to pay the bills. I understand where a need for speed and multitasking comes from. But, I think the industry needs to acknowledge the benefits of slowing down.

We talk about big city firms working their employees to the ground, but do we think the arts are that much better? Because most creatives I know work much longer than their contracted hours, sometimes even through the night. You can put this down to the passion for the work, sure, but should our passions really drive us to the point of burnout.

Slowing down in the theatre is hard

As I’ve tried to set boundaries with my working hours, the hardest and most controversial place I’ve found to do it is within the arts. There is an expectation you will be on your emails whenever, that you will always be free to talk on the phone/respond to a text, and that working long hours late into the night is fine with you.

I often feel guilty for saying I won’t be working at a certain time of day/on a weekend. Not necessarily because the people I’m speaking to don’t accept this, but because they won’t be doing the same and will be working.

Is it all about money?

Perhaps if there was more funding in the arts, more support at a national level, we wouldn’t feel this need to work in overdrive all the time just to try and prove our worth. Plus, if there was more funding (meaning more paid work) then less of us would need to work other jobs around this work.

But seeing as that isn’t going to happen anytime soon I feel that within the arts we can do something to change this behaviour. That leaders of organisations, managers of venues etc. can think about how to advocate slowing down amongst their employees. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve seen that state there will be a regular requirement to work overtime outside of normal hours. Or how many stories I’ve heard of people with great assistant directing jobs being on call to their director all through the night.

Burnout is not okay

We need to learn to set boundaries and that slowing down is going to be of benefit to us all. In my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of the arts is their capacity to aid wellbeing. If we believe this to be true, it’s hypocritical of us to allow the wellbeing of those working in theatre to suffer. The audience’s wellbeing might be increased, but if theatremaker burnout is the price to pay then we need to make a change. I’ll end by saying this isn’t just down to employers, but also to us as artists to take responsibility for our own wellbeing. If we’re all mindful of ourselves, and say no to working to the point of burnout then perhaps we can help make a change.

Thanks for reading, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *