Success in theatre requires drive, a lot of convincing others of the importance of the stories you want to tell, of your own merit for a gig, of your work for funding from granting agencies.
This is a career that requires the second job of constantly applying for the next gig while still working the current one. For many disabled artists, this is a benefit, automatically building in time off. As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes in her stunning book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, having time between gigs to rest and recover is an asset of freelancing.
For me, however, it means no real rest takes place, because if February is low on work, I can’t rest properly since I don’t know if March will also be quiet — too quiet to pay rent.
I was motivated by the need to not let anyone down, to be seen as productive and worthy of my membership in the theatre community.
Many smart people have written about the intersection of being an arts practitioner, and living with chronic illness and disability. My journey into my own disability identity has been liberatory. In acknowledging that I experience life in a non-normative way, I’m able to divert my energy away from trying to be normal, and instead toward my work itself. The world of disability and neurodivergency is rich and varied, and the possibility for art and creation there is endless. I use terms under the umbrella of “disability,” instead of only “mental illness” or “chronic illness,” because of the solidarity it offers so many divergent experiences of the world. I use the term “madness” in the sense of a social and political identity held by people who have been labelled as mentally ill. Among the disability arts practitioners I learn from and admire is JD Derbyshire, whose Mad Practice makes room for both their own madness in radically practical, tangible ways, and the needs of collaborators, creating beautiful work because of disability, not around or despite it.
I spent so many years ignoring and pushing through debilitating pain and mental illness, acting like if I ignored it, it would go away. Now after finally starting to address brutal, untreated depression and complex PTSD, I’ve come to realize the extent to which I was running on pure adrenaline. I was motivated by the need to not let anyone down, to be seen as productive and worthy of my membership in the theatre community.
Now, ten years after starting theatre school, I have no drive left.
The more I begin to address my web of interacting mental illnesses (chronic depression, anxiety, complex PTSD, OCD, chronic fatigue), the more I realize that instability in my lifestyle — and therefore career — might just be antithetical to the next stage of healing, or at least stall it. What would my life be like if I knew how much money I was going to make in the next six months, and could plan for things like therapy, a vacation, or organic veggies?
In my opinion, I have never been prolific. I have pockets of inspiration that come when needed in my theatre writing and creation, but it definitely does not feel like an urgent or a living drive to speak, the way other playwrights and performers describe their artistic impulses. And the more I find myself healing, especially in the last year since taking medication and reducing the amount of anxiety and depression I experience, I am no longer working from a place of urgency, hunger, or necessity to prove myself. Are these internal tensions required to make enough money to survive in a Canadian city while working only in the arts? I feel embarrassed to admit I don’t think I have an artistic impulse on the same level as my peers. I also feel like I’ve reached a point of exhaustion at which I don’t care.
Or, are my needs for rest, time off, and stability too great and somehow reveal I was never a real artist to begin with?
In a recent conversation with a dear friend and theatre maker, Kevin Matthew Wong, he proposed that what we see as “prolific” is a form of high-functioning anxiety, and that so many arts leaders he has worked with or observed are so high-strung that it interferes with their well-being. These artists run their companies, which flourish, and then burn themselves out or disappear into a different industry.
Who are we losing from the theatre landscape when this is the model? Are we missing out on artists ageing into long-term careers in the theatre because of this?
Some people seem to love the theatre and that’s why they work in it. It’s that love that lets them work hard and put their heart into their work. But once I was able to stop running on fumes, I realized I don’t like working hard at anything, even the things I love. I used to think I did, but it turns out I was just good at doing the hardest thing possible. And I don’t have to. It’s not that I dislike working in theatre — I still feel deeply dedicated to storytelling, and I feel pride in making something and showing it to an audience that is moved and provoked into conversation. I am so grateful to have made a living solely from theatre work for the last few years. But I just don’t have an inherent desire to work hard. And maybe that’s a dealbreaker for success in the arts.
Is it possible to work less, more gently, and still make it as an artist in the Canadian scene?
Tricia Hersey’s Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto took me a step further toward solidifying the belief that I deserve the amount of rest I need. Looking around, I see all the ways, big and small, I have bullied myself into working. I keep the windows open in my apartment year-round because if I’m warm, I will fall asleep throughout the day and not get “enough” done. I need to be a little uncomfortable to focus enough to be productive. This morning I chose a cold, concrete, fluorescent corner of the theatre so I could focus in order to write this article. But at the back of my mind is a little question about the inspiration that only comes in moments of stillness.
Some years ago, I started asking myself who I would be if, when I identified a need, I tried to address it.
The biggest difference between who I am now and who I was ten years ago is that I now know of the existence of some of those needs. I left high school and my parents’ house, (and then dove into theatre school) undeniably dissociated, unable even to identify when I felt hungry, let alone when I needed a day off. Now I have a collection of objects that are evidence of my commitment to personal needs — a weighted blanket for sensory overload, magnesium powder for muscle relaxation, bamboo socks that aren’t scratchy, several prescription pain meds of varying strengths, a 15-inch laptop so I can watch hours of depression TV in more comfort.
But I have this worry that if I were to fully commit to meeting all my needs, I would never work again. I would just sleep and read forever. Is it as endless a slippery slope as it seems from where I sit in this moment? Is there a point at which I can really feel rested? And add to that the fact that work in the arts is not compensated on the same level as other industries — work doesn’t equal the same amount of dollars in the same amount of time, and having three jobs at once can still mean making less than a living wage.
Access looks different for every person, but I am left with the question: can a gig-based career be accessible, especially for Mad/neurodivergent artists? And where is the line between accessibility and artistic achievement? But more than that, what art could I make if I were rested? Maybe it would be better than anything I’ve ever made, coming from a full well of mental, emotional, and imaginative resources. Maybe it would be worse, lacking urgency and tension. Maybe I wouldn’t make anything. Regardless, it seems like for me the pendulum is swinging in the direction of rest to balance out years of hustling. And if that means I lose membership in the working arts world, so be it. But before I take a step back, I want to make sure we talk about the realities of our industry.
The author of this article asked for their surname not to be disclosed, due to the sensitive nature of publicly revealing their disability identity.