Turning the Wheel: Leaving the Full-Time Theatre Life

Two people walking along the shore with the sun gleaming off the sand.

Ordinary World

Let me start by saying: I’m no quitter. 

I come from a family of marathon runners. I made friends with fear and uncertainty a long time ago as an artist and entrepreneur. I’ve never waited for anyone’s green light to let me make my art. 

This isn’t a “my ship never came in” story. 

This is a “I built my ship, sailed it, loved it, and now the wind and my compass are leading me somewhere new…and it feels taboo to talk about it” story. 

I’m also a maritimer. The ship metaphors are just getting started.

Call to Adventure

I moved from Nova Scotia to Ontario in 2009 for theatre school. I didn’t want to leave home – and I said as much to my mentor one day while packing up after a workshop. 

“I don’t even know if it’s worth leaving Halifax – I feel like I’m gonna end up back here anyway.”

He smiled while stacking sheet music. “Maybe you will. But the hero has to leave home.”

I felt simultaneously exhilarated and cursed by his words. I knew he was right. I had to leave, and it wasn’t going to be easy. 

I moved to Mississauga for four years as a theatre student and then to Toronto. I’ve lived and worked in Toronto’s theatre scene for eight years now as a director, playwright, producer, and educator. 

I wouldn’t trade a single minute of it.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Ali's work desk with a laptop on makeshift stand to raise it for standing and working. The desk has several note books, loose papers, and cups on it.
My desk – site of good ideas, bad ideas, hope, dread, clarity, and an outrageous attempt at ergonomics.

It’s not all been smooth sailing – one spring I got shingles up the side of my neck from overworking. The Artistic Director I was assisting at the time asked me why I hadn’t been vaccinated. I answered, “I’m 25. They don’t give the shingles vaccine to 25-year-olds.”

There was the summer I broke out in such relentless stress hives, I convinced my partner we must have bedbugs. When a full bug-treatment didn’t clear the hives, I went to three doctors. One asked where I was working (she thought the hives could be an environmental reaction). I remember a flicker of panic as I explained, “I’m a theatre artist. I work…everywhere.” A montage played in my head of every different place I’d worked that week alone, from my box office job, to my Standardized Patient work in hospitals, to numerous rehearsal spaces and theatres, to the school gyms with my TYA show, to every cafe I’d worked in during stolen hours between gigs, secretly eating a packed dinner out of my backpack so I wouldn’t be reprimanded for eating “outside food”. 

And then, there was the cold, rogue wave of dread that started to crash over me every time I’d think: how can I be a full-time theatre artist and a parent? Can I afford that? Will I be happy? Am I ever going to feel stable? Does this subtle drone-note of existential worry ever stop?

But we’ll get to that.

Approach To The Inmost Cave

In July 2019, I finished my contract as Artistic Producer of Toronto’s Paprika Festival. That summer marked the end of several years of non-stop work and contracts for me – a blessing for any artist, but by the end of it I was feeling brittle and spent. I remember joking to a friend: “When I reach down into the well for creative ideas, all I come up with is a handful of sticky notes with to-do lists on them.” I was proud and I was grateful but the well was dry, my friends. And despite the steady flow of gigs, my life still felt precarious and unpredictable.  

After leaving the office for the last time, I walked through Alexandra Park. I sat down under a tree and wrote in my journal. I wrote about two things that day:

One – I outlined my plan to propose to my partner of six and a half years.

Two – I swore to prioritize my writing at all costs from now on. 

I was 28, but I already felt I was in the climactic “Resurrection” part of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” story structure. This was the do or die, right? I promised myself I’d charge full tilt at writing for the next two years and see if I reached enough financial/job stability to be able to have kids. If, at the end of two years that stability still seemed years away, then I’d pivot away from theatre. I felt like I had to have everything in place by age 30 or…all would be lost, somehow.  

This was not a matter of “Guess I better start working hard now.” I’ve been an early-riser, go-getter my whole life. Nor was this some kind of magical thinking: “If I just want it more, then itll happen.” I have a fearless, cold-eyed (albeit lazy-eyed) perspective on my work. When it comes to career strategy…I’m a goddamn, lazy-eyed shark.

So, back to me under the tree, committing myself to a marriage proposal and a ruthless two-year test in which to make it all happen.

Well, I have good news and bad news.

Good news: my partner said yes. I got down on one knee at the corner of Bloor and Shaw and gave him a ring inlaid with concrete from that same corner (where we’d had our first kiss almost seven years ago). 

Bad news: eight months later, we were in a global pandemic. 

Cut to cancelled wedding. Cancelled shows. Cancelled everything.

Ali taking a mirror selfie in a rehearsal hall floor to ceiling mirror.
My last time in a rehearsal hall before the COVID shutdown. I believe there are not one but two packed meals in that backpack, ready to be eaten on transit.

Ordeal

This threw a…bit of a wrench in my whole two-year test. But for the first 100 days of COVID, I felt surprisingly good. My partner came home from a job away. We had evenings and weekends off together for the first time in our lives. We were safe and secure in our small apartment. 

I had time to write. And I did. I wrote like the devil was on my back. Because she was…and she wore a very loudly ticking watch. 

A global pandemic didn’t change my two-year test! No way. Now, I had one year and three months left to get my artistic career to a place where I felt stable and secure enough to start a family. And I’d have to do it in a pandemic. 

I wrote like hell. I submitted and pitched and called and schemed.  

Then Day 100 of the pandemic arrived.

The initial adrenaline ebbed. The world was still halted. And I was hit by a wave of panic and clarity that threatened to capsize my trusty ship.

Panic, because my beloved theatre industry was so profoundly destabilized. 

Clarity, because I realized I didn’t want to wait any longer. I didn’t want to keep waiting to have more control over my life and my happiness.

Once again, I felt both cursed and exhilarated. 

Ill take it from here, Joseph Campbell.

This is where the tidy hero’s journey ends. 

This is the part that scares me to share.  

I’m scared someone will think I’m calling on all theatre artists to jump ship, or that I’m devaluing the work and courage of those who are choosing to buckle down and weather the storm. I’m scared someone might think I’m giving up. I’m scared it could sound like I think artistry and parenthood are mutually exclusive. 

But when I manage to peer over the heads of my fear-demons (they’re tall, like me) I see my reasons for writing this piece in the first place. 

I believe we need more non-linear stories of careers. We need more stories of people designing their own lives. We need more models of what it looks like to be an artist. We need honesty. 

COVID helped me realize that what’s most sacred to me is my writing. It’s the part of my career I’ll protect at all costs. It’s what I’ll save from the fire of this pandemic. 

But lately, the devil on my back whispers, “This better be good. This better be sooo good that you make it big and become financially stable enough to have kids before its too late for yooou…” I don’t want to write that way anymore. I don’t want to live that way anymore. 

I have no regrets about spending my twenties giving theatre my all (not even about the shingles). I don’t see it as “I tried to get somewhere and I didn’t.” These years have been their own complete adventure and success. 

What it comes down to is this: in the last couple years, the investment of a full-time theatre life was no longer matching the soul points I got in return. 

I’m retraining to work in mental health. This makes me feel the precise combination of fear and excitement that has always pointed me in the right direction. And I will keep writing. As I recently said to my therapist, “My life feels long again.” For years, I’ve felt rushed. I couldn’t see past 30 because I felt I had to make it all happen by then. So did the rest of my life even matter?

Now, I’m designing a life that’s good for my art (and for me) in the long run. What sustains me sustains my writing. This is what I swore to my journal in Alexandra Park – I’m prioritizing my writing at all costs. I just didn’t realize the cost would be moving on from a life 100% in the theatre world. I know I’ll never leave theatre completely – but I’m not asking it to be my everything anymore. 

I told friends my plan gradually over distanced-park-visits and phone calls. I worried they’d think I was pivoting only out of COVID panic. I worried the artists I’ve mentored would feel betrayed or let down by me – as if I’d led them to a place I myself was running from. None of this came to pass. One past student breathed a sigh of relief on the phone and shared her own plans to combine her theatre work with new pursuits. My friends were surprised, but they were wholly supportive. 

I called my older sister and (afraid to make it real) said, “I think I’m changing careers.”

She countered: “You’re not changing careers. This is all your career. It’s one long road. This is just a new part of it.”

So I share this big sister wisdom with you: It’s all your career. It’s your own hero’s journey. Pivots aren’t failures.

Write your own story. 

Ali standing at the wooden railing of a harbour, laughing.

27 Responses to “Turning the Wheel: Leaving the Full-Time Theatre Life”

  1. Hi Ali,
    I love this article. I was 29 when I went through the same thing. I ended up in teaching not writing but there is so much I relate to. My transition was sitting in a hammock and crying for 24 hours as I mourned my departure from something I had thought I would do for life. I did continue to act occasionally when an interesting project fell in my lap, but I didn’t ever pursue it again. When I walked into my first class to teach, I said to myself “Oh, this is where I belong.” Never would I be the teacher I am without all my journey as an actor. Like you I have never regretted my choice. It formed me in the most amazing ways. It was part of my journey, but not the end of my journey. Follow your bliss. When unhappiness outweighed the joy, I knew my bliss did not lie that way and looked to where my energy and passion lay. I brought up five kids through it all. It’s possible. Congratulation on your journey. You are a wonder. Best
    Anna

  2. Ali – this is a wonderful story. Life is a series of experiences, each forging further down a current path or leading to a new and exciting direction, but all important to help us develop into the best person we can be, doing work we love and enjoy. I have followed many different paths in my career, but each have enriched the next path in ways I could never have anticipated. I love how this story captures that so well and is a great message for anyone pondering the next steps on their journey. You are an inspiration. All the best in your new direction!
    Sue

  3. Awww my sweet sweet niece..this brought tears to my eyes because you are a star in my eyes and if this decision brings you closer home to me.. I AM SOOO HAPPY ❤️❤️❤️

  4. Thank you so so much. I have worked all my 20s to become a lighting designer. Its all I ever wanted. And at 29 I landed the dream job. Resident designer at a company I loved and respected. I spent a year and a half doing my best work, loved my coworkers, won some awards, etc.
    Then pandemic. And with some paycuts they have somehow kept us employed, but its just not the same. And in the meantime I have enjoyed going home at 5. Working on my house. Spending time with my husband. We have gone camping a lot.
    I’m thinking about going to a stable 9 to 5. And you’re right. Its so taboo to talk about. Especially when Ive been one of the lucky ones still employed. Trying to keep my theatre from dying has sucked all of the joy out of it for me. And I have realized I want those other things in my life that theatre life did not allow for except on the rarest of occasions.
    So even if its a career change. Maybe thats alright too

  5. There is a serious topic here that COVID has brought to light- which is- how to keep going, for the LONG RUN?

    When I was in my early 30’s, I was burnt out and unhappy. My life in theatre had been very jam -packed, but I could not seem to find a way to get out of a rut of “totalworkallthetimenoroomfor anythingelselseexcepttryingtosurviveandkeepgoing”. I had hit a wall and did not know where to go. When a great aunt died and I received a small inheritance. For the first time in my life I had disposable income. I decided to learn how to fly, with an image of leaving theatre and going up north to be a bush pilot. For two solid years, theatre was a way to keep some income, but my heart was not in it. I just wanted to be in the air.

    I no longer fly planes, but I did eventually “come back” to the theatre, and up until COVID, had lots of projects. I think that hitting a wall, for whatever reasons, is not unusual. The real trick is what to do when that wall gets hit. I think your sister is right- you are not changing careers, your life is one long career. The “theatre” does not stop at a door. You are expanding your knowledge and broadening your horizons, and, whatever you do in future, your “theatre brain” is carrying your life experiences forward. They will influence your work in mental health. (And be of GREAT value). And your work in mental health may come back to impact your feelings about working in theatre. It is ALL valuable. Please do not worry about your decision being the right one. It IS. I wish you all the best as you move forward. Thank you for your story. It is very important to be reminded that, if we are true artists, we are true to ourselves along the way, no matter how much it may not look like it fits the “right idea” of how we are supposed to do things. You are your own pilot, now fly your own plane.

  6. I really connected with your efforts to track with the heroes journey. It gave me some new insights. I’d be so curious about how your story would read as a Virgin journey (virgin meaning to know you are of value just for being yourself, like a virgin forest). In this journey quitting is recognized as transformation as we become ever more connected to our evolving authentic self.

  7. I’m a composer in the “classical” music realm. I’m 35 and have also struggled with the question of “will I be able to have children as a composer?” for many, many years. It’s probably the biggest anxiety of my life. Aside from financial concerns and career track barriers, there’s still noticable stigma around female composers having children. It feels like deep down, we wonder if she was really that serious about her work if she decided to have children. It’s just not compatible with our heroic idea of artistic genius. Of course that is a load of BS and the whole idea of a female composer who has a child and keeps composing undermines much patriarchal gender anxiety. Partly because of my resistance to this BS and partly because I know I wouldn’t be happy in a more stable 9-5, I know I can’t stop composing or do it on the side of something else. I am instead trying to rethink other standard Western approaches to life to enable me to have a child. A part of that involves my extended family, but a part is also thinking about diversifying my activities. There are so many other things I love doing and that inform my composing work. Like you, I feel that resistance from the idea that we must give 100% to our art or be seen as quiters. This idea is toxic. Creativity needs to be fed by life, or it dries up. I like your image of finding nothing but to do lists on the bottom of your creative well. Totally relate to that. When my schedule of commissions is packed enough that I can live on that income, I become creatively exhausted. I question my ability to produce enough good material to be able to pay the bills. And if I’m miserable while churning out crap, what’s the point? So what I’m trying to say is that I relate to your questioning of the assumption that you must give 100% to your art or quit. Enjoying life is hugely important to creativity.

  8. Great story. My (grandmother) advice: don’t feel sad. You never know where this pivot will lead. Think of it as stepping through a new door. don’t look back. I gave up a very successful theatre life in 1997, resolved to a)get a personal life b)write prose fiction. Check on both counts. I came back twice, did both for a while, and as of November 2020, have decided to set aside fictional writing in favour of journalism, essays and activism. The world doesn’t need my stories. It needs to face the facts, and I can do that. I fully appreciate your instinct to be helpful to humanity. You can’t quit being an artist. This is a time to inhale.

  9. Teacher, stagehand, stage manager, musician, writer – all of those things together have brought me to where I am now and would be terrible in my positions had I not wandered that crazy path which also included banking, business, and makeup artist!

    A fellow stagehand once told me “why pick one when you are good at many!” Here’s to the Renaissance people of the world!

  10. A very heartfelt and honest article that I can emphasize with. I am a theater designer with a 40+ year career, and yet I went through the same “career evaluation ” period. There was no Covid then, just an overwhelming feeling of being burnt out and wanting something more. I was married, had a son and decided to take 18 months away from design. By the time I hit the 16th month I would have killed for a design contract. I missed everything that I had been trained for. And so I went back to my design business, and being a full time university design professor. I never looked back, but I am so glad I took the time to reevaluate my career choices.

  11. Thank you for this. I am in the EXACT same place. Been full on theatre for my 20’s, just got married, had a plan to accomplish by 30, and am feeling called to hyphenate my artistry with a move into therapy. Starting school applications right away. Huge fan of Joseph Campbell. Amazing. Thank you.

  12. I’m going to be sharing your article from the top of every social media mountain. I am an actor/singer with a BFA musical theater and also launched a business when I was 25 years old. I’ve grown so much from running my business and gained so much fulfillment – spiritually, financially, etc. – but always felt tremendously guilty. I was guilted by my peers and myself as our industry has put out the false narrative of “if you’re not all in/self-sacrificial, then you won’t be successful”. It is time to change that narrative. We need to stop being so secretive about our other pursuits. If it inspires anyone, here is my business website: naturaltalent.co . I run a staffing agency exclusively for actors who need “survival jobs”. These are mostly brand ambassador gigs for wellness brands and I have provided work for over 150 actors across NY, NJ, PA, IL, and CA. The work is sometimes more gratifying than the theater gigs that I do and I’m done with denying that. Thank you for your bravery.

  13. I’m also leaving a long-term theatre gig—but a couple of decades later in life than you. Your sister’s wisdom encourages me to examine the nomenclature; not a “career,” but a space of time along the arcing (twisting, turning, start-stop) pathway of my life’s career.

    A life in the arts requires frequent infusions of new life-force. I think artists (and teachers) should step away from their work with some regularity for sabbaticals (at least). I’ve come and gone from the theatre before this, but I am confident it will never go away from me. My varied interests have, and will, take me far and wide, but always that love remains. Absence will make my heart grow (gratefully) fonder.

    Exploration is what makes the journey worth taking. Joseph Campbell would be nodding and smiling.

  14. Not easy to do the right thing! I left in 2017. No regrets but I miss the passion! Good luck on yoir journey.

  15. Hello, thank you for your raw spirit of vulnerability and risk. I needed to hear this story of non-linear career and also of struggle and a very real, not-neat Campbellian (spelling?) heroes journey. Also, drama therapy is a beautiful beautiful thing, if you’ve not explore that. I’m part of the North American drama therapy association and it’s a bunch of artsy, theatre people wanting to do their art AND wanting to support the mental
    health of others through using their art. Might be worth looking into. Best of created-luck 😉

  16. Thank you for your interesting story. It’s hard to change but sometimes a job or even a career has run its course and it’s time to start something new. I have done so many different jobs, Yellowstone worker, hotel runner in Athens, Greece, reporter and editor, staffing company owner, trust officer, Bitcoin miner, stock investor and trader, and now oil painter. My wife and I lived frugally and raised two children. We worked hard, saved our money and paid off our house. I just want a home full of creativity and love, music, poetry and laughter.

  17. Ali, thank you for this beautiful reflection!! What sustains you sustains the work, and you’ll be a better artist for finding the stability and peace that you’ve been longing for. Best of luck on this new part of your journey!

  18. Wonderful. Very brave, honest, and with a lovely story arc– what more could I ask for?!
    Seriously, you deserve a big hug and a warm pat on the back for a very mature mental/emotional/spiritual pivot.
    In 2000 I was living in L.A. I had worked professionally in Film, Television, Theatre, Commercials, Voiceover and I was studying with a world class teacher. In June of 2000 I got married, in July I turned 27, and in November I was dx with a golf ball-sized brain tumor that came within two days of killing me. Radiation, chemo for 18 months and my career was vaporized. For a long time I thought the brain tumor stole my dreams but twenty years later I realized it saved ME.
    My wife and I got pregnant first time at bat (despite every Dr. warning me we might never be able to), I produced, crewed, and acted in a micro-budget horror film with my best friend and eventually moved back East. I never got my MFA and didn’t think I’d be able to ever do it with a wife, kids, mortgage so I pivoted away from Acting.
    Last year I was hired as an adjunct professor teaching acting at a local college, I found an online MFA program that I love, and the teaching has me connected and giving in a way striving for my career never did in my 20s. As a result, my acting is deeper than ever.
    I don’t think I ever could have had a family and a healthy marriage otherwise, and I’ll bet you are blown away by how many gifts come to you now that you’ve made space for them. Aaaaaaand…don’t be surprised if it all comes back around for you!

  19. Ali–resonated to your post. Although I didn’t give theater as much time as you my first time around, spending two years as an actor before going to grad school to become a psychologist, I’ve found that if a life is long enough there are ample opportunities to weave the various threads of one’s life’s work into a rich and satisfying fabric. After decades away from theater, I returned just over 20 years ago, finding work on stage and in film, without entirely letting go of my work as a psychologist and mediator. It helps when you’re not dependent on casting in order to eat!

  20. WOW. Thank. you so much for sharing your story. I feel like I have been on a very similar journey, and you put words into everything I have been feeling. I actually have my very first class in preparation for my NEW CAREER today.

    I’ve actually been an adjunct instructor for the last five years and I have two students getting ready to start grad school. This hit at the heart of what I have been most concerned about: “I worried the artists I’ve mentored would feel betrayed or let down by me – as if I’d led them to a place I myself was running from. None of this came to pass. One past student breathed a sigh of relief on the phone and shared her own plans to combine her theatre work with new pursuits.”

    I’ll be taking this with me for the next few years as I re-shape my life and what being an artist means to me: “Now, I’m designing a life that’s good for my art (and for me) in the long run.”

  21. Thank you for sharing this raw egg vulnerable, hilarious and authentically written declaration, Ali. I sense that this decision will only make you richer as a writer and that your beautiful (theatre artist) heart will serve and sustain you – and those who benefit from your expertise – throughout all the many stages of your career to come.

  22. Oh thank you Ali for writing and sharing. You are in a pivot position – yes I used the pivot word. There is uncertainty, but surely there is also inspiration in these moments of change. I have such respect for your courage. I am a big fan, no matter where the journey takes you, I am in the wings cheering you on Ali Richardson!

  23. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences during all this time. It was with great pleasure that I read your article about your hero’s life, love, career, and journey. In fact, you have a talent for presenting everything so beautifully that you involuntarily begin to read and immerse yourself in this story. I am very glad that your partner was by your side during such a difficult time as a pandemic, and you even found a huge benefit in this. After all, it is wonderful that despite such difficulties, you have drawn from your experience enough strength to go through this together and even so radically change your life. You are well done!

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Written By

Ali Joy Richardson is a writer, director, and teacher in Tkaronto (Toronto), originally from Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia). Her quartet of TYA plays about mental health (One Deep Breath) has toured to 50,000+ students with Education Arts Canada. Her play A Bear Awake in Winter (about a high school band class) was recently published by Scirocco Drama and her newest play Dad (about theatre school teachers) is currently in development with Toronto's Studio 180 Theatre. Ali has completed directing residencies with the Canadian Stage Company and the Musical Stage Company. She's a past member of Nightwood Theatre's Write From the Hip playwriting unit. Besides theatre, Ali loves running, biking, spooky books, and embroidery. She lives in Toronto with her partner, Neil. More about her: www.alijoyrichardson.com