Transition and Artistic Burnout: Haley McGee Talks with Brendan McMurtry-Howlett

Haley McGee and Brendan McMurtry-Howlett at Hampstead Heath

This spring, Dark Nights invited performers and creators Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and Haley McGee to be guests at their monthly conversation series. In March, Brendan had just made the decision to step away from Shakespeare in the Ruff, a company dedicated to making Shakespeare accessible that he helped found and where he was artistic director for five years. In April, Haley was back in Toronto for the first time since moving to London, England, and preparing to bring her solo show I’m Doing This For You to Soulpepper. After speaking to them individually about how they were weathering their respective transitions, we asked them to talk to each other about it.

HALEY

Where are you at right now?

BRENDAN

Total uncertainty. Wanting to vomit.

HALEY

Really?

BRENDAN

Well, I don’t know. That’s a big question. I’m at everywhere. There are days where I’m like, this is gonna be great, the next thing is gonna be right here, and then other days where I’m like, what have I done? Why am I here?

HALEY

How has it been letting go of Shakespeare in the Ruff?

BRENDAN

I’m in the middle of it. I might not be able to handle it. I might go crazy and run naked down the 401 or something. But I think it’s about trying to just be open to not knowing what will happen next. In theatre, when you’re done a show, you’re out, you’re moving onto the next thing. But with a project as big and all-consuming as Shakespeare in the Ruff, the biggest challenge is letting go of something concrete. Whether I loved it [one] day or hated it [another] day, it was a thing that I could wrestle with and knew my relationship with.

Shakespeare in the Ruff Romeo and Juliet
Brendan McMurtry-Howlett with Wayne Burns in Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I think I’ve put pressure on myself to be able to find another concrete thing that I could start working on, and I think that’s made me recede a little bit, like: I’m gonna figure out the thing I want, and then go get it. When in actuality that’s never been how I’ve worked. It’s always: be open, say yes to things, one thing will happen, then the next thing, and then you’re doing something and you’re not thinking about it.

I mean, in terms of going from [your first solo show] OH MY IRMA to now having a body of work that has been touring internationally, how much did you foresee that and chase that?

HALEY

I definitely wanted a break from being an actor for hire. I thrive on variety, and I’d just been doing a lot of acting work, which is great, but I was starting to feel really, really itchy to pursue my own work in a serious way. It seems like something that’s so easy to put off every time you get a gig. And I had a lot of trouble creating and acting at the same time. So there was a conscious choice, probably two years ago, to really focus on my work as a creator for a while.

BRENDAN

Have you achieved your childhood dreams?

HALEY

I think my dreams have changed. My childhood dream was probably to be in musical theatre, or on a show, like Road to Avonlea. That certainly changed the more I learned about the form, and what was possible within the form. And then it became: I just want to be a working actor. So I definitely achieved that.

I hit a point where I realized the things I said I wanted weren’t completely satisfying. It wasn’t doing it for me anymore. And it’s partially because I realized my ego was tied up in it, and there was a bunch of seeking legitimization from institutions. And that’s really changed. Now it’s more about a way I want to feel in my life. I don’t want to feel worried all the time. I don’t want to worry about money all the time. I’d like to have a varied, invigorating artistic life. I want to make work that people want to see, that audiences seek out. And I want to, hopefully, have a family, and a house with plants, and a rescue dog, you know? I want more balance. I don’t want to survive on caffeine and run on adrenaline.

I’m making it sound like my life’s been so bad, and it’s been so good.

Haley in I’m Doing This For You

BRENDAN

No, I totally get that.

HALEY

Do you know that Robert Frost poem After Apple-Picking, where he’s like, “I am overtired of the great harvest I myself desired?”

BRENDAN

That’s beautiful.

HALEY

I know.

BRENDAN

Yeah, that makes complete sense. Do you feel like you have what you just described—a bit more balance? Or do you feel like you’re…

HALEY

Close?

BRENDAN

Or starting that process?

HALEY

Yes. Yes. I’m trying to get more autonomy over my career. So that’s part of it.

Next question—I love this one! What does working hard look like to you?

Haley McGee at her Dark Nights conversation. Photo by Daniel Goodbaum.

BRENDAN

It felt like starting Shakespeare in the Ruff came from a place that required pure adrenaline. Which is great, and looking back on the sheer amount of stuff we were able to do—it’s impressive, but that also had a huge cost. And it has been interesting, sustaining a project for five years, to get to a place where the adrenaline runs out but the project’s still going. How do you continue?

What is your relationship with burnout? 

HALEY

I’ve definitely experienced burnout.

Two things: Theatre is tough, because when things are going really well, you’re working six days a week for swaths at a time. And you really don’t want to complain about it, because you’re lucky for the work. But if you only have one day off for very long periods of time, you’re always just barely keeping up with your life. Your laundry, really simple life things. That’s exhausting. So much of acting is output; so much creative output. If you go from gig to gig to gig, there’s not a lot… For me, there wasn’t enough breathing room in between to take stuff in so that I had new things to put out.

I’d like to do things in less extremes. It’s reconciling these very intensive periods with your own relaxed periods. And figuring that out financially, and figuring it out psychically, so you actually can rejuvenate in the down times. And really think, okay, this period of time, I’m going to be doing input. I’m just going to take things in. But I think that’s so hard when you don’t know the end date. So hard to trust that the next thing will come. The next thing always comes.

BRENDAN

And what kinds of things would feed you, even amidst the worry and anxiety?

HALEY

Reading, travelling, talking with people, interacting, being out in the world and not being on stage, not being in rehearsal, not having my imagination and creativity being used for a specific thing. Writing; lots of writing. Writing around things, writing around ideas. Listening to a lot of podcasts.

I’d love to go on sabbatical. I’d love to have a year where I just read, think, go to lectures, hear people talk, probably do some writing, but actually really don’t—resist the urge to put anything out for a year. Really learn.

BRENDAN

I find it really useful, right now, to hear all that. Because that’s probably what I need to do right now. And let go of trying to… I think part of my anxiety right now is not having a clear end date. It’s trying to manufacture the end date: “Oh, I need to start a project so this period of not working on a project is over and I have a project. So I’m going to generate it even though I don’t know how, or why, or what.”

HALEY

Yeah! Also, those first projects come out of a lifetime of thinking about things; having thoughts and feelings about the world. The sophomore slump? It’s really hard. A lot goes into a first project.

BRENDAN

So my next project is just gonna be brutal. 

HALEY

No, it won’t be brutal! You just have to not force yourself to nail it down before it comes to you. It’s so horrible; it takes as long as it takes. “It takes as long as it takes.” I hate that shit. I love to employ my will. But I want to learn to allow.

Now in its second season, Dark Nights is a salon-style conversation series where local creators are invited to share their philosophies on life in the arts. It is held monthly at the Gladstone Hotel and is open to everyone. The next conversation is Wednesday August 16 at 8 pm and features comedian Chantel Marostica. @DarkNightsTO

Written By

Haley is an internationally-acclaimed performer and writer, working in live performance and video. She has toured her award-winning solos I'm Doing This For You and OH MY IRMA all over Canada and around the world, with stops in the USA, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Mongolia, Finland, Kosovo, Poland and Bulgaria.

Written By

Brendan is a theatre maker and community builder. He helped create Shakespeare in the Ruff, which focuses on the intersection of outdoor theatre, education, and community.


Leave a Reply

We’d love to hear from you! Feel free to leave a comment below, but please read our conditions first: 1) Be respectful, 2) Please don’t spam us, 3) We will remove any comments that contain hate speech, pornography, harassment, personal attacks, defamatory statements, or threats. Thanks for your understanding.

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