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Why I Will Never Have My Dream Job
This post was written on December 4th, 2021, and originally posted on Emma's personal website.
Picture it: a young thirty-something artist settling in to life in the city, hustling to make it as a working actor, balancing a day job in a theatre with contract work as a performer in the evenings, constantly going after The Next Big Thing - and somehow making a living! It was vibrant, it was colorful, it was stressful - but it was working.
She was making art. She was putting food on the table. She was surviving.
Even the day job was going splendidly - she interviewed for a promotion, and had just had a promising interview with her two superiors, discussing pay raises and timelines for the transition to become a more permanent fixture in the office. Her name was added to the corporate email signatures. She had a desk, a computer, key cards that allowed access to other parts of the building - it was a real job in a real theatre (a place she loved!), and it meant stability and safety. On top of all that, she had just been cast in a production of Shakespeare's "As You Like it," in addition to holding rehearsals for a different show she was self-producing.
She was making art. She was putting food on the table. She was thriving.
And then on March 12th, 2020, the buzz in the office was nervous. Anxious. Broadway had just announced they were going dark without a known return for the first time in history. Her supervisor turned to her with uncertainty, and said, "You can go ahead and leave for the day. I'll call you tomorrow and let you know what the plan is."
And that was the last time I set foot in that building. (Spoiler alert: it was me.)
You know what happened next. Everything - everything - was canceled.
The full story of the last year and nine months is for another time, another allotment of spoons. In short: it was isolated, it was lonely, it was anxious. I went through one of the most difficult health scares of my life. I had major surgery that took 14 weeks of rough, belabored recovery. I am still living with chronic pain that the surgery unfortunately did not vanquish. All the while I was unemployed, strung along by the unemployment office who kept making mistakes with my file and never fixing them. I started an Etsy shop and have made close to a thousand face masks. My family lost someone to Covid. Fear, doubt, uncertainty made cozy little nests in my heart next to the almost catatonic malaise of daily perseverance, numb survival.
My story is not novel. Indeed, it is even a privileged one in numerous ways. One immeasurably vital luxury I had access to during this entire pandemic is that I live life with a partner, one who is healthy and gainfully employed, and was able to keep his job and work from home. We would not have survived nearly as well if not for his job keeping us afloat. In between the doctors' visits and fights with unemployment, I spent a lot of time investing in my own learning. I regularly attended seminars given by educators and practitioners in theatrical intimacy, antiracism, and mental health first aid. I am exceedingly grateful for all of the wonderful people I connected with virtually and the intensive opportunities for evolving my worldviews and practices.
One of the concepts that was repeated over and over in a lot of these trainings was the concept that for theatre, for the entertainment industry at large - this complete shutdown of our inertia, while painful, is an incredible opportunity to examine the way we've been doing things and leave behind those practices that harm or no longer serve us. Claire Warden, Broadway intimacy director, shared this truth:
"If we don't use this time to make things better for when we are able to return, then what was the point? What will it all have been for?"
Prior to the pandemic, I operated like every other artist and freelancer I knew - we hustled, we lived for the grind, and we championed long hours and weary weekends. This is what I had been trained for in school, in college, in my graduate program - this concept of constantly being open, constantly being emotionally available, physically vulnerable, ready for anything, while also working out and keeping my body in shape, eating well but not too much, bathing regularly, always dressing to impress, applying for auditions and jobs every day, all while somehow also touting the importance of mental health and self care. It was exhausting, but I was used to it. I was routinely breaking my body and punishing my mind over and over for the hope of booking every next gig - all under the guise of honing my craft.
So you might understand then why I was so struck when quarantine first started - for the first time in a long time, I was getting rest. Not in the way I would have ever wanted it, of course, but it was happening. I felt a strange relief. And then immediately after, a strange guilt. It is amazing how fast our bodies learn to support our ambitions, and mine was used to being pulled and stretched in unhealthy ways. It was questioning this period of rest with anxiety and alarm, as if preparing to thwart some great threat on the horizon. And so, I signed up for as many seminars and workshops as I could. Productive tasks as survival mode.
In one of the very first theatrical intimacy seminars I took during quarantine, the speaker was spotlighting the dangerous histories of scarcity and urgency in how we teach and work in theatre. Scarcity is what terrifies us: that there is only one job, one role, and in order to get it, we have to be the absolute best/most attractive/most nuanced/most perfect candidate in the room (of a hundred other brilliant actors who look exactly like us). Because if we don't book that one job, then we don't get to work, we don't make connections, we don't earn money, we don't advance our careers; in short, we lose. Urgency is what powers this response to the fear of scarcity. It takes fear of missing out to an entirely new level; we must be the best now, we must hurry and get that next gig now. And honestly, how else would we operate? This is how we've been trained, this is how our industry has operated for a century and more. Film sets are notorious for pushing through long hours and rushing scenes to get to a certain benchmark for stopping for the day. We've all seen the tragic news stories about a horrific accident on the set of a movie or tv show, all because safety checks weren't done properly, because the timeline was rushed, staff were tired, and corners were cut. Urgency is a pretty disgusting excuse when injury and death are on the line. And yet, it keeps happening.
When the work you are doing is operated under a system of urgency, that is when mistakes get made and harm is done. To put this in the context of theatrical intimacy: historically, actors were often just told to perform intimate scenes with their scene partners on the spot, with barely any prior discussion or conversations about what specifically was being called for, or any mention of safety and boundaries. The power dynamics in the room make it extremely difficult to say no as an actor in this circumstance - you might be fine with performing the scene, but perhaps you want more clarity, or you need more information about what your partner is actually going to touch or see on your body. And when we operate our rehearsal rooms or film sets under that ever-ticking clock of urgency, it can feel like there is literally no time to stop and ask these kinds of questions, to voice any discomfort or uncertainty. And because the actor is afraid that if they don't "just do it," the director will classify them as "difficult to work with," and they'll be replaced with someone who will do it, no questions asked. So, they don't say anything. They swallow the discomfort, they swallow the worry, and push through it. And what about the actor who actually isn't okay with performing the scene, or who was told nudity would not be required, but on the day of filming is asked to remove their shirt last minute anyway? This is where boundaries gets crossed, harm is done, and harassment occurs. One of the easiest ways to avoid this kind of damage is to simply slow down. But our industry has taught us that time is always equated to money, and the more time you take, the less valuable you are.
Urgency doesn't allow people the space necessary to fully take stock of what it is they are being asked to do. Scarcity is what removes their agency to not pursue certain work, for fear they will never find more. Both distort power structures and open the door for manipulation and toxicity, and often those who are already marginalized are hurt even worse by these forced vulnerabilities. These are dangerous, deeply ingrained facets of the industrial theatre/entertainment complex, and they need to be scrubbed from how we operate.
There is much about the last nearly two years that I grieve; but being afforded the opportunity to unlearn urgency and scarcity is not one. Director, originator of the Anti-Racist Theatre movement (A.R.T.), and all-around badass human Nicole Brewer has this to say on urgency:
"What is radical is an examination of our relationship to time and how white supremacist urgency has robbed us of our capacity to be present and to listen to our bodies. Being attuned to how space, people, and conditions impact our bodies is necessary as we work to heal our relationship to urgency."
Urgency and scarcity are inherently oppressive, white supremacist ideals. The concepts that there are only a few, and you have to be fast are unattainable and damaging, not to mention racist, ableist, sexist, and classist (to name a few). As Brewer mentions, there is healing that needs to be done within each of us if we hope to increase our capacity to be present with ourselves. In the absence of everything else this last year, I have had unprecedented amounts of time to simply listen to myself.
And you know what? I'm tired.
As summer and autumn of 2021 approached, and light began to stream through the cracks in the present-pandemic (not post-, don't let anyone fool you otherwise) cultural bubble, it seemed almost too good to be true that theatres would start opening up again and that I could return to work. The pandemic and parallel social justice movements of 2020 and 2021 have shifted many paradigms for arts organizations across the country. Many of them touted solidarity on social media with diversity, equity, and inclusion statements. Many made bold claims about implementing sustainable work practices going forward. But there was a kind of chill in the air, a coldness about it all that left something wanting. A friend and I were talking about this disconnect, and how strange it felt to be slowly re-learning how to apply for acting work after a global crisis. We both felt abandoned and disowned by this craft we've loved for so long. We spoke about the realities of so many artists leaving theatre entirely during the pandemic, and changing career course. He said he's been considering the same, and offered this reason:
"I love theatre - but theatre doesn't love me back."
I felt his words in my core.
It's December now, and a few interesting things have happened:
That pre-Covid promotion I wrote about at the beginning? It never happened. In fact, the theatre erased my job completely, and didn't even have my name on any of the contact lists of people to bring back for the reopening. A new hire was brought in, and that person now sits at the desk I used to, and if I had not told them my history at the company, would have had absolutely no idea who I was. So much for a "temporary furlough."
Many of the theatres and large arts organizations that heralded inclusion and equity are now revealing that they've done very little work on themselves at all during the shutdown. DEI consultants were hired to make it look like real change was happening, but a number of these folks have begun speaking out about how they aren't actually allowed to do their jobs - they bring ideas to the board, and keep being told that there are bigger things to worry about. Their concerns are ignored, their action plans go unimplemented, and they start to feel like puppets with no real use in the company.
That same friend of mine from the above conversation was hired by one of the major playhouses in our city for their current production, and shared with me how it felt to be back in a rehearsal room after all this time. It was beautiful and emotional, he said - but the process he was experiencing was also stressful and scattered. He was balancing this production with a day job, and was often told about rehearsal commitments last minute, making asking off work a difficult task. His pay is much lower than it should be, and certainly not worth the energy he's put in. When he asked if he could have one day off to attend a wedding, he was told no. On the day I went to support him, he hadn't even had time to eat a meal. Now, pre-Covid, this would have been the norm, hardly anything to write home about. But when he tells me about it now, he follows it up with, "I never should have taken this role. Never again."
The disenchantment is overwhelming. We've lost people.
Seriously, after all of this - office politics and missed scheduling emails will never be more important than the fact that we've lost people.
I love theatre - I have always loved it. Storytelling has been my sanctuary since I was a child. The magic of fleeing to another world where you are free to feel and think and change and be is like nothing else I've ever known. I made my entire adult life about working in professional theatre and entertainment. I went to grad school, I've lived out of a suitcase for years on the road going from contract to contract, and I've traded my time and energy for "exposure" when the budget was nil. It was all well and good during those online seminars where I was with compassionate peers, discussing the importance of boundaries and dismantling systemic oppression within power structures. They made me believe that change on a macro level was possible if enough people who cared just showed up to do the work. And I still believe that. But I also know that not everyone believes it, or wants to believe it, and a uncomfortably large number of those with the most power to make change are choosing to do the opposite.
I've slowly dipped my toes back in to the actor game - searching for audition notices, submitting for roles, applying for jobs, and continuing my ongoing education as a trauma-informed practitioner for theatrical intimacy. There is a part of this that feels like coming home; and yet, home is different now. The layout of the house is different, and I can't quite find my feet. It is not and never will be the same. It should not. I struggle with my passion for what I am learning and the juxtaposition of matriculating back into a broken system. Don't get me wrong: I've trained with some amazing practitioners and artists in the last year, and they have given me so much bolstering and hope. My goal is still to work in theatre, and to actively contribute to making it better. But there are still - and likely will always be - moments where it just doesn't feel as worth it anymore. I cannot un-experience these last two years. And if you find yourself feeling the same, know that it is perfectly okay to set that boundary, and walk away.
"I love theatre - but theatre doesn't love me back."
American theatre, we are falling out of love with you.
I imagine my dream job (if labor is even something that should be dreamt of in the first place):
I dream that I am happy and healthy. I am creating art in a myriad of ways. I am collaborating with other artists, and we are all taking care of each other with the way we work. The art we make is meaningful and enjoyable. The companies we create and work with are equitable and sustainable. We evolve as we learn better. No one misses their friend's wedding. Everyone gets to eat dinner. No one is harmed because boundaries were crossed, or dangerous people weren't removed from the space. Abusers, harassers, manipulators no longer hold the purse strings and dangle them over vulnerable artists. Everyone is paid a thriving, not surviving, wage. Everyone advocates and everyone is advocated for. No one is abandoned. All is well.
It's a nice dream, at least.
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