Saturday, August 17, 2013

Burnt Out

I haven't been blogging.  It's been almost a year.

Part of the reason is that I live with the people who used to be my primary audience.  Part of it was I got more self conscious.  Part of it was that I got really busy and haven't had time.  When you work 18 hours a day for almost two months straight you don't have much time for anything other than sleep.

Starbucks has been an utter disaster lately.  I don't really want to talk about it at the moment, maybe in another post, if I can find the time and energy to do another post.  It's really rough though when something you love turns into something you hate and in this case it was all at once.

In the case of theatre it was gradual.  What I realized recently (and it's only become more clear writing this most) is that the last time I've taken more than a one month break from theatre was the summer of my freshman year.  What that basically means is that I have stage managed for four years without a break of more the four weeks.

Now, I realize that this sounds like normal life for people probably.  I mean, people work for years at a time without taking more than a few weeks off here and there for vacations.  But the fact is, stage managing is one of the most stressful jobs I can think of.  You are underpaid (by more than I can possibly explain).  Stage managers don't get paid by the hours.  They get a contract stating an amount of money that they will get during a show and then receive that amount every few weeks in even portions.  Why don't stage managers get paid by the hour?  The honest truth is that theatres can't afford it.  If you're an equity (union) stage manager, you are in rehearsals for eight hours a day.  That sounds about normal.  However you have, roughly, an hour of prep on either side of that rehearsal.  Not to mention paperwork to fill out and disseminate.  The old saying goes: A stage manager is the first and arrive and the last to leave.

When you stage manager, you live the show.  No one knows it better than you.  I would argue not even the director (though that argument would be contested by many a director).  There is stress on you constantly.  You are expected to not only know what everyone is thinking, but know it before they even think of it.  I truly wish I was joking, but you do start to be able to do the impossible after awhile.  On the last show I was working I would pull out the rehearsal props that were needed.  Then seeing how quickly the director was working, I pulled out the props for the following scene as well.  The director turned to me a few minutes and said that she would like to continue working and if I could pull the props out, which I promptly handed to her.  Now that level of detailed thinking is not necessarily expected by every person who you work with.  But if you are trying to impress them and get rehired or hired on in a larger capacity, it's certainly helpful.

If something goes wrong, it's your fault.  Again, that's not to say that everyone will blame you inherently, but if someone needs to take the blame it should be the stage manager who voluntarily takes it.  It's not fair and I know it and I generally accept it willingly.  Because I have found that, every single time, it is better to swallow your pride and apologize, than fight over something ultimately trivial.

I'm trying to describe the amount of pressure on you as a stage manager and I'm not sure I'm succeeding at all.  I'm not trying to complain, I'm just trying to make this profession I so love clear for those of you who have never experienced.  It's not like almost any other job I can think of, because when work ends most people can go home and the pressure is off.  They can relax and blow off steam.  But that's just not the case for a stage manager because you could get an email at any point and who knows how urgent it could be.  It's lovely to say: "I only answer emails, texts, or calls, between x and y times."  It is important to set boundaries.  But if it truly is something urgent, if a lead actor has whooping cough or broke a leg, etc, that is something that needs to be dealt with right then and there and putting it off is stupid and sometimes dangerous.

On my last show, we were in tech and running a transition at speed for the first time.  An actor went to exit and stopped in the wing as a curtain was coming in above his head.  The sandbag was about, maybe, a foot from his head when I calmly pulled him out of the way of it.  It could have killed him.  And even now, my response to it was slightly unbelievable, just because the complete level of calm that I felt during the whole incident.  I would have been responsible if I hadn't acted when I did.  The person flying the curtain would have been responsible, but I could have prevented it.  If I hadn't seen it and acted then there would have been a tragedy.  That actor's life was in my hands, and I was only an assistant stage manager.  That's the kind of stress and the kind of situations that I deal with on a daily basis (once a show is open).

And I can do it.  That's the thing.  I can handle that stress.  I love pressure.  But I can only thrive under it for so long before I start to crack.  And I've started.  I caught that mistake and I caught other ones like it during my last show.  But I missed things that I shouldn't have because I was so tired and so god damn burnt out.  So I'm taking a break.  I'm taking a break so that I don't miss something that could get someone hurt or killed and I'm responsible.  It's a boundary I've never encountered before, but it's one that I'm glad I found.

So my plan?  I'm taking a break from stage management.  Not from theatre, which I thought for a long time was what I needed, but from stage management.  I'm currently crewing a show at the theatre where I normally work and I'm having so much fun.  This show is quirky and weird and just a 90 minute sprint straight through, but it's intricate and involves all sorts of skill sets I haven't used in years.  And I love it.  The reason why?  I'm not in charge.  I'm allowed to make mistakes, because I don't have to be perfect (not to say that I don't expect that of myself still, but with the external pressure off it's better).  And the thing is, I look brilliant because I'm not expected to perform to the level I am.  The praise I get from that certainly doesn't hurt.

I want to go back to stage management, and I'm not sure how long I'll be on this hiatus, but going away was important so that I can eventually return to it.

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