Student Blog: Burnout - The Artist's Plague

Demystifying and remedying an age-old phenomenon from a theatre-maker's perspective.

By: Jan. 02, 2024
Student Blog: Burnout - The Artist's Plague
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Burnout. No matter what educational or professional space you exist in, it is probably a familiar phrase. But what is it? Burnout, in all its contexts, is the state of being in need of a break from whatever it is you are doing. A fire can only burn for so long before it naturally burns out: such is the natural cycle of a fire. Issues only arise when one still expects the remaining glowing embers to keep the room warm. What does this mean? If you have been working, and working, and working, and working, at some point, your fire is going to burn out. Your spark, drive, motivation, and desire are going to burn out. That is completely normal, so you take a break, replace the logs, and set the fire again when you’re done. What is not normal is wondering why a few embers are not giving you the same results as a full blaze. No fire is going to burn forever without breaks. Burnout, amplified by a culture of desperation and a constant need to prove oneself, runs deep in the world of theatre.

Burnout can have all sorts of causes. The most obvious one, of course, is working too long without a break. Doing show after show for months on end is not going to be healthy for anyone, and your performance will suffer as a result. Working too hard for too long can also lead to burnout. Some performances are not as demanding as others, so one may have a longer period of sustainability with them. For example, a track such as King George III in Hamilton is not going to take nearly as much of a toll as a track such as Evan in 13. Not every source of burnout is directly correlated with the world of theatre. External events, such as family struggles, mental health issues, or financial disturbances can make a performer much more susceptible to burnout. Emotional issues can also stem from playing a particularly mentally draining role, such as Mimi in RENT or Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. An extended period attached to one of those sorts of roles can be vastly damaging.

The effects of burnout on one’s physical and mental well-being are infinite. Burnout can lead to borderline depressive side effects, including a lack of motivation to do anything, both theatrically and in the rest of your life. In recent months, I have finally come to terms with just how burnt out I have been. I found myself feeling as though I was just going through the motions at every rehearsal and performance, not even realizing just how little I was feeling. Performing used to fill me with an adrenaline rush, but I was at a point where I was so nonchalant that I did not even experience stage fright to any degree (I could write a whole other article on how stage fright is a good thing, but that is beside the point). Thus, with the support of those around me, I made the decision to “retire,” so to speak, from the world of community theatre. Despite the fact that I literally walked away from the artistic spaces that raised me, I have never felt more fulfilled. I have had the space to develop as a human being, which, unfortunately, my unending artistic pursuits were denying me. Life has been presenting itself with newfound challenges, such as harder classes and more responsibilities, and I just do not possess the ability to work at the pace that I had been for several years.

The culture of theatre is an exceptionally nuanced one. We celebrate each other’s differences, teach empathy, support those around us, and promote safety in all contexts. With those ideas in mind, it could be shocking for an outsider to observe the more negative aspects of the theatrical culture, especially where burnout is concerned. We promote being “on the grind,” working relentlessly without stopping. We label those who take breaks as lazy and develop a superiority complex toward them, disguising “ignoring my burnout” as “dedication.” If I could share one sentiment with any young theatre maker or professional in any capacity, I would say this: take your rest just as seriously as your work. If you are working at 100%, you need to be resting as close to 100% as you can. 

Rest is truly the only remedy for burnout. Your work will suffer, whether or not you think so, if you are not resting. Gen Z has developed a mass idea that getting minimal sleep, overly caffeinating to compensate, not eating appropriately, and showing up to rehearsal that day is something to brag about. That could not possibly be further from the truth. Your physical, mental, and social health is never more important than your art. Your rest needs to match your work. I am not saying that your rest should match your work, I am saying that it needs to match your work. Some situations prompt different rest requirements than others. For example, an actor playing a Newsie in Newsies may require monthly massages, yoga, or physical therapy to equalize the physical toll that the role is taking on their body. Although I believe that everyone, especially actors, can benefit from therapy, mental health care is even more important for those who find themselves cast in mentally draining roles. Certain stories and the people who live them can have damaging effects on the actors who are telling them. Cynthia Erivo, who played the role of Celie in The Color Purple, told TIME: “With [The Color Purple], essentially it’s two and a half hours of being thrown across the stage and being called ugly, and for me, that was eight shows a week for 14 months. Because of the way I like to dig into characters, the line becomes really blurry between what’s real and what’s not.” Experiences such as Erivo’s are not uncommon, but a growing focus on mental health both in theatrical and broader realms will hopefully continue to aid situations such as these. Once again, one’s amount of rest (physical, mental, and social) needs to equal, if not surpass, their amount of work. 

Overcoming a period of burnout is a celebration. Finally being able to welcome back in the full entirety of one’s capabilities as a performer is an experience beyond joyous. Despite performing in various smaller capacities over the last few months, the last time I appeared in a full-scale production was playing Damian in Mean Girls in September of 2023. In the coming months, I am looking forward to performing at the Eastern Arizona Festival of Theatre on January 20th, where I will be competing in four different events. I will be representing International Thespian Troupe 8337 with a Solo Musical event (“Time” from Tuck Everlasting), a Duo Musical event (“Best Kept Secret” from Bare with Austin Duran), a Group Musical event (“38 Planes (Reprise)/Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere” from Come From Away with the full Company Performance Theatre class), and a Duo Scene event (from Rabbit Hole with Ray Hare). I have also been cast as Vlad in my school’s production of Anastasia, which performs from April 4th-6th. I am ecstatic to commence that rehearsal process and return to the magical world of Anastasia for the second time. I never would have imagined taking a 7-month break from performing in a full production, but could not be more glad that I made the choice I did.