Production Burnout

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Article by Michael Hoyle

This is a rather appropriate article for this time of year, with many professionals feeling the production week ‘burnout’ and trying to catch up on the lost sleep and depleted energy levels. This comes from my personal experiences but I’m sure many others can relate to them.


“Be the ‘Yes-person’ that people want to create work with. But please keep one eye on your wellbeing”


I am at an interesting stage in my career. I have a young family and obligations to uphold at home, I am a career professional with experience, but I learn so much with each new project, I’ve just started mentoring others and really feel I have information to offer and I’m very keen and ambitious; something I don’t intend on changing anytime soon.

 

However, I find myself coming out of an all-consuming production week both mentally and physically drained.

It is not a new thing for a production week to be all-consuming. In my previous employment, the team worked two shows for ‘A Christmas Carol’ and went straight into the get out and then a 48 hour fit up for pantomime… I mean ‘straight’, we worked 36 hours solidly and probably broke a lot of working regulations… something I said I’d never do again.

Theatre is very interesting work. I can’t imagine many other lines of work pulling such a long shift, except maybe healthcare, but they are LITERALLY saving lives! So why do it in the theatre industry?

I think my early career colleagues (such as my close friend, Steve Chambers) and I were both gifted and cursed at the same time. We were very much driven to burnout on many occasions, but incredibly, success under such circumstances is surprisingly addictive. The knowledge that you completely ‘pulled it out the bag’ against all the odds, to deliver an entertaining production for hundreds of people, all contemplated whilst you and the team drink an ice cold beer in the bar post-show on press night – there’s nothing quite like it.

Even now, this gift and curse haunts me. We were not bred to moan about hours or to take the full hour lunch break. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, it’s an employee’s entitlement, but that just isn’t us. We’re trained to keep one eye on the deadline and one on the task at hand. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve misjudged projects in the past, but I’ve learnt from them.

The other part of the gift and curse is to identify what it is that gives technicians a bad rep. And yes, you have no doubt got it. It’s the stereotypical technician that huffs and puffs and is very much ‘work-shy’. I’ve met technicians in the past that have said that a certain light can’t be refocused because it’s ‘tricky’.

“Sorry, say that again… it’s tricky?”

The truth is; it’ll take a little more effort and time.

To acknowledge this as an unfortunate stereotype is important, to avoid becoming it and to redefine this image is a must.

This acknowledgement may offend some, but surely only if you carry some of the attributes. I’m well travelled and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve heard the excuses and I’ve rolled my eyes. No matter what the excuse, if you’ve lost your passion for the industry, please move on and make way for the interested individuals that would leap at the chance and deliver the innovative results the audience deserve, after all, we do this for them and their experience.

So, I identified this many years ago and have worked tirelessly to avoid it. My answer: say YES. I’m very much a yes-man, 100%. Is this the correct answer? No… well, not always. Let me elaborate.

A Director approaches you and wants to create a specific effect on stage. It’s difficult and not something you’ve done or seen before. You can either:

A. Say “no, unfortunately, this cannot be done in this circumstance”.

B. Say “Great idea, I will do some research and see what I can do. I’ve never seen this done before but leave it with me and I’ll try my best”.

Both answers are acceptable, but if a Director keeps hearing “No”, they will soon choose to use someone else. I’m all for personal development, if you choose B, not only have you potentially pleased the Director, you’ve learnt something new and practised the process of ‘research and development’. I can almost guarantee that the information you discover will come in useful in the future. And finally, if you make it work as planned, excellent, you are officially ‘Someone that makes things happen’. If you don’t, then at least you’ve tried and demonstrated a can-do attitude.

My abilities and knowledge as a designer have grown exponentially through having an attitude to explore new things and to research. If you told me 5 years ago that I would be able to make some of the things I do now, I wouldn’t have believed you. It really is amazing what can be self-taught through a little R&D. If I can sustain it, I look forward to seeing my portfolio in 10 years time. This really isn’t me being arrogant, if I can do it, so can you!

For the record, R&D isn’t difficult. The World is so open access now, all you need to do is Google your topic and you’ll see pictures, tutorials, videos and more. Why try 10 different materials when the professionals are clearly using one or two specific ones. But it’s worth noting: I used spray concrete to coat a polystyrene set because the professionals did this on YouTube, but I should have tested it! I spent the next two weeks touching up the set to amend my mistake. I’m learning, and through mistakes, you learn the most!

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There is a flip side to the proverbial coin, and it’s an important one to consider: the production burnout. I’ve learnt this the hard way on two occasions. The first was at the end of my previously discussed 36-hour shift, which ended in me having a quick shower to freshen up at work and slipping out of the shower in a very dramatic fashion. I was close to being knocked out on the sink and waking up stark naked on the floor with the cast of pantomime gathered round (probably not for the first time – but that’s a story for a different blog).

I learnt that I have nothing to prove in working a ridiculously long shift and that it soon becomes counterproductive and potentially dangerous.

The second was much more mentally challenging than physically. I’m a strong person and cope well with stress, in fact, I thrive on working to a deadline, but as hard as it is to admit; I can only manage so much.

On this occasion, my team and I worked on one show, which was a particularly big beast to overcome, and then I had to cover an absence and jump directly onto another one, albeit much smaller. This successive schedule defeated me. And was the first time I haven’t had the set finished on time.

I discovered something; my limit. It’s not all bad because I know how far I can go before I reach it and that I need to think about logistics and outsourcing more.

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The moral of the story: Say Yes. Be innovative and progressive. Be the ‘Yes-person’ that people want to create work with. But please keep one eye on your wellbeing! You won’t have 10 years of a portfolio to look back on if you burn out.

My advice, and advice I need to listen to myself: think hard about your priorities and keep them in order. Don’t ever compromise that order. Family and health need to be at the top, it’s sad to say but once they’re gone, they’re gone. Work your hardest on the project but keep it in perspective. Say yes and explore new ideas. If you say yes enough, the times you really need to say no are very acceptable. Don’t take on too much, you’re only human. Do one job to the best of your ability rather than several projects poorly. And, possibly the most important information I can give: nurture a strong support network, this includes colleagues, friends and family. Show them the appreciation they deserve; you can’t do this without them. I have an amazing wife who puts up with a lot at various points in the year and I have a team of professionals that work harder than anyone I know, I really couldn’t do any of it without them. A special mention goes to my Stage Manager, Martin Rousseau, for the work he does. He’s much more of a perfectionist than I am. That’s not to say that the rest of the team don’t deserve a mention, they do, I’m fortunate to work with a whole team of very skilled individuals that deliver great results for both ‘Lincoln Performing Arts Centre’ and ‘Lincoln School of Fine and Performing Arts’.

My final piece of advice; enjoy the little moments. The beer with the team after opening the show, the audience’s reaction to your work and most importantly; the days at home with the family. Life is a balancing act.

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Merry Christmas Everyone!

 


If you enjoyed this, you may also like:

A Foot in the (stage) Door: The start of a stage crew’s career


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