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In Defense of Burnout

October 15, 2019

   

 

   We've all heard it before--the dreaded 'burn out', the state of being in which a performer suddenly simply cannot even...

   Okay, so while THAT was a joke, burn out and those currently suffering from it are most certainly NOT. 

   At some point in every performer's career, they will experience a sudden bout of exhaustion, tension, malaise and general blah feelings. The normally expedient singer will suddenly become unreliable, and even the most industrious of us will suddenly feel the pressing need for a serious siesta or three. 

 

Nobody says, “I really want to become a professional singer for the attention.”

Nobody says, “I really want to become a professional singer for the money.”

 

   With all the craziness associated with a performing lifestyle, it’s a wonder anyone wishes to devote their life to this. Everyone seems to have a different reasoning for becoming a performer. For me personally, it’s about devotion and a calling.

 

   I know, I know, I can feel the eye rolls coming through the computer screen even as I publish this article. Please understand what I say when I refer to a ‘calling’--I’m not inferring that I had a moment in which the clouds parted and a voice that resembles James Earl Jones offered any deep insight into what I should do with my life. I am not a naturally religious person. Despite my parents’ best efforts, my Catholic/Jewish upbringing did not leave a lasting impression on me other than a deep-seated guilt complex and a deep love of food. I would describe myself as being ‘spiritual’, but that word makes me squirm. I always envision ‘spiritual’ people as being these petite women with whispy forms, who eat vegan to save the animals and who effortlessly fit hours of yoga into their daily lives while also writing life-afirming books with titles such as ‘Know Thyself’ or “101 Ways to Clarify Your Aura”. I like to think logically about it: my farm girl background has convinced me animals are for eating (and delicious), I have a very serious cheese addiction, and I always manage to fart rather loudly in the middle of very serene yoga classes; therefore, I am not a spiritual person. 

 

     When I refer to my Calling (which I’m now going to capitalize, because I honestly feel like it’s me being respectful), I’m talking about a deep and throbbing NEED. I NEED to be onstage, I NEED to be performing music for people. I have a fire to get up in front of crowds and to make people laugh. My girlfriend described it perfectly, “It’s like I’m a puzzle with a piece missing--the moment that stage light hits me, it clicks into place, and I’m finally WHOLE.”  It’s about bringing beauty into the world--my own personal form of public service, ensuring that some sort of gentle, shared experience is brought into this world. I’m talking about walking around, feeling like an outsider amidst your friends and family, and never truly feeling at home outside of a cast or crew. I’m talking about spending every single waking moment reading about new programs, investigating grants you could apply for, looking up new teachers while streaming shows into your ears while also researching agents in the area. I’m talking about going to your muggle job  everyday and dying a little inside, because you’re not creating something and you cannot wait to get home and get your hands on a script or a piano or a paintbrush or a lump of clay and just MAKE SOMETHING. I’m talking about feeling as if an entire day that has been filled with work has been a waste, because despite all you did, The Work wasn’t done. 

 

   So yes--to me, it is a form of public service, The Work that I do. It’s the only framework that our culture has provided creators and artists to use in order to argue the validity of their Calling--a ‘public service’ that we offer to others in hopes of making the world a better, more beautiful place. This is how I explain my life decisions that have landed me into a career with no job security, no benefits, no sick days, no vacation (who can AFFORD vacation?!?!), no weekends, no pension and no retirement plan---that I simply could not imagine doing anything else because The Work has Called me. I was made for it. I was MADE for it. And the people who are MADE for The Work are the ones who burn for it, who are brought to life by it and who’s joy acts as a beacon for others. Elizabeth Gilbert claims in her podcast ‘Big Magic’ that ‘the only effective fighters against suffering a the ones who are illuminated and ignited by their work’. 

 

     Whelp...I took this message seriously. After the 2016 election, there was a LOT of darkness lying around, so I decided that 2017 was my self-declared ‘artistic service year’. I decided  that starting January 1st, I would devote all of my creative energies into making art that I felt was ‘important’. I wanted to do works about social justice, to highlight the underprivileged and assist those who needed help most. I felt it was necessary and important for me to do ‘serious’ art that discussed ‘serious’ subject matter in order to combat the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that I was experiencing. 

 

   In some ways, this coping mechanism really worked for me. Professionally, I had an incredible year--by throwing myself at any an all projects that I felt were ‘serious’, I ended up creating more art than 2015 and 2016 combined--36 productions in total, in which I either directed, choreographed, sang or acted. Professionally, I was on fire. Colleagues liked me and respected me, casting directors started to recognize me, and I felt like I was starting to break into the scene on a different level. Personally, I was a wreck. My physical and mental health suffered, my relationships started to crack from misusage and my finances took a dramatic nosedive. I was creating some amazing content, but I was neither happy nor completely satisfied. But perhaps the worst result from my ‘art blitzkrieg’ was the utter and complete sense of exhaustion that seemed to permeate through every memory of the past 12 months. I devoted an entire year of my life to doing exactly what I wanted --and I couldn’t remember a single moment I enjoyed myself. I was too busy running to keep up. 

 

       The result?

 

  I didn’t willing step into a practice room since until well into 2018.

 

      Oh, don’t get me wrong--I practiced quite a bit since January 1st. My gigs and upcoming concerts have required that I spent some quality time with the assigned music. But to WILLINGLY go into the room itself, with the goal of learning and exploring and experimenting with new material and techniques? Not bloody likely. 

 

    Which is sort of counterproductive, really--how could I possibly hope to become a self-aware and empowered singer if I never spent the time becoming aware of my instrument and how it works? If you are exhausted, you probably shouldn’t assume it’s just a flu--you also might need to take a double take at yourself and your current health status, both physically and mentally. Too many people underestimate the burden of the ‘mental load’, the mental juggling and extreme bouts of focus that being a performer requires (in rehearsals, in the practice room, in coachings, in tech…). If you’re tired, you’re unable to focus. If you’re unable to focus, you’re not going to accomplish the quality of work you’re aiming for, which makes the entire exercise worthless. You’ve pushed yourself as far along in the creative process as you are physically capable of, and you’re temporarily tapped out for the moment. That’s okay--this is all the reasoning you need to give yourself as to why you should Netflix and chill instead of banging through an aria. I’ll take it one step further. If your body and mind are breaking down, you are clearly not where you are supposed to be or doing what you are supposed to be doing. You are not helping anyone, including yourself and your career. 

    

    Basically this entire piece is to say that every now and again, we performers need to stop and take a good, hard look at where we are. Sometimes we run so hard and so far so fast, we forget to look up and take stock of ourselves rather than just our 'inventory'. It’s okay to be selfish and take some time for yourself, despite looming deadlines, current events or pending auditions. It’s okay to do some frivolous, silly song cycle about cats rather than that edgy social justice piece, if that’s what your soul currently wants to sing.

   

     You cannot create believable drama without a sense of humor, and vice versa. If you spend your life feeling as if the only thing that’s valid artistically is to ‘praise the darkness’, then you run the very real risk of becoming the very thing you’re praising. By obsessing over the pain and suffering of this world, you become yet another suffering person...and the world definitely does not need any more suffering people. SING ON!

 

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