ESSAY: What I Did For Love, And How I Plan To Do Less

A strange ritual would often take place in the halls of my university’s theatre center. College students would convene before classes or rehearsals to present the hours of sleep they had claimed the night before. The student who shared the lowest number would wear this insomnia as a badge of honor. Bonus points were awarded if the time spent awake was done at the library, or in the theatre after hours. I perceived this bizarre ritual as a product of the college experience. Little did I know, the professional theatre would not be that different.

Grind/hustle culture exists in every industry and is designed to incentivize overwork. The archaic 40-hour work week is pushed aside as the bare minimum and anything short of 110% is not enough. This workplace environment leverages guilt to maximize productivity. For an industry that thrives off freelance and contracted work, however, the hustle is more than just a point of pride. It is a necessity. The theatre has an age old habit of underpaying (if at all). Artists are forced to take on overlapping projects and survival jobs just to make ends meet.

Artists everywhere are performing a dazzling juggling act; the jobs that pay the bills, the jobs that feed the soul, the favor for a friend, the volunteer position, the community activism, the family life. We marvel at each other, slightly jealous that others have more balls to juggle, all the while struggling with what we have in our own hands. If you can grind the hardest just out of a “love for the work,” then bully for you! You’ve reached the gold standard of the romanticized starving artist.

This trope has haunted me from the beginning. During a Q&A with industry professionals, I was told: “This is primarily a non-profit industry, so don’t expect to make a lot of money.” During a mentorship program, I was told: “Don’t expect to make any money without going to grad school.” Well, grad school wasn’t for me but I did want to work in this industry so… what did I expect? Can I take the artist and leave the starvation? Of course not! The struggle is how I proved my love. My worthiness. My dedication to the artform. “Kiss today goodbye” and all that.

Then, everything stopped. Thanks to COVID, careers were halted mid-hustle. The guilt of not creating seeped in, and it didn’t take long for artists to flood the digital space. Zoom readings, streaming content, and online conferences kept the work going. Art was still being created. This love labor, while coming from an honest impulse, seemed to push against a moment begging us to slow down.

The Nap Ministry has been preaching on the power of rest for years, yet founder Tricia Hersey has dubbed 2020 “The Year of Grief. The Year of Rest.”  There is so much that I forgot to grieve. I pushed through, took on projects, hustled to stay afloat. The second I stopped, it washed over me. Next came radicalizing rest. Hersey reminds us that “rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy.” Stepping away from the grind invites a space to look, analyze, criticize, live, and dream.

This concept is echoed in the We See You W.A.T. demands. Specifically, those calling for a reclamation of time. One such demand is to “Eliminate 10 out of 12s and eliminate the 6-day rehearsal week. These are long-standing practices that are seeped in capitalist and white supremacist culture.” Suddenly, that love affair with “the work” feels a lot more like an abusive relationship.

Hustle culture is not just pushing the individual, but the industry into dangerous territory. Judy and Liza at Greenhouse Theatre Center is the first Chicago theatre to produce in-person performances since the city went into lockdown. While the remounted production meets the Illinois Health Department’s Phase Four Guidelines, The Greenhouse Theatre Center falls short of the safety requirements outlined by Actors’ Equity. Owner William Spatz argues that the union’s requirements are “absolutely prohibitive.” Perhaps such productions should be prohibited. The pressure to produce, which is overtly profit-driven, places artists, audiences, and the surrounding community in harm’s way. The production closed after 3 performances in response to wide public criticism and low audience turnout.

Greenhouse Theater Center’s general manager, Derek Rienzi Van Tassel, resigned over the controversial opening after initially supporting the decision to produce. In an email to Spatz, Van Tassel writes: “I admit it. I was excited to get back to work. I love theater and I love the Greenhouse. I was blinded by my own selfish desire to create, but after a lot of thinking decided otherwise and have tried to make you rethink the decision.”

Rest from the producing cycle offers distance, clarity, and a space for evaluation. Van Tassel admits that his love for the work encouraged the impulse to move forward. After time away, he reconsidered. This is a real time example of how a love practice wrapped up in grind culture can lead to damaging circumstances. When we rest, we can break the two apart. Honor the “desire to create” that Van Tassel identifies, but take time to complete a thorough risk analysis.

We are about to get back into it. Theatres across the country are announcing their next seasons and live productions are, regrettably, underway. If this break from programming is intermission, then they are flickering the house lights. How do we make sure that going back to work is not the same as going back to a damaging status quo? Call for systems of rest and reject the starving artist. We do this work because we love it. That much is true. So let’s protect that love. Make it so we don’t have to trade so much of ourselves away in pursuit of passion.

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