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Burning Passion, Meet Burn Out

Published on 1st November 2007 (written for the TYA/USA Next Blog’s first iteration)

Just sitting down to write this makes me so, so tired. That’s how you know you’ve reached the “burnout” level, when doing just a little something extra for the field you love feels like drudgery—that’s burnout. Or is it? In all honesty, I’m not sure how I would really define burnout (but I will try to stop using the word in every sentence). I mean, if one is burned-out (oops) does that mean their spark is completely extinguished and it’s time for them to move on, or is the flame merely waning, waiting to be rekindled? I think each of those scenarios would compel very different answers. So, I’ll deal with the latter, not the resounding death knell, but more a slackening of verve, if you will. And you will feel that slackening; trust me, we all do. 

I’m sure that in any profession there can be, and is, burnout, but when your occupation is also your vocation, getting to that point can be morally disheartening, to say the least. I remember studying theatre in college and having those oh-so-very important debates with my non-theatre friends on the intrinsic value of art to society. I was going to be doing meaningful stuff with my life. Real life-changing, soul-touching Art. And I remember feeling so proud of myself for getting actual paid work in theatre right out of college. No day jobs for me, brotha. Well, the jobs with which I started my professional sojourn into theatre were really “day jobs,” and the closest I got to the art was bringing flowers from fans to actors backstage. The nature of theatre, if you work in it full-time, means that eventually the Art starts to feel like any other Work. I mean, as the years fly by, the shows may change but the projects, tasks, goals, and pay remain the same. And the lives altered, souls touched? Hmmm…it does start to look a little bleak after awhile. Soon, you find that instead of having enthusiasm for a new task, you view it as a burden and interruption to the routine flow of work you can now do in your sleep. When did that get to be a good thing, being able to walk through your career on autopilot? The thing is, once you’re fried, it’s hard to step out of the funkified ether into which you’ve slumped and remember that that isn’t how you wanted your life to be, and there is more to this art than work—honest.

So, how do we keep that oh-so-fresh feeling when it seems that every breath is merely recycled air from weeks and months and years of the same ol’ same ol’? For me, the first and most important thing I do to ward off the work woes is being diligent about recognizing when it starts to set in. The lower you sink, the harder the climb back out. When I start plugging in rote answers and clichés to projects that could, and should, offer me the opportunity to stretch my creative muscles, that’s when I tell myself to snap out of it. And in those precious few moments each year when my cup doesn’t runneth over with stuff that needs to get done right now, I try to come up with some project that really excites me and reminds me why I’m here. Find something to fire your engines and then take it to your boss and see if they’ll let you do it.

That can be the tricky part. The bosses. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my organization; they’ve allowed me to change and grow my job to better suit my interests and talents. Any smart and worthy employer will recognize the benefits to having an interested, passionate staff and that part of professional development, which leads to employee retention, is keeping said staff invigorated and mission-driven. And if you aren’t a self-starter, or you just know your boss doesn’t take kindly to you coming up with ideas, ask them for help. They aren’t really the enemy, not really. Just maybe your search for inspiration can help rekindle their spark as well. Let them know that you need a new challenge in your professional life. For instance, if you have a ken for writing but there isn’t much call for it in your job, see if you can submit a “behind-the-scenes” article to your company’s newsletter or blog. Patrons love to hear about all the different aspects of making theatre happen, and this can give you and your organization a fresh look. The key is to try to incorporate, your passions into your day-to-day job. We all wear so many hats and the work has so much cross-over that it may be easier than you think. It will just take a little energy. I know, I know, that’s the first hurdle and it’s a doozy, I grant you that.

If all else fails, go watch one of your shows or workshops. Watch and listen to the audience respond, whether positive or negative. There they are, the potential lives altered and souls touched. And it does matter. Remember that.