School of Theatre & Dance faculty and alumni discuss the ramifications COVID-19 has had on performance culture.
We've heard the adage; the show must go on. The phrase sounds assuring, but the culture it has created is anything but – leaving performers anxious and burnt out, it might be time for entertainment to find a new mantra.
Rachel Hirshorn-Johnston is an associate professor of voice and speech in the School of Theatre & Dance, housed within the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts at Texas Tech University. She is a certified associate teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework® and a faculty leader in prioritizing mental health for students.
“A culture can be broken and still be celebrated,” Hirshorn-Johnston said. “We see it all the time throughout history. It's the same thing with performance culture. We've created a space where people feel they must ‘struggle for their art,' but life is enough of a struggle. We don't need to make it harder.”
Before COVID-19, performers were expected to be superheroes who could push through any injury or fit into any role. According to Hirshorn-Johnston, it was normal, and even applauded, for dancers to dance on broken feet, singers to perform while sick or actors to starve themselves for parts.
Then the pandemic hit. The sudden lack of work left performers with time to focus on things, such as their wellbeing, that were not easily prioritized before.
A leading lady
School of Theatre & Dance graduate student, now alumna, Emily Swenskie was one such performer.
“I pushed through too much pain prior to the pandemic,” Swenskie said. “There is something to be said about hard work, but that's not what this was. I have a permanent back injury and four bulging discs from a past car accident. For years, I just ignored that pain and pushed myself through rehearsals.”
One time, Swenskie suffered a concussion during a rehearsal and returned the next day despite doctors warning her against it.
“I was afraid I'd lose my part if I wasn't there,” Swenskie said.
However, rehearsing through a concussion wasn't the most dangerous thing she did for a role.
“I used to be very heavy,” Swenskie said. “During my undergrad years, I was told I had to lose weight if I wanted to do theatre, especially if I ever wanted to be a leading lady. So, I lost 100 pounds very quickly. The way I did it wasn't healthy; I was dizzy and sick all the time.”
The problem was, the skinnier she got, the more praise Swenskie received.
“The director should have recognized that what I was doing wasn't healthy, but the more they gave me positive affirmation, the more it reinforced my habits.”
After years of pushing through mental and physical illnesses, it all came to a head when the pandemic hit.
“I came to a point where I was severely anxious and depressed,” Swenskie said. “I didn't enjoy performing anymore. I felt lonely, isolated and exhausted.
“COVID-19 was an eye-opener for me. I started thinking of the long-term consequences the virus could have on my lungs, but then, I realized I'd been pushing my body in other, sometimes worse, ways that also had long-term consequences. Too many performers are making costly, long-term sacrifices for short-term opportunities, and it's just not worth it. There will always be another show, but you only have one body.”
Hirshorn-Johnston has seen this shift too.
“Before the pandemic, it was normal to hear performers boast about how little sleep they were getting,” she said. “It was as if not taking care of yourself earned you extra respect in our industry.”
This trend is further reinforced when famous actors demonstrate dangerous behaviors.
Hirshorn-Johnston gives the example of Christian Bale adopting a saltine cracker-only diet for his role in “The Machinist” and other films.
“Students see things like that and think ‘That's what I need to do to have a successful career,'” Hirshorn-Johnston said. “But we're not machines, we're human beings. We need to stop taking pride in pushing through pain and exhaustion, and instead, take pride in being honest about our needs.”
And it's not just actors. The problem affects performers of all kinds.
The famous American ballerina, Misty Copeland, almost ruined her career after pushing herself through a performance on multiple broken bones. After receiving the lead in Stravinsky's “Firebird,” Copeland suffered an injury and did not disclose it, for fear of losing the role.
The pandemic though is beginning to change this destructive culture.
“We can show the world that real ‘superheroes' get eight hours of sleep and have the courage to say no,” Hirshorn-Johnston said.
Going the distance
Although vaccinated, Swenskie is currently recovering from COVID-19 and is changing many of her practices to prioritize long-term health and stamina.
“I'm realizing I have to take better care of myself,” Swenskie said. “If we want long-term careers, we have to see the pandemic as the wake-up call it is.”
The wake-up call is not just for performers, though. Hirshorn-Johnston says that to prioritize mental health and wellness, the change must come from the top.
“It's the people in positions of authority that will ultimately determine whether these positive changes stick around,” Hirshorn-Johnston said. “Producers and directors need to be in this for something other than profit. Get to know your cast's challenges and support them in finding balance with the rest of their lives when possible.”
For the performers themselves, Hirshorn-Johnston works with students to empower them to ask for what they need. Amongst getting more sleep and eating nourishing foods, she encourages students to find time to celebrate the work of others to lessen the stress of competition and to say no more often.
“Honestly, it's about assessing your needs as a professional storyteller and having the courage to demand that support from your producers. There may be questions down the line of what's reasonable to ask, but start the conversation. Let them know you value your well-being more than your job and that, ideally, the two should work in tandem to create beautiful storytelling that is inclusive, sustainable and sets new, progressive standards for those watching.”