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Giving Everything We’ve Got or I Guess We’ll Sleep in Our Office

This week turned into many things it was never supposed to be. Primarily, insanely fucking busy.

It wasn’t slated to be a bad week. A corporate at the beginning of the week, a men’s choir’s Christmas concert midweek, round out the weekend with a couple rock concerts. Two days off spaced through the week, so there would still be time for laundry and dishes. Rather manageable, really.

But then, last minute, a government event got smashed in between the rehearsal for the men’s choir and their performance. Before, we were setting up the choir, rehearsing it, having a day off, and coming back to run the show before tearing it down. Now, it was set up for the government event, walk-through of governor’s handlers, strike that, set up the choir, rehearse the choir, strike that, re-set the governor, another walk-through by governor handlers, run the governor’s event, strike that, re-set the choir, run that show, and finally strike the whole damn thing and do a rock concert the next day. All this in about 60 hours. 60 long-ass hours. We alternated between endless stretches of waiting for the right people to show up and short bursts of frantic scrambling to get the next thing set up before the next people showed up. It was exhausting, physically and emotionally.

The roughest patch was without a doubt yesterday into today. Back on Tuesday, as we looked over the schedule for the next two days, we knew it would be messy. In at 9am to prep the governor’s event, followed by walk-through’s by various levels of the governor’s staff. He might be in to rehearse in the afternoon, he might not. (He didn’t.) Strike that event, have the choir set up by 6pm for rehearsal. Strike that at 10pm, re-set the governor’s setup. And if the governor didn’t rehearse in the afternoon, he might be by around 10:30pm to rehearse. (He wasn’t.) That could last until who knows how long, but a solid guestiment was at least midnight. (Shockingly, we were done by 10:30pm.) And back again at 6am for the governor’s event.

We didn’t know for sure what the turnaround time was going to be beforehand, but assuming that one needs at least 4 hours of sleep to be functioning at a minimal level, we needed at least 7 hours of turnaround time. (4 hours of sleep + 1 hour of commute time each way + 1 hour to shower, eat breakfast, etc. = 7 hours turnaround.) Anything less than that would hardly be worth the time and gas to drive home. And with a snowstorm predicted to drop 4-6 inches on us starting around midnight, we knew we’d likely need even more time.

Which is why when we left the house yesterday morning, we had a small suitcase, four pillows, and two quilts packed in the backseat. If last night’s call ended at least 7 hours before this morning’s call began, we would drive home. Less than that, and we would sleep in the theatre.

Which is what we ended up doing. Even though we had 7 hours turnaround time, the snow made us nervous, and being late to work this morning was not an option; the government event hit the ground running at 6am, and it was implied that anyone who came late should probably start prepping their resume. Add to that the fact that Kyle wasn’t 100% confident that he could make the 40 minute commute in the snow without passing out from exhaustion, and crashing at work just made sense.

And honestly, it wasn’t that bad. We brought a hamper full of spare legs (long, skinny curtains that mask the wings) up to our office and fashioned ourselves a little sleeping pallet of sorts on the floor.  It wasn’t exactly our mattress at home, but it was of an equivalent comfort to a couch. Being in the building alone can be a bit unsettling; even if I’m working alone during the day I like to have music playing because the space being so massive and empty makes me jumpy. But in our little nest in our office it felt cozy. (Plus, this way we could still cuddle!) We woke up at 4:30am and showered in one of the chorus dressing room showers. Not something I’d like to do everyday, but certainly not impossible.

Despite the success of our overnight adventure, I can’t help but think about our willingness to crash out at work. As soon as we realized that this was a possibility, it was immediately accepted without a second thought. Sure, it wasn’t the ideal option; passing out in our office on a pile of soft goods and showering in a shower of gym-caliber never is. Not to mention the fact that by the time we leave work today we will likely have been inside the building without seeing daylight for 30 hours or so. But it was what it was and we’d do what we had to do. After all, my previous boss, who was commuting 2 hours each way, slept at work on a couple of occasions when the turnaround time was short. And there are countless stories among theatre vets of excessively long workdays and epic feats accomplished without much sleep or food. So while ideal, it wasn’t unheard of. Within our industry, that is.

Maybe I’m just uninformed. Maybe there are legions of poor, unsung martyrs, crashing out on couches in offices everywhere. (I hope not for your sake, because sleeping at work ain’t fun.) But I’ve never heard of it happening outside of the tech theatre industry. I’ve never known other fields where it wasn’t uncommon to keep an air mattress or a fold-up cot in one’s office. Where the promise of at least 6 hours of sleep wasn’t a given, and less, unacceptable.  Where you sometimes get to eat only if you remembered and managed to grab a quick bite. And yet, when it is required of us to give of ourselves beyond the level of heath and comfort, we don’t hesitate; we just do. There’s an old (and very over-used) saying that goes, “The show must go on,” and the reality is that it must, even if it means sacrificing our health and sanity.

And I don’t know what it says about us. Well, I know what it says about us: it says that we have chosen to work in a field that sometimes abuses us because we love what we do with such intensity and passion that our well-being becomes secondary to the needs of the show. We are in the business of making magic, making the impossible happen; sometimes magic requires extraordinary work that doesn’t allow for sleep or regular meals. What I don’t know is whether this is a thing to be proud of or not. Does it mean that we’re the lucky few who’ve found jobs that we love so passionately that we don’t mind sacrificing ourselves? Or does it mean that we work in an industry that willingly abuses us because they know that we love what we do so much that we’ll take the abuse in order to keep our jobs? Is this just part of the gig? And is this level of selflessness something that later in my life I, like so many other aging stagehands, will find myself unable to maintain?

What I do know is that this stint of insanity is going to make for a very nice paycheck. That it would be much harder to get through if my coworkers weren’t some of my favorite people on this planet. That it would be nearly impossible to get through if my husband weren’t right with me in the trenches. And that I am fucking grateful as shit to have a steady, if unpredictable, job in the field of my choice. Beyond that, I don’t have any answers, and at the moment I’m just too damn tired to think about the questions.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a show to put up.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Lauren December 8, 2011, 1:48 pm

    When Kirk and I worked on the movies in Michigan last summer, we never actually slept on set, but we did crash at friends’ apartments in downtown Detroit. (We had an hour commute west from Whitmore Lake.) The short turnaround times did make us consider, if we wanted to keep doing this for the long haul — that is, working like dogs 16+ hours a day just to be apart of the insane, intoxicating and enthralling industry that is the movies — that maybe we should buy a camper and park it right in between Demi Moore’s and Miley Cyrus’ trailers. They slept in hotels, anyway.

    As for the you, Stephanie, you put “job,” “love,” and “passionately” in the same sentence. No more questions. (Only when you’re 65 and your back starts cussing you out should you consider a profession less strenuous, like selling knitwear for cats on Etsy.)

    Dur, I never even thought about the film industry! I bet you guys have it just as crazy as we do. Also, I think you’re on to something with the cat knitwear. Maybe raincoats.

  • Tom Johnson December 9, 2011, 8:58 am

    Stephanie, starting at age 52, I toured with small to medium ice skating shows. I built the ice rinks on theatre stages. I drove the truck and supervised the local crews in loading in and striking the rinks. The strike requires removing approximately 38,000 pounds of ice. Most of the tours were in the Northeastern part of the US, in the winter months. At least once a week, I would have a night drive to the next venue after working 19 hours straight. Almost all nights that the ice was being layered, I would sleep at the theatre, in order to keep an eye on the overnight crew. Because my per diem was based on a one week activity, I would sleep in the sleeper of my truck when I wasn’t sleeping at the theatre. This madness would go on for four months without a break. Laundry was done at the theatre, meals were where ever you could find them,(many times the green room) and most of the driving was in the snow. One of the 6 seasons that I did this, I put 38,000 miles on my truck and built ice skating rinks in 27 theatres. The load outs were so difficult, that most of the tech crew would stand on the loading dock as I was leaving, and say in one voice “It was an incredible experience, but don’t come back.” Some would say, “why on earth do you do this?” and my answer is as so many have said before, “What, and leave show business”.

  • Kate December 9, 2011, 9:32 am

    I couldn’t imagine. I just run camera for a small-studio television show; the lighting guy shows up half-an-hour before I do, the technical director shows up two hours before I do, the talent is there four hours before I ever pull into the parking lot; and unless we have to break down (just a couple times a month), when the show’s over, I make sure all the equipment is off and I go home.
    While your kind of craziness is admirable, I don’t know if I could take it.

    Being in a house position, I’m lucky enough that we only have insanity like this once a month, maybe two months. But when you’re touring, situations like Tom’s up there are par for the course. I would be lying if I said it was an easy life, but it’s part of the gig.

  • Keely December 10, 2011, 2:19 pm

    Tech startups can be like that too, and the restaurant industry (not that you’d sleep there, but if you’re unlucky enough to land a “clopen” (close/open), you can be running on about 4 hours of sleep). And any kind of artistic endeavour will get you the same kind of abuse, but it doesn’t matter because you love it. I’ve slept in green rooms and studios. I don’t think I’d want to be in that position now, but I certainly don’t regret it.

    I have friends who still work in theatre in Vancouver, have kids, and make it work. They tend to scale back on accepting the crazy gigs, but it’s not a “normal” life by any means. They’re perfectly happy.

  • Steve B. December 14, 2011, 7:55 pm

    Hey Steph.

    Good blog, BTW, describes my week to the tee, 7 days, then one off, then 2, hummin Nutcracker right now. As a thought, lawyers work stupid hours like us, probably worse actually, especially the young ‘uns trying to make partner at a firm. Of course they are making like a gazillion dollars more per hour, so they are catching their zee’s while on line cashing the checks. And Tom’s reply about working the ice shows reminds me of the 5 years we did Nutcracker On Ice and I’m glad we don’t do THAT anymore !. Still we DO make magic and that’s special, even after 33 years at it. Say Hi to Kyle

    I’m glad to hear that it’s possible for the love of the industry to outlast the physical and emotional exhaustion that accompanies it!

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