You Haven’t Worked A Hard Day In Your Life
By Pieter Huyer
“You haven’t worked a hard day in your life”. A friend and strong supporter of the arts recently stated this to me, and the candor this individual had about my work ethic took me by surprise, mostly because I had assumed that this person knew the rigors of my profession (pit musician). While I smiled and laughed at the comment with the necessary grace and humility that was required of the situation, it did make me consider this persistent cultural idea that musicians and theatre artists do not “work”.
Not only is this notion a gross misjudgment of my previous employment history (60-hour workweeks as an electrician and construction supervisor), but it very much demeans the many unpaid hours I have invested into my musical craft, and it further renders no value towards the countless hours performing artists spend on devising a piece of musical theatre.
The obvious reason that this thought pattern pervades through the general public’s perception of the performing arts is simple: they do not know the amount of work involved in creating a theatrical endeavor.
There is a good reason for this; the whole purpose of theatre is to create story through illusion. Audiences only see the finished product, and it is quite often a very complete and seamless product that actively disguises the many hours of work spent in creating an entertaining show. Good theatre hides its own labour: the frantic 12 hours shifts in tech, the countless hours directed to creating costumes by hand, the many weeks of rehearsals, the plans and designs that may have taken months to determine. All these tasks are painstakingly hidden away so that the story of the show can be presented. We excel at disguising our own talents and faults for the betterment of the show, and this sleight of hand can allow an unknowing audience member to assume that we have not labored in the process.
Additionally, a point of contention against freelance performance artists is the unconventional work hours we keep. We rarely grind away at a desk for extended periods of time, and it is not common for entertainers to be up in the early parts of the morning to begin a day’s labour. To even further complicate this issue, our typical work shifts are often sporadic and in reduced quantities. A theatrical show is on average a three-hour endeavor. I liken our workday to a short-track sprint, where we pack increased intensity and heartfelt energy into a short span of time. Most of the culture celebrates work that is akin to a marathon; the slow and steady march towards unending work quotas. Busyness is often considered the mark of a successful individual in our current economic system, and for those of us who work creatively, everything about our work hours and labour ethic flows directly against the grain of any hive-mind mentality. In actuality, after an emotionally draining theatre show, those three-hour productions can be incredibly taxing and can be mentally exhausting to a performer by show’s end.
Furthermore, people often equate a job with undesirable menial drudgery. That can be the nature of many types of employment. A job in this economic ideology is considered a required evil, a penance for the brighter and better things in life. In contrast to this, theatre creators feel a need to express themselves through art, and this naturally evolves into loving what we feel passionate about. To add to the fact that we earn money for an activity we enjoy, it may feel to others that we are cheating the system. To perceive us with reduced and unconventional work times, and to distinguish that we actually enjoy our employment puts certain life choices and values into a negative light, and that may identify the dichotomy between two vastly different industry and economic systems.
Moreover, in contrast to how the majority of our economy functions, we in the performing arts create few tangible products. After a carpenter works, he can actively point to the physical fruits of his labour, and can easily demonstrate how his livelihood is improving society.
Conversely, theatre rarely creates a material product that contributes to the GDP of a nation.
In fact, it often creates no lasting physical presence at all (I am excluding in this discussion video/recording materials). Props and sets get torn down and the show is gutted the minute closing night ends. A musician creates music, but its permanence is extremely fleeting; it must be experienced live.
Theatre deals in cultural products rather than physical; it concerns itself in myth, and story, and ethos, and it can create profound change in the hearts and minds of its viewers.
While this may be the philosophical responsibility of theatre, it is so hard to quantify such an impactful purpose, and it can lead the economically driven systems of our society to completely disregard theatre as a necessary and highly important vehicle for change.
Combined, I presume that these facts create the misconstrued perception that theatre artists do not work hard. These are justifiable concepts in certain perspectives. I think it is important for theatre artists to help explain that not all is as it seems. Maybe if we remove the grand illusion from our work, and involve the community into the inner workings of the theatre, people might have a better and more enjoyable understanding of the necessity of cultural institutions. I bet that if we created a more inclusive community in the performing arts between the audience and the creators, that more individuals would understand just how much sacrifice is required: the many hours of idleness or boredom, the second or third jobs used to survive in a cutthroat industry, the countless hours plied into a creative craft such as acting or music, the many dollars spent on workshops and lessons, the long days of rehearsals, the set building, the planning, the creative strain and toil of the mind and heart. All of this labour may just begin to have value in the eyes of the greater public, and it may create a new recognition for our industry. And always remember, at the end of the day, performing sure is nice work if you can get it.