We all need to pee - Break time and power play.
If you are a performer working under the direction of an artist, chances are, at some point in the process, you’ll have a hard time. Stresses and strains can happen in all sorts of situations: whether the director is an acclaimed choreographer who has cherry-picked you from a crowd of sweating auditionees, or a close friend who has invited you to perform in their latest low-budget experimental musiccumpoetrycumsculpturalartfim, all types of working situations can prove to be tricky. Of course, some professional relationships are excellent and harmonious, but many are not, and there are an infinite number of reasons why.
Imagine this scene: a director and some performers are working in a studio. Everyone is excited - devising, talking and trying out ideas. The performers move around, shifting between different scenes and compositions. The director is inspired by each new image that appears. The ideas flow, the tangents roll and the director keeps on directing
Then, after a few hours, the performers finally pause and say, ‘Jeez, our limbs are tired and our brains are full. Please can we have a break?’ The director says, ‘Yes of course, thanks for reminding me, I get carried away. I could watch you all day.’ The performers say thank you and everyone takes a break. Some people pee, others eat bananas and check their phones. All is well with the world.
This appears to be an amicable scene and I suppose, on the face of it, it is, but scratch the surface and all is not well. The flaw? The fact that the performers had to ask for their break. The fact that the director, undeniably in a position of power, left the performers to monitor their own exhaustion.
What if the performers didn’t have the courage to ask for a break? What if the performers waited until they were desperate and the director said ‘no, not yet, let’s break in an hour’? What if the stakes were a bit higher and the performers were not just tired but also uncomfortable or in pain? When performers are the only ones looking out for their own wellbeing then risk of damage is high.
The weariness of being a performer comes not only from the work itself, but also from the constant need to ask permission to attend to basic needs and to have to announce one’s own exhaustion every time it arises, with the fear that it might interrupt the proceedings or that it might come as a surprise. Rest is a necessary part of any working day, so why is it so often forgotten? Why does it need to be asked for? It took me years of working as a dancer to have the courage to ask for breaks. Even now, sometimes I still keep my mouth shut and keep on working through exhaustion. Why? Because I don't want to interrupt.
If you combine a culture of performer-subservience (which comes from flawed hierarchical structures in theatres, galleries and educational institutions), a work ecology with few jobs (making employees disproportionately grateful for work), and performers' genuine desire to serve or meet artists' creative visions, then you get a group of people who generally don’t feel able or prepared to interrupt and ask for what they need when they need it. Sometimes it might be fear stopping them but often the habit of politeness can be an equally silencing force.
This is not just about asking for breaks, this is about all basic needs: feeling safe, being visible, maintaining boundaries, not risking injury, not being discriminated against, not being coerced or abused, etc.
Performers’ bodies and their time are the substance of live work and how they are represented and treated in rehearsal and on stage is important. Performers are alive, they are human, and they have boundaries and needs.
When a director abuses their power or, more often, simply denies or forgets their power, things get a little (or a lot) problematic.
Too often it is left to:
- people of colour to remind others about racism and micro aggressions.
- female people to remind others about objectification.
- trans people to remind others about physical privacy.
- non-binary people to remind others about basic pronoun use.
- abused or traumatised people to remind others about boundaries.
- dyslexic people to remind others about basic pedagogy.
- bipolar/depressed people to remind others about the meaning of ‘performance’.
- people on medication to remind others about how personal choice is a personal business.
- parents/carers to remind others about the importance of scheduling and routine.
- working class people to remind others about the value of space and property.
- poor people to remind others about invoice etiquette.
- people with English as a second language to remind others about unnecessary complications.
- deaf/disabled/blind people to remind others about access.
- etc. etc.
Someone in your studio is one of these people. Know that and assume you have something to learn from them. If you forget or don’t manage to ask them the right question and they speak up first, then listen, because it probably took them years to build up the courage to do so.