Earlier this month, Nimi Ravindran wrote an article here about the evocative and somewhat ominous phrase “the show must go on”. In theatre circles, we often hear stories of the how actors and crew have been through hell, but persevered because, well, the show must go on. These stories are told to regale the awe-struck listeners. “So-and-so was bleeding, and she still powered through!” As Nimi pointed out, these stories sometimes come across as manipulative; it seems as if we’re telling newcomers, “What are you complaining about? So-and-so was bleeding don’t you get it?!”
2023 marks 10 years of my theatre career. In these ten years, I’ve worked in pretty much every job possible, and let me tell you: I’ve loved it. I love the theatre! It’s a magical place to be, as a performer, as a crew member, as audience. It’s a community where help is never more than a call/Instagram-story-request away. But it’s not all rosy, lovey-dovey, smooth sailing.
You see, working in the arts is like trying to build a house of cards while on balancing a unicycle that rests atop a slowly melting iceberg, as a news channel blares an endless stream of bad news at you. You want to make something beautiful, but you’re constantly up against the mundane hurdles of life: lack of funds, high cost of fundamental requirements, an ever-changing roster of colleagues, dependence on goodwill, dealing with people who don’t take your career seriously, competition from every other art-form. In all these years of meeting theatre people, I don’t know a single person that is making a living through just theatre. Even so-called full-time theatre artists are supplementing their income with some side gigs, some parental subsidies, some large inheritances.
Now that I’m occasionally stepping into the role of a producer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the abysmal pay and the abysmal work conditions in the theatre, and what steps I can take to break the cycle. I’ve regularly worked on projects where it was expected that I ought to do my physical and mental labour for upwards of 14 hours, not inclusive of a 3-hour long commute. I’ve worked on projects where people have laughed and said, “well we don’t do theatre for the money, after all!” to excuse why I’m being paid in spare change.
More and more often, I’ve been thinking: I don’t want to make theatre if that’s the condition I have to make it in.
It’s not just the theatre though.
Some weeks ago, I put a call out on Instagram, asking for insights from people who have heard some version of “the work/output is the most important thing. Hustle now for a good outcome, you can rest when you’re dead!” Obviously, this incredibly biased phrasing led to a singular sort of response, but I managed to hear from people who work in really different fields. I got 10 responses, with an equal number of acquaintances and strangers, and there were folks working in market research, law, baking, accounting, Bharatnatyam, events, film, physics, and social work. (Most of the people requested anonymity, so I have used pseudonyms across the board.)
There’s one response I keep thinking of: Vimal (23) has always wanted to work in film, but after repeatedly hearing that grind is a part of film culture, and “weak ones” will get rooted out early, they’ve left film for the time being. “I would rather work in marketing and do something I’m not necessarily passionate about but be able to leave work at work, rather than get so burnt-out doing film that I start hating the format in its entirety.”
I’ve often been told something to the same effect. That if you’re in it for the “right reasons” you’ll power through the rough years. But it begs the question: who are the people who can afford to live and work in Mumbai, when they’re being paid a couple hundred rupees? Only those with families funding their lives, only those already born into privilege. Are those the only people who deserve to be in the arts?
Is it wrong to say I deserve better?
The responses from three women working in different careers showed me that there’s definitely a new trend coming up: of people ditching toxic work places but not the industry. Uma (30, Market research), Prerna (29, Law) and Saloni (27, events/PR) all quit companies that demanded too much of them, and moved on to places that had some more consideration of a work-life balance. In her new job Prerna is finally able to pursue hobbies of her own! (Which leads me to realise that hobbies have become virtually obsolete. Most of the time, a new skill that you spend your time on is a part of the ‘hustle’. “I’m not learning xyz for fun, I’m learning to upskill and make myself ever more employable”). But for Uma and Saloni, though things are relatively better, they still aren’t close to good. Saloni shares that in her field, people “only talk about mental health – they don’t actually take any action.” After weeks of being forced to work nonstop, with daily over-time, churning out projects with super-tight deadlines, Uma finally broke down and told her boss that she was burnt-out and thoroughly unproductive; her brain literally felt slower than usual. Her boss casually suggested that Uma move closer to the office – it must be the commute exhausting her, not the inhuman work load she has! I laughed out loud as I listened to this horrific exchange, that stood in stark contrast to what Uma had said just before, that “this current company is much, much better, they take work-life balance more seriously than the past 4 companies I’ve worked at.”
I can’t possibly count the number of times I’ve casually been told I should “just move” to Andheri (the area in Mumbai where most theatre happens). Never mind that I earn hardly a fraction of a month’s rent. “Arre just do it!! It’ll be so much easier than commuting three hours a day”. I’ll be happy to move if someone could just, you know, sponsor my rent.
Especially post the pandemic, there’s been a growth in the anti-work movement. Which has been disparagingly referred to as “quiet quitting” or the age old “PEOPLE JUST DON’T WANT TO WORK ANYMORE!”
I strongly disagree with that last line. I do want to work! I love when I feel challenged and confused by my work. I love the thrill of excitement and nerves that form a thick bundle in my stomach as show-day nears. I put my heart and my soul into every thing I do, because the satisfaction I get from a good show, hell even from a half-decent show is a high I’ve been chasing since I first performed on stage as a little child.
But if you think that “working” means I should work to within an inch of my life, I’d rather you call me lazy. I’d rather be rested (physically and mentally) than prolific and exhausted. I wish I could switch off the voice of the tyrant self-employer in my head, that voice that sounds so much like mine, except she is horrible and yells at me for taking any time off, insisting I ought to take on projects that pay me nothing because “it may lead to something else”
And if my rest, my happiness, or my health are stopping the show from “going on”; well, that’s okay with me.