Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager Bea Grist talks about what it’s like to love and support a performer-partner…
Nine years ago, I met my performer partner whilst we were working for the same theatre company. We spent every free moment together and we fell in love. But then my beloved went off on a six-month tour of village halls and small-scale theatres, and suddenly our relationship went from ‘normal’ to one that only performers and their partners would recognise: snatching rare nights together in digs in such romantic places as Sutton Coldfield, Chipping Sodbury and Mansfield, in between weeks of tired late-night post-performance phone calls which still went on until 2am.
And you know what? It was romantic.
But given that the course of true love never did run smooth, what practical steps can you take to support each other when one (or both) of you is trying to make a living in one of the most competitive and challenging industries in the world?
Othello lost it, Medea misplaced it and Baby flew into Johnny’s arms on the wings of it. Trust is fundamental in any relationship whether you’re dating a performer or an accountant, although accountants are less likely to be quite so emotionally connected to their work (or their colleagues).
Performers often lack opportunities to spend time with their tribe, so when they do work, the social side of employment can be intense and all-consuming. Bonding in this way with colleagues they will be relying on both on and off stage is a good thing. Only performers truly know what performers go through, both when they’re employed and when they’re not. So that post-show drink isn’t just a reward for a job well done; it’s a chance to shake off days and days of soul-destroying ‘resting’, fruitless anticipation, and perfunctory rejection. But combine that with many weeks, even months, apart and it’s no wonder that we can become paranoid and anxious other halves. As a non-performer this was something I initially struggled with and it left me feeling a bit of an outsider.
It’s important to involve partners socially, when the opportunity arises, so that other halves feel included in the nicer aspects of the performing life. Once introduced to a performer’s colleagues, the other half can put names to faces and will feel less insecure. This isn’t needy or clingy. It’s normal. Plus, other halves are very proud of their performer partners and it is equally normal to want to share in that pride, whether it’s on a red carpet or in the Red Lion.
‘Flexibility’ implies compromise, but call it ‘spontaneity’, even ‘serendipity’, and immediately the narrative has changed. So, when the agent rings last thing on a Friday with exciting news of an audition first thing on Monday (‘please find attached six pages of sides and be off book’) the performer’s instincts will kick in and their radar will lock on to the target. But with this news the partner’s hopes for the weekend may have already taken a direct hit.
The ‘cancelled’ weekend has happened to me a lot and I find the most useful way to look at it is to think that I’ve been gifted a whole two days of free time: a chance to do some of the things I like doing but my partner doesn’t (vintage clothes shopping) or an opportunity to do some of the things I’ve been putting off (upcycling an ottoman or alphabetising my spice cupboard – don’t ask).
‘Spontaneity’ also extends to booking holidays. My partner and I only ever book holidays a few weeks/days/hours in advance and I (now) love never quite knowing what is round the corner. I’ve also learnt that one of the (few) positives of unemployment is more time to share: take that trip out to the countryside together or go and see a film and escape into someone else’s story for a couple of hours (Spotlight members get cheap cinema tickets through Spotlight Discounts so no excuses). Life, as we know, is what happens to us while we’re making other plans, so don’t let your plans get in the way of living.
Life as the partner of a performer could be lonely. Much of my relationship with my partner has been spent apart. I have had to learn to love my own company, and I am an expert at going to the theatre on my own. But in many ways dating a performer is the best of both worlds because you get the freedom of feeling like a single person with the stability of being part of a couple. Inevitably when one falls in love, even the closest of friendships can sometimes take a hit as the object of one’s desire takes centre stage, so to speak.
But not here: if anything my friendships with both my single and non-single friends have grown stronger as I have been able to spend just as much time with them as ever, and have been there for them when they needed me (and I needed them). And I have been able to avoid the clarity of my own ambitions and purpose being subsumed under the more nebulous and potentially devitalising tyranny of ‘the couple thing’. This might not be everyone’s cup of tea but personally I think a relationship which lets both ‘I’ and ‘We’ stand tall beside one another is a strong and exciting one.
For Better, For Worse
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? In this industry even the most consistently busy and pro-active performers who have everything in place (good agent, good contacts, good reputation, reliable resting work for those all-important senses of purpose and routine) will have their black dog days. I’m talking about those days when other people’s judgments or rejection, a missed opportunity, a lack of progression/recognition/money (take your pick) take their toll on a performer’s creativity and mental health, and challenge even the most established and stable relationships.
The best thing a partner can do for a loved one is simply listen. Often one doesn’t need to say anything. Just being willing to listen without judgment to their problems, whether real or perceived, will make them feel less alone and less isolated, and if you know they’re going through a difficult period then tell them you are thinking about them. In an industry where one can feel dismissed on a daily basis, just creating a space for each other to be heard can be enough. It is difficult for the partner to see their loved one frustrated and seemingly at the mercy of an industry that isn’t, and never will be, fair. But just being heard is the tallest support towards good mental health, and relationships thrive on good mental health.
Compromise Versus Sacrifice
Be aware of the difference between compromise and sacrifice. To create something great requires sacrifice, and I believe this is true for relationships too. But this sacrifice shouldn’t force anyone to negotiate their sense of integrity or their identity. There may be some non-negotiables and that’s okay – don’t be afraid to voice them. As I said in my previous Spotlight article, fulfilment can change over time. Be mindful that what you found fulfilling when you first met may no longer be fulfilling ten years later, know what you want from your future together and be prepared to be flexible (or spontaneous!) too.
‘May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears’
A career in the performing arts doesn’t always lead to long-term financial stability, and falling in love with a performer won’t always lead to a conventional relationship, but one thing I do know is that few things in our world are as rich, as strong and as fruitful as two people, each connected to their own life’s purpose, choosing to face the future hand-in-hand.
Bea Grist is Spotlight’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager and a Life and Wellness Coach. She trained with CTI (Co-active Training Institute) and offers one-to-one coaching to support you in bringing more clarity to your life. Prior to becoming a coach, Bea marketed Nottingham’s and then London’s theatre and arts scenes for thirteen years, working with such companies as New Perspectives, Nottingham Playhouse, Almeida Theatre, National Theatre, and Ambassadors Theatre Group. She is passionate about supporting and empowering performers to thrive.