You Gotta Get Through This: Surviving Long and Difficult Jobs
Ever had one of those jobs that really tries your nerves? Matthew Jacobs Morgan offers up his advice for getting through difficult jobs, no matter how long they seem to drag on for...
This article is not about Daniel Beddingfield’s 2001 banger. But there is much we can learn from the rousing garage hit, and by the end of this article I hope that the chorus acts as a mantra…
I found as the job went on is that sometimes the most generous thing you can do for yourself is to take a day off. Like, completely. A day where you stay in your pyjamas watching Netflix and eating pesto pasta straight from the pot (I am classy, I promise)
There are some jobs which feel like they’ll never end. You’re working with people who you don’t see eye to eye with, the working conditions might not be optimum, and you might have a bully of a director. But... you’ve signed a contract and you’re in it for the long haul whether you like it or not. 6 months, 1 year, 18 months?! On a good job that time absolutely flies by and you never want it to end. On difficult jobs, however, it can feel like a lifetime.
It can be very easy to feel trapped, like there’s no end in sight and it can also feel very isolating - especially if you’re on tour or working abroad, away from family and friends. Sometimes the jobs are short enough that you can grin and bear it, but I have been in a long contract before where I felt physically ill going into work every day because of difficult cast members and a toxic work environment. In the end I had to learn some survival tactics in order to get through it…
There might come a point where the job moves from being an exciting, inspiring fun ‘experience’ to just being a job. Or what feels like a day job (the thing that we’re all running away from!). The glitz and glamour has disappeared, and the show has become routine. This is often inevitable, but it’s not good.
I find that a good way to remedy this is to see if the associate director, musical director or dance captain have any time to talk through your parts with you to see if there are any improvements to be made. They could give you some beats which you might be able to play differently or stakes you can heighten. It’ll keep you on your toes and give you something motivating each performance and ultimately, you’ll do a better job! The creative team know what is within the realms of what the director wants, so won’t send you off on a wild tangent, but it could be a great way of keeping things fresh.
2. Find Your Allies
If you’re in a tricky work environment, chances are there are other people who are feeling just as stressed as you are. And it can be so good to have someone to talk to. I’m not talking about moaning (although that can sometimes feel very good too), but someone who understands what you’re experiencing and who you can lean on for support, and vice versa. Finding time to go for lunch or for a cup of tea before a show can be a great way to decompress and also to just feel like you’re not alone. If you’re lucky, you’ll have someone who lifts you up and encourages you, rather than surrounding you in negativity.
3. Do Nothing
At first, I would always cram my days off with seeing friends, doing activities and going on trips. On some shows there is so little time off that those free days are precious. I always felt like they needed to be used wisely. But what I found as the job went on is that sometimes the most generous thing you can do for yourself is to take a day off. Like, completely. A day where you stay in your pyjamas watching Netflix and eating pesto pasta straight from the pot (I am classy, I promise).
Taking time for yourself every now and again is just as important as being social, especially in a job where you might be spending a couple of hours a day performing in front of a few hundred (or thousand?!) people. It can feel very good to be in your own company for a bit, and to have some genuine peace. It will also give your mind and body time to mentally reset for when you go back into the show, whereas if you’re constantly on the go there is no respite.
4. Have a Lifeline
Whenever I was having a tough time on a job, I called my friends or family. Not necessarily to vent or to go through how difficult things are (although it is important to share that too!) but just checking in with people from your “real” life can be very refreshing and puts things in perspective. Having someone who knows you inside out and that there is a history with can enable you to check out of any drama or hardships you’re facing on any given job. Also, encouraging your friends to come and visit you when you’re working far away from home can give you a welcome dose of your “real life” and provide some perspective.
5. Buy Good Books
Being able to escape your surroundings can be a great way to avoid getting bogged down. I find that the best way to do this is to read a book - spending those moments between shows in a different world. It can also feel great to get out of the head of the character you’re playing and into the psyche of a completely different character for a change. Escapism is a brilliant survival tactic, which I use often.
6. Create a Safe Haven
Your dressing room needs to be your sanctuary. Somewhere where you can be at peace and prepare yourself for the show. I find that covering it with things that inspire is a great way of making it somewhere I want to spend time. For me, those things include positive quotes and pictures of loved ones, or even pictures of inspirational people (LIKE A FRAMED PICTURE OF OPRAH!). It’s important not to clutter the space too much, but I also like having potted plants in my dressing area too. Listening to calming music before a show is also brilliant, but it depends on whether you’re sharing a dressing room and whether your cast mates mind!
When someone was being mean or patronising or asking me to do something on stage that didn’t feel safe, I found that going against my instinct to go quiet, nod and smile, helped me infinitely
7. Find Other Creative Outlets
You may come away from a job thinking: that’s 6 months I’ll never get back. Whereas if you’ve found time in your downtime to do something else which is creative, and you’ve done it well, you’ll come away from it knowing that you have achieved something great, even if it wasn’t the thing you were being paid to do. For me, that’s writing. I was spending every spare minute I had writing a TV script and a play. Although I came away from the acting job not satisfied with how things went or how I was treated, I came away from it with a TV script which has now been optioned and is being developed with a production company. I walked away from the job with a good acting credit on my CV as well as the creative work that I’ve spent the following year developing.
8. Stand Up for Yourself
Now I’m gonna be real here: I was in a really long job where bullying was rife, and I had a really bad time. And the best thing I learned was to be honest. When someone was being mean or patronising or asking me to do something on stage that didn’t feel safe, I found that going against my instinct to go quiet, nod and smile, helped me infinitely. By simply saying “that makes me feel uncomfortable” or “the way you’re speaking to me is not acceptable” you can completely disarm people whilst not compromising your professionality.
I found that whenever I did this, the perpetrators would realise what they were doing was wrong and either apologise instantly or go away, think about it, and apologise later. When they go low, go high. When they get personal, stay professional. If they critique or patronise you, go on stage and smash it. If they bitch about other cast members, stay impartial and don’t get involved. Be as vanilla as you can in order to avoid anything escalating as that can make the job absolute hell and if you’ve got a long time left, things will be likely to fester!
9. Don’t Take It Home with You
If your workplace is a dark cloud, why would you take that into your home with you? That dark cloud should not permeate the place where you are supposed to be at peace. So, if possible, avoid complaining, festering and carrying around the emotional baggage of how frustrating or boring your job has become and instead make your home a place of harmony.
10. Talk to Equity
If there is something seriously wrong or if you are actually being bullied on any job, you should absolutely call Equity. They have union specialists who deal with various areas of the industry and they are very well versed in dealing with workplace issues. Their switchboard number is: 020 7379 6000.
Matthew Jacobs Morgan is an actor and filmmaker from London. His credits as an actor include Our Town (Almeida Theatre), Tommy (New Wolsey) and the TV series Cuffs, Wasted, Love Nina, Midsomer Murders and upcoming C4 Drama Pure. He has numerous TV series and films in development including Dylan & Gracie which is under option at Tiger Aspect and Vamping which is being developed on 4Screenwriting.
Image credit: Michael Shelford