I want to talk about a secret place. A place that only professional artists with challenging careers know about. It doesn’t matter whether you’re ‘huge’ or struggling − if you have a creative career you will know this place. You will have gone there many times alone. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have someone who goes there with you, to support you.
I’m talking about the artist’s emotional green room
The place where creative people are ‘off-stage’ emotionally. Where the professional façade comes down after a hard day, and the emotions pour out. Now it may be − and it often is − a place where you’re jubilant at some fantastic opportunity won or great work completed. But the times when we linger in the green room, are the times when we are rubbed raw from doing what we do.
The place the public doesn’t know exists
It’s a place the public can’t imagine that we go, because creative people who are really good at what they do − especially performers − seem a little bit ‘magic’. I don’t know about you, but when I see someone juggling chainsaws, they don’t look human to me. And when I used to sing virtuoso solo vocals from so many traditions, I must have looked a bit ‘magic’ to others too.
Backstage for superheroes
It’s a little bit like this. Imagine Spiderman, Batman and other superheroes (let’s ignore the fact that Superman doesn’t get injured because he’s not from earth for a second) in a sort of green room after a hard day. Spiderman has a headache from throwing himself around in space and has overstretched the ligaments in his wrists. Batman has injured himself in a fight and now that the adrenaline has gone from his system, it bloody hurts. Then Spiderman says he’s tired of being misunderstood and wonders why he keeps going. And Wonder Woman says she’s tired of people trying to sneak a look down her top while she’s rescuing them. Maybe they all get a bit maudlin and a bit teary, because they’re so bloody exhausted.
Get the picture?
Okay it’s just a silly analogy, but this really happens. Those people you think are ‘magic’ are also human. They get tired and cold. They get lonely when the only people around them at a festival are those who are dazzled by their image, and the pressure to ‘live up’ to it piles on top of them. They get exhausted because they’ve got a finite window of opportunity while they’re popular and they’ve got to get as much as possible done.
Maybe they’re worrying about some insane cash flow situation because they’re having to sue someone for breach of copyright. Or they’ve got a virus and can’t shake it but they can’t have a day off. Maybe they have technical issues and give an awful performance. Or horror of horrors, they’ve actually got older and they don’t have as much energy as they used to, so they can’t leap around as much, and they’re propping themselves up on painful plastic surgery or relying on strong painkillers that make them feel woozy.
And that’s just the physical stuff – what about mentally and emotionally?
Running your own business – which is what most creative professionals do – is risky and emotionally draining, even when you’re doing well. Add to that the pressures of being an icon or having to ‘top’ your last project, despite either financial or technical constraints, and it’s a recipe for emotional exhaustion. And that’s when the arts are doing well. Artists are also increasingly working in a hostile marketplace, with grant income being cut, downloads decimating their income or the internet stealing their work. All in all, although most of us get used to these pressures and don’t see the place for weeks or months, there will inevitably be days when we collapse crying in the green room.
A truth that’s almost forbidden for me to reveal about myself and others
Yes we all do. Most artists don’t talk about it, even with each other, unless they’re collaborators or very good friends. That’s because we know our ‘stock price’ will fall if we look too vulnerable. But, we get frightened because we’re always growing and we have to face what scares us every day. We get tired because we’re expected to work inhumanly long hours at a time, at highly creative tasks requiring huge brain power because we’ve got behind on a deadline, or because there’s a finite window of opportunity. If we don’t have the money to hire experts, we’re expected to be good at everything, especially PR, which we may be wholly unsuited to. We’re often fighting for the terms and conditions we need with larger companies, over and over. We never get a formal raise or promotion to tell us whether we’re doing well or not.
And all this exhausts our emotional muscles to the point that we sit down at the end of the day and think about that deadline, or unsigned contract that we’re nevertheless doing the work for ‘on trust’, or lawsuit, or unpaid fee that we needed to survive, and weep. Because at the end of the day, it’s just us, and we’re afraid this storm will break us. Just an artist struggling with their needs when our vulnerability to serious stressors is unacknowledged and we’re expected to be ‘magic’.
I used to think it was just me
I realise now it’s not. I used to think I was just weaker than other artists because they all seemed to get on with it so confidently. I realise now they were probably thinking the same thing about me. It’s the artist’s secret shame. The tears, the gloomy predictions, the feeling that you won’t survive this latest threat. And most of all the emotional exhaustion and inability, for whatever reason – usually work related – to get away from it all for a few days and recover.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, if you have a professional creative career there are two reasons I’m telling you about this. One is that I want you to understand that this is NORMAL. It’s the way human beings recharge in stressful situations. It’s how your psyche tells you when it’s all too much. It’s how we remember to reach out for support, because even those who know us well and who are also artists, can be a little in awe of us sometimes. They too, can get too wrapped up in the ‘magic’ we weave, to realise we’re suffering.
The other is so that you can prepare. Make your ‘green room’ a good place to be. Make sure you have at least one place in your home where you can ‘nest’, even if it’s only your bed. Make the time to do it and don’t berate yourself for needing it. Make it somewhere where you can watch TV and eat ice-cream. Where you can ring a really good friend and they’ll come round so that you can hug, talk or cry or all three. Make sure you cultivate a network of trustworthy supportive people, who have no self-interest in your career, that you can do this with. You’re definitely going to need them.
And to the public and the people who work with and around artists and performers…
Please realise that however ‘magic’ they look because they conjure something out of nothing, creative people are human. If you don’t pay them on time, they may suffer in ways you can’t imagine – however rich they seem to be. If you don’t give them reasonable contract terms, they won’t be able to survive or create properly. Make them physically comfortable and be genuinely supportive. Please don’t be the reason that your favourite artist goes home and cries.