Right now, the whole city of DC seems twinkling. Covers of traditional Christmas music resound everywhere you go. It gets cold. It gets dark early. People combat seasonal depression with copious amounts of holiday cheer, while theatre makers work their hardest to put on a good show. Like you, theatre artists are busy balancing the needs between their day jobs, their theatre careers, and the increasing demands of family and friends during the holidays.
So the overarching question I asked my fellow theatre professionals was simple: “How do you do it all?”
I spoke with Alan Katz (the Tarot Reading, Shakespeare in the Pub), Quill Nebeker (WSC Avant Bard, the Tarot Reading), Deb Sivigny (Rorschach, The Welders), Michael Bobbitt (Adventure Theatre MTC), Freelancers Sydney Moore and Ezra Tozian, and DC Theatre Power couples the Finginsleys (Kari Ginsburg and James Finley), and the Beanmonkeys (Melissa Hmelnicky and Jill Tighe).
What’s your theatre job? and What’s your survival job?
Jill Tighe: Non-Equity Actor/Improver/all around goof ball.
- I work at the American Occupational Therapy Association doing advocacy and grassroots organizing.
Melissa Hmelnicky: I am a non-Equity actor, though I have lightly dabbled in production management and just stage managed NPR Music’s 10th Anniversary show at the 9:30 Club.
- My non-theatre career has primarily been at NPR and I am newly named the Senior Manager of Marketing. (Tune in to and support your local member station WAMU and check out the NPR One app!)
Ezra Tozian: I’m an actor.
- I work as a Server and freelance as a graphic designer. Depending on the season.
Deb Sivigny: Designer, theatre maker, advocate; company at Rorschach and a producing playwright with The Welders
- I’m an Artist-in-Residence at Georgetown University where I teach classes in design, design productions, and run the costume shop. It pays the bills and I love it.
Kari Ginsburg: I’m an actor and sometimes-director around town. I also do some teaching artist work at H-B Woodlawn in Arlington, VA.
- I’m the Director of Workforce Management for the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the United States Patent & Trademark Office. Translation: I’m a Fed.
Michael Bobbitt: Artistic Director, Adventure Theatre
James Finley: Actor (and sometimes Fight Choreographer)
Sydney Moore: I’m a freelance costume designer, stitcher, and crafts person.
- I work at American University as the assistant costume shop manager and associate costume designer. I also work part time at Fluevog Shoes in Georgetown.
Alan Katz: I produce and create for The Tarot Reading. I write for DC Theatre Scene. I’ve recently been getting more involved in Shakespeare in the Pub because of the relatively low time commitment and awesome people.
- I’m a roving librarian at multiple branches of the library of the largest museum in the world. Remember the giant warehouse in Indiana Jones? That’s basically where I work.
Quill: I’m lucky, in that my job is a job in the arts – I’m the Director of Audience Engagement for WSC Avant Bard, and Head Arcanist of The Tarot Reading.
Does the holiday season make your job busier or slower?
Jill: Depends on the year! When congress is in session and it’s not an election year vs. Congress in session and an election year. It varies from CRAZY busy to a Manageable kind of busy.
Melissa: Historically, it has slowed down a bit over the holidays. My theory is that my clients are out of the office more, so I hear from them less. That said, due to the new position (and getting married!!), I have a feeling this year will seem much busier.
Ezra: As a server, the holidays are definitely busier. We’ll get anywhere from two-to-five parties a shift in a restaurant not built for that capacity. It makes for a lot of crazed laughter.
Deb: While it may look like educators get a long break over winter, I spend my holidays writing the syllabi for the following semester, sometimes alongside balancing a professional show. I would say the holiday season makes my job different.
Kari: Here’s a government answer for you: it depends. I have memories of the holidays being a quieter time, but during the last couple of years that hasn’t been the case. I always want the period between Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King, Jr. day to drop in urgency so that I can get to my ever-growing to-do list. I should no longer be surprised when it’s not.
Michael: Uhhh, it doesn’t make my job busier, but my life gets a lot busier.
James: Usually slower. There’s a rush at the end of the federal fiscal year (Sept. 30), so the winter holidays are mostly just folks out on vacations.
Sydney: It’s slower at AU and busier at Fluevog, so that evens out pretty nicely.
Alan: Much slower. We tend to run on both academic and federal schedules, so most of our clientele tends to disappear around the holidays.
What are your family/home life demands?
Jill: My family is based in Ohio so there can be a LOT of travel there surrounding the Holidays. In addition, I am so fricking lucky to be marrying the love of my life this coming NYE. So there’s a LOT happening right now and we’ve prioritized the wedding/family holidays over theater this year.
Melissa (aforementioned love of Jill’s life): Funny you should ask! This year, in addition to celebrating Christmas with our Maryland-based family and friends, the brilliant, hilarious, enormously talented, and stunningly beautiful Jill Tighe and I decided to add to the hustle and bustle by production managing our nuptials – we’re tying (Tighe-ing?) the knot on New Year’s Eve! Understandably, personal-life demands have been a smidge higher during 2017 than they have been in previous years – and we are on overdrive heading into the holidays and counting down to the wedding. It’s very exciting. I just hope that we can breathe and enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with our loved ones without feeling like I should be doing last-minute wedding work.
Ezra: Not insane. I have a partner I want to make sure I spend a fair amount of time with (because – SHOCK – I like him), and I see my Mom once a week. Other than that, I have no obligations.
Deb: My holidays are spent in the tropics with my in-laws, traveling between Malaysia and Singapore with Randy Baker, my husband. His parents live in Penang. We continue working while we’re vacationing, but the scenery is nicer and the weather is divine.
Kari: Well, I’ve got a husband, a dog and a house, so there’s the normal domestic stuff that comes along with that. My job is, at times, demanding or stressful, and it can occasionally invade our home-life if, for example, I work late unexpectedly or bring work home with me to get through over the weekend. I try to exercise but I don’t do that nearly as much as I should. I try to be a good furmom/aunt/daughter/sister/friend.
Michael: I love the holidays, so I like holiday-ish things, like shopping and Christmas cards, going to see holiday shows, ice skating with my kid, decorating trees, having friends over, visiting friends, and a host of holiday parties.
James: It’s the typical demands of maintaining that sort of stuff. Mundane, sometimes tedious, but important.
Sydney: In DC, I’m single with roommates and a cat. My family is pretty tight knit, however, and it has definitely been a challenge to make time for them as well as keep up with the day to day. My closest family is only about 3.5 hours away, but that’s still further away than I can usually manage.
Alan: My wife Margaret is my life partner, and she’s a muggle, gods bless her, so she expects the kind of presence and attention that a muggle husband could give. So I clean, and pay bills, and cook a whole bunch. I have a child who is almost a year old who needs all of the things a child needs: love, food, sleep, care, cleaning, transportation, entertainment, and teaching. My wife and I need to provide all of these things, and we try to share that burden as equally as possible. I have a 60 lb pit bull who is in love with the baby, and is also deeply needy.
Quill: I am from Arlington, and my entire immediate family lives in the area. My house is the gathering place for the family, so it’s sometimes a big lift. We all agreed to do Secret Santa this year instead of a big gift-giving to-do just to make it that much easier on ourselves.
How do you manage your time?
Jill: uh… Making a to do list certainly helps. and it feels good to cross stuff off. My Fiance is also the QUEEN of GET STUFF DONEVILLE so I love that we work together to accomplish ALL OF THE THINGS!
Melissa: HA! Talk to me on New Year’s Day and I’ll let you know if I was successful this time around! For me, structuring free time to be dedicated to specific work on my “To Do” list is invaluable; saying “Tonight, I am going to do X!” and then actually following through. I schedule everything on my calendar to try to up the accountability factor. Another trick I’ve learned is to gamify chores. Chores are the first thing to get neglected when I’m busy but chores are also part of self-care because the messier my physical space, the messier I feel internally and there is no way I can easily sit and focus on work in a chaotic apartment. If I only have 10 free minutes and the sink is overflowing with dirty dishes, I’ll set a timer for 10 minutes and see how many dishes I can get done in that period of time. This is also great for general tidying up – set the timer and run around they apartment trying to pick up all the books, clothes, cat toys, etc. for 10 minutes, challenging myself to make as big of a dent as possible. I tend to be a little all-or-nothing, so the idea of “something-is-better-than-nothing” has been revolutionary for me. Related, I also think it is important to keep in mind that when in busy cycles, you can release some items on your “To Do” list that are not *must* dos. Prioritizing tasks this way is really useful in time management.
Ezra: To make sure I balance work (both art and day job), relationships, and personal alone time, I tend to need everything scheduled a week in advance – almost no exceptions. Obviously, emergencies are emergencies, but other than that, my schedule is pretty rigid.
Deb: I work around the clock. (That’s probably not the smartest management…) But I try to maximize contact time before I leave town, and if I can save commute time by phone and email, I do. This is my general year-long mantra, but I push a little harder if I know I’ll be away for a while.
Kari: As a couple, we try to alternate being in productions so that the home-machine keeps moving and there’s clean clothes and healthy-ish food options; but sometimes the most time we spend with each other is commuting together to rehearsals and/or performances. I’m a planner, so I’m fairly good with to-do lists, scheduling things to stay on task, and trying to stay ahead (Christmas shopping done by Thanksgiving, whatwhat?!). But somehow, something comes up or I disappoint someone (myself, usually). I really can’t do everything. I try, but I can’t.
Michael: Very carefully. The great thing is that Adventure theatre has very liberal paid time off policy, so we all come and go as we need, so long as we get the work done. I like lists and categorizing things as “urgent”, “Immediate”, or “Non immediate”.
James: I’m lucky to have flexibility with my day job, both with hours and location. I can work from home pretty often, and can set my own schedule more-or-less. I typically work 7am – 330pm, which gives me time to get home to workout, feed the dog, cook dinner, etc., before heading to a call.
Sydney: When I figure that out I’ll let you know. This year was the year I made an effort to be home more and wound up being home less than ever. FaceTime and group texts are magical things.
Alan: It’s a combination of help, restraint, and passion. There’s no way I’d be able to do all these things without the help of my partner and our family and friends. Even then, I recently had to pull out of a bunch of commitments because I had taken on too much. So, a lesson I learned was that I have to say no to opportunities that come up, even when they’d be great for my career, because they would cause my other commitments to suffer. The most important thing for me though is passion. I can’t afford to do work that I’m not head over heels in love with. If I feel like I don’t have a choice but to commit fully to it, I will find the time for it.
Quill: Well, again I’m pretty fortunate in that this is my full-time job, but being in production and administrating can mean that I’m often working long hours at the office into performances in the evening. I have a very patient partner who shares the load with me. The flipside of being responsible for hosting my family is that they offer a lot of support in this regard, and my family is particularly understanding.
What do you do to keep from burning out?
Jill: I play video games. I spend a substantial amount of time at work doing politic-y things so I take breathers as I need them.
Melissa: This year has been an exercise in saying “no.” I have not always been good at this, but in the last year, I have needed to say “no” to most auditions and even low-commitment, one-night performances in order to not burn out in life in general. When I have said “yes” to theatrical projects in personal busy times in the past, I often find myself regretting the choice because giving 100% during a stressful cycle is often equivalent to giving 70% or 80% of what I am capable of artistically offering when I have less on my plate. Knowing that I am capable of doing a better job is a disappointing feeling that cues up the shame spirals in my brain and pushes me on a train to burn-out town – so saying “no” is a better path. Prioritizing sleep is also key for me in not burning out. If I am a sleep-deprived shell of a human, I have less of myself to give to my work in addition to my relationships and I start feeling that existential exhaustion creeping in. Sleep makes everything better. Another thing I need are non-performance based activities. Admittedly, I have not been able to do much of either of these lately because of wedding planning and other commitments, but yoga has been wonderful to me and I also volunteer with the Humane Rescue Alliance when I can (adopt, don’t shop!). Both of these activities feed me in a different way and have become important, grounding places that bring peace and joy.
Ezra: Ha! I’m still recovering from a burnout that happened last November after going two years without a break of any kind (my fault, obviously – I realize how lucky I was). Sooooo, I can’t really answer that. I mean, I was fortunate that I had some time off this year to get my mental and physical health together, but I won’t pretend that the lapse of work was my choice. I just seized the opportunity of recovery when I found myself with free time. In general, I require a LOT of alone time, so painting, reading, and brooding are my top three regenerative activities.
Deb: I have tried my best to stop multitasking. It’s hard to resist the temptation of many browser windows open at once, but I’ve learned that I am much more efficient if I complete one task or set of similar tasks one at a time. I also meditate on a regular basis. It keeps my brain from frying too badly.
Kari: You have to make time for yourself and you have to get used to saying no. No, we won’t be able to make that holiday open house. No, I can’t stay late on Tuesday to wait for a conference call that may or may not happen. I struggle with this. But if it means that when you’re not running from work to show to rehearsal to wherever, you crawl in bed with a steampunk novel or old episodes of FRIENDS at 8pm, that’s fine. You do you. You can’t bring holiday cheer if you yourself are an unhappy Scrooge.
Michael: I like to say “no” this time of year to things that aren’t immediate or urgent, due to how busy how things I get. I still try to maintain a lot of self-care, which means massages, practicing mindfulness and meditation, eating healthy, get a mani/pedi as needed, and of course, nice quiet time. If I have to be out late, I’ll come in late the next day, or I’ll take a mental health day if I need it.
James: Build things, and travel when I can.
Sydney: Enforcing break time is really important. Finding stupid things to go down a rabbit hole on (this month, I’ve been obsessing over “Lore” and ice skating videos from the early 90s). Deb Sivigny has turned me onto mindfulness apps that remind you to pause and breathe. Making people a priority and spending time with people who value me beyond what I can produce.
Alan: Lack of choice in the matter! But seriously, I always have more things I want to do, from painting sunsets to writing poetry to creating Revelations to pickling okra. Whenever I feel burned out by any one thing, I do a thing I love to do and have left behind for a while.
Any advice for incoming theatre professionals?
Jill: Breathe In. Time is literally the most valuable resource you have. Respect other people’s time and respect your own. Do your work when you’re working & take a break when you need to. Breathe out.
Melissa: Every once in awhile if you start feeling burnt out, ask yourself what your goals are and if your life is reflective of helping you achieve those goals. Then – if needed – re-prioritize the way you are living based on what you discover. I realized that I needed to balance things differently if I wanted to be a good artist and a good human. While theatre is very important to me, I have grown increasingly interested in living in a holistic way – taking the right roles at the right times rather than simply saying “yes” to every audition or theatrical opportunity at the sacrifice of other kinds of personal growth. This was a scary shift to start making and somewhat ego-bruising to younger me’s ambitions, but it is the right choice for my life.
I now take the vacations, I make social commitments, I invest in relationships, I sink in to my career, and I say “yes” to projects I am interested in while listing my conflicts… and I am sometimes told “no” because of those conflicts. And you know what? That “no” isn’t the end of the world. That “no” is OK. It simply means that project wasn’t meant for me. Do not be afraid to re-prioritize elements of your life to work towards the harmonious-for-you balance – and remember that life-balance looks different for everyone! Feel free to re-define what “making it” looks like to you as balances shift and change.
Ezra: Don’t fall for the idea that you have to work yourself to the bone to be noticed. You can say “no” to projects and still be remembered and considered for the future. Learn what your limits are and stick to them. You can take care of yourself and be successful at the same time – and only YOU know what that looks like.
I’m obviously still trying to incorporate my own advice. But I do wish someone had told me this when I was starting out.
Deb: You can only do so much. You don’t have to jump at every opportunity and demand. Other people’s emergencies don’t need to automatically become yours. Working in a focused manner is better than broad scattered work—then you can take real breaks and maintain friendships.
Kari: Do the work that excites you. Find a survival job you can tolerate so that you can afford to pursue your passion. Find a partner who understands the grind (or don’t). Be the most present friend you can be, when you can be. Don’t say yes to everything. Have a happy holiday!
Michael: It’s not worth it to get burned out. Self care is more important. You’re better at your job when you’re taking care of yourself. There will always be a “to-do” list. You’ll never actually complete it, as life will always add more, so you’ll have to find your process for managing that list and managing people’s expectations regarding said list.
James: You get to decide what your goals are and what success means. No one else’s path is yours, and your path can change if you want it to change.
Sydney: One of the hardest things is recognizing when you’re approaching burnout before you actually get there. It looks and feels different for everyone so knowing when you’re pushing yourself too hard can be difficult. Learn how to gauge yourself and check in with your work and make sure you’re still enjoying it. Keeping connected to things and people who keep you grounded is wicked important. Text your parents sometimes. FaceTime with your baby nephew so he knows your name. Don’t let the work shut you out from the really important things because it can become all-engulfing if you’re not paying attention. Pay attention and work to keep the things that matter to you in your life. It is possible. And none of us are good at it so don’t be ashamed if it doesn’t come naturally to you. One thing I’ve committed to doing is buying tickets home so I can’t back out at the last second because work creeps up.
Alan: It’s important to recognize what is permanent in your life and realize that burning out in those things is more disastrous than anything else. So, recognize what is essential to you and protect that fiercely.
Quill: Be your own best advocate. The arts are a passionate industry, but it will often ask you to run on passion alone. That’s not sustainable. Your time is a valuable resource, so treat it as such and ensure others do so as well. You can’t make your best art if you are burnt out.
Steven McKnight says
Great article! It reminds me of one of my late mother’s favorite sayings: “If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person.”