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Tom Clutterbuck: Stress is the elephant in the room for theatre technicians

People may offer moral support on social media, but it’s hard to ask for the same in a professional environment
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I have previously spoken about the importance of a tech’s ability to be calm under pressure, but I’m beginning to think that this is getting harder, rather than easier.

I recently admitted on social media that I have been having convulsive attacks, seemingly based on stress and anxiety. I don’t generally discuss such things at all, never mind publicly.

A friend got in touch and advised I take a step back from work and to tell my employers that I wasn’t feeling up to the task. She referred to troubles she had been through in her job, and that even though she had felt like everything hinged around her, when she ended up having to take time off there were other people to pick up the slack.

However, I just really don’t feel that this would be the case with theatre.

A lot of shows I work on operate with very tight budgets, so I often end up doing jobs that would otherwise be allocated to multiple people. Being something of an all-rounder, I imagine it would be hard to find a qualified replacement. Even if I made comprehensive notes of all my creative technical decisions for a show during rehearsals, anyone taking over later on in the process would still be on the back foot.

Some shows I’ve worked on recently have had intensely challenging tech sessions. I’ve often had to spend all day programming at a frantic pace, constantly against the clock. During these days, I have been on the very edge of losing control, but at no point did I feel like I could admit to how much I was struggling.

Work is not Facebook. People can be incredibly forthcoming with moral support online, but it’s hard to imagine you can ask for the same in a professional environment.

The common opinion appears to be that we shouldn’t put ourselves in unrelentingly stressful situations – that work is only a small part of our lives, and shouldn’t dictate it. It shouldn’t be the thing you wake up thinking about, and the last thing on your mind before you go to sleep.

But if you’re developing a show, this is considered par for the course. All great works seemingly come from people burning the midnight oil, and dedicating a disproportionate amount of time and effort to a labour of love.

However, the problem can sometimes be that because the artists are working this way, it is expected that everyone should do so. Of course, many work at this pace only during a small part of the process.

As a tech for short runs, I often come in at this part, then go straight on to the next show at the same level. Working in this manner is rather like watching Breaking Bad, but skipping from one season finale episode
to another, with the tension constantly at its highest.

I don’t expect my job to be an episode of Happy Days, but I think I’m going to have to try to find somewhere in between.

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