When my daughter Grace was about eleven she was part of her school’s dance troupe, and was performing in a local festival. She had complained of feeling ill that day but insisted on going to the show. Her dance teacher had no time for a young girl’s sick tummy, and she made it clear that my daughter was an essential part of the troupe’s performance. Grace basically had no choice. I capitulated and let her go on.
During the performance I could see that my girl was struggling up the back, but bravely continued with her jumps and whirls. As the final beats of the song rang out, the troupe threw their hands into the air – except for my daughter, who threw up into her cupped palms. Nobody noticed but me. She danced off with the rest of the kids, holding her own vomit, and received kudos from the teacher for being so brave.
That story has become part of our family lore, a good-natured tale about a dedicated little performer who, valiant in the face of a terrifying dance teacher and a tummy bug, knew that the show must always go on. When you work in the arts, that’s just what you do.
Now, I am horrified by that story. In light of research being conducted into wellbeing in the industry, and the attention being paid to the mental health practitioners, it’s appalling. Until now, standing by the decision to push my sick little girl into performing seemed like the right thing to do. After all, she couldn’t let down her troupe, her teacher, or her craft. What kind of lesson would she have learned about the world of entertainment if I had insisted that she stay home? I so badly want to go back in time and change what happened. Yes, she was a plucky little trooper for dancing while ill – but what kind of sickness has perpetuated in the arts to make us think that this behaviour is normal, or even commendable?
Ben Steel’s recent documentary about this topic, The Show Must Go On, has brought into sharp relief the ludicrous attitude we have about wellness in the arts. The dancer must always dance – otherwise, what is she? The smiling clown must always laugh, making others feel joy. This attitude is inferred in the drama masks of laughing Thalia and sad-faced Melpomene. Our craft is designed to entertain others, and what happens behind the mask is irrelevant. This desperately needs to change.
I find it even more concerning that we call ourselves heroic for carrying on in the face of our own illness, whether that’s physical sickness or emotional turmoil. What a trooper my daughter was for continuing to dance even while nauseous! What a brave little soldier! We align ourselves with military heroes through our language, but we are not valued by society in the same way. We are frequently told that our professional choices should be our “Plan B”, that our chosen careers are not “real jobs”, and that our educations are a “waste of money”.
Governments have even funded extensive ‘arts and health’ programs, providing money so that others can feel better through access to creative practice, without much consideration for the arts workers delivering those programs. Many are struggling in a world of low wages, no sick pay, and limited access to affordable insurance. Where are the funded government programs for them?
I urge you to watch the documentary, read the research and engage in discussions with your peers about your own health, and the wellbeing of the practitioners around you. Talk to each other, use the resources available, and find ways to create open and supportive networks. Make the changes where you can, in ways both big and small, at a personal and institutional level, at schools and in companies. I don’t have all the answers, but I know we need to start.
And to my now-adult daughter – about to kickstart her professional career in the theatre – I apologise. I’m so sorry. You can stay in bed if you need to, baby girl. You don’t have to dance.