By the queen of lighting, and Roaring Associate, Jess Addinall.
I’ve never had a “normal” job.
Quite a bold but true (ish) statement to make. (There was a stint in which I worked five shifts at a local Mexican food establishment, but I am actively choosing to wipe that from my mind AND my CV…) When I say normal, I mean the type of job that you don’t bring home with you. The type of job with set shift patterns and regular nights off. The type of job that needs little to no explanation for people to understand what you do. This apparently was not for me and from the fresh age of 16; newly minted from high school, I duly chucked myself into the world of technical theatre and did not look back. (Technical theatre is building/plugging in all the parts of the show that aren’t actors.)
There is much to both love and struggle with within the technical world. It provides variety and new experiences every day but gobbles up time. One week I will be working Monday to Saturday, 9am till 10pm, building sets, setting up sound systems and rigging lights, carefully constructing new worlds for stories to be told. The next week I could be sent to another city, fitting an already established production into a brand-new space. It is hard to fit in a regular yoga class when my calendar is ruled by production schedules and changing showtimes. It is a jumbled mix of chaos, stress, adrenaline, early hours & late nights, laughs, learning, sore fingers and baffling bruises after a long day. This demanding world of lights, sound and stage has become the backbone of my life.
Plunging headfirst into this industry back in 2014 gave me an adrenaline rush that I had never
experienced before, and I could not get enough. Gradually and stealthily, work grew to consume more of my energy, time and focus and became inextricably part of my identity. I never wanted to stop but then COVID happened and I had no choice. When lockdown started and the theatre industry ground to a halt, I felt like my foundations were swept out from under me.
At first, I was quite happy to sit and binge some Netflix, but it quickly became apparent that I had no idea how to do normal day to day living. As chaotic as it was, work gave me a solid structure. It filled my diary for the weeks, or even months, to come with shift times and production schedules which laid out my weeks down to the hour. It reminded me to put food in my body by giving me a slot for lunch and sometimes a slot for tea. There was a sense of purpose and it provided me with clear objectives to work towards. I was comforted by the familiarity of it and, most of the time, I knew exactly was I was walking into at the start of every job.
My days off would feel like a gap to fill before my next shift. I would often see them as
extracurricular work opportunities, usually opting to take a shift at another local venue or spending time on my freelance lighting design. If not more work, I would catch up on sleep. And if I found myself well rested with no work on the line, I would spend my time with my friends who, I must point out, were usually the people I worked with. This seemed like a perfectly normal and healthy way to be living my life.
Lockdown brought me face to face with my reality- that there was no part of my day to day life that was not tied to work.
This industry welcomed me in; offered me a creative, demanding and magical job that fit with my interests and I took it without a second thought. I wanted to do well, do my best, do better than my best, so I gave it everything I had and more. And somehow, I kept finding more to give as new experiences and opportunities to expand my knowledge were thrown my way. In being so eager to fully immerse myself in anything and everything offered to me I didn’t realise that I was building my whole life around what my work was, what it demanded and who I needed to be to do it. When I suddenly couldn’t go to work anymore I was left with just me, and I didn’t find that person very useful or interesting in this new non-theatre world. Without noticing, I had become the ‘workaholic’ that I’d never thought I’d be.
So, I have had to face many questions about what made me who I am. Had I wasted my ‘being young and stupid’ years by diving into an industry that provides little wiggle room for extracurricular activities? Am I only known for my work ethic? Am I always going to identify with the job that I do? Does anyone know me as anything other than a technician/lighting designer?
Questions, questions, questions, and no clear answers.
The idea that I may only be known for my work shook me a little. Maybe it was because I have always wanted to do so much more but never given myself space around work to do so? Maybe it is because of the negative connotations usually associated with those whose livelihood is their only distinguishable feature? If you look up to the word ‘workaholic’ in the dictionary the definition is ‘a person who works compulsively at the expense of other pursuits’. This sounded familiar; I had in many ways abandoned parts of me to pursue my career. However, I personally had always associated workaholics with people who push aside friends and family, thinking that the work was the pinnacle of achievement. I knew I was not ‘that person’ and therefore always denied the idea that I was a ‘workaholic.' But with work snatched from beneath me I struggled to find any evidence against my dependency on it. Is this a bad thing? I have always been under the assumption it was.
Was there any silver lining in this?
What I have come to realise is that my work is not a job, it’s a vocation. For many people, including myself, it is a hobby or a passion that turns into a means of paying the bills and what a spectacular way to do so. The nature of this industry means that it is hard to find an easy work/life balance, but the payoff is the ability to step into a world that is constantly changing and throwing up questions that challenge your thinking. It is a space to be as creative as you want and not be (within reason) judged for it. I adore this vibrant theatre world and I think there are worse things to be so closely associated with. Now, not being able to work, I have come to appreciate the things that working in theatre has done for me. Every day I walked into work I was walking into something new whether that be a new show or new people. I was allowed a space in which to talk about and be challenged on a wide range of subjects whether that was politics, relationships or the hardships of life.
I feel privileged to have been shaped and supported by so many strong and inspiring theatre makers. I have spent my formative years surrounded by a diverse group of people of all ages with a variety of backgrounds and experiences united with a common love and purpose. Which I feel has been an invaluable part of my growing up.
Despite the benefits of being immersed in this work I have had an unhealthy relationship with it. It has been my crutch. I am not the cold hearted, introverted, work obsessed version of ‘workaholic’ I had in my head but I have indeed worked consistently at the expense of other pursuits. But I now have time, bundles of time, to reconnect with myself in a way I have never had the chance or desire to do so before. This is my opportunity to put aside the half of me that I have nurtured for all this time and concentrate on the me that is left. It is my opportunity to paint, read, cycle, knit, do yoga and rediscover what makes me smile. Work provided me with a means to channel my creativity in a way I did not think anything else could, but I am being proven wrong.
This strange time has forced some introspection that, quietly, I am pretty glad for. It has given me space to realise that work had given me a purpose, however there are more things that bring me joy and motivation, I had just packed them away in the pursuit of my career. Diving into work had given me big goals to aim at but all the things that I have pushed aside to reach those goals mattered just as much, nurturing them could even help. Looking forward to the uncertain future I think it is time to forge a new normal. We have no idea when theatre is coming back or what is going to be like, so there is room to adapt and grow. Why not push for a better work life balance across the board? I personally am going to try and abandon my ‘workaholic’ traits and allow myself to find joy and purpose in other things. I still want theatre to continue to play a big part in my life, but I now understand that it can’t give me everything I need and that is okay. I am forever grateful for the people and experiences that I have made me who I am today but now I think it is time to slow down, have some tea and give myself a hug.
Jess with her lockdown buddy Odin.