When performing was my mainstay, the greatest accolade I could get was “Jeff works all the time.” In a fickle free-lance business, this meant that I had achieved a form of stability, that I had ‘medaled’ in clowning. I wore that medal proudly. “Works all the time” also meant that we all worked hurt – torn ligaments, sprained joints, broken vertebrae, as well as anxiety, loneliness and, for some, depression. Once, a Cirque du Soleil colleague got hit by a bus and still did the show, and every show after that.
Simone Biles’ withdrawal from competition citing mental health issues has got me thinking.
While I’m still proud of my career and feel very lucky to have reached my mid-sixties with only minor aches and pains, Biles and other athletes are forcing me to re-think my work ethos. Except for union gigs, I rarely had an understudy to spell me. This means 1) the union proves it is possible to have understudies and 2) my work-all-the-time self-image helped support an arts economy that, like sports, runs on the sprained ankles and anxious hearts of the vast majority of its frontline workers.
Economies change after pandemics; can performers and performing arts organizations follow the lead of the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) of gymnastics to change our economy?