29th July 2021

How to Navigate the Emotional Landscape of a Career Change

career change

On Thursday, March 12, I went into work as usual, and that evening we had our Final Dress Rehearsal for a mixed repertory program meant to open the next day. On Friday, March 13, I went into work and learned about the cancellation of the entire run of that mixed rep. It was being rescheduled for about two months later, and in the meantime, we were told to gather what we needed to work from home and leave the office.

Those two months came and went. We did not get back into the theatre to perform our program that had been fully tech’d and ready to open. More performances were cancelled. Two tours were cancelled. We were told to start prepping next season. And then in June, the layoffs came.

This story isn’t unique, it is happening to theatre professionals all over the world. Seemingly overnight, our lives changed. We went from having careers, incomes, plans – to being unemployed with no certainty as to when our industry might return. It is an open-ended question where the circumstances change daily, full of ambiguity and unpredictability, and completely out of our control. This makes it almost impossible to know how to make plans one way or another.

The struggle for many of us is – do we stick it out and wait for the jobs to come back? Do we collect unemployment and/or find temporary work to get us through for an unknown amount of time? Or do we use this as an opportunity to change paths and re-evaluate our direction?

I recently wrote about how stage managers can market their skills outside the theatre industry. There are tangible, practical ways to translate what we do into more widely understood terms and apply our skills when considering a career change. However, navigating the emotional landscape of a career change is much more complicated. And even if we make the choice for ourselves to leave the industry and it’s the correct choice for us, we aren’t immune to the emotional upheaval.

Making the decision to change careers is difficult even under normal circumstances, but we’re currently in crisis mode. A quick Google search will bring up many helpful articles about how to manage the emotional side of a career change – but as artists, we’re facing a few unique emotional challenges. Here are a few ways we may navigate those challenges.

1. A shift towards “Both/And” thinking

“The only way to live with ambiguous loss is to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time.”
– Pauline Boss

As artists, we have dedicated our lives to this career. Really – it chose us. From the very beginning there was the part of us drawn to self-expression through the arts, or the need to perform, or an interest in how performers interact with clothes, props, light, or music.

Most people in the workforce don’t feel this kind of connection to what they do, and therefore don’t experience the same kind of loss when they lose their job. For us, not only does it hurt financially, it’s an emotional loss as well. We’ve left a part of ourselves in the empty theatres. The thought of leaving the industry now feels like an abandonment of that part of ourselves, our love for the arts, and our entire history of past selves who worked so hard to get where we are.

However, our passion and dedication to the theatre industry is not dependent on the source of our income. The either/or thinking that leads us to believe we don’t care about the arts if we choose another career is inaccurate. We are not abandoning that part of who we are by changing paths. We can incorporate both/and thinking and hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time by believing that we are both an artist and whatever we choose to do next.

2. Saying good-bye to the guilt

Many of us are experiencing guilt surrounding our unemployment as well as when considering a career change. We feel shame at being unemployed even though it was through no fault of our own, we are embarrassed to ask for help or admit that we need it. We feel guilty that we want to use this time to go in a different direction, afraid that we are abandoning our own artistic selves, as well as our colleagues and the companies we work for. We are afraid a career change means we love the arts less than those who decide to stay, and that we will be judged.

Please remember – we don’t owe anyone anything when it comes to making choices about our own lives. You do not owe the company that laid you off any promise of sitting by the phone waiting for them to bring you back. As much as you may have loved your team, you do not owe them a guarantee that you will return. You can support your colleagues, advocate for the arts and do what is right for your financial and emotional well-being. These things are not mutually exclusive.

3. Learn to be comfortable in the unknown

Ambiguous loss, really any kind of ambiguity, is especially difficult to reconcile – particularly in a culture (and industry) that so emphasizes productivity, success, and “doing”. We don’t know how to live in the unknown, we don’t know how to move forward with questions still unanswered.

“We come from a culture, in this country, of mastery orientation. We like to solve problems. We’re not comfortable with unanswered questions, and this is full of unanswered questions. These are losses that are minus facts… That kind of mystery, I think, gives us a feeling of helplessness that we’re very uncomfortable with, as a society.”
– Pauline Boss

If we can learn to be comfortable with unanswered questions, unknowns, and accept what we cannot control, we will free up so much mental and emotional energy. We will be able to see things more clearly, calmly and rationally – allowing us the wherewithal to take things one day at a time.

“Just do the next right thing, one thing at a time. That’ll take you all the way home.”
– Glennon Doyle

Whenever our industry does return, it will need experienced, smart, and compassionate artists and leaders to do the difficult work of re-building. If you decide to wait and be a part of bringing performances back to the stage – thank you. We need you. That is the correct choice. If you decide this is an opportunity for you to explore other interests or take your life in another direction and meet other needs while still loving and supporting the arts – thank you. We need you. That is the correct choice.

If your team member, friend, colleague, loved one, boss, or employee makes a different decision than you – please support them. All any of us can do is what we believe to be correct for us, in this moment. However people choose to move forward from here, the arts will return. The community as a whole will not let the theatres remain dark.

Also on TheatreArtLife:

How Do Stage Managers Market Their Skills Outside the Theatre Industry?

You Don’t Need a Backup Plan: Grab Another Basket

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After graduating with a BFA in Violin Performance, Vanessa transitioned into stage management. She worked as a freelance stage manager for six years for opera and ballet companies all over the country before accepting a full time position with Houston Ballet. After only three years with Houston Ballet, the Coronavirus pandemic shut down all live performances, ultimately resulting in a layoff for Vanessa in mid-2020. She has since accepted a contract gig in a totally different industry for the time being, but continues to be involved in efforts to improve the working conditions in the performing arts industry, and therefore the lives of all who work in the arts.

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