It’s been seven weeks since the end of my biggest producing project of the year, the Rogue Festival (it’s basically the region’s Fringe Festival). I thought I’d get back to blogging here earlier, but the post-show slumps can sometimes throw me for a loop. And that reminded me that back in February, I told Guylty at Guylty Pleasure that I’d cover the “post-show slump” (from here on out, the “PSS”) on this blog sometime.
Assuming we’re talking about the kind of PSS that we also call the Post-Show Blues or Post-Show Let Down, I can say that it is – without a doubt – a real thing. But I also think it is a thing that anyone who works on high-intensity projects in creative and/or problem-solving fields tends to experience. I know teachers who get something like PSS in the first weeks of summer break and event planners who get it after a major fundraiser launches.
But the following is my experience with it and how other performers and producers I’ve known often experience it. Most of this will apply to folks who have space on the calendar in between projects, by the way. I’ll have an addendum at the end regarding how it often affects folks who tend to stack projects back-to-back, like certain British actors we could name.
First, what is PSS?
“Moody Actor, Anti-Socialite”
Well, it is a downer mood that strikes creative-types at the very end of a project and continues for days, weeks, or possibly months following the project’s end. It is characterized by exhaustion, withdrawal from social life, irritability, malaise, dissatisfaction, and even mild disorientation like the kind of lightheadedness associated with having the flu. It is hard to focus and get your head in the game.
Even when the end of the project is a relief, the project was a success, and we look forward to “getting our lives back”, Post-Show Slump can catch us. The slump can feel a bit like depression, although thankfully we come to understand that PSS is not debilitating. That’s how we usually know the difference between PSS and clinical depression. The first is part of the process of the creative work we do. The second is far more serious and requires more immediate attention.
Causes of PSS
I have a few ideas about what specifically contributes to PSS (although everyone is different, of course!).
First and foremost is obviously just mental and/or physical fatigue. But it isn’t quite the same when compounded with the following:
- The abrupt change in schedule and the re-orienting shift in life’s intensity level. When days are strictly scheduled around emotionally intense rehearsals and performances, around long days of shooting, around production meetings or project preparation, the lack of that intensity is like the bottom dropped out of our days. Suddenly, there are wide swaths of time we have no idea how to fill.
- The sudden lack of purpose and focus to our mental and emotional lives. Creative types are often driven toward experiences of heightened emotion and pursue projects that have great meaning for them. The performance of a part or the production of something that has great value to us gets our juices flowing. The absence of that pursuit can be disconcerting, even when it is a relief that we don’t have to push ourselves for a while.
- Finally, the sudden change in personal identity. Everyone’s identities shift as needed. We go from worker to parent in a single day. Or friend to boss. For most people, these shifts are fairly routine. For performers, a part of their identity has been given over to a character for a goodly amount of time. For directors, producers, or other creative pursuers, the identity is intensely crafted with each project. As the project is built, so are we. And when the project goes away, so does that identity. For me, in particular, I tend to think “We are what we do.” And when I’m not directing a show, I don’t feel like a director. When I’m not producing an arts event, I’m not a producer. I have to rebuild my identity where those labels take a smaller or different place in my life. “I’m not a director, RIGHT NOW.” “I am Heather, not Executive Director.” It takes some readjustment to reacquaint myself with myself, so to speak.
“You can spend a bit of yourself when you give yourself to a character. At the end of a job, you have to remind yourself who and what you are.” – Richard Armitage
Usually these causes are not so specifically articulated, of course. We all go through “slumps”, right? And they’re usually caused by myriad strands, knotting up in our heads and hearts until we get them all untangled. While we may not be able to say, “Well, I’m taking some time to rebuild my identity and re-orient my focus,” we can say, “I’m just going through my usual Post-Show Slump. I’ll be good in a few weeks.”
The Remedy: Rest and Recovery
And they are two different things:
Rest entails the actual ceasing of activity in order to let the body and mind repair. It allows space in our lives. Space for more sleep, for quiet time, to begin the slow release of the tension built up over the life-span of the project. We tend to turn away from social media or too many social obligations during this time. We hibernate. Read. Relax. Meditate. Pray. It also allows space for a good review of the successes and failures of the project (or a post-mortem, as I call it). It is during rest that we place the project away from ourselves so we can begin to think about it more objectively.
Recovery is the beginnings of activity again. It can be slow at the beginning, but we gradually dip our toes back into life as we know it. A new or regular schedule is established. Personal care moves to the forefront – regular exercise or a nutritional reboot. We begin to re-establish the social connections and return to our creative exercises. At this point, we begin to look around for or prep our next project. It feels like a renaissance, even if we’re still a bit tired or mentally spent, the creative habit is a hard one to break.
And the cycle begins again. The cycle’s timing and intensity is different for everyone. I tend to need a lot more down time to recharge my creative batteries. I have friends who need a week or two and others who double book themselves. And for them. . .
The Post-Show Slump for Creative Work-a-holics:
While those of us with day-jobs tend to space out our creative projects because we have to have some energy left over for the work that pays the bills, what about those folks whose bread-and-butter depends on going from one job to the next with little to no time in-between?
Well, they have PSSs, too. But it is more complicated for them.
When moving from one project to another, Rest time has to be carved out of an already busy schedule. This often means something else has to go. Less social time after shows or on days off. Less social media unless they can multitask it (although for some more outgoing types, that’s when they DO their social media. They can get the interaction with people without leaving the house). But no matter what, their schedules get whittled down the essentials only, so they can build in more Rest.
If there are obligations to be met, they often go into protective mode regarding their time and space. They establish heavy-duty boundaries and have a larger need for structure around their daily lives as they are usually finishing one project and prepping another simultaneously. They need to control the shift from one thing to the other so they can pace themselves and as such, they vacillate between Rest and Recovery modes.
Having a project on the horizon often solves the issue of lack of purpose or focus. That’s really helpful. But they can still mourn or miss the previous project while being enthusiastic about the next. It leads to a lot of mixed feelings.
The shift in schedule and mental preparation between two projects is still disorienting for a bit. But since it has to happen fast, they have to remain flexible and prepared. Again, this means time carved out to allow that process to happen.
Also, for these always-busy creatives, social connections tend to be based around projects. Letting go of the close ties one has on the last project and getting in the swing with new folks takes a lot of energy. That’s why a lot of projects in the creative arts tend to encourage people to bond pretty quickly.
The Long-Term PSS
Sometimes the PSS can extend over a number of projects, remaining under the surface as we work on project after project. It’s not really “The Blues”, per se, but it can be a general time of overall introspection, even as the performer is working constantly. For some, this time can go on for a year or more as they consider their overall creative lives, allowing Rest where it can happen and Recovery when it is possible. The long-term PSS is really just a time of dialing back the intensity in other areas of life so we can internally prepare for the next really great project, whatever we hope it may be, otherwise we won’t be ready for it.
“I’ve acheived a fraction of what I’m interested in doing. There are a million roles I’d like to play and I’d like to develop my own projects.” -Richard Armitage
So the Post-Show Slump is a real thing. But it is quite similar to the emotional cycles other people experience in their lives. The main difference may be that creatives’ emotional lives run at a high RPM and the highs and lows tend to be more extreme.
But as long as we allow ourselves the space and time to experience the PSS, we learn it is an integral part of the process of creativity and we roll with it as best we can.
PS – As for myself, I’m well into the Recovery phase now and may be directing a play this summer. As for our favorite working British actor. . . your guess is as good as mine!