Sleepless in Theatre

By Angelique and Leazah

We work in an industry that does not always have normal business hours.  We care deeply about the art we are creating, and long hours are unavoidable (see load-in, tour, and tech weeks).  A majority of us in the Twin Cities work as freelance technicians, which can compound our long days when we must balance the workload of several theatre companies at once to create a living.  

We frequently work long shifts, doing physical tasks, sometimes for multiple companies within the same day, and for weeks or even months on end without a day off. Try as hard as we can, working after midnight sometimes can’t be avoided, and with that comes another layer of stress and fatigue.  

Here’s the thing about working late shifts – it’s not just about the exhaustion at the end of that night. “Working a night shift means working against your body’s natural inclination to turn off certain key functions like consciousness and mobility. You can certainly force yourself to stay awake and mobile, but your body still wants to shut down. That leads to a reduction in focus, attention, productivity, and fine motor skills. In certain jobs, when you’re not able to give your work complete attention, the risk of injury increases dramatically” [1].

Research estimates that 13% of workplace injuries can be attributed to fatigue, and the more hours worked, regardless of how much you normally sleep, it also increases the risk of injury [2]. “43% of Americans say they do not get enough sleep to mitigate critical risks that can jeopardize safety at work and on the roads,” reports a survey from the National Safety Council (NSC) [3].  When driving (including driving home after that long or late shift), the most common causes of crashes include missing road hazards, noticing them too slowly, and choosing the wrong defensive driving action. According to that same NSC survey, “you are three times more likely to be in a car crash if you are fatigued, and losing even two hours of sleep is similar to the effect of having three beers” [4].

Getting proper amounts of sleep is also important for a ton of restorative reasons [5], and the dangers of working while exhausted at night are more than just making mistakes, having an accident, or worse causing one. It screws with your natural sleep patterns, which can compound the problem by causing insomnia. Having an irregular bedtime routine and getting different amounts of sleep from night to night has been linked to higher chances of metabolic syndrome, a group of factors that raise your risk for heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and stroke. Additionally, depression and other mood disorders love to tango with sleep deprivation and exhaustion, with one causing the other to get worse and vice versa [6].

But let’s be honest folks – we have bills to pay, art to create, and the show opens next week, so we do what we gotta do, and work those late-night calls.  However, it doesn’t mean we can’t do it as safe and smart as we can. 

Here are some tips and tricks:

  1. Rest up. Hopefully, you have enough notice to plan ahead and can adjust your sleep schedule the day before AND after a long or late shift. 
  2. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. It seems counter-intuitive, but because caffeine stays in your system for hours, it makes it even harder to sleep. And as nice as it sounds after a hard night’s work, alcohol messes with your sleep and REM cycle. 
  3. Avoid ladders and dangerous power tools when exhausted. It’s just an accident waiting to happen.  
  4. Don’t work alone! We all know that exhaustion can lead to accidents, and you need someone else around if you need medical care. 


Not working alone provides us a great transition point to talk about how Twin Cities theatres handle the subject of late-night work calls.   

Technicians for Change recently put together two surveys with the goal being to get a small snapshot view of some of the policies in place at Twin Cities theatre companies when it comes to working late-night work calls/shifts. 

To create this snapshot we narrowed our survey audience to those technicians and designers that primarily work in the Twin Cities and major ring of suburbs, and those that work in theatre, dance, or opera (NOT concerts, film, or similar corporate events). It wasn’t perfect (we are technicians not statisticians) and with any self-reporting survey, we knew we would get some incomplete data. Still, we gathered a lot of interesting info.

Graphs of statistics from survey results.

The first big takeaway from the survey was that 38% of technicians reported that they volunteer to work after midnight. As one freelancer stated, “I often have a lot of shows stacked at one time, meaning work has to be done after midnight. […] Although it isn’t always my choice; often the only time I can get in the space to do what is needed is overnight to avoid other department’s work calls and rehearsal time.”    

The second biggest observation was the number of theatres that don’t give a proper 8-10 hours of turn around time between shifts, but more importantly the staggering amount of freelancers that choose to work for another company without a proper amount of rest after a late night call. This speaks directly to the idea that, as stated by an anonymous respondent, “We as a community are perpetuating the late-night work schedule as part of our culture, when we should be more conscious of our own safety and limitations.”    

Some technicians are stopping this cycle by being better advocates for themselves; by creating limits to how late they are willing to work, requesting that they not be left alone late at night, and as another respondent stated “simply recognizing that three stupid/tired mistakes means the end of the call.”  

The surveys were not intended to create a list of “bad” theatres, but instead to see what trends and patterns were happening in our community. However, when the respondents were asked what theatre companies they thought had a good policy towards late-night calls, a majority of them, concluded that most of the IATSE Local 13 union houses tended to be best. Not surprisingly, it was due to items like extra pay, not working alone, and other focuses on worker safety. 

One non-union theatre company did receive several thumbs up for their policy, and it is mostly because they intentionally avoid late night calls. Merritt Rodriguez, the Production Manager of Penumbra Theatre, explained, “From a scheduling standpoint, our goal is to never require anyone to be in the building before 8 am or after midnight, actors and technicians alike. The reason for this practice is two-fold; for the safety of our workers, and out of respect for the lives they lead outside of our walls. It is [Penumbra’s] responsibility as employers to put into place respectful and sustainable practices so that we can continue to work with the technicians who dedicate themselves to our company.” 

In conclusion. 

As technical craftspeople, we generally love what we do. However working in theater is still simply a job, and it is important to keep this in mind. The safety implications intrinsic to the work we do are not just physical but mental too. It is unnecessary and ineffective to add the demand of working hard while we are tired. Much of this problem is changing the wider culture, which is outside the scope of this article. Better collaboration among employers and employees about reasonable workloads is needed, and that conversation is started by being a better advocate for yourself and those around you. Thankfully, the training of younger workers may already be starting to change this cycle of working while exhausted. Remember that as freelance workers, technicians have the power to choose which companies we wish to support with our time and work.  

References:

[1] “10 Effects Of Working Night Shifts (And How To Combat Them).” Sling, January 12, 2018. https://getsling.com/blog/effects-of-working-night-shifts/. Accessed August 31, 2019.
[2] “Work-related Fatigue.” National Safety Council, https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/safety-topics/work-related-fatigue/. Accessed August 31, 2019.
[3] “43 Percent of Americans Admit They’re Too Tired to Function at Work.” Occupational Health and Safety Online, https://ohsonline.com/articles/2017/07/27/43-percent-of-americans-admit-they-are-too-tired-to-function-at-work.aspx. Accessed August 31, 2019.
[4] “More Than 90% of Crashes Caused by Human Error.” National Safety Council, https://www.nsc.org/road-safety/safety-topics. Accessed August 31, 2019.
[5] “Why Do We Sleep, Anyway?” Harvard Medical School, http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/why-do-we-sleep. Accessed August 31, 2019.
[6] Cruise, Cathy. “Teens who lack sleep at greater risk for depression, suicide, warns Mason researcher.” George Mason University, May 18, 2016. https://www2.gmu.edu/news/237521. Assessed August 31, 2019.

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