ARTICLE BY JULIA GALLAGHER
Julia Gallagher is the Assistant Production Director at the Minnesota Opera, and formerly Production Manager at Mixed Blood Theater, a freelance Stage Manager and the Production Stage Manager at Mixed Blood Theater. I’m honoured to have able to work with her throughout all these stages of her career, and to have learned so much from her over that time. Now, with us both having grown much older - and her so much wiser - in these years, I am honoured to once again learn from her. - Wu Chen
When Wu Chen approached me to write an essay for this newsletter, he asked me specifically to address the period of time that I left theater altogether—specifically, why I left and why I came back. He wrote, “I think these are questions (and I suspect answers) that will resonate with many people in the industry.” My response was a swift and resounding “Yes.” Certainly I have many thoughts and feelings about the choices I’ve made and the forces (both internal and external) that influenced them. However, when I sat down to actually put this all down on paper, I struggled. How much do I want to share? How do I frame my story? What do I want people to learn from my personal struggles? Honestly… I’m not sure I have the answers to all of those questions. I have a very complicated relationship with what we do and the culture in which we do it—and maybe Wu Chen suspected this is true for more of us than we choose to admit out loud. So here it is: my story as honestly as I can tell it. It’s messy, not always flattering, and perhaps not a cohesive narrative. I feel vulnerable putting it out here so publicly. So, I ask you to bear with me and take from it what you will.
I was twenty-six years old when I decided to leave theater. I had been working as an Equity stage manager for just shy of five years. At age sixteen I decided I was going to be a professional stage manager and then I stuck to it. I was ‘living the dream’ as it were, clocking forty to fifty Equity weeks a year, enjoying my kick-ass health insurance, and being involved in some amazing, meaningful projects of which I was and am truly proud. I was also struggling with anxiety and depression, feelings of alienation from my friends with their free evenings & weekends and PTO, and staying afloat financially. A hard look at my life determined that the path I was on was not sustainable or healthy for me. So, I decided that I was done being a stage manager. When you are a freelancer, there is no easing out, no easy stop: you set an end date and you stick to it. I said ‘No’ to offers and withdrew from some others (with ample lead time). I ended my stage management career with an especially powerful piece and tried to walk away gracefully.
To be fair, my intention at that point was not to fully leave theater, but to transition out of stage management into something more administrative and NOT freelance (my general goal was production management which I thought would suit me). However, making that decision in the middle of a major recession didn’t work out so well. I ended up in a corporate job, as an entry-level employee, doing data entry and working a true 40-hour week, with PTO, benefits, and all the rest. I still had a small theater gig on the side that I clung to, trying to keep a connection with the world I was leaving behind—only partially by choice. (I will also note, that I was making 30% more annually than I had ever made before for doing trained monkey work. Seriously. But that’s another article.)
I had to leave that little job behind when my personal life exploded a few months later in a variety of ways—not the least of which was my mother being diagnosed with breast cancer. Something had to give and that was the tiny, little theater gig. Which I quit. Very unprofessionally. I don’t particularly want to dwell on that time, but here is what I will say for the trained-monkey corporate job—it allowed me time and space to heal and adapt. I was able to travel most weekends to see my parents while my mother went through treatment (she’s doing great and is five-years cancer free!). I worked on my mental health and healed many friendships. I got married. My job got outsourced and I was hired into a different division. Things settled into a routine.
And then, almost two years after I had walked away from stage management, I got an email from an old colleague and mentor asking me to apply to be his company’s production manager. I hadn’t been actively looking to come back (and there was no guarantee I would get this job), but as soon as the carrot was dangled, that old itch started up again. When I took stock of my life, it was all going fine, but I was bored and I missed ‘my people.’ I had doubts about the specific position, but I figured that it was a way back into the performing arts world.
Once again, the old pattern emerged. I believed deeply in the art we were making, but the hours were endless, the money tight, and the expectations unachievable. I found that I loved the work of a production manager, but the job at this particular organization… not so much. Cue my old friends—depression and anxiety— this time with bonus panic attacks. The organization was less than supportive. When I asked for help, it was interpreted as weakness and my work was put under a microscope. When I asked for time off, it was treated as a betrayal of my duty to the company. With the help of my support system (and an excellent therapist), I determined that it was time to move on. This time, I truly had no plan. I felt defeated, like I truly wasn’t strong enough. It seemed that over and over again the theater world made it clear that I couldn’t do the job I loved and take proper care of myself and my mental health.
In all my writing and re-writing, this has emerged as the key narrative. Every time I have walked away from a job or profession it has been in service to my mental health. As anyone who has dealt with anxiety and depression can tell you, the best way to manage it is to identify both triggers and coping mechanisms for when brain chemistry revolts. It turns out that part of that self-care routine is having a job I truly believe in. On paper, the corporate job allowed me to do everything my mental health requires, but something was still noticeably absent from my life. It turns out being fulfilled by and connected to the work I do is an integral part of who I am. But, I was still being told, both explicitly and implicitly, that expecting to be able to find my own personal balance as a production manager (or stage manager) was not reasonable.
However, this narrative that I wrestled with for the better part of ten years has ultimately been proven false. The job I’ve landed in has turned out to provide that happy medium that I had been conditioned to believe impossible. I’m still working in production, but I’m at a much larger company, with a much larger support system. I have an amazing boss who is also a mentor. It’s not perfect—no job is—but the fit is right for me. I don’t connect with the onstage work at the same level I had in the past, but I’m able to channel the need for passion projects into other areas that I never had the chance to consider before (ask me about education some time!). I still have times that challenge my mental health needs and coping mechanisms, but that doesn’t happen every day, or even every week, which means that I have more room to be resilient.
The point, I guess, is this; we choose to make our lives in this brutal industry. And there is a myth in this industry that you have to be a martyr—that you have to work THAT hard for THAT little and give up THAT much in your life, and the power of the art will be enough in the end. This just flat-out doesn’t work for me. Call it brain chemistry, personality, or character, I’m not cut out for this business in that way. And that’s okay. Over time (and through a lot of therapy—therapy is key), I’ve come to realize that valuing myself at least as much as my company and the art that I’m making is okay - good, even. All it took was finding the right fit for me (FOR ME—what’s right for me won’t be right for everyone) to finally understand that I am enough and I do belong here.