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How I came back to theatre after the world fell apart.

Have you ever considered how much we, as theatre creatives, experience ‘letting go’? We’re constantly letting go of:

  • Expectations – that show experience that didn't turn out like we had built it up in our minds to be;

  • Auditions – shows or roles we prepared so hard for and didn’t get;

  • Shows – ‘post show blues’ are real. Directors get them as well.

  • People – not everyone we share a stage with is meant to be a lifelong friend, although it feels like it when we say goodbye after that closing night party.

I don’t think we realise how much we let go of. It can sometimes feel like we live in a constant state of grieving. We either learn to process this grief or we’re overwhelmed by it, allowing it to affect our relationships and stifle our creative growth, clinging to the familiar to avoid more pain. We end up stuck, in avoidance, never reaching our potential.

The last few years have added their own challenges to our wellbeing as creatives. Since 2020, I've seen a creative community discover that the resilience they thought they had, wasn't enough, many fighting to maintain their sense of wonder for a craft they once filled their lives with.

Today is my grandmother's birthday. She died 6 years ago but would have been 100 today; a woman whose life experiences made my own life look like I have lived under a rock. Granny was amazing - a theatre actress and director, an inspiration and teacher to myself and many others over a 60 year career.

I remember listening to tributes at her funeral, from actors she had directed over the years. I heard the same phrase over and over...

“Go out and come back in again.”

Again and again, this phrase was recited by each person. She had said it to actors during rehearsals many times and it had stuck with all of them. It began to feel like Granny was speaking directly to me.

“Sherryl-Lee, go out and come back in again.”

As I pondered that phrase over the next few months, I realised something. Going out and coming back in again, implies change. You can go out as many times as you like but you’re not meant to come back in as you left. You’re meant to spend your “off stage time” considering your state, your choices and how you want to move your character (life) forward. If you come back in exactly the way you left, you’ve missed the point.

Coming back in doesn’t need to involve some massive revelation. It may simply be a choice to improve your performance skills, consistently arrive on time to rehearsals or be more positive in your self talk and how you talk about others.

The decision to go out and come back in again is also not a one off action. You do it constantly throughout life. This allows us to accept failure as part of our process, instead of the enemy most of us view it as. If you get something wrong, simply go out and come back in again – and find a better way of doing, creating, being, living.

Granny's phrase has stayed with me. Who knew we would experience the events of 2020. I definitely went out then and struggled to come back in. Working in the arts was a disaster that year. I had built a self taping studio and business that supported performing artists, advising them on how to build a brand and promote their work. Overnight, that business closed. I had no income for 6 months.

That same year, my husband fought for his life, spending 4 months healing in hospital and learning to walk again. Our lives had completely changed. I went out, but it took me a long time before I was ready to come back in again.

I learned many things while I was 'off stage'.

  • I discovered the generosity of people, so many helping us survive the toughest time of our lives. I had met most of these angels during my community theatre life. Gifts of all types would turn up just when they were needed physically and emotionally.

  • Time away from community theatre can be healthy and sometimes necessary to reignite our enjoyment of it. Taking time to explore the world outside the rehearsal room can be healing and necessary to our mental health. We can keep ourselves so busy with show after show that we don't have time to be alone with our thoughts (now there's a conversation for another time).

  • That time away was necessary for me to explore how I really wanted to 'come back in'. I'd had to close down my studio in 2020 and had the opportunity to completely redevelop my business model. I'd been successfully marketing theatre for a decade at that point. I discovered that with a shift in direction, I could be more productive and helpful to a wider part of the theatre community.

  • As a leader, I am drawn to people who struggle to belong. I notice the ones who isolate themselves at rehearsals. I feel protective of people who don't conform to who society says they should be. I have little patience with people who are careless with those who they believe are different (still working on the grace for that one). Coming back in, these values have lead my approach to theatre projects, cast, theatre organisations. I believe 'group reflects leadership' and I'm always seeking to be stronger at leading each group.

I had the chance to give up on theatre. I considered it - strongly. 2020 was exhausting, but here's one of the most important lessons I learned.

I could acknowledge the sh*t show it was as a season. It would pass. "This too shall pass" is the saying. Nothing is forever. Not good. Not bad. Everything changes all the freakin' time! I needed to spend my 'going out' time learning how to accept this lesson or I would fight it, I would never improve, I would not discover something new.

Learning to sit in the mess of life is an ongoing lesson for someone who looks for ways to control outcomes, but I'm starting to see the light, way down at the end of that tunnel. I can feel it and it's giving me the strength to explore new things. New ideas for supporting community theatre organisations and artists. I've stepped away from the areas that I no longer feel useful in; no longer enjoy, and have opened new avenues and ideas that help my precious theatre community.

Realising that all I had to do was 'go out and come back in again', having spent time 'off the stage' healing, considering and growing, gave me hope. There is an end to each season and life is about navigating it.

So Granny, I'm going out and each time I come back in, I’ve determined to be braver, more protective of my time and, in honour of your courageous approach to life, I refuse to make decisions based on what I think others want of me. You know, just some little lessons.

What's your theatre journey been like since 2020? Have you struggled to reignite the hope, the joy you used to get from creating theatre? I'd love to hear your story.

The best you can do is all you need to do!

Sherryl-Lee Secomb writes her blog, An Idiot On Stage, specifically to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Sher has been building brands for performing creatives in Australia since 2011 and now advises theatre organisations and performing artists in marketing their work and building awareness of their brand.


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