Written by Josh Orlando
There are so many popular phrases used in the theater. One of the most notable is the dramatic sentiment, “The show must go on.” It originated in the early 1900s as a popular phrase used at the circus. Ringmasters would shout “The show must go on!” in order to pacify the crowds. The phrase was used to prevent widespread panic in the audience when a wild animal turned loose or when a performer was severely injured (“The Dictionary of Cliches” by James Rogers). The phrase was passed down from the circuses to the theaters in the entertainment industry. Directors then popularized the phrase in the theater, only this time directed at the cast and crew.
“The show must go on” becomes an unspoken rule in theater. At first it sounds like an unwavering declaration of passion for the arts, but then I wonder who it puts at risk? In the world of theater, saying “The show must go on” is like saying the customer is always right. It centers the comfortability of the audience over the safety of the entertainers, or the workers. Deadlines and ticket sales take precedent over safe working conditions. By safe I mean the working conditions that ensure physical safety as well as social, emotional, and financial safety. Theater making is intimate and emotional work, so it is vital that theater makers feel safe when creating. This means that the needs of the cast and crew members should be prioritized. When we fail to center the needs of our workers, we perpetuate burn-out culture.
Since we live in a capitalist driven work force, burn-out culture is seemingly inevitable in the world of theater. Given the freelance nature of the industry, it is a constant struggle to not burn-out between shows, jobs, and a personal life. And a “show must go on” mentality directly contributes to this. But must the show go on? I often wonder what would happen if it
did not. What if the theater company refused to go on with the production until they could guarantee safer working conditions? This breaks from the tradition of rigorous theater making. But this is not to suggest that we stop making theater, I’m suggesting that we transform the way that we do.
There’s a tendency for theater companies to front the facade of strength and stability, to keep moving forward no matter the cost. But I believe that a more transformative approach would be for a theater company to be transparent in acknowledging their shortcomings. It’s so much more respectable when any company admits when they are wrong. What if the show did not go on because not everyone who worked on it had been paid yet? Or what if the show did not continue because there were sexual harassment allegations against the director? What if the show did not go on because there was a racist work environment? These are dominant narratives in the workplace, yet the shows go on.
When we know people are being harmed, must the show go on?