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Breaking your Back for your Career…Literally

August 14, 2013

Its more frustrating than continual audition rejection, its more exasperating than the tirelessly competitive work environment, its more defeating than the occasional dry period of work. I am referring to the nightmare of injuring yourself as a performer. Nothing is more discouraging, of course physically, but also emotionally than the inability to do what you love (and support yourself financially) because of an accidental ailment. As someone who works in the stunt industry I’ve seen actors pause their careers for months or years at a time from shattered knees and torn shoulders….or worse, I’ve seen careers dwindle away entirely from injuries too serious to recover from.

Dancers, acrobats, and stunt artists continually push themselves to the limit and subject their bodies to painful abuse for the sake of a good show. How do we recognize when we’ve reached our limits, and when we do, how the heck are we supposed to stop?? What happens when you perform in a permanent Cirque show as an aerialist and you break your leg? You simply stop eating and paying rent for the next six months while your frail, damaged body tries to get back to the way it once was? And when it does heal, how much more likely are you to re-injure an already fragile body part?

Equally challenging is when a performer has a minor injury like sore wrist or a sprained finger. They deem the pain as simply a factor they must endure in order to keep their job, and they persist in tumbling on it several times a day, five days a week. This minor injury, when exposed to more abuse, will exponentially increase and lead to perhaps wildly more serious problems. My overall concern can then be summed up in one question: how responsible is the employing company for preserving the health and well-being of their performers?

This question lies near and dear to my heart as one of my most unfortunate experiences in this industry arises from my inability, or a company’s inability, to preserve my well-being during a long and physically demanding dance contract. To examine the question, I consider two different contracts I have worked for over an extended period of time. Both placed high physical demands on my body and both underwent some extreme situations during the duration of my employment.

The first is a high energy dance show that gives entirely new meaning to the word stamina. Performed multiple times a day every day, in heeled shoes, with partner work/lifts, in exhaustive heat, at an overseas resort with only three performers relocated for the contract. “The show must go on.” We live and breathe this phrase, but can it be taken too far? Imagine one of the three performers is on a several week holiday, and another becomes injured. The third performer is required to then perform in 5 shows a day, 7 days a week when they are contracted (and only physically acclimated) to doing 3-4 shows a day, 5 days a week. Overloaded with an obscene amount of work and no argument against this condemnation except “I wish to end my contract and go home”, performer number three is now entering into a very dangerous environment that could likely result in an injury. If performer one Is out of the county and performers two and three are both injured, does the show, which brings in thousands of audience members per day shut down? Not in this country. The performers are told to work or go home…regardless of physical ailment. I’m talking broken bones, nodes, torn muscles, heart attack, stroke, death…

Here’s a more personal touch. I am performer number three who worked non stop for a few weeks and ended up slipping a disc in my back during some tricky partner work. Maybe I became complacent from exhaustion and wasn’t as careful as I should have been with the choreo, maybe my partner wasn’t supporting me correctly, or maybe this is just a freak accident that comes with the territory of being a dancer. Whatever the cause, and whoever is at fault, I was told by several doctors that I was not fit for work. But with no one else to do the show, I was told by my company that I needed to work no matter what. That I was contractually obligated to do the show as many times as necessary. Yes, there are rules in my contract about injuries, doctors notes and insurance claims, however, it’s very easy for a major company to bend rules and find ways around contracts or simply rewrite contracts whenever they see fit, then ask you to comply or go home. Unfortunately, PERFORMERS ARE EXPENDABLE, all a company needs to do is hold another audition or pull tapes from their last audition to replace you quicker than you can file a complaint.

As I take great pride in my work and certainly don’t want to upset the company that is in charge of basically my entire life during my stay abroad….I continued to dance….and ended up with a torn ligament to go with my slipped disc.
Eventually, the pain became too great, the risk of destroying my career as a dancer grew too frightening, and my frustration with a careless company became too upsetting. I left my contract regardless of how much I loved that show, how great the money was, and how exciting life abroad can be. I refuse to put my life in the hands of a large corporation that cares more about bringing in funds rather than producing safe art and maintaining a healthy cast. I am one of many who made this decision during this very same contract and as life altering as it may have been, I knew this was the right decision.

The second show I examine is a dynamic stunt show equipped with everything from fighting and explosions, to rope swings and acrobatics. Having worked with this company for almost five years, I have seen injuries great and small and seen the company not only support their performers with health insurance and installing temporary changes to the show, but also morally comfort them and stand by them, caring for their well-being and the future of their careers. This company not only doesn’t force their injured performers to work, they wont ALLOW their actors to perform until completely healed and free from risk. Not only as a safety to the individual but for the well-being of other cast members and the overall integrity of the show!

A performer at this company injured their knee and was therefore out of the show for an extended period of time. The company set them up with office work to do for the extent of their injury so they would not be out of work. The performer was not allowed back into the show until cleared by a doctor and personally at ease with performing again. Once they began again, certain stunts were cut out completely or morphed for an easier impact on the injury. Cast and crew were constantly on the lookout for ways to help out the show and support the performer. This stunt man healed correctly and still has a promising career ahead, not to mention a deep-rooted respect and loyalty to a company that shows compassion and responsibility to their employees.

The sudden inability to perform in the show that you know and love is more painful than the injury itself. Having to sit at home and watch a show go on without you is torture beyond comprehension. But a temporary amount of time spent resting and healing is better than permanently destroying your body and having to change careers. I’ve written about ways to choose contracts and prioritize jobs but nothing is as important as how well your job is going to take care of you in the event of an injury.

I always felt invincible. I’m an adrenaline junky and a workout fanatic. I’m young and in great shape so how could I injure myself? It happens, and your entire future can be affected if you go about it the wrong way. Just as a musician cares for their instrument, we must care for our bodies. They have to last as our instruments for the next several decades.

The Reckless Artist sig

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