I Will Survive: How to Dodge Fringe Burnout
Newsflash – festival season is a mental health minefield. Here's our crowd-sourced guide to keeping it together this August, whether you're here for one day or the entire month
Festivals evoke memories of fun and frivolity for most people. But I, and many others like me, find they're often also reminders of bad mental health and lost opportunity.
A couple of years back I had a not-so-rosy Fringe experience. Timed almost perfectly to the moment I stepped on to the Royal Mile, my anxiety levels went into overdrive. Suddenly, the excitement and enthusiasm I’d been filled with earlier in the day were replaced by nausea and panic. We’d planned for a day of back-to-back shows, had fuelled ourselves with samosas on the train to Edinburgh, ready to jump straight in on the other end.
In reality, the day ended up with us spending six hours in a coffee shop off the beaten track to steady my nerves. We made it to just two shows. Over the day I resented myself for not having the reserves to soak in the culture around me. I was filled with this sense of pressure to be having fun, to be present, to battle through.
It’s as if, in the midst of it all, I’d just forgotten that bad mental health days still happen. We’re less forgiving of them, for their poor timing. For detracting from the places we’ve got to be, we’ve got to see and experience. And on that day, I felt that sharply.
With so many expectations, so much to do, so much to see, soak in and celebrate; it’s no wonder that we allow ourselves to get swept up in the festival pace of life. A cocktail of working too hard, too many shows and too little sleep, followed by a hangover of burnout (and, most likely, an actual hangover too). So, with the festival season well under way, we got talking to seasoned Fringe-goers and makers, movers and shakers about the common pitfalls of festival season, and how to avoid them in the quest to protect your wellbeing. It was also a great excuse to gather their worst burnout horror stories (you’re welcome).
Evan Beswick, Editor of Fest (our Fringe sister magazine) claims immunity to burnout syndrome. “Here's why: I am blessed / cursed with an excellent regulatory mechanism whereby I just fall asleep if I overdo it.” Such soporific tendencies haven’t always proven convenient or timely, however. “I once fell asleep while reviewing a show, and did so right in front of the producer. Not, like, a little snooze. A full on head-wobbler. He clearly realised I was asleep, and me dropping my notebook really gave the game away. I had to go see the show again. In all honesty, it was better the first time around.”
We spotted a similar theme in the tale of professional terror shared by Mihaela Bodlovic, a seasoned photographer who worked last year as Edinburgh International Festival’s official photographer (she’s shit-hot). “Pretty much every year features at least one horror story of missing out on fun or important things because I’d fallen asleep hunched over the laptop somewhere. It’s not something I’m proud of and it’s Really Bad Self-Care”, she told us. In 2015 she found herself working so hard over the festival period, dashing between three jobs, that a brief nap – a blessed moment of self care – turned into a potentially career costing catastrophe. “I was meant to be coming down to photograph Fest’s launch party but made the foolish, fateful decision to take a brief nap to get me through the night,” explains Bodlovic, “Fast forward to next morning… It’s funny now but it definitely wasn’t funny then.”
Claire Stewart, Director of Creative Edinburgh, tells us how festival burnout forms part of what she calls “festival martyrdom.” She explains that with festivals come expectations “that you will work far too hard, collapse with exhaustion, probably have a blubbering existential crisis, and have to detox and sleep for a week.” This tendency to treat festivals as some kind of endurance test is a concept sure to strike a memorable chord in both creatives pulling endless shifts throughout the festivals this summer, and audience members alike. “For me there have been times where a kind of flat brain-fog set in at an inconvenient juncture and refused to shift. Appetite and sleep pattern were destroyed, and the overriding mindset became dejection and resentment towards absolutely everything. I didn't know until more recent years that was what burnout felt like... once it hits you, you're out of the game.”
Joseph Seal has worked many a Fringe as a sound engineer and installations technician. One year, he was expected to work an 11am-1am shift six days a week for the whole of August. The sheer volume of hours and the intensity of work melded into a month of insomnia, fueled by anxiety and pressure. “I was an emotional wreck. The people in charge wouldn't recognise the fact I was working beyond my physical and emotional capabilities as everybody else around me was coping.”
We jest about these endurance stories that mark us as true festival veterans. But underneath it lies a very serious issue. Burnout necessarily intersects with our wellbeing, and can be a test too far. So how do we protect ourselves against festival burnout?
If you can, take breaks
Stewart states: “Whatever your role in the festivals, know that you are neither indispensable, nor invincible, and nobody expects you to be... You are just one tiny cog in a huge machine and if you need to stop to take a rest, nothing catastrophic is going to happen.”
As Bodlovic puts it: “Where physical exhaustion ends, existential crisis begins.” Moments of self-care become replaced with questions: “Am I having enough fun? Does it look like I’m having enough fun? I’m supposed to be enjoying this. Oh god, look at those people, they’re enjoying this. Wait, why am I not enjoying this?” And those last questions linger for visitors too. Stewart’s solution to this? “There is more than enough fun to be had, you don't need to have all of it, all the time.”
Looking back at my own Fringe crisis, and the coffee shop hideout that ensued, I think that might be the year I did the Fringe right. Admittedly, not by will, but by circumstance, I took things at a slow pace. I spent time in the quieter areas of the city, and measured my experience by how well I looked after myself, not how many hours I racked up in the stalls. I came back from it a much healthier person than if I had disregarded the warning signs and attempted to drag my anxious body through the crowds.
Festivals are glorious. They are vibrant and exciting and full of new opportunities and experiences to meet. But it is for that exact reason that they can also be exhausting, busy hives of anxiety. Seal advises “keeping out of people's hair and having a sanctum away from it all.” Beswick agrees. “Get out of the city when you can. Edinburgh in August is like no place in the world. But it all means nothing if you lose perspective."