Feeling the burn

As creative souls, it’s only fair that we get to go a little bit nuts every so often. Sometimes it can even be a necessary part of the artistic process.

But the middle of a long run at a big festival – potentially many, many miles from home – is not the best time to have a meltdown, even if the environment is utterly conducive to it.

Burnout who?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion, caused by excessive, ongoing stress. It can happen when you feel overwhelmed, or unable to meet constant demands.

If the stress doesn’t let up, you begin to lose interest and motivation. In the worst case scenario, you could find yourself sinking into a pit of despair, with lasting effects on your wellbeing. Burnout is also the number one killer of Fringe shows.



I’m concerned by the stress of the arts world.

As if it isn’t taxing enough that we put ourselves, our processes and our outcomes up for scrutiny, we then have to continually fight our corner to justify our existence and the value of our work.

It’s a daunting concept for the hardiest of performers, but throw an insane level of competition into the mix and it’s enough to break your mental health.

Thankfully, there are ways to keep an eye on it. So for the sake of your sanity; check yourself, before you wreck yourself.

Size does matter…

Having spent the past 8 years working for the largest arts festival in the world, I’ve seen my fair share of broken spirits brought on by the sheer scale of the festival.

Now I know they say that size doesn’t matter. But they also say the bigger it is, the harder it is to take. I’m conflicted on that one.

What I can agree on is that the more competition you are up against, the more it matters that you get good reviews, that industry people come to see your work, and that you generate a ‘buzz’.

(I hate that word, but more on that next week.)

High stakes can really take their toll on a performing company, with the business pressure to succeed often overwhelming the creative drive that got you on that plane in the first place. That can easily lead to burnout, if you don’t look after yourself.

Over the years I’ve witnessed artists buckle under the pressure of their once-in-a-lifetime experience at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And more often than not, they exhibit the symptoms of burnout. One symptom on its own is easy to miss, and maybe it’s not the iceberg to your Titanic. But when symptoms start to date and make ugly little stress babies, you’re on your way to Burnout City.


Beating burnout…

So how do you spot the early signs of burnout, and stop yourself from tumbling into the abyss? Here are the most common 4 symptoms, along with my suggestions on how to keep them under control.


No surprise there, really. Taking a show to a festival like the Edinburgh Fringe is a long haul, and a phrase you’ll hear over and over when in town is “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”.

As annoying as that may get after a while, it’s a fair comparison. So make sure you train for it. Sleep well – and give yourself time to rest and relax. You’ll never experience everything that your peers do, nor see all the work. Once you come to terms with that, and ditch the FOMO, you’ll realise that your own, unique experience is priceless. And that you call the shots.

Lack of motivation

Yes, it happens. When you get tired. When you don’t immediately see results. When you have sold 2 tickets 15 minutes before your show. It’s hard to keep plowing ahead, when it feels like nothing is coming up roses.

But here’s the rub; you’ve paid for your venue. You’ve also paid for a technician. So if disaster strikes and no one shows up for a performance, you have an opportunity to run your show in an operational space and try out some of your riskier ideas. Grab it with both hands, and see if you can make the show better, or refresh your next performance.

Frustration, cynicism and other negative emotions

It can be hard not to get bitter and take it personally when someone doesn’t like your work. Try this exercise when (if) that less than favourable review comes in:

Sit back and think of 5 artists whose work you don’t particularly enjoy. Now think about people you know, who appreciate those artists. Do you respect your friends less? Unless you’re a mean girl, the answer should be “no, of course not”. Because people have different tastes.

Cognitive problems

This is a slightly more worrying one. Many people headed for burnout start to experience cognitive problems, particularly a lack of focus and concentration. If the isn’t handled properly, it can impact negatively on your show – and your overall health. The simplest remedy is to remain hydrated, get some rest and exercise. Caffeine doesn’t provide a long-term solution. Neither does cocaine.


Staying healthy and mindful…

I realise the above all sounds rather bleak – but while burnout is a very real thing, and taking care of yourself is hugely important, rest assured that the the vast majority of participants do just fine. And if you do feel your stress levels start to swell, there are a whole heap of resources out there to help you calm the f*** down.

Personally, I really like mindtools.com as it has great support materials and online peer support.

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Barry Church-Woods is an independent arts manager based in Edinburgh. He’s worked in areas of cultural provision for the past 20 years, spending the last 8 as Venues & Companies Manager for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. There he offered universal support services for people bringing work to Edinburgh, honing his skills in delivering responsive pastoral care. Find out more here.

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