Performers of any kind rely on their bodies. Whether they are dancing, singing, or acting the most dramatic roles, a performer needs access to their abilities and their emotional life. And if I’m being wholly honest, there is an aesthetic need as well. Actors come in all shapes and sizes, but if you want to play Superman, you must look the part. But no matter your physical type, there is one need that should be addressed before all others: your health.
As performing artists, we’ve chosen a difficult path, one often laden with long hours, little rest, constant practice and training, for what at times can be little reward. To survive in this environment, and hopefully thrive, you must have your health, and today we’re going to talk about maintaining your health when you’re away from home. Like the song says, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.
BEFORE YOU GO
Let’s start with the notion that you’ve booked a job—congratulations! You are about to be paid for that thing your parents always said would never pay. Some things to think about, regarding your health:
WHERE ARE YOU GOING? Perhaps obvious, but what’s the climate like: cold, hot, humid, rife with allergens, rainy? You’ll need to be prepared not only with the right clothing but perhaps the right medications. When it comes to health, I think breathing is pretty important.
WHAT’S YOUR HOUSING LIKE? A lot of the same stuff, is it air conditioned/heated well, newer/older (old houses hold allergens and mold like it was their job), do you have your own room? That could matter when it comes to rest and sleep.
WHAT HEALTH AND FITNESS OPTIONS ARE IN THE AREA? Is there a gym nearby (and is membership complimentary to company members)? Or maybe there’s a school with access to a track, or a park. If you have space, you can exercise, even if there’s not a gym for miles.
ONCE YOU’RE THERE
You’ve arrived at the job and been shown to your housing. Could be a hotel, a shared apartment, a private room in a house, or a cabin on board a cruise ship. Leaving the last option for later, we’ll start with shared spaces.
1. IF YOU ARE SHARING A KITCHEN:
This is the most likely scenario. You’ll have limited space for your own groceries, perhaps even marked out clearly in your cabinets and refrigerators. Shop wisely, perhaps share certain staples (oils, condiments, kitchen supplies, etc.). And while we’re in the kitchen, let’s spend a moment on food shopping in general: The healthiest food options are located on the outside aisles of supermarkets, produce, dairy, meats (including fish and chicken), and usually whole grain breads. I won’t veer off into “this diet vs. that diet,” but most likely, no matter what dietary philosophy you choose, the food you want is located here. You might want to adopt an “80/20” rule, meaning you do 80% of your shopping on the outer aisles and 20% from the aisles within. It’s a good way to eat healthy yet not feel wholly deprived when you can’t enjoy the occasional bag of Oreos.
2. IF YOUR MEALS ARE PROVIDED FOR YOU:
This likely means you are working on a cruise ship, or perhaps a dinner theatre (where certain meals could be provided). On a ship, the food may be repetitive but at least there will be nutritious options (remember it’s in your employer’s best interest to have you healthy), as well as the standard high-caloric fare. Crew members on ships often work incredibly long hours, so the provided meals can be high in calories, and a calorie is just a unit of energy, so the workers can make it through their shifts. See my recent posts on Cruise Ship Life for more information. Dinner theatres can often provide one meal per performance day, and that meal is usually…uh, dinner.
3. IF YOU HAVE NO KITCHEN, BUT ARE GIVEN A PER DIEM:
Well, this gets tricky. If you don’t know, per diem (“per day”) is money given to you to cover costs of meals and/or housing (if you are on a National Tour). This can seem like a large sum of money, but you’ll find quickly that single housing in A-list markets (think Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles) can often be more than your per diem for the week, leaving nothing for meals. That’s a conversation for another post, however. Some tours pick up the housing and give you a smaller per diem for food, let’s say that number is $350.00 per week, $50.00 a day. You can certainly do it, but you’ve got to be smart about it. Yes, fast food is more affordable. Yes, you can choose healthy (healthier) options from the menu. But trust my experience on this, it gets old FAST. Per Diem is often built around a formula of (using a $50 per day format) of a “10-dollar breakfast, 15-dollar lunch, and 25-dollar dinner.” My suggestion to you, for lifestyle and weight management, reverse these numbers, or at least the caloric values. There’s an old gym adage that goes, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” This way you are consuming more calories earlier in the day and gradually tapering off as the day ends. This is good for keeping you energized but not over full before a show, and gives you more opportunities to burn calories as the day goes on. Plus, dinner menus are always more expensive than breakfast or lunch options, so your money will go farther. Oh yeah, and don’t eat garbage after a show. It’s so tempting! But if you must eat, make it reasonable—a protein shake or bar, a small sandwich—stay away from burgers and fries at 11pm, they are not your friends. Consuming 1,000 empty calories within an hour of going to sleep is a surefire way to gain unwanted weight.
“Rob, isn’t this post about staying healthy while working a theatre job? Why all that space on food?” Ah, you’ve seen right through me. While there are two more elements to cover, let me say this very simply: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FOOD. Get that right, everything becomes easier. Keep doing it wrong, and you might be wasting all your hard work in the gym.
Of equal importance to nutrition is sleep, or rest. The body’s natural processes operate at maximum efficiency during periods of rest, not exertion. You don’t build muscle while you exercise, exercise creates the condition that asks the body to build the muscle, which happens while you are asleep. Ever notice that the prescription for any illness or injury almost always involves rest? The body wants to “right” itself, sometimes the best thing we can do to help, is simply get out of the way.
Sleep recommendations are very simple: aim for 8 hours a day, and try to have those hours be the same hours every day. I know many of us are night owls, we finish a performance sometimes exhausted, but sometimes energized and needing time to wind down, or even go out and celebrate. That’s all fine, just allow for recovery. I’m not as young as I once was (I was 23, uh…23 years ago), so I can’t stay out all hours eating and drinking and expect to be a normal functioning adult the next day. Maybe you can, but I promise you, that bill will eventually come due. SLEEP. Protect yourself. Your body and your voice will thank you.
There are 168 hours in a week. You might spend five of them exercising. But the other 163 hours are actually much more important. Eat right, and sleep right.
Next time I’ll finish up this article with suggestions for exercise in whatever environment you’re in, because I’m helpful like that. And MODEST!