So, What’s Next?

By Rebecca Spelman

Seeing as this is the Halloween edition of the Eva’s Echo Theatre blog, I wanted to share with you one of the scariest things that can happen to a theatremaker. It’s something that happens quite often and pretty casually. Said by people who think nothing of it, these three words can make an artist’s blood run cold and propel them into a spiralling existential crisis:

“So, what’s next?”

Those words strike more fear into my heart than any scary movie. Okay, not any scary movie, but a lot of them. When someone asks me that question, my blood runs cold and I desperately try to mumble something non-committal without crying or launching into a 45-minute rant about how life is unpredictable and none of us ever truly know what is next. Who needs jump scares and haunted houses when the deepest terrors live inside you, right?

Feeling the terror

Once those words hit your eardrums, the feeling of terror sets in. Your stomach drops, your mouth gets dry, and the tightening in your chest makes you wonder if you’ll be able to get the words out once you think of an answer. How can one little question carry so much weight?

A lot of it has to do with the unstable nature of the arts. Whether you’re working on a professional show or getting involved in a community production, odds are most people involved don’t have their next project lined up. Being asked what’s next just amplifies that feeling of uncertainty, of wondering if you should have something lined up by now. If you ask someone with a stable lifestyle what’s next, they’re probably content to tell you about their carefully-planned career trajectory and personal goals. Ask someone in theatre, however, and they start to question every life choice they’ve ever made.

Another reason it’s so unsettling is that every production requires a huge commitment. Time, money, and energy are all put in with the desperate hope of getting everything ready by opening night. A lot of people involved in theatre need a break between productions, usually using the time to catch up on areas of life that were neglected in favour of rehearsals and cast bonding. Back-to-back projects can lead to burnout if they aren’t managed carefully, and yet post-show depression can affect people who don’t know what to do with themselves once a show is over. There’s a fine line between overwhelming and under-stimulating yourself, and getting that balance right with every single project is a monumental task.

Playing a dangerous game

The real question is, who asks this kind of question? What sick, twisted monster cooks up the most terrifying question they can and preys upon innocent theatremakers? Who would have the nerve to ask “So, what’s next?” Odds are, it’s probably your mum or something.

Everyone asks this question when they meet a theatremaker, it’s as simple to them as asking a taxi driver how long they’ve got left on their shift when they climb into the car. From the question asker’s perspective, it’s little more than harmless small talk. They probably do care if you have anything coming up, but not nearly as much as you’d like to think. Little do they know the fear they’re instilling.

To be fair, theatre is a relatively niche interest. Unless you’re speaking to someone who takes part in theatre themselves, odds are this awful question is the only thing this person can think to say. They haven’t seen many (or any) plays, and unfortunately, they just weren’t able to make it to your last show! So sorry about that! They’ll definitely get to the next one!

Asking a theatremaker what they’re doing next seems like a safe bet to someone who doesn’t have a conversational alternative. It feels like nothing more than the theatrical equivalent of “So, any plans for the weekend?” The theatremaker who is now having a panic attack knows otherwise, but saying so would bring a very different tone to this casual chat. 

Making things a little less scary

It’s all well and good to talk about crippling fear and small talk that makes you wish the ground would open up and swallow you, but shouldn’t we be a little more proactive?

If someone asks you the dreaded question, there are a few ways you can handle it. Not all of them will achieve the same goal, but some might be more fun than others. You can:

  • Tell them the truth… honestly. You don’t have anything coming up, there are some potential opportunities but you don’t know for certain if they’ll pan out. Maybe this could happen, maybe this other thing could happen, you really don’t know. Oh God, why are you doing this with your life? Should you have done business in college like your mum said? Should you give up productions and learn to teach Speech and Drama? Oh my God, what if-
  • Tell them the truth… not so honestly. Blag your way through it confidently and rush away before further questions can be asked. You have a couple of things in the works, it’s difficult to tie down a concrete schedule when there are so many potential projects vying for your attention. Oh, it’s so difficult to even remember them all in this conversation! There’s just so much going on in your fabulous theatre life. In fact, you have to go right now- must have lunch some time!
  • Cry. Just cry. Don’t even try to answer the question, your tears will say so much more. It gets you out of that conversation and- bonus- no-one will ever ask you again.
  • Turn the question back on them. Someone says to you, “So, what’s next?” and you say “I’m glad you brought it up. I’ve been worried about you. Your life seems a little bit directionless right now and I just want to know that you have a plan. What are your goals? What are your dreams? What steps are you taking to make the life you crave a reality?” Keep going until you see the look of panic on their face that you usually feel in your own facial muscles during these situations. That’s when you know your work is done.

“So, what’s next?” is a seemingly innocuous question that holds far too much power for three little words. If you want a really good scare this Halloween, just strike up a conversation with someone you haven’t seen in a while and feel the suspense build as you wait for the dreaded question. Scarier than any horror film, I can tell you. If you can’t manage it this Halloween, don’t worry- it will definitely come up at Christmas too.

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