I teach and direct high school theater. When I tell this to people, it’s generally met with one of a handful of common reactions ranging from excitement from those who were in high school theater and are now going to tell me about it, to sympathy from those who can’t imagine dedicating their life and profession to something as tedious and time-consuming as coaching teenagers onto the stage. A normal conversation may sound something like this:
Them: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Me: “I’m a teacher.”
Them: “Oh! What do you teach?”
Me: “High school English and theater.”
Them: “Oh wow! Good for you! I can’t imagine doing that.”
The thing is, they can imagine doing that. But, in imagining it, the thought became so horrible that they can’t understand how someone would choose to do it for a living!
Despite the varying reactions to learning that I teach and what I teach, when discussion turns to the production I’m working on or the particular demands and challenges that the current performance faces, the reaction is almost always the same. A normal conversation might sound something like this:
Them: “So how is the play coming?”
Me: “Oh, you know, the set started on fire last night. The costumes are lost in a shipping container somewhere in the South China Sea. The lead just got mono, and half the cast is missing rehearsal tonight to go to [insert anywhere more interesting than rehearsal.]
Them: “Wow! That’s tough. But don’t worry, it will all work out. It always does.”
And there it is…the phrase I hear the most, and hate the most…
It will all work out. It always does!
Here’s the thing, I know when people say this to me they mean to be encouraging. I know that it’s supposed to be optimistic and reassuring that there have been challenges overcome in the past, and that great successes have come from previous adversities. I also know that it’s a bit of a filler phrase, that if I’ve unloaded at your feet a litany of obstacles currently facing the production, you may not have anything more reasonable or helpful to say than “it will work out” because let’s face it, the performance is coming, so better to be on the side of positivity than the potential that maybe this time is the time that it doesn’t actually work out at all.
But here’s the problem with such a phrase. Telling me it’s all going to work out, suggests that it will work out despite of, or perhaps regardless of, any work or effort required. Things rarely just “work out.” And if using my past productions as precedent or proof that there have been previous challenges overcome, and that the show has gone on in each of those cases, it should be noted that the reason that each of those shows happened was not because fate suddenly intervened and things miraculously “worked out.” In each case it was because I worked my tail off, and my casts and crews worked their tails off, to beat back every challenge and see the thing through to the end.
Suggesting that things will work out because they always have is to cheapen all the work that is often required to make it look like things just worked themselves out.
For example, this winter, our theater program put on James and the Giant Peach. If you need to know one thing about the scope of this show, know this…it’s got the word giant in the title. We began the show in January with plenty of time to put the production together. And then Mother Nature battered us with one of the worst and snowiest winters on record. We lost one rehearsal to a snow day, and then a weekend of set building, and then another rehearsal, and when all was said and done, nine days had been lost to weather. We rescheduled when we could. We got snowed out again. Set painting days got scheduled…and snowed out. My art director and I drove to the theater in a blizzard to continue to work on the set. Dress rehearsal week came. My lead got the stomach flu on opening night.
Exhausted and defeated, I sat on the stage at 9:00AM the morning we were set to open and sobbed. As I had told a colleague about the latest round of challenges, they had hit me with a big dose of “it will work out; it always does” and never before had such a sentiment seemed further from the truth. If it worked out, and there were no guarantees in that moment, it would be because my ‘James’ pulled himself off his sick-bed and, in a giant surge of opening night adrenaline, found the will to perform. Or, it could work out because the rest of my cast would, in an emergency rehearsal that afternoon, learn brand new parts, songs, lines, and blocking, to cover for his absence. Either way, it wasn’t just going to work itself out alone.
The show went on…as all shows do…and post performance there was the same colleague. “I told you it’d work out! It always does…”
Perhaps he was right. Against all odds, the show had been terrific.
But in the blizzards the set had not built and painted itself.
Amidst the missed rehearsals, the lines had not memorized themselves.
The costumes did not order or fit themselves.
The choreography did not write its own steps.
The lights did not program themselves.
The show did not produce itself.
I hate the phrase “It will work out. It always does.” because it immediately strips the hard work away from whatever is the task at hand. It suggests that fate or destiny or some force outside of our control will steer the course regardless of the effort expended by those involved. It supposes that the sleepless nights, the stress, the hazardous trips in the numerous snowstorms, the anxiety, were really all for naught, because, in the end, it was always going to work out anyway.
I don’t believe I can be the only person who dislikes this phrasing, nor do I believe that my work in the theater is the only instance in which such a sentiment discredits the extreme efforts it sometimes takes to bring something to fruition. Thus, I offer the following suggestions as alternatives should you find yourself in a situation requiring you to lend support and encouragement to a friend on the verge of seeing some massive undertaking through to completion:
- Is there anything I can do to help?
- What’s the next step in your plan?
- What do you need from me?
- I’m sorry for your struggles, that does sound really hard.
- You have the strength (talent, courage, skills, etc.) to get through this.
- I know you will do whatever it takes to make this happen.
And when all else fails…
7. Can I pour you a glass of wine!?
But don’t say, “It will all work out!” If it happens to come together, it won’t be fate. It will be because someone dedicated themselves fully to making it so.