A different kind of grind: Hustle culture in the arts

by Alicia Sanyal

Hustle culture: the constant pursuit of productivity with no regard for well-being. Sound familiar? Think hordes of students flooding Powell Library’s reading room and residence hall lounges crammed with Bruins buried deep in their work. Think of nocturnal sleep schedules and energy drinks for meals. Toxic productivity pervades all competitive college campuses, and ours is no exception.

Many school-oriented students, such as fourth-year cognitive science undergraduate Shelly Alonso, are well-versed in this phenomenon. Alonso finds her schoolwork both rushed and laborious, with a myriad of concepts crammed into 10 weeks that are quickly forgotten once exam season is over.

The rapid pace of the year coupled with the pressure to excel academically leaves Alonso and her peers on the brink of burnout by the time June comes around. This pressure comes from external and internal sources, she explained. “Everyone here has to hustle, not only because we have to do so much in a short amount of time, but also because we feel like it’s expected from us,” she said. “It’s about holding up expectations for myself, but also for UCLA too.” With this insight, the school’s reputation as a particularly demanding educational institution almost encourages these unhealthy work habits across campus.

However, when arts majors try to join this conversation, shedding light on their own experiences with go-go-going, they are met with skepticism. Theater, dance, music and art; to those studying more traditional academic disciplines, whose BruinLearn dashboards are an endless scroll of unfinished assignments, these may be considered ‘easy’ majors. But this ongoing misconception has harmful implications, as it discredits the time and effort these artists put into their work.

Beverly D’Andrea, a second-year student majoring in theater with an acting emphasis, is actively dismantling the myth that arts majors face no academic challenges.

Theater students at the School of Theater, Film and Television, or TFT, are not only trained in their respective emphases but are encouraged to take on all the potential roles of a professional theater-maker. There are actors taking design classes, and there are stage managers learning to read music. “They expect you to become almost an expert, to be able to discuss and understand every part of theater,” she said. Students must develop skills they have never been exposed to, constantly being pushed out of their artistic comfort zones in the classroom.

Moreover, the theater classrooms are not all play; much of the TFT curriculum is strictly theory-based. D’Andrea explained, “I think it comes with being considered a research institute. There’s a focus on learning and the scholarly side of everything in general at UCLA.” Theater students are not isolated from academia; rather, they are expected to understand theater in the context of the real world through textual analysis and extensive discussion.

The Herb Alpert School of Music similarly places importance on the theory of music making, said third-year student Sheng Chang, who majors in music history & industry. “(The) curriculum is giving me both music literacy and an understanding of publishing,” she said. Through her classes, she gains both musicology and marketing expertise, a 50-50 blend of academia and the arts.

Involvement in extracurricular activities poses an additional challenge for creative students. In March, D’Andrea played Ginny Richards in TFT’s department production of “A List of Happenings at 1016 14th St.” Rehearsals ran five days a week: 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. “My roommates didn’t see me all quarter,” she said. D’Andrea is not alone in her lack of free time. “A lot of people will be the head of a student theater group and also teaching a show for a different ensemble and also in a department show and also writing scripts and also filming clips for reels,” she said. Being fully immersed in the theater program requires students to sacrifice nearly triple their in-class time for their outside studies.

In a similar vein, one graduation requirement for music history & industry majors is completing an internship at some point during their undergraduate career. Chang is currently working as a social media manager for Unity Studios LA, gaining hands-on experience within the music industry here in Los Angeles. The Herb Alpert School of Music values students’ engagement with the business beyond the corridors of Schoenberg Hall, encouraging music students to clock in hours outside of the classroom.

Although the university’s art schools place serious importance on what goes on in their official departments, both D’Andrea and Chang have noticed a lighter workload from their courses compared to their peers in other academic departments. This does not, however, mean these students are slacking off. Less time dedicated to professor-assigned work means more pressure to fill their time chipping away at career goals.

While networking is helpful for a myriad of disciplines, the creative industry especially requires individuals to compile a list of contacts that might someday propel them to their dream job. For art majors, the majority of ‘hustling’ comes from taking part in any and every opportunity that arises.

“There’s always this impending requirement to take advantage of all the networking here so that you have that base when you leave the safety net of UCLA. That’s the main stress on a theater major,” D’Andrea said. When making connections with professors, participating in friends’ productions and even just interacting with her peers, there is a constant need to be ‘on,’ always thinking about how this or that connection might someday be useful to her as a professional in show business.

On the other hand, as a cognitive science student, Alonso finds little time to focus on building relationships with those who could further her career. While she understands the importance of working diligently toward a degree that will inherently open up an array of opportunities, she also feels this comes at the cost of reduced time for making professional connections. “When I think of hustle culture, I think of academic success. We’re spending too much time focusing on academics instead of networking,” she said.

Quickly glimpsing an art major’s lifestyle, we can start to understand why the existing myth around arts majors is problematic. Chang describes feeling like she is behind her peers despite all of the work she has. “(I feel as if I’m) not working as hard as other people or as smart as other people because I’m not balancing equations for homework,” she said. Alonso, unfamiliar with the general pace of life as an arts major, spends little time comparing herself to her artistic peers; art majors, however, often find themselves grieving this divide. Shunning students who find fulfillment in creativity over chemistry provokes feelings of inadequacy and invalidates the work, albeit a different kind, that arts majors produce.

Feelings of guilt around taking a break from work are more than just the side effects of the arts major myth; they are pervasive among members of other departments as well. “When I find myself making time to relax, I’m thinking about other things I could be doing, like studying and doing work,” said Alonso. “Relaxing gets me stressed.”

Regardless of major, working nonstop can be a matter of great expectations versus a less-than-exciting payoff. Many fear putting in extreme effort for minimal reward, spending hours studying only to receive a grade below the average. “It can be a letdown if things don’t pan out. There are all these stepping stones, and if you miss a stone, you get stranded,” D’Andrea said, referring to the endless list of opportunities theater majors are constantly navigating. “It’s very tiring and draining.”

As we change our beliefs around the work ethics of art majors, we can see how hustle culture is detrimental to the physical and mental health of all students, academic and artistic alike. Just because toxic productivity appears to seep into every aspect of student life, does not mean that it’s unavoidable.

Alonso, Chang and D’Andrea all recognize the importance of spending time unwinding. Whether it’s grabbing food with friends, exploring LA or simply reading a book, slowing down for a few minutes to refresh their minds allows them to relieve some of the pressure of their exhausting schedules and face each day’s challenges more confidently. Exploring these practices for a work-life balance lets students approach each quarter with fresh minds and excitement rather than dull headaches and dread.

Featured Image: Behind the scenes at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, a bustling prop room reveals decades of theatrical history and creativity. Every item, from vintage relics to modern tools, tells a story waiting to be brought to life on stage or screen. Photographed by Xiang Li/BruinLife.

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