JG Chayko outside the theatre

It’s a blustery fall day, the wind whistling through the seams of the windows, in time with the music playing. I dip and bend, travel and turn, absorbing each note into my body. I see and feel the melody — every now and then, I stop and write down a note on a move that works as a picture begins to form in my mind. It’s been four years since I’ve been on the stage, and this year I’m thrilled to be back in the theatre working on a musical — but this time, I am returning in the role of choreographer.

Being a performer with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is challenging, and it’s even more demanding when working behind the scenes in musical production. Musicals involve three directors: an acting director, a musical director, and a choreographer. Whether I’m performing or directing, both roles require energy, focus, and stamina. So, how do I prepare and manage my RA without letting it steal the spotlight?

Balancing Commitments, Crafting Schedules

Preparing for this type of work is not much different than preparing for any job while managing a chronic illness. We all face unique challenges in our jobs, home, and volunteer life.

When I’m not in the theatre, I am a working writer. While it’s not quite as physical as teaching dance, I still need to be on point (not pointe), and one step ahead on meeting deadlines without wrecking myself. In both jobs, there are goals to be met within a specific timeframe, so I need to carefully consider the commitment and volume of work before I accept.

Once I accept the task, I sit down and draft a schedule around my daily life and rehearsal time. Creating that schedule is empowering. It allows me to take back some of the control RA selfishly steals. In the days before my rehearsals, I make a list of the tasks that need to be done first and spread them out over several days. I listen to my body, assess my energy, and pace myself. On the days after rehearsals, I prioritize rest and gentle tasks that won’t cause me to crash. And, if I can’t be productive, I give myself permission to step back and own it.

Safeguarding Your Body

Choreography requires being on my feet, so I need to have proper footwear that will support my body and help prevent injuries or aggravate my RA. Character shoes are standard in many theatre productions, particularly musical theatre. They are usually leather, sleek, and narrow with a heel and a rounded toe and come in basic colors like black and/or beige. They are flexible in that they can be matched with costumes, and they are good for both dance and basic footwear. I wore character shoes for many productions, but my arthritic feet no longer like them.

For this project, I picked up a pair of teaching shoes — they’re soft and malleable with a good soul, a solid toe, and a nice flexible arch that allows me to bend and point my foot with no resistance.

I also need to be able to demonstrate the routines I create. I’m a former dancer but my body’s not the same as it used to be. I’m fighting against RA and age, and I’m past the point of doing splits and double pirouettes on my toes. Since not every actor is a dancer, I need to be able to show them what I want them to do if I can’t communicate it verbally. The advantage is that I can include it in my own daily exercise routine.

Finding Your Motivation

We all need to find ways to navigate work and home life while dealing with the unpredictable fatigue and pain of chronic illness. My work life falls into a specific niche, but thoughtful consideration and planning can be applied to any task.

It’s about finding little modifications that make the work a little easier and giving yourself a break. There’s no doubt having a supportive team is helpful, but not everyone has that, so I build my own support into my schedule by including time for rest and relaxation.

I love this creative work, even though it can be physically taxing. It nourishes me and offers me ways to give back to the community. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of choreographing a holiday pantomime for a local theatre, where part of the proceeds went to a charity.

We donated to a children’s arthritis organization called Cassie and Friends. I was the only cast member with rheumatoid arthritis, and I wanted to create a space to show children with juvenile idiopathic arthritis that they can still chase their dreams despite chronic illness.

The stage has a life force that draws me to it. It has its own aromatherapy, the scent of fresh wood, paint, soap, and hair products. The stage floor creaks in certain spots when no one is on it, letting us know when the resident ghost has come by for a visit. The dressing rooms are cold, but the stage is always warm beneath the lights.

RA may change the choreography of my body, but it doesn’t change the thespian in my soul.

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