Theater excellence can’t come at the cost of student performers’ mental health

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on…

Theater excellence can’t come at the cost of student performers’ mental health

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

On Oct. 29, I was dropped from the cast of Campelot, Princeton Triangle Club’s annual fall musical, less than a week before the show’s opening at McCarter Theatre. I didn’t make this decision, nor was I consulted before this decision was made. By removing me from the performance, Triangle did not give me agency over my own mental health. They used my mental health crisis as a rationale to remove me from the show. Performing in Triangle and maintaining one’s physical and mental health should never be mutually exclusive.

My dismissal was prompted by an incident earlier that day: I came to load-in, where performers have to carry in and construct set pieces, exhausted both physically and emotionally; I sat cross-legged on the side of the stage, resting my eyes. I was extraordinarily tired and anxious due to stress, compounded over a week, and when confronted by Triangle officers and asked to return to my duties at the load-in, I suffered a panic attack. At the insistence of the Triangle officers, who thought that my condition was extreme, I was taken to the McCosh infirmary. Later that day, I was given an all-clear by the health center.

After being released from University Health Services, I wrote to Triangle leadership at around 3 p.m., telling them that I needed to take the following morning and afternoon off to recover. They suggested instead that I come in at 2 p.m. the next day. I offered to return to rehearsal in the evening, but I did not feel I could go back to the site of my panic attack as soon as they wanted me to.

At 5:07 p.m., I received an email from the show’s professional director, saying: “We’ve discussed it at length, and we feel it’s best for your health and for the show for us to release you from your commitment.” I immediately replied, asking to further discuss the situation. But the director was seemingly not willing to discuss further: “Unfortunately, our decision is final. Thanks for your understanding,” she wrote. 

The theater professionals at Triangle conveyed through their actions that they prefer to treat stressed college students participating in an extracurricular activity as full-time professional actors, pushing them to their physical and mental limits, and tossing them aside when they can no longer keep up. 

The decision to remove me from the show was a reflection of the officers and professionals choosing to understand anxiety, driven by burnout, as a lack of commitment. After an officer approached me at the load-in, I shared that I was exhausted, unable to assist, and needed time to recover. But instead of being met with understanding, soon after that, officers pulled me aside to tell me that I wasn’t being a team player, that others were going through the same stress as me, and that I needed to follow through on my commitment to work for Triangle. They gave me the option of dropping the show or proceeding to McCosh, but suggested that otherwise, I needed to carry on. This exchange is what caused my panic attack.

Triangle’s rationale for dropping me from the show — that I should “prioritize my health and self-care” — pitted my participation in the Triangle show against my mental health. I reached out to Triangle’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Team, arguing that my panic attack and mental health issues were not fair grounds for my dismissal, according to ODUS guidelines against discrimination on the basis of disability. And to be clear, this was discrimination based on disability: I began therapy last semester and was prescribed medication because of my tendency to spiral into severe anxiety and depression due to burnout. 

After submitting my equity complaint, Triangle’s rationale for my dismissal changed. Now, I was told in a written message that “your health … [was] not the reason for your release, which instead had to do with scheduling issues and conflicts regarding your extracurriculars.” They provided me with a series of examples of my supposed “lack of commitment,” all of which I believe to be unfair. I had communicated my other extracurriculars ahead of time, and while I had missed some rehearsals, usually with advance warning, these absences had been dealt with, and I had never been told I was in danger of being dropped from the show until that day. I had, of course, committed to certain rehearsals by being part of the show — including load-in and the following day — but my panic attack posed extenuating circumstances.

Their skewed perspective of “commitment” comes at the cost of students’ mental and physical health. I was committed to Triangle. I put time and energy into the organization even when it got in the way of my livelihood as a low-income student. I served as Triangle’s first-ever assistant music director during their 2026 Frosh Week show, putting in many hours outside of rehearsal to study music and make vocal tracks for cast members. And twice, I canceled paid music gigs (at the request of the Triangle professionals) to attend Campelot rehearsal. In one of these cases, I was asked to cancel the gig, and I ended up not being called in the rehearsal schedule anyway, after it was too late to ask for the gig back.

The level of commitment Triangle demanded was not only taxing but extremely unpredictable. They consistently set rehearsal schedules at extremely short notice. We had to set aside 20 hours each week, and our rehearsal times could be at any time within this block. Not knowing the specific rehearsal times that applied to me ahead of time was at best, distracting, and at worst, debilitating; I frequently skipped meals to show up to Triangle. I raised this issue with officers and the professionals many times, but it still persisted.

Triangle must not place the quality of performance above students’ mental and physical health. The Director’s Code of Conduct for Princeton University Players (PUP), another theater group on campus, offers us one way to imagine what a healthy theater culture on campus looks like. For one, they insist that students not have extremely long hours, even as the production approaches: “Expectations that tech week will be ‘hell week,’ that the team will run off no sleep, or that everyone must be suffering to pull the show together are unhealthy and stem from aspects of white supremacy culture like perfectionism and sense of urgency,” according to the Code of Conduct. The standards also suggest frequent breaks to avoid burnout, among other changes to not prioritize the product over the team.

Theater excellence can’t come at the cost of student performers’ mental health

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Triangle needs to take the mental health of their student performers more seriously. Mental health cannot be treated as a rationale to get rid of a team member, as it was for me. Even in the midst of severe mental health problems, I showed up to countless rehearsals and load-in. I’ve devoted so much of my energy to Triangle, even to the point where I literally reached a physical limit. I should have been able to participate with a level of commitment that allowed me to preserve my physical and mental health. And I should have been given agency over my own mental health, rather than being removed from the show arbitrarily.

We all want to put on a quality performance, but we can’t sacrifice student health and accessibility while doing that. Treating performers with dignity and accommodating their reasonable requests for the sake of their mental health makes the production process and final performance all the more fulfilling. All theater organizations should strive to be more inclusive and healthier for everyone involved.

Rafael Collado is a junior studying Computer Science from Miami, Fla. He can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: In the process of publishing this piece, the ‘Prince’ took several steps to verify the events in this piece including by reviewing emails and messages with Triangle leadership. The ‘Prince’ did not independently verify Collado’s experience during load-in.