Management Lessons from the Stage: Competition

For those of you who don’t know, every two years the American Association of Community Theatre (aka AACT) hosts a competitive play cycle (AACTFest). This cycle begins at the state level, moves to regional, and finally on to national competition where the 10 “best” community theatre productions will go head to head. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of participating this past weekend in the Michigan State AACTFest, hosted by Bay City Players on behalf of the Community Theatre Association of Michigan (CTAM) and I took away a few observations that I feel may apply to enterprises everywhere.

  • Deadlines are crucial: each group performing in an AACTFest works under the same rules. 10 minutes to set up your production, 60 minutes to perform, and 10 minutes to strike (take down). Exceed any of these deadlines and you are disqualified regardless of how brilliant the show is. LESSON: it doesn’t matter how good you are. Get your work in on time. There may be an opportunity to fix or update something later – but miss the deadline and the sale/project/etc. is gone forever.
  • You will be judged on your work regardless of resources: all groups at AACTFest are judged by the same criteria. Obviously, some groups had more resources to work with than others, but the goals remained the same. LESSON: do your best no matter what resources you have (or lack thereof).
  • Innovate: don’t come into a project trying the same old thing that others have done before. The shows at AACTFest which do the best, with judges and audiences, are the ones that literally bring something new to the stage. Hamlet is a hard sell to most audiences. Give it a steam punk look and a fresh techno hip-hop vibe and you’ve just blown peoples’ minds. LESSON: you can start with the same old service or product, but be sure to freshen it up often. Don’t be afraid to dust off an idea that’s been sitting around a while and see if you can make it new again.
  • Celebrate excellence: only two groups move on to the next level of competition at the state AACTFest (plus an alternate) but many groups are recognized for smaller outstanding contributions. LESSON: find the good in everything you do. Maybe the whole project isn’t a winner – but there are things you can still take away and celebrate. Maybe even learn from!
  • A little competition never hurt anyone: win or lose it the groups who participate in AACTFest come away with a better understanding of how they compare to others in the same field. They better know their strengths and their weaknesses and become better groups in the process. LESSON: you don’t know how good you are until you compare yourself to someone better or, at least, just as good.
  • Someone is always watching and judging: I don’t think this needs to be explained any further.
  • Popular opinion does not always carry the day: occasionally, a play that everyone seems to like won’t win. This is because the judges have their own ideas and criteria that differ in critical ways from the audiences experience. LESSON: remember who you are really selling your product to. Just because you and your team likes it, doesn’t mean that the customer will.

These are just a few thoughts I had. I’d love to hear yours regarding mine.

Onward!

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Talking to Strangers

As children we were all told by our parents or guardians “don’t talk to strangers.” This warning was practical advice for children, because there is danger out there for all of us and a particular evil that preys on the young. However, this warning – right or wrong – also goes against our natural human curiosity and trains us to become more guarded in the information we share. Again, this may all be well and good, but as adults I think that we need to be re-trained to do the opposite. To reach out and on occasion at least, talk to strangers.

I consider myself an introvert. Those who know me may find it hard to believe, and probably think I never shut up, but I find it difficult to strike up a conversation with people I know well and nearly terrifying to speak to someone I haven’t met. If they approach me I don’t have much of a problem (though I’ve been told I can come off as cold and aloof). But to start the conversation…well, let’s say that there are many a times when I pull the tactic of just hanging back and waiting for someone else to notice me in both social and professional situations. Like most wallflowers, taking the risk of making a new connection is a learned and forced behavior.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found that I need to talk more to strangers. We live in an ever increasingly complex world and to navigate this world we need to be able to draw upon a wider range of knowledge and experiences both professionally and personally. Google is great, but it doesn’t replace the first hand experiences of someone who has lived through something.

So, I’ve started ignoring my mother’s advice and am trying to talk to at least one “stranger” each day. This may be as simple as a quick “hello” to someone in passing and with the holidays on us I can certainly greet more folks with best wishes for the season. Sometimes, it’s more involved, like noticing an interesting article of clothing or someone doing an activity and making a comment on it and striking up a conversation. Sometimes the conversation is brief and you never see that person again. However, sometimes you “hit it off” and find yourself with a new friend. More often than not, I’ve discovered that the results are somewhere in between.

For example, recently while traveling I noticed a young man at the airport with an athletic bag and a college sports team. I approached him and asked if he played for that team and this began a conversation as we walked through the airport and I learned about his business, which happened to be in a field I’m interested in but outside of my usual work. We exchanged names and a quick Google search later (surprisingly easy to do and not at all stalker-like…) and an invite on LinkedIn and I have a new connection. Will be lifelong friends and best buddies hanging out at the mall after work? Not likely, but I have no doubt we’ll stay in touch and who knows? The old me would have just walked on without taking the chance. But because I reached out, maybe we’ll one day share information that will benefit one or both of us in some way.

And speaking of Google and LinkedIn, what a marvelous world we live in with the advantage of social media. I know that social media has taken a beating in the news and among some circles as an outlet for bullying, pornography, etc. However, used properly it’s power for sharing and making connections cannot be denied and for those of us who are inherently shy it is a “safe” way of making and maintaining contacts we would otherwise never have.

Don’t get me wrong. There is no – I repeat, no – substitute for good old fashioned face to face human contact. We need to meet other people, be friends with other people, love other people, to thrive as humans. Even our rivals and enemies have the potential to make us better. But for those who find it difficult to talk in person and/or are shut in, social media provides at least the semblance of human interaction. Thanks to social media I now have friends, followers, connections, etc. with people I never otherwise would have any contact with. I communicate regularly with people throughout the USA, Canada and much of Europe. Our bond may be as simple as we all have the same disease (Crohn’s), are interested in the same things, or maybe met once in an airport, hotel, amusement park, or hiking in the woods (all places I’ve met people who are now friends).

My point is that, as we say in NACAS, make “connections that count.” Why don’t you go out and make a couple new ones today.

Onward!

 

 

 

Management Lessons from the Stage: Applause not Necessary

I saw a meme on Facebook recently which stated, “I do it for the fame…said no stage manager ever” and this got me to thinking about how this could apply in any workplace.

For those that don’t know, the stage manager is usually considered the second most important person in the production of a play right after the director. And when the play opens, he or she becomes the most important person to the show. Not because this person is a great actor, set designer, choreographer, lighting technician, costumer, dancer, etc., etc. No because the stage manager makes sure that each show starts on time, runs smoothly, and ends as planned. The stage manager is responsible for the literally hundreds of details that go into making a play succeed – and has to make sure that the actors get on stage when they are supposed to as well.

And how much credit does the stage manager get when the show is done for a job well done? Though he or she might hear the applause the stage manager knows none of it is for him/her. Sure other members of the production may say “nice job” but when they walk down the street no one is going to say “hey, great job stage managing last night!” Nope, it’s not about fame for these people – it’s about being part of a team and the satisfaction of a job well done.

How does this apply in your workplace? I’m willing to bet that in your organization you have someone who is working tirelessly to make sure that every project goes right. Who doesn’t make sure that s/he is noticed in a staff meeting, who doesn’t stand up to ask yet another useless question in organizational meetings just so everyone knows that they were there. Nope, I bet you have someone who is working for the satisfaction of being part of a team and the satisfaction of a job well done.

So what am I getting at? Simple:

Be sure to thank that person – often.

They don’t need applause but they do need encouragement and to know that someone notices.

Onward!

Reunion Cast

Lessons In Management: It’s All Show Biz

Every now and then someone asks me what I get out of theatre. I usually give some sort of glib answer like “attention” or “standing ovations.” But the answer is really more complex than that. For example, it occurs to me that many of the methods used to put on a show can be directly related to any business project. Don’t believe me? See below the steps that a director goes through to “manage” a successful production and see if they don’t fit your next project:

Determine the Goal – a show starts, like any business project, at the beginning. The first thing a director needs to determine is “what show are we doing?” In some cases this is determined by an outside force (i.e. board of directors, committee, or producer – a.k.a the “supervisor”). The director starts with the script, which is in essence the bare bones of the play. Just words on paper waiting to be brought to life. Read and study the script. Understand what the playwright was trying to achieve. Research, research, research. You need to know the script (plan) better than anyone else on the team. You can’t guide people to a goal if you don’t know the way.

Determine Your Needs – how many characters are in the play? Male? Female? Is it a comedy, drama or musical? What are the ages of the characters? How many sets do you need? Costumes? The questions are numerous but like any project these basic facts need to be known and understood before you can fully determine your needs.

Block Your Movements – in theatre blocking is the process of mapping out the movements that an actor will take during the show. In business, this is similar to the strategic steps or tasks which need to be done to complete the project. In a play the blocking may be basic (go from stage left to stage right) but should always have a purpose such as to make the scene seem more natural or to place focus on a specific characters actions or to set a “tableau” demonstrating relationships of characters to each other or evoke a mood or feeling from the audience. A show that is not well blocked becomes chaotic and random often devolving into a random mess of motion without meaning or, worse yet, a stagnant grouping of people on stage (the audience “sees” first and “hears” second). In business, if there are no set plans or tasks the project can grind to a halt as the team each goes their own way without clear direction.

Set the Budget – now that you know the requirements to start the project, you have to assemble the resources. As so often with any project you need to know what will it cost. Then you most likely need to look at what you are provided as very few of us get unlimited funds to do anything. Do the two match? Probably not so you need to go through your needs line by line and prioritize to determine which items get the most money and which items you may need to be more “creative” with (theatres may have fund raising abilities which your business will not – but let’s presume you have enough funding to continue with your project).

Assemble Your Cast and Crew – now you need to find the best people to help you complete the production. You hold auditions (interviews) and determine who best suits each role. Like the hiring process in business you may not have all the information you need to make the perfect choice so you go with your gut and make the best choice you can at that moment (anyone who tells you they’ve never made a mistake casting or hiring probably doesn’t have much experience with either or are dangerously oblivious to their surroundings).

Set the Schedule – how long do you need to get the production finished? How many hours a day can you devote to the show? Like most workplaces, those involved in theatre – especially amateur theatre – have other things that they need to continue doing along with the show or project. Can everyone make each rehearsal (meeting)? Will they have sufficient time to work outside rehearsals on their specific task?

Know Your Role and Theirs – A director (manager) is a guide to the cast and crew. He or she needs to show the way and understand how each member of the production contributes to the overall success of the show. Likewise, the director needs to understand that he or she cannot do it all alone. This is the same in business, if you don’t know what your purpose is in the project you can fall into the micro-management trap or end up doing all the work yourself.

Rehearse Your Cast and Crew – Rehearsal in show is the same as training in business. The cast cannot perform if they do not have the skills needed. Likewise, your team cannot do their jobs if they are untrained and unskilled. Professional development is a must!

Follow the Script – the script is your guide. In theatre you usually do not have the option to change this. However, in business, you may be able to make adjustments to your plan as you go along. But even with the play your understanding of the script will likely change during the rehearsal process and you may make adjustments with the actors (blocking, inflection, timing) as you go along to better fulfill the “vision.”

Support, Support, Support – give your cast feed back. Are they on the right track with their character? Are they learning their lines early enough? Are they doing a good job? Tell them! A cast, or team, who only hears negative feedback will quickly become under-performers. But be careful of praising indiscriminately. They need to trust you to tell them the truth – good or bad. Check in often to make sure that they have the tools and equipment necessary to get the job done.

Re-Cast When Needed – sometimes it just isn’t working out. It’s the toughest part of a directors, or manager’s, job but you need to know when it’s time for different personnel. But not until you’ve done all you can to support and be sure that the person who is underperforming had everything he or she needed to get the job done.

Know When To Quit – in theatre there comes a point where you need to realize it (the scene, dance, whatever) just isn’t going to get any better and that more rehearsal may only make things worse. Sometimes this point is not where you hoped it would be and maybe instead of a great show you’ll only have a good show but you have to be realistic. Remember that budget item above? You can’t do Broadway on a Andy Hardy (you young ones may want to Google him) “let’s put on a show” budget.

Take a Bow – Or Not – when it’s all over, celebrate. Let your team members take a bow and share in the spotlight. Everyone from the leading lady to the stage hand who opened the curtain made an important contribution regardless of size. When do you take your bow? Probably not until later and not in public. In the theatre the director does not take a bow with the cast but watches everything from the back of the house with a satisfied smile and the knowledge that it all came together as planned. And then the director moves on to the next project!

I hope this little primer gave you some ideas to be successful with your next project. On with the show!