Drive to the Curtain: Relationships

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ReAct Theatre, Seattle

IN REAL LIFE, THEATRE PRODUCTION isn’t as difficult as some people insist on  making it. No, really. This shit isn’t that hard. I understand, however, that,  in any and all kinds of life, there are those who don’t feel real unless they create drama. It follows that a field of work devoted to making drama would be  conducive to making more drama than is needed to, uh… make drama. I prefer my drama scripted. I like calendars. I plan things. I make art. I work with people who make art. I also work with technicians and managers. Most of them want to get the job done, and done well, without more stress than necessary. I’m there. That’s what I want, too, and I work toward that, beginning with my first contact with everyone I’m going to work with on an upcoming project. I let them know from the get-go that I really want things to go smoothly.

It can’t be that tough. Really.

It seems that at least ninety percent of the professional work I’ve done in my life has involved some form of customer service. That’s not special, but I think calling it that is a bit of a broader view than most people take on what they do.  Basically, you and someone else are engaging in a transaction in which they’re  trying to get what they want — usually by paying you or your company — and  you’re trying to give them what they want because you’re getting paid to do so.  You got the goods, they got the dough. It’s up to you to provide everything,  including what the other person doesn’t know about but should. That’s basically customer service. (By the way, no, sales is not customer service, although it’s  been called that for decades, at least. Pitching somebody something they don’t actually need, or even want, until they cough up money isn’t “service” by any stretch of the  imagination. It’s domination.) You’re paying attention to what the other person wants or needs and trying to get it for them. If you’re both doing that, you’ve  got a relationship developing. That can go a long way to the both of you getting things done now and later. Compassion is involved here, empathy, that sort of  thing. It can be very productive. It’s mostly a matter of paying attention and, frankly, giving a shit.

Like I said, it doesn’t have to be that hard.

IN RENTAL VENUES, ESPECIALLY, I find production personnel to be the happiest when  they’re working a show that is well organized, appropriately scaled to the facility and staff, prompt but easygoing — in short, professional. The relationship is developed here, in those planning emails and phone calls, during  the load-in and rehearsal. By the time we all get to the first performance call-time, venue personnel should be both prepared and relaxed. Who doesn’t do well  when they’re enjoying the work? If your show is the least stressful thing they have to do this month, the venue staff will want you back. Next time, it’ll  be even easier for everybody.

Oh, sure, there might be some tech or manager or admin who just can’t be bothered to do their job, thus making others’ work harder than it needs to be. Ideally, that person doesn’t last with the organization long, or, at least, gets cut out of some of the jobs. Commonly, trouble like this can start at the top. If so, unfortunately, a good, professional tech staff can’t very well tell the artistic director to stay the hell out of the way. That’s an internal problem, and I’m coming in from outside that troubled world to work my own relationships. As a client, I expect  professional treatment. As a collegue, I give just that. The negligent, the  abusive, the unprofessional I do my best to avoid. No good relationships are available there, nope. Waste of my time.

Live performance productions can be very, very complex, yet big groups of people with disparate skills and motivations get ‘em up and running all the time. I’ve worked on teeny tiny productions that were painfully difficult to put together  because there was at least one key person who refused to develop civil  relationships with anybody else. Any size production gets done because people pay attention to one another and cooperate. Kinda like… Real Life.

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Shattered Globe Theatre, Chicago

Drive to the Curtain: Professionalism

PROFESSIONALISM AND AMATEURISM HAVE LITTLE OR NOTHIING TO DO WITH MONEY, etymology notwithstanding. I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years in performance projects who were very professional or just plain amateurs regardless of whether they were paid (or, if so, how much). Likewise, I’ve tried to carry myself and behave professionally, even if I didn’t quite know what the fuck I was doing. I appreciate that in others, and it counts for a lot. It isn’t just effort for effect, it’s effort for good results.

I’ve seen just too many under-compensated, underappreciated workers carrying themselves as professionals, being productive and helpful, to have much patience for those whose asses are getting covered yet can’t be bothered to pull their heads out of their ignorance, much less lift a finger to help. Worse, amateurs like that often manage to get in the way of the rest of us and make our jobs harder simply by not co-operating. Can’t tell you how many simple tasks on my list have been made hair-pulling workarounds because someone with a title and power but limited skills, bent on maintaining order in their tiny unproductive worlds, have unilaterally changed the schedule and work environment arbitrarily and without consulting anyone else. They are selfish, incompetent, self-absorbed and shouldn’t be left alone with pointy objects.

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photo: Craig VanDerSchaegen

OFTEN, THEY’RE SUPPORTED BY PEOPLE MUCH SMARTER, and have actual chops and social skills, in search of the professional gratification they really need while they’re struggling to pay the rent in the meantime by working for idiots. The hell of it is that the work, itself, is often gratifying, and it keeps the good people, the actual professionals, from moving on as they should. Nevermind that the money isn’t paying the bills and the boss is an immature micromanager, some good workers will keep coming back to make the art, partly because they’ve had “real jobs” and are afraid it’s either this or that.

Whether our choices are that limited is a topic for elsewhere. For now, my rant is in support of the professionals I meet and get to work with all the time while railing against the airheaded and petty amateurs under whom many of them work. Every once in awhile, I’ve told somebody, “If you ever need a recommendation, email me.” It’s cheap talk, really. I’d much rather be able to hire them. That, too, is cheap talk. Best I can do, usually, is let them know I get it, and I appreciate it. As an experienced outsider rolling into their house to do my thang for awhile with their support and then hit the road again buh-bye, I’m hoping a token of my perspective is helpful, that it, at the very least, reminds them they’re not completely nuts.

Regular positions in theatre can be a bit isolated, depending upon whether the organization’s definition of outreach is developing relationships in its community or merely shaking more money out of people. Once, I asked an artistic director whether the theatre was in touch with a similarly low-budgeted, plucky organization in the neighborhood and I was told “We’re not in touch with anyone”. Right. Actors, however, always itinerant, commonly keep on top of the broader performance scene in a variety of theatres, and even at the bar. They don’t become isolated and lose perspective that easily. They’re always moving around. Production people from several theatres might benefit from post-show boozing together. Just a thought. Apparently, this has long since been addressed in Manhattan with the Broadway bowling league (which, I found out while there, includes Off-Broadway and then some). Fringe Festival kind of goes there, too. Beats staff meetings.

High school students, volunteers at community theatres, minimum wage multitaskers doing three people’s jobs in neglected and run-down venues… Pros can be found anywhere. Since I end up working just about anywhere, it’s good to know that.