Monday, August 2, 2010

Leadership and Management Lessons in Directing a Play

Directing plays offers a particular challenge to my leadership and management skills. That's because the same emotionality and artistic personality that enables actors to do so well on stage can make actors (and theatrical designers) a challenge offstage.

Here are some things I've done to make the play I'm currently directing, Neil Simon's, Broadway Bound (which has two weeks left in its run) to be a success--standing ovations, fine reviews, for example, this one in the Berkeley Daily Planet.

My cast and crew get little or no pay, so I must otherwise inspire them to work hard. To that end, I pointed out that community theatre is among the only recreations aimed at older people and that our audiences are really excited to come see you perform. I explained that our theatre is an ideal one for older people: Because it seats only 100 and has perfect acoustics and sight lines, even the elderly can easily see and hear everything. I also explained that the theatre gave me the opportunity to direct whatever play I wanted and that Broadway Bound was my choice because it has the rare combination of great humor, deep poignancy, food for thought, and yet is fully understandable by mainstream audiences. In another attempt to motivate my cast and crew, throughout the rehearsal process, I looked for all legitimate opportunities to praise them and I bent over backwards to meet their every need. I wanted them to know that if I'm to ask them to work hard, I need to work at least as hard.

Especially when dealing with a mainly volunteer cast and crew, I keep in mind that each person has only so much energy to give to the production before s/he runs out of gas. Each cast and crew member has a different-sized fuel tank. And there's no gas station, so when a person runs out of gas, s/he stops. So, unlike the standard management advice to treat everyone equally, before asking something of a cast or crew member, I assess whether it's worth the gas that person is likely to expend. And in general, I consider whether a task I might assign will yield sufficient miles per gallon: sufficient benefit to the production to justify the energy that would be expended.

So, for example, I believe insufficient benefit derives from the standard practice of having all-day tech rehearsals on the Saturday and Sunday before the play opens. So I held rehearsal only on the Saturday. Another example: I have a crew member who loves to clean--if he had his way, he'd spend endless hours cleaning the theatre, but that doesn't yield maximum audience benefit for the time that would be expended. So to explain that to him without offending him, I said, "I look forward to your doing those tasks. They'll be of real benefit to the theatre but for now, I need you to focus on getting the right props and furniture for the set. After that's done, if there's still time, it will be great for you to focus on sprucing up the theatre."

Staying with that car metaphor, if I'm to get maximum gas mileage from my cast and crew, I must keep them tuned up. I do that, for example, by, as I said, looking for legitimate opportunities to praise them, and offering suggestions with maximum tact. (Candidly, I blew it one time, really laid into someone, and feel bad about that.) If necessary, I offer a low-key pep talk. For example, I might say, "Yes, I'm being pretty perfectionistic in offering you these suggestions but I believe we have the potential to create a truly memorable production here. I do want to reassure you that I fully realize that none of us, least of all me, can be perfect, so when mistakes happen, I'll probably never get mad. I'll just see if we can fix them and if not, I'll simply shrug my shoulders and move on."

Might any of the lessons above be applied to your work in managing people?


F.S. said...

Thanks for the post, Marty. I, too, am involved in some community performance groups (a concert band and an a cappella chorus) and a lot of what you say rings true to me.

It might have also been interesting to hear how you budget your time and energy to manage an organization of that size -- one with lots of moving parts, and where everyone involved thinks (knows!) that his or hers is the one element that the entire production cannot do without.

I have tickets for Broadway Bound on Friday night and look forward to it!

Marty Nemko said...

Excellent question re time management in response to everyone's "urgent" query. Candidly, I make the time, no matter what. Even if in fact, an actress's apron color isn't critical, if she doesn't feel wonderful in her costume, it will affect her performance and her enjoyment of participating in the play. So I'll write a nice email to the costumer asking for her to try yet again to please the actress.

DC Husker said...

As a frustrated actress, I have always wanted to try out for community theatre, but memorizing lines has been a problem. Thirty years ago as a high school senior I had a major part in our school play. I made appearances throughout the play, but only said a few lines at a time. I had no problems with memorization. The next year I was cast in a one act play for a college directing class. I had large chunks of text to memorize and ended up forgetting everything! I have not tried out for a play since that horrible experience! Any tips on memorization and anxiety?

Marty Nemko said...

The way I memorize lines is to first, using an index card to cover the part I'm memorizing, read the first line then cover it with the index card and repeat it, and check to see if it was perfect. Then read the first two lines, then cover those with the index card. I keep going that way. I also make a recording of the scenes in which I have lines and play it in the car and I try to say the line just before the recording says it.

Then during performances, I calm myself by recognizing that a play does not live or die depending on whether I forget a line or three. It depends on how rich a character I've created.

DC Husker said...

Thank you for providing an interesting technique regarding memorization.


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