Though I’ve been producing theater projects for a number of years now, I’m always learning new and better ways to conduct our business. So when I was hiring a Stage Manager recently who’d never worked with Starving Artist before and she asked if we had any “rules for the theater,” all I could respond with was a blank look. I had a creative ethos I liked to prescribe to, I had a mission and value statements for the company, but didn’t have any hard and fast “rules.” Because, I mean, we’re all adults, right? We know how to behave in professional situations, yes? Perhaps not. At least, perhaps not always. But it was this little conversation that got me thinking about what I wanted the Starving Artist Company Rules to be. What were the driving ethical and professional attitudes I wanted to dominate our creative process and output? From that moment I sat down and wrote out three simple phrases.
This blog post is the first of three that will examine these rules.
RULE #1: RESPECT THE PEOPLE
To Respect the People Presumes Nothing
One thing I’ve discovered in my ongoing journey of creative development, from leading people toward a common creative goal to simply memorizing lines, is to take nothing for granted. Never presume that because you take your role in the creative process seriously that everyone else does. Never presume that because you treat other people with decency and respect that others will naturally follow suit.
Stating up front and in front of those who’re choosing to align themselves with your company’s creative vision (cast, crew, industry peers) that two of the elements most important to your guiding principles are people and respect sends a clear message regarding the type of conduct you value and we should all be practicing. Don’t miss an opportunity to bolster investment in your vision by clearly stating what you value (if what you value is valuable, of course).
To Respect the People Presumes Everything
As much as we don’t presume that people should intuit or inherently understand the ethic of Starving Artist without us first conveying it – via these company rules – we also do presume with equal commitment that who we hire for a job is capable of performing that job (until proven otherwise, as occasionally happens).
A theater director friend of mine – at the time a novice and green and excited – once shared with me prior to beginning a rehearsal process an exercise they wanted to introduce to the cast – the professional cast, it should be mentioned – on the first night of rehearsal. Ok, I said, what’s the exercise? It was a memorization technique. As in, how to memorize lines. This may not strike you as insulting, but as an actor for almost 20 years, if on the first night of rehearsal after being cast for a project I was told ways to memorize my lines, I’d consider leaving the project. Telling a professional actor how to memorize lines the first night of rehearsal is like hiring someone to paint your house and when they arrive for the job, proceeding to tell them what a paint brush is.
Hear me, there have and will be times when we make a hiring error and who we thought we were hiring is not who we got. It happens. But that’s hopefully going to be the exception to the rule. I don’t hire a set designer and tell them how to design the set. If I could do their job, I wouldn’t have hired them. To Respect the People means you presume the people you hire know how to do the job for which they’ve been hired.
To Respect the People Requires Communication
Long before the company rules were established, an incident occurred on a play I was producing. A designer, who I’d presumed (my error: presuming without communicating) was doing the work required of them when not onsite at rehearsal, became very frantic during tech week, saying things like “I’ve called in all the favors I can” regarding amassing some of the show’s prop/set needs. Earlier in the rehearsal process I’d given this designer a flexible budget; a budget they’d presumed was inflexible which now, in tech week, left us with potential egg on our face calling in unnecessary favors, stressing out designers, which of course stresses out producers. Had Respect the People been adhered to, I as producer might have checked in more routinely, yes, but additionally, this designer would have spoken up and asked for additional funds, instead of endangering his, and our, reputation by leveraging unnecessary favors. If I, your producer, don’t know you have a problem, I can’t help.
Strong communication goes hand in hand with strong work. Respect the people contributing to your artistic vision enough to clearly communicate your needs to them. In addition, convey the need for them to communicate their needs to you, instead of sitting on them, which easily and quickly results in frustration and resentment.
To Respect the People Considers More Than Just This Side of the Apron
In a traditional theater space the apron is the stage’s terminus, which can be a physical part of a physical stage, or an invisible line at which the playing space stops and the audience area begins. To Respect the People means the work we do and the way we do it bears in mind those who will receive it. This doesn’t mean that we cater to or somehow stress ourselves out about how each and every audience member will receive the content of our work. What it does mean is we put in the time, energy and sweat to do the work of building the production so that it’s ready for an audience to receive.
To Respect the People Does Just That
A number of years ago, I was an actor in a large production; big cast, big set pieces, lots of moving parts. What should have been an exhilarating rehearsal process with a formidable cast of regional talent bringing a beloved piece of literature to life instead became one of the most disheartening, deflating experiences of my professional career. Whether due to personality quirks, or just personal issues, the director seemed to be in a bit of a life rut and was taking it out on the cast and crew at every turn. From needless yelling to constant belittling, it was truly the first experience on a production I ever considered walking off of. It was all the cast could do to get to opening night, when the director’s involvement would be reduced to a minimum. Ultimately, we pulled it together and got our job done, in spite of our wayward leadership.
Here’s the thing: creating art meant for audience consumption, from the smallest scale to the largest, can indeed be stress and panic-inducing. Everything that can go wrong usually does, and then some, but the thing that determines whether fellow artists and artisans want to work with you or your company again, is how you conduct yourself when the production and pressure are, in fact, drowning you. People are willing to go down with a sinking ship if they respect and trust the captain. But a leader is only trusted and respected if he or she has first established an environment where those contributing to the finished product are trusted and respected.
In life, especially in Creative Life, we tend to value rule-breakers and envelope-pushers and risk-takers, roles that would seem to reject the notion of having rules at all. But rules can – when appropriately devised, consistently executed and well articulated – instead of being a burden become a liberating agent that allows the collaborative work of creativity to flourish, knowing we’re all on the same page, granting us greater capacity to accomplish bigger and better creative goals.
TALK TO US: What sort of experiences/encouragement/horror stories have you had on productions where the people may or may not have been respected? Share in the comments and come back next week to learn about Rule 2!
WHILE YOU’RE AT IT: If you like what you’ve read here, please consider backing our current Kickstarter campaign to fund our upcoming production, the locally written DRACULA BITES! Click here for more.