Direct And To The Point: The Question of Risk

I recently received an appointment for an audition. I am currently about 8 months pregnant, so at this point, my pregnancy is evident to anyone who looks at me. The contract for this job would have started a month after my due date and would ended before my husband finished his paternity leave. Meaning it would have been a whirlwind for me and my family, but it would have been possible. When I went in for my audition, the female artistic director immediately reacted by saying “Well, you’re not available for this contract. There’s no way. Why are you here?” I explained that if they felt like I was a great fit for the role, I thought it was workable (and explained why). If they didn’t feel like I was a match for the role, then this audition was just a further opportunity for us to continue to develop our relationship. This explanation did not seem to satisfy her in the least, but I was allowed to continue with my audition. There’s nothing like knowing someone is not interested in hiring you to help bring out your best work. (For further irony, the play itself was about the feminist movement that occurred in conjunction with the French Revolution.)

I understand that this was a small theater and its resources are limited. I understand that for something like this there are no understudies – meaning that if someone had to miss a performance or suddenly has to back out of a contract, that creates significant problems for the theater. But the reality is, I am no more of a risk to this production than any other performer would be. It’s just that the reason why I MIGHT be a risk, is much more evident than it might be for other candidates. If I had cancer, or a drug addiction, or was a man who was about to be a first time dad, they would never have known that information from just looking at me and there wouldn’t have been any question about my ability to fulfill the contract. Additionally, because there is such a stigma about being pregnant in this industry (and being written off because of it) they probably would have earned my undying love and devotion for being an ally rather than an adversary. Nothing short of an act of God would have kept me from missing a performance.

But instead of asking the question about whether or not it was possible for us to figure out a way for it to work, a decision was made that it wasn’t feasible. The decision completely excluded half of the conversation (me) and was made before any other possibilities were even considered. Which seems like a shame for both of us. If you thought I was right enough to be given an appointment, isn’t it worth considering ways to make it work? If you don’t, at the very least, ask the question, you’re selling everyone short. What if I was planning to put the child up for adoption? Or what if I was planning to exclusively use formula and could therefore be away from it for the duration of the contract? I wasn’t planning on doing either of those things, but I was never even asked. And what I could have done was pump and have my husband there to care for our child for the entire process. Something that would have been easy for the theater to accommodate. But other options were never legitimately considered.

ask the right question

Seth Godin recently wrote a wonderful post about risk. He writes:

The gulf between “risky” and “feels risky” is huge. And it’s getting bigger.
It turns out that value creation lives in this gap. The things that most people won’t do (because it feels risky) that are in fact not risky at all.
If your compass for forward motion involves avoiding things that feel risky, it pays to get significantly better informed about what actually is risky.

It’s my job as artist to take risks. Making your voice heard, saying something new, being honest and vulnerable – these are some of the most valuable take-aways from art and some of the “riskiest” things to do in society. It’s why public speaking terrifies us as much as it does. Taking risks as an actor is essential, but it is even more necessary as a director. It’s my job as a director to navigate what the actual risks are verses the perceived risks, so that we don’t miss the opportunities that are only available among the perceived risks. It’s also my job to ask “how can we make this work?” You have to be able to not only take on your own risks, but also encourage everyone else on the team to take the risks that will lead to their best work.

I was listening to an interview a few years ago with someone who was a show runner for a popular TV show at the time. (For the life of me I cannot remember who it was!) The interviewer brought up the fact that one of the writers who had been hired for the writing room had a sizable prior commitment which would make them unable to write for the show for a good portion of the season. And the show runner’s response was fantastic. He said “this person is one of the best writers I know. Who cares that I can’t have them writing on my show for the entire season? Why wouldn’t I bring them in for whatever amount of time I can get them for?” Obviously, this specific solution isn’t one that works for well for many theater scenarios, but it’s a great example of not being scared off by a perceived risk or a perceived cost. We often have more to offer (which doesn’t require a significant out of pocket investment) than we we realize. It could be offering up some office space during a performances so that a sitter can babysit a actor’s child at the theater. It could be working to set up a rehearsal schedule that allows someone to care for a sick parent. It could even be as simple as volunteering the use of the performance venue on dark nights for the cast and creatives to work on other projects they might be developing.

We do theater. It’s a place for community and creativity. The time, the money, the resources will always be in short supply. Being a responsible director puts you at the crossroads of the logistical requirements and the emotional dreams. But those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Asking what’s possible and tapping into the resources that are available to us are how we make our productions the best that they can be. Why wouldn’t we use those same questions to make our working conditions as generous as they can be? I always tell myself “my job is to ask”. I might not get the answer that I want, but at least I’ve asked the question. It’s possible that the perceived risk of asking the question has far fewer consequences than not asking the question. When we assume there is no solution, we are sure not to find one.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Carry The Ball Forward

For any large event (moving day, opening night, wedding, etc), I like to worry early and push hard right at the beginning. Like is a strong word. It’s probably better to say I really DON’T like feeling any undue stress related to these events. In this case, when I say “stress”, I mean the range of duress you feel between genuinely not knowing if you will be able to be ready on time and seriously doubting that you can be ready in time. I work very hard to avoid feeling this way.

By and large, I’m successful in doing this by implementing a philosophy I call “carry the ball forward.” Anytime you’re looking eye to eye with a massive project, make constant progress any which way you can from the moment you become aware of your responsibilities. Big projects, especially in the creative realm, have many unknowns. They often include coordinating with a whole bunch of moving pieces. Various people with different agendas will likely need to converge on the same space in order to do what you need them to do. And there will never feel like there’s enough time to get everything done. So, planning, strategizing and really making the most of the time you have beforehand will make everyone’s life easier.

Cotton in San Fran

The benefits of this are two-fold. First, I can react to any last minute surprises from my calmest state of being and I have the bandwidth to actually deal with them, both of which enable me to give them my best response. Second, being well prepared going through the process allows my mind the time and space to think of other things that might come up. Which often translates to even fewer surprises.

Things that can help with this process…
MOTIVATION.

I like to think that everyone recognizes how fantastic pre-planning is, but that they sometimes find it difficult to get fired-up about it. Seth Godin was asked at a speaking event if he ever got nervous about presenting. He replied that he always gets nervous about it, but he’s trained himself to be more worried about what the ramifications would be if he never presented again. If he never did this presentation, maybe he would never make the next one and the next one and so on. Maybe he would have to go back to doing work he didn’t care about with people he didn’t like for the rest of his career. By making the fear of not presenting so vivid, the initial fear of presenting pales in comparison.

To that end, I invite you imagine the full experience of what being under-prepared for your big day would be like. On a physical level it might feel like that time in school where you thought you’d studied the right material, only to find out on the test that it was the other chapter you should have focused on. Your heart pounds, your stomach drops, your mouth goes dry, you start to sweat. Now consider how that unpreparedness could impact everyone else involved in this equation – the friends who gave up their Saturday to help you schlep boxes, the investors who believed in your vision enough to sink money into your project, your mom or dad who (presumably) will only see you get married once. Consider what would happen if there was suddenly an emergency in your own personal life – right before this event – that demanded your attention be elsewhere for a week? Injury or illness to your or a friend or family member, a catastrophe at work, a fire or robbery in your apartment building. Or perhaps imagine what it feels like when you have to pay double what you were expecting because you’re forced to use the only vendor who can deliver within your time frame. I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but all of these things are real possibilities. And you can either be a victim of your circumstances or you can be well prepared to take on the world. If you’ve done a great job of preparing, you’ll be in the best position you can be to temper or take advantage of any last minute surprises. When the experience matters, set yourself up for success.

PLANNING. 

It’s tempting to just jump right in and start doing stuff when something over-whelming is on the horizon. But without planning, this isn’t progress. It’s creating chaos. Not helpful. Not helpful at all. I start my planning by doing a huge brain dump with just plain old pen and paper. Start by writing down…

Categories.

Categories are the major areas of focus. These are the main components of your events. When I got married, my categories were things like “flowers”, “food”, “ceremony”. If anything pops into your consciousness during this phase that isn’t a category, write that somewhere in the margins so that it can be plugged into the process at the appropriate time. (If you’re into mind mapping, this is a great place to use it.) The idea is to create as much of a broad scope as you can. Once I’ve got what seems like a good overview, I go back through each category and start identifying…

Subcategories. 

Your subcategories are things that are manageable chunks, but still require a couple of steps of parts to complete. So, for example, my category of “flowers” yielded the subcategories “bouquets”, “boutineers”, “centerpieces”, “accessories” and “misc. decorating”. From there, I could move to…

Asking Questions.

How many boutineers do I need? What are the centerpieces going to be? What kind of flowers do I want? Am I going to hire a florist? Who do I know who might know a good florist in that area? Ask, ask, ask. As some things are answered, they will generate more questions. But this initial round of questions at least alerts you to what it is you know you don’t know. From here, begin…

Prioritizing.

Prioritizing is initially a question of where your minimum requirements lie. What are the things that you absolutely could not be satisfied going without? Once you’ve determined your list of “must haves”, then identify what from that list is going to take the most time to get done. (Note: if there’s something that is on your “must have” list that you have no idea how you’re actually going to pull off that automatically classifies something that will take the most time.) From there divide everything into one of three groups – “most important”, “important” and “nice to have”. If it’s a top priority and you don’t know how you’re going to do it/you know it IS going to take a long time, it moves to the “most important” section. Just under that in the “important” realm will be the things that are straight forward and don’t involve a long process. And lastly, the rest of the stuff that would be “nice to have”, but is not imperative. Now for the fun of…

Identifying Next Actions.

What are the next actions (the first steps) that needs to happen for your top priority items? (This part of the process may trigger a whole other round of questions. Fear not. There will always be a certain amount of refining in this process.) Your list of next action steps should be as black and white as possible and ideally have a definite end point. It might be “decide on colors”. It might be “ask my Facebook friends who they would recommend as a florist”. It might be “research where I can buy 13 glass bowls for centerpieces”. List these as succinctly as you can. If you’ve identified something as a next action but you actually need to do something else before you can complete it, it’s not a next action. If you’ve listed “address envelopes” as your next action item, but you’re still missing a number addresses from your mailing list, your next action item is actually “get missing addresses”…followed by “address envelopes”. Once you’ve got your next immediate actions in order, you’re welcome to list all subsequent actions that you can foresee. If the next action is “get missing addresses”, the progression from there might be “address envelopes”, “buy stamps”, “mail invites”, etc. (The difficulty I always have with this phase is in telling myself that I don’t really need to break things down THAT explicitly. Although I’m capable of figuring out that addressing envelopes should come after actually getting the mailing address, I have a much better grasp of everything that needs to be done – and I’m able to plow through it faster – if I’ve identified the very next thing that needs to be done.) And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, you get to…

Go Wild!!

Attack that list of actions. If you’re waiting for a response on one action, attack another one. When you get an answer to one of your questions, channel that back into action. The beauty of this process is that you will always know where and how you can make immediate progress. You will also be able to delegate, if given the opportunity, because you will have a precise list of what needs doing. If you’ve really planned out everything that you need to do, you should have a pretty realistic picture with regard to how things are coming together. If things seem like they’re way behind, figure out what the minimum you need to accomplish is. Also, look to see if there are ways to get the work done that may be less ideal, but significantly faster. When I was moving it would have been ideal to pack each box only with items for a certain room. But it was significantly faster for me pack things as they were no longer needed and as they could be fit into boxes. Extra towels in the linen closet became the perfect thing for wrapping extra glassware from the kitchen.

I realize that at this point I’ve beaten this concept to death. But I really and truly believe in its merits. We DIY’ed just about everything that could be DIY’ed for our wedding. I made my dress. I made the flower girls dresses. My husband made all our signage. We built the website from scratch. We made all of our flowers. We made our favors. We made our centerpieces. We designed our own programs. We made our guestbook. We wrote our own vows. If it could be done, we did it. Additionally, I was out of town for a month working on a show that closed two weeks before my wedding. My husband took off the three days before our wedding so that he can be available to help with last minute stuff. But we were in such great shape that we basically spent that time goofing around. And it was the best way to start our wedding weekend. We were able to just be happy and relaxed before all our family and friends descended. It’s possible. And it’s so fantastic to step into the hurricane knowing that you’re really and truly ready.

Carry that ball forward!

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier!