Direct And To The Point: The Can’s And The Should’s

Just because you can, does that mean you should?

Periodically, an opportunity falls into your lap that seems like an absolute godsend. The prop that you had no idea how you would possibly find or create is suddenly being given to you for your production. The actor you were initially hoping to get for a specific role suddenly becomes available. A backer materializes for the project you’ve been dying to do. While all of these things sound like they would be nothing but a boon, it’s worth taking a quick time-out to gauge their true impact. As is generally the case in life, even things that seem to be heavily weighted towards being beneficial have their downsides.

In the book The Millionaire Next Door, the authors illustrate how “free” gifts can mask additional costs. For example, say you were given a free car. If you were previously without a car, this changes your situation in a number of ways. If you plan to drive the car, you will need to pay for the gas and maintenance (having it inspected, any necessary repairs, routine upkeep such as oil changes, etc.) for the duration of the time you have the car. You may also incur traffic or parking tickets. Even if you only plan to drive the car occasionally, you will have to pay to insure it. Additionally, you will need to have a place to store the car which (if you have not had a car up until this point and live somewhere without a garage or driveway) will mean finding a parking spot. All of which is to say that the “free” car actually comes with several obligations, both with regard to your time and money. Now, if that free car is replacing an existing car, then the degree of change is significantly less. But as a new element, the car creates quite a lot of change, some of which will be beneficial and some of which will be detrimental.

which option

Similarly, it’s worth trying to consider the various ramifications new opportunities can have. The bigger the opportunity (with regard to how much it costs or how much of a commitment it requires), the more seriously it should be weighed. One technique for doing this is something called a premortem. If you’re working within a theater company, it’s not uncommon to have a postmortem discussion, where you discuss how the process went – what worked, what didn’t, etc. In a premortem you’re having part of that discussion beforehand – imagining, in advance, that you took this “great opportunity” but it ended up being a terrible choice. So, with the example of the prop that you never thought you would find, perhaps agreeing to use it meant that the entire design had to become much more realistic in order to match. In “retrospect”, you realize you would have been much better going in an absurd or abstract direction. Perhaps it ended up being impractical to use it (it was too heavy, too fragile, too small, etc.) but you felt obligated because you went to great lengths to get it. Which made the moments where it was being used look ridiculous and you had to scrap it at the last minute and scramble to replace it in the time and budget remaining. Which was stressful for your prop master (because they had to do a last minute search to find something else), your producer (because this wasn’t in the budget), and your actors (because they then didn’t have enough time to get comfortable with the prop before starting performances). This isn’t meant to be an exercise in doom and gloom or to give you analysis paralysis. It’s meant to help us consider other possible outcomes that could result from an impulsive decision, so that we’re not completely blindsided if/when everything doesn’t go perfectly. It’s entirely possible that something that seems like a great opportunity actually IS a great opportunity. But it’s also possible that it’s not. And the act of considering the alternative can help us make a more measured decision.

Another way to re-contextualize this kind of decision is to push yourself to consider a handful of other solutions. Put another way, what if the opportunity that just became available to you, just as suddenly disappeared? If this option had never come along, what are some other ways that this problem could have been remedied? Try to come up with avenues that are distinct from each other, not just different shades of the same color. For example, with regard to the situation where the actor you were dreaming of became available to you, this would not mean having one or two other actors in mind who could do a decent impression of your first choice. This is about having completely different concepts around how the role could be played. Could the actor for this role be significantly older? Younger? Heavier? A different gender entirely? Could the role be approached from a more comedic lens? Could the role be played as more of an underdog? Maybe this role could be a puppet? Obviously, some roles have less flexibility baked into them than others. But what if (for reasons beyond your control) you had to go in a different direction with your casting? How can you make it work? I once heard about a production of Midsummer where the actor playing Oberon broke his ankle during the run, so they had him sit in a wheelchair upstage of everyone and recite his lines while another actor performed all of his physical business. (I’m not sure that was the best answer, but it was certainly another way to solve the problem.) Don’t be afraid to consider options that seem completely off the wall. Sometimes crazy ideas have kernels of truth that can be turned into valid solutions you might not have thought of otherwise. Don’t be discouraged if nothing comes immediately to mind. Often these are questions that your brain may need to think on.

Which brings us one last bit of advice with regard to this kind of situation – determine how much time you can take before committing one way or the other. Being able to pause for a moment can provide you with the time needed to think about other solutions, but it can also help you get some emotional distance from a solution that might be too good to be true. When a solution suddenly presents itself, the rush of euphoria can feel like winning the lottery. But in the same way that we might not make the best decision when we’re in a fit of rage, so too might our judgement be clouded in a rush of excitement (or our desire to make the problem go away). With the example of having a potential backer suddenly come into the picture, taking a little time can help you determine whether this is indeed a match made in heaven…or just someone who seemed appealing when you were at a low point. A relationship is a commitment calling for a significant investment of time and energy (and in this case, money). If you slow down long enough to the do the due diligence up front, you can save yourself a lot of heartache down the line. If it’s at all possible for you to sleep on the decision before committing to it, do that. The mere act of waiting allows the mix of chemicals floating around in your body to return to a more neutral state, helping you can make a decision based on rational and emotional input – you’re giving yourself the time to do further research about the opportunity, but also giving yourself the emotional space to think about what research needs to be done. Has this person been a backer before? Are they familiar with how the industry works? Can you talk to people who have worked with them in this context? How much creative input do they want to have? Why do they want to be involved in the project? (If it’s so that their boyfriend can be the leading man, that might be a deal breaker for you. Then again, maybe their boyfriend is Idris Elba. In which case, game on.) If you can, talk to someone else who’s had this kind of relationship before. What did they learn? What should you look out for? If that’s not an option, talk to some of your more cautious friends or co-workers to ask what information they would want to know.¬†You just want to be sure that you’re able clearly evaluate what’s at hand and not being led astray by rose colored glasses.

To do this for every decision would be exhausting and you would never get anything done. But for the big decisions, especially the ones where you can’t easily change course if they turn out poorly, it’s worth spending a little extra time thinking through them. It can’t guarantee that whatever decision you make will work out for the best, but it can greatly improve your chances.

*For a great reference on how to navigate the decision making process, I highly recommend Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath.

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

Direct And To The Point: So, What Do You Do?

There is value in defining for yourself what role you want to play in the grand scheme of a production. Research has shown that a large part of job satisfaction stems from finding meaning in what you do. So, for example, a janitor who sees himself as contributing to the overall function of an organization he believes in is significantly happier in his job than the janitor who’s just taking out the trash and collecting a paycheck. The default job description may meet the minimum requirements, but if we want attract the right people and projects to our world and get the most out of our experience, taking the time to craft a more deliberate intention (even if it’s just for yourself) is a great starting point.

My job as a director boils down to four things.

Establish what the story is.
It bears repeating that the story is not the plot. The plot is strictly the events that happen. The story is how we interpret those events. I decide on a version of the story that I’m interested in telling. If it’s a new piece or something where the playwright is accessible, I then broaden the conversation to include them. How does my interpretation jive with what they intended? What did I read on the page that they didn’t know was there? What did they intend that I missed? If you can find common ground from the outset, you’ll save yourself all kinds of headaches later on. There’s nothing worse than having a playwright come in to watch a final run-through and disagree with the way everything is being done. Next that circle of conversation extends to my designers, and then my actors. This order of operations is purely based on the order in which these players typically come on board. The objective is simply to have a clear direction for the story that everyone understands and can work towards.

Have an answer.
Every production presents challenges. It could be anything from making something magically appear at a certain moment to not having any backstage space to making a character likable enough so that we continue to listen to what he has to say. My job is to scout those sticky spots out early and figure out some kind of solution – a solution that could implement all by myself if I had to. It may not be the right solution. It may not even be a good solution. But that way I know that there is some sort of solution. If nothing else, it’s a starting point. And sometimes even bad ideas can develop into good ideas. What you cannot afford to do is say, “this is going to be a problem – I’m going to hope someone else will fix it” and look the other way. If you are the captain of the ship, you must take complete responsibility for the ship.


Harvest the crop of answers.
In the way that it’s my job to have a solution. It’s also my job to create an environment where everyone else is also coming up with solutions and where those solutions are being voiced. Designers and technicians, since they tend to have rather defined areas that they are responsible for, tend to be excellent at coming up with solutions. I often wish actors were better at it, especially with regard to thinking up solutions outside of the rehearsal room. Yes, wonderful things can happen in the room in the spur of the moment. But research seems to indicate that even better things (more ideas with more variance) result when people think about solutions separately and then come together to share them. Especially, if you (like me) tend to be more introverted. So if we’re clear about where we’re trying to get to and what we’re up against, my job is to make sure everyone is held accountable for being part of the solution.

Edit down the options.
Once there’s a good mix of options on the table, my job is to start trying them out and decide what works – what’s sustainable for the course of the run, what’s practical, what gets us closest to what we need. Don’t get stuck waiting for the perfect answer. Just pick a lane and try it. If the option you thought would be brilliant turns out to be wrong, try the one you thought would never work. You have to be willing to try the wrong option in order to discover the right one.

When I write it all out like that, it seems like piece of cake. Obviously, it all becomes much more complicated in the execution. But in terms of broad strokes to aspire to, I like it.

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