29 April 2012

5 Things I Learned from Production Managing the New Works Festival


#1 Don't take a job without getting the specifics (preferably in writing) of what it entails.

This is such an amateur mistake, but I totally made it, and the consequences were huge. Granted, I’m still in undergraduate (but not for long…oh my…), and so even though I knew better, I thought to myself, “Oh, well, it’s not like money is changing hands – this is a pretty small-time thing; I’m still in school so it’s no big deal.” WRONG. SO WRONG. ‘Still in school’ and ‘not making money’ are not excuses that make it OK to not be familiar with the terms of your contract (even if it’s just a verbal contract – “Will you take on this job for us?” “Sure.”); on the contrary, I’d argue that those conditions make it even more important that you get all the information beforehand, because your time (and sanity, and sleep) are of crucial importance at this stage! Not to sound melodramatic, but while a poorly-inspected contract in the ‘real world’ could have nasty financial repercussions, jeopardizing your ability to pay rent (or some such), the same thing in a college setting can still mess you up in terms of grades and stress, which could jeopardize your GPA or even your degree if things get really out of hand. Don’t roll your eyes, now – I have three D’s on my transcript, and they are all directly linked to the huge, well-nigh overwhelming theatre jobs I took on in those semesters. Great work experience? Wonderful opportunities that I would totally do again (but more intelligently) if I were given the chance? Of course. I long ago made the decision to treat my theatre jobs like real employment, and they come first, equal with my other job as a student. In the long run, I don’t regret that, but my GPA has occasionally taken the consequences.

I really can’t stress the importance of this enough, so here’s a solid example of how not solidifying the limits of your contract can get you in trouble: in addition to production managing the New Works Festival (which I had never done before now, so I should have been even that much more careful about getting all the details about what was expected of me), I ended up basically standing in for the technical director, since we weren’t able to get one for the production.

Instant Problem: I have way too little technical knowledge to be anyone’s TD. I have a few scraps of information on how to program a light board, basic proficiency with sound equipment, some working knowledge of hanging instruments, working rigging, power tools and commonsense ideas about safety, and that’s it. Anything more complex had me desperately scrolling through my cell phone contacts, calling up my serious-techie friends and going, “Hey … can you walk me through this? In, like, 30 seconds?” Fortunately, they were all very patient and willing to help, but imagine if they hadn’t been? Me and that show would have been screwed.

Questions I should have asked include (but are by no means limited to): What are my complete duties before, during, and after the run of the show? What specific time commitments will you need from me? What other personnel (board ops, run crew, etc) will I be responsible for hiring/managing? Who do I report to? How will my job change if we do/do not find a technical director? How much veto power do I have (specifically on issues of safety, scheduling, or turning down special requests that were not made by deadline)?
Moral of the story: don’t trust anyone. I know, I know, that sounds so cynical and mean and blah blah blah. I don’t consider myself a suspicious person, and I don’t mean to be one, but this is more a matter of self-care than of cynicism. It is your job, and no one else’s, to make sure you don’t get screwed over on a contract (and yes, verbal contracts count as contracts! Contract = formal commitment). Ask all the questions, don’t assume or take things for granted, don’t think for a moment that the other person (however nice or well-meaning they are personally) has your best interest at heart, because they don’t; they have a job they need done and they are trying to take care of it. That’s all. And above all: get things in writing. This would have saved me a lot of guesswork and frustration when unexpected duties got dropped in my lap.
Learn from my mistakes, my friends.

Okay. The other four things are a lot less heavy, I promise. Here we go.

#2 Asking for help will save your life, or at the very least your sanity.

Seriously. I started asking around for an assistant production manager as soon as I started getting the first inklings of a suspicion that my job was going to explode into crazytown levels of work. M.K. just finished an intensely draining stage management gig, and so I felt bad at first, asking her to do something else, but that went away soon enough, because I was too busy being fervently grateful to have her. Because she’d just finished doing a much more challenging job, and was already very used to working with several of the people who were on this one, she was consistently on top of things, half the time asking questions and pointing out things that I hadn’t even thought of yet. Thanks to her, I did not, in fact, burst into tears or hate everything at any point during tech week. That, my friends, is a success.

#3. Protect your off time. The world can wait.

For awhile there, I was doing five hours of sleep at night, plus 45 minutes during the day. This was during tech week, of course, and so every time I laid down for a nap, I swear my phone just exploded with texts and calls from people who needed information/help/reassurance now. For the first couple of days, I would answer them right away, half-asleep and all (and occasionally suffer the consequences of sleep-texting…I don’t recommend it). After that, though (and, not so coincidentally, after I got an assistant), I turned that shit off when I was napping, because if I didn’t get my sleep, then that meant I was arriving at the theatre cranky, exhausted, and resentful of everyone who had contributed to my sleeplessness. Not cool.

#4. Snacks are awesome.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve had, at any point during the day, enough sugar and carbs riding around in my backpack to feed 1-3 kindergarteners. Carry emergency food. When rehearsal runs long (or starts two hours earlier than planned), you’ll be glad you did.

#5. Learn to let go.

Once the curtain goes up, all opportunity for making changes, tweaking details, and making sure everything’s going to come out ‘just right’ is over. It is what it is. If a light wash doesn't fall in the exact right place, or a scene change goes way too long, you really need to just be OK with it. Maybe the audience will notice, and maybe they won’t. What of it? If you’ve done the best job you can, you should be proud of your work, not looking around for someone to blame or taking out your embarrassment on other people. That’s the beauty of theatre – you put in a ton of work, but at the end of the day it’s ephemeral; it only continues to exist in the memories of people who were there (and, occasionally, in the photos taken by jerks who didn’t turn off their cell phones…but that is a subject for a very different post). Be proud of what you accomplished, learn from what you didn’t, and do an even better job next time.


Don't EVER lose your sense of humor! This sort of messes up my nice neat list-of-five, but it's too important to leave off. I got very stressed during this project, but I also snarked about it a lot, and that helped considerably. Spotting the ridiculous in a situation (and having friends who will listen to you spout off about it) can be of incalculable value. Laughter > Perfectionism.

That’s all I’ve got this time, guys, but if you liked it (or have life lessons of your own to share – I’m all ears), leave me some love in the comments!

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