Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Monday, May 9, 2011

Absolute Core Truths of Theatre Personnel Management

This special guest post was written by Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman. Learn more about Impact Theatre at http://www.impacttheatre.com/

This season marked my 10th anniversary as artistic director of Impact Theatre, and my 15th with the company as a founding member. When I became Impact’s AD, I quickly became aware of the fact that there’s no AD boot camp. There’s no Handbook for New ADs. Some local people were very helpful—Patrick Dooley at Shotgun Players was especially generous. Now that I’m more established, people who are planning to start their own theatre companies, or who are in their first few seasons, come to me for advice and I do my best to pay it forward.

I always give a lot of practical advice—how to handle auditions, how to get insurance, why you should join Theatre Bay Area, how to write a playwright contract, etc. One thing that’s struck me recently, however, is something I’ve never discussed in these situations: How much time we spend in the theatre finessing personnel management. I’m sure it’s the same in every field, but since theatre is where my managerial experience lies, I’m going to speak specifically to that.

Here’s what I’ve learned are the Absolute Core Truths of Theatre Personnel Management. These are probably all already printed in some management book, so feel free to tell me if I’m boring you by repeating something you had to read in business school, and I’ll go back to the ranting and inappropriate jokes you’ve come to expect from me. Here’s what I learned in the School of Hard Knocks™.

1. You don’t buy loyalty with a paycheck. You earn it by treating people with respect.

This doesn’t mean complimenting their work. “Great job!” or “You’re so good at this” only go so far with your staff if you treat their opinions dismissively and if you routinely override their expertise. Your marketing director, your lighting designer, and your box office manager all know more about their areas than you do. It’s their job to know more about it than you do. Listen to their opinions. Allow them to disagree with you. Take their opinions very, very seriously, because if they’re disagreeing with you about their area of expertise, it’s almost certain that they’re right and you’re wrong. Respect their knowledge and experience, and they will reward you in 100 ways.

2. Give your staff ownership of the company and the work.

Allow your staff the freedom to make decisions. Don’t interfere with their decisions or their processes unless absolutely necessary. Does the set design violate fire code? Necessary. Does the rehearsal schedule violate the terms of your AEA contract? Necessary. Did no one tell the director the script is a comedy? Necessary. Do you think the backdrop should be light green instead of blue? Unnecessary. Do you think the sound designer should use “Bittersweet Symphony” instead of Sigur Ros? Unnecessary. Obviously you should make your opinions known, but putting your foot down and requiring a designer, development director, or stage manager to make unnecessary changes to their products or to their processes creates disgruntled, unhappy, underappreciated staff. Give your opinion or guidance, and back off unless the matter truly requires intervention.

3. Wear your authority with ease.

Nothing says “I’m insecure in positions of authority” like someone yelling at staff or refusing to allow staff to voice their opinions. A strong leader engages staff as equals, respecting their expertise. This doesn’t mean you should cede authority. Allowing your staff to make their own decisions and create their own processes doesn’t result in an authority drain. Step in when it’s necessary to step in. Put your foot down, respectfully, when it’s important. But have the strength to recognize when it’s important and when it’s not. And when mistakes happen or disaster strikes—because it will, trust me—blaming staff or yelling at people or otherwise losing your cool is the worst thing you can do.

4. Admit when you’re wrong.

Because they all already know it. Bluffing makes you look foolish.


5. Don’t be afraid to make the hard decisions.

Sometimes people need to be let go. This is the hardest thing for me personally and something I’ve bitched out on doing a number of times, hoping for the best. Learn from my mistakes. Be gentle, be respectful, but get rid of the people who can’t do their jobs. Again, everyone else already knows, and they’re sick of covering for that person.


6. Do whatever you have to do to keep your tech people happy.

While all theatre personnel are equally important, too often techs get treated poorly, blamed for mishaps, and left out of the glory. Happy techs make a show sparkle with awesomeness, like a magical lighting and sound unicorn flew over the theatre. Happy techs can build a gorgeous set out of popsicle sticks and coffee filters. Happy techs call 427 cues without breaking a sweat. Unappreciated, yelled-at techs will still do their jobs perfectly—they’re professionals—but they will withhold the awesome and take someone else’s gig next time around. Or worse—continue taking your gigs and talk shit about you in the community.

7. Relax. It’s theatre.

This isn’t brain surgery. No one will die if the director casts Actor X instead of the actor you liked best at callbacks. No catastrophe will ensue if your lighting designer went with a different gobo. It’s not fuckpocalypse if your marketing director thought one show was on the weak side. Breathe. Creating art is about both process and product. Don’t beat your process to death with your image of the perfect product. Nothing is going to be perfect, but it’s within your power to make it awesome.

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