Advertising
Advertising

Stage Manage Your World

Stage Manage Your World
Globe

    All the world’s a stage, and we but players on it…

    I moonlight as a stage manager for local theatre productions in my town, and most recently I oversaw the production of the “47th Annual Madfest”, a juggling variety show. Acts come in from all over the world to the festival, and in the space of 5 hours in an afternoon it is my job to turn them into an evening’s worth of entertainment for the sold-out 1300 seat theatre. This presents unusual challenges particular to this event: there is no real rehearsal, and often acts are being added or cut from the lineup right up until showtime. It’s a microcosmic perfect storm of pressure, stress and (even worse for a performer like myself) the threat of public humiliation.

    Advertising

    Yet every year the show gets better, and attracts bigger crowds. How? As Geoffrey Rush said in Shakespeare in Love, “… a miracle occurs.” The best miracles, though, seem to occur with some advance planning, and I found myself this year reflecting on how some of the strategies that stage managers use to make this kind of magic could be useful on the larger stage of our lives.

    1. Stay Calm. The best stage managers never raise their voice. Even when the lighting has failed, the ingenue just broke her ankle backstage and the lemmings have broken out of their cages, it is the steady voice over the headsets that brings the crew together. It’s not even that the stress is just being hidden; it really isn’t there– yet. The skill lies in subsuming the panic until after the crisis. Then you can go hit your head against the wall. Or the lemming. Or whatever. But in the middle of a crisis? Tell yourself you can run in circles, scream and shout–but later.

    Advertising

    2. Plan flexibility. Of course, the stage manager has a cue sheet with everything written on it that will occur on the stage, and when, and what should happen next. It’s a very useful document, but as Mark Twain said, “the map ain’t the territory.” It bears only a passing resemblance to what will actually occur on the stage, and the good stage manager is aware of this and has the ability to rearrange cues, change the timing of directions , and sometimes skip or add events based on the needs of the show. Having your GTD plan is all well and good, and I find my schedule immensely useful, but if reality determines that you are snowed in, the flights are cancelled, or the tire is flat and you’re in the middle of the desert, the ability to re-format that schedule and that to-do list can do wonders for your peace of mind and productivity.

    3. Anticipate. Any stage direction given during a show consists of at least two parts: a Ready and a Go. For example, the stage manager would see the dancer about to go into a routine on stage left, and would say something like “ready, light cue 9.5 and sound cue 10…that should be track 7, right, Allison?” This would happen about a minute before the event, but it’s that minute that gives Allison time to double check where the CD is cued and respond with a “Track 7, sound cue 10, standing by!” It’s a way for everybody involved to realize that something’s going to happen, and that they are all ready for it. Cultivating this habit would do wonders for my own family. “The play is tonight, Dad, but I know you have your writer’s group later on–I’ll catch a ride home with my friend Allison, ok?” “I’m going to be loading in with the dance company next thursday night, dear, can we make sure we have dinner wednesday together so that I don’t miss you too much?” Merlin Mann and David Allen talk about this in the 43 Folders/GTD podcast about teams, but in the microcosm of the stage this tactic is essential.

    Advertising

    4. Communicate. That ready warning would be pretty useless if I wasn’t wearing a headset, connected to the light board operator, the backstage crew, the spot operator, the sound board op, and whoever else is running the mechanics of the theatre. There is no more essential tool to the theatre, in my opinion, than a good ClearCom system backstage connecting people. It seems to me that the matter of “headset etiquette”–not having too much chatter during the show, making sure you don’t cough with your mic on, and above all, never taking off your headset without letting people know–also has some allegorical usefulness. With all the attention paid to “staying connected”, I don’t know many people who will actually take the time to let others know when they need to be away (“I need to write this article for Lifehack, hon, I’ll be off chat for a bit.”) I’m not sure how this would work for the multiple lines of communication–I communicate with one of my adult daughters primarily via phone, and another via email, and two others are still in the nest. Maintaining and keeping these communication lines free and strong is something I’d love to hear suggestions about in the comments.

    5. Be aware of the moment. It’s a peculiar kind of multitasking, not only anticipating but also being aware of the state of the theatre during a show–sometimes through video monitors showing the green room, the stage, and the audience, and sometimes simply through asking over the headset “Is the house full?” as you stare at your moleskine full of notes from your tiny desk backstage. Whatever kind of network you use, be aware of your surroundings, and make sure you have reliable information. My own particular area needing improvement is in my finances. Are there areas where you are letting your awareness slip, where you don’t know what’s going on? Anticipation is great, but only if things go where you expect them to.

    Advertising

    6. Go. Remember the second part of the “ready” warning? Anticipation, awareness, communication, planning, it’s all great…but if the moment comes, and you don’t give the “Go!”signal, nothing happens in the end. It’s a precarious moment, when you don’t know for sure if that cue will work, if the props will be in their place, when you don’t know if the PowerPoint that you are playing off of your iPod because LifeHack said it would be cool will actually work, or if instead you’re going to show your board members an Invader Zim cartoon. But you have to press that button, start that conversation, to tip that first domino in the chain of events you’ve planned for your life.

    And then relax…and let the miracle occur. It’s your life–and it’s the greatest show on earth.

    Gray Miller is a performance technologist in Madison, WI who loves playing with expensive toys and figuring out how to make them work in the fine arts. Aside from working with diverse troupes, he also writes at satorimedia.typepad.com about technology and the arts and also snipes at the theatrical world in general at FameorFamine.com. Other than that, he’s just your average juggling former Marine with a dance degree, four daughters, and a lapstalking cat. When he grows up, he wants to be Chris Brogan.

    More by this author

    20 Things People Regret the Most Before They Die Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science Quit Your Job If You Don’t Like It, No Matter What What Highly Successful People Do Every Day To Perform At Their Best How to Plan Your Life Goals and Actually Achieve Them in 7 Simple Steps

    Trending in Featured

    1 Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) 2 How To Start a Conversation with Anyone 3 Where Am I Going? How to Put Your Life in Context 4 How to Become an Early Riser and Stay Energetic Throughout the Day 5 5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    Advertising

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    Advertising

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Advertising

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    Advertising

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

    Read Next