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Stage Manage Your World

Stage Manage Your World
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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Last Updated on October 15, 2019

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why we procrastinate after all

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    So, is procrastination bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How bad procrastination can be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article:

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    8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

    Procrastination, a technical failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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