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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 November 19, 2020

    The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life

    The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments—you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time. That’s why the art of saying no can be a game changer for productivity.

    Requests for your time are coming in all the time—from family members, friends, children, coworkers, etc. To stay productive, minimize stress, and avoid wasting time, you have to learn the gentle art of saying no—an art that many people have problems with.

    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger, or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

    However, it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here’s how to stop people pleasing and master the gentle art of saying no.

    1. Value Your Time

    Know your commitments and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it.

    Be honest when you tell them that: “I just can’t right now. My plate is overloaded as it is.” They’ll sympathize as they likely have a lot going on as well, and they’ll respect your openness, honesty, and attention to self-care.

    2. Know Your Priorities

    Even if you do have some extra time (which, for many of us, is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time?

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    For example, if my wife asks me to pick up the kids from school a couple of extra days a week, I’ll likely try to make time for it as my family is my highest priority. However, if a coworker asks for help on some extra projects, I know that will mean less time with my wife and kids, so I will be more likely to say no. 

    However, for others, work is their priority, and helping on extra projects could mean the chance for a promotion or raise. It’s all about knowing your long-term goals and what you’ll need to say yes and no to in order to get there. 

    You can learn more about how to set your priorities here.

    3. Practice Saying No

    Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word[1].

    Sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.

    4. Don’t Apologize

    A common way to start out is “I’m sorry, but…” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important when you learn to say no, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm and unapologetic about guarding your time.

    When you say no, realize that you have nothing to feel bad about. You have every right to ensure you have time for the things that are important to you. 

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    5. Stop Being Nice

    Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. However, if you erect a wall or set boundaries, they will look for easier targets.

    Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.

    6. Say No to Your Boss

    Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss—they’re our boss, right? And if we start saying no, then we look like we can’t handle the work—at least, that’s the common reasoning[2].

    In fact, it’s the opposite—explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.

    7. Pre-Empting

    It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting,

    “Look, everyone, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects, and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”

    This, of course, takes a great deal of awareness that you’ll likely only have after having worked in one place or been friends with someone for a while. However, once you get the hang of it, it can be incredibly useful.

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    8. Get Back to You

    Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, try saying no this way:

    “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.”

    At least you gave it some consideration.

    9. Maybe Later

    If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say,

    “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].”

    Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands. If you need to continue saying no, here are some other ways to do so[3]:

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    Saying no the healthy way

      10. It’s Not You, It’s Me

      This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often, the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time.

      Simply say so—you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization—but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true, as people can sense insincerity.

      The Bottom Line

      Saying no isn’t an easy thing to do, but once you master it, you’ll find that you’re less stressed and more focused on the things that really matter to you. There’s no need to feel guilty about organizing your personal life and mental health in a way that feels good to you.

      Remember that when you learn to say no, isn’t about being mean. It’s about taking care of your time, energy, and sanity. Once you learn how to say no in a good way, people will respect your willingness to practice self-care and prioritization. 

      More Tips for a Less Stressful Life

      Featured photo credit: Kyle Glenn via unsplash.com

      Reference

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