Greater Than The Some

Some people excel at more than one skill. In fact, most people do. But some people have a hard time accepting that you do more than one thing. In fact, most people do. We are all grater than the sum of parts, and we all have a hard time accepting that in each other.

I see this in the performing arts. You’re a director, choreographer, actor or musician. But you’re also a dramaturg, assistant, editor, writer, supervisor and collaborator. I want to believe that people accept you do more than one thing. But when approaching producers, administrators, people who are in the position of hiring, rarely do they see the multifaceted professional standing before them.

I’ve actually been given the advice to not tell certain people I compose, if they know me as a music director. And vice versa; if you want to compose, don’t tell them you’re a music director. God forbid they read this and find out I also write.

The same is true for actors. If you’ve been an understudy and want to be considered for a role, don’t tel them you’ve been an understudy. They’ll hire you as an understudy. Why is that?

Are people truly wearing horse-blinders, making it difficult to see the well-rounded artists so many of us are? It is easier to accept people for they’ve already done, rather than what they could do. There’s more investment in the past history, than on what could potentially be in the future.

There are exceptions, of course. There are wonderful professionals and collaborators who see that there is more than meets the eye. But I suppose there is risk involved, taking a chance on someone who excels in one area in the field, but can also branch out in another. And risk is not a secure move in commercial theatre.

To Thine Own Self

If we want to succeed in any professional career, it is generally wise to know yourself.  What are your strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes?  In theatre we call that ‘type,’ or ‘essence,’ when casting a show.  Actors must know what they appear to be and what kind of character they could be right for in any casting call.

I’ve seen this in other lines of work as well.  A mutual friend of another thinks he has strengths and skills that are not necessarily identifiable by others around him.  In other words, his self diagnosis is a bit off from reality.  It is difficult to assess ourselves honestly.  We skew our image either too far to the positive (I’m wonderful and brilliant and everyone loves me), or to the negative (I’m worthless, no one likes me).  The truth is somewhere in between.

So why assess ourselves?  Ignorance is bliss?  I have weaknesses and I don’t care; I don’t want to deal with them.  This is often the reaction; this is also denial.  And, as was often said in my family, “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.”

If we truly want to be effective at our jobs, performing on stage or communicating with colleagues, knowing ourselves is more than half the battle.  It be able to be aware of how we appear, how we inflect our words, and show our body language, can give us the real power to communicate and work well with others.  For the actors in the world, they do this everyday, portray other people and situations.

If we are facing a repeated problem in our work or home, at some point the question should enter your mind: Is this a repeated mistake I’ve made?  Is it something I’m doing unintentionally?  This does not suggest we navel-gaze or over analyze; but we should, however, not discredit the value of a little self assessment from time to time.

True Value

What are you worth?  It’s the question every artist and freelancer get’s asked, although perhaps not so directly.  Depending on the gig, the situation, the employer/producer, the amount you get paid as a performing artist varies greatly.  And depending on what a gig pays, it measures your worth to that employer.

I spoke with a friend in different profession, dealing with the similar question of worth.  I was reminded of a quote from the Netflix series, “House of Cards,” (which I highly recommend).  To paraphrase, when asked about his quoted fee, Michael Kelly’s character replies: It’s not about money, it’s about being appreciated for what you’re worth.

If artists wanted to get rich, they wouldn’t be artists.  If they wanted to make money hand over fist, they’d work on Wall Street.

What is remarkable is an artist with a doctorate degree in music charges a fraction what a visit to the doctor costs.  One is more valuable than the other, according to the almighty dollar.  And we can argue that it’s not about the money, but until money grows on trees, or we start paying for a cup of Starbucks with hugs and kisses instead of dollar bills, money measures value.

As an artist I’ve been paid what I think is a ridiculous amount of money for a small amount of work; and there have ben times where I’ve worked overtime for far less.  Whenever we’re negotiating the fee, or what we feel is appropriate compensation for our time and talents, it’s a good to be reminded that it’s not about the money; it’s about being appreciated.  Which means it’s about the money.

I’ve Made A Few

When do we admit we are wrong?  Is it only when we are on trial, or pulled over by a police officer for speeding?  If you’re in a board meeting and you speak out of line, or misquote something?  Leaders in all professional fields struggle to admit they are wrong.  Just look at Wall Street.

Working with a variety of conductors and directors, I find they can range from the humbly transparent to the stubbornly opaque.  When a conductor cues the music incorrectly, or gives an egregious tempo, some of them blame the orchestra, or the actors, (if they are involved), or anyone they can get their hands on, other than themselves.  Directors can do that too; they are never wrong.  Because if you’re wrong, that shows weakness.

While this is not suggest you go marching into a rehearsal with a sandwich board that reads: “I am fallible.”  But it does you no good to pretend you are free from mistakes.

A friend who was conducting managed to admit his missteps, while maintaining a good rapport with the band.  None of the musicians working for the conductor were looking for fault with him.  They just want to play.

I find that in life: we just want to play.  We just want to do our jobs.  A mistake will happen; focusing on who’s at fault rather than the solution is generally a waste of time.  Move on.

When critics enter the artistic process, and nay-sayers will tell you the work is “wrong,” that’s their negative opinion.  Art is subjective, and it’s survival unfortunately often depends on gaining favor with the critics.  And that is why there is so much pressure to be “right.”

When we are in the midst of working and performing, showing our vulnerabilities and mistakes leaves us open to criticism.  Which is why most people won’t admit their mistakes.  But as good leaders, music directors and directors, being able to admit the obvious mistake (when it is obvious) can be a sign of strength and confidence.  We’re not perfect, but we’re striving to do good work.

Being There

When you are a part of a production, you hope that people will come see it and like it. You advertise. You do all the social media blasts you can. I’ve found no matter how much you advertise, it’s always a struggle getting people to actually show up for events.

A friend reminded me how important it is to see other friends’ work. We were discussing the ups and downs of performing; she was mindful that even if we are not doing something, it doesn’t mean we can’t support those who are.

Being present at events is often as important as being involved in the event. If you’re a spectator, rather than a performer, you can observe others’ work; seeing other industry professionals and networking is all a part of the game.

When you do show up, and support your colleagues and friends, they usually are pretty grateful and excited; out of the 100 people on your Facebook event, 12 showed. It’s not enough to say you’re going to see someone get up and perform; you actually need to go.

And yes, it can be a drag to travel across town, through the weather, on a night whine you’d rather want to stay in. I’m as guilty of this as the next person. But you never know who you will meet. And maybe they’ll come see you the next time you’re in a show.

Somewhere Over The Writing

We can stand in the way of our own successes.  Often it is our own doubts and misgivings that can make us lose perspective, or be able to diagnose and treat the situation; when faced with a problem, or needing to edit the work, there needs to be a healthy distance so the writer can separate the baby from the bathwater.

I worked on a project where everything was overwritten.  Everything.  There were too many notes to be played, and discerning what the composer wanted was difficult at best.  A friend worked with this composer and confirmed for me that he was extremely picky about how his music was to be played.  I suppose that could be true, but judging by the compositions, there was no picking in the notes; everything went in the score.

Knowing when to write less can be more effective than writing more.  This is a reoccurring theme in the arts and in writing because it happens so often.  The criticism we often hear is: “It was great, but overwritten.”  How can a writer know when to stop writing?

For my own sanity on this issue, clarity trumps everything.  How can you create something of beauty if the beauty is lost in the work?  By giving clarity to the writing, the performers know what you’re attempting to convey and the audience receives it.  Writing is rewriting; slowly going through the music, the words, and if at all possible saying it with less.

Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off

Problems arise in the workplace.  There is miscommunication and often feelings get hurt, not to mention bruised egos.  Wanting to know who is right and who is wrong in a scenario can be exhausting.

I needed a reminder on how to handle a disagreement.  When you’re not the one in the argument, it’s much easier to point out the problem, and the guilty parties.  This happens often in the performing arts; blame it on the artistic temperaments.

When you are in the argument, emotions cloud your judgement.  There will be justice served.  People get on the war path and events escalate quickly.  Before you start throwing insults or attacking the other person, take a step back.

Realizing you’re not necessarily innocent, and that there are circumstances beyond your control, helps give perspective on the situation.  In a situation recently, there was a misunderstanding over a schedule, which lead to a disagreement.  How do you fix the problem?

Being the person to take their share of the blame takes a bit of courage.  Admitting fault, and staying calm is hard.  But by waving the white flag and calling a truce, allows the other side to (hopefully) admit their share of misunderstandings, and their side of the problem.  This also allows for some explanation and finding the common ground.  When this happens, the whole problem is null and void.  The war is called off, and a solution has been found.

If you get in a disagreement, don’t allow yourself to take all the blame.  But maybe take a little.

My Fair Laid-back Music Director

Taking a note from a superior can be frustrating, especially when you might not understand the intent of the note.  Having been on both sides of the correcting notes, I find having an agreeable attitude is key.

As an assistant and pianist in musical theatre, I’ve experienced the music directors who cannot possibly comprehend how and why I am not perfect.  Sorry.  Here, I stand, human and flawed.  The notes they gave were often loud and full of colorful language.  Needless to say, the content of their corrections suffered.

Recently I’ve had the good fortune of working with a more laid-back music director.  Whatever issues arise, I have to remind myself of the tirades from tyrants I’ve experienced in the past; they make this other experience seem like a sit-in lovefest.  I cannot complain.

In any case I found my reactions to the corrections from the laid-back music director to be a bit more uptight than necessary.  I was used to responding with: “Ja, Mein Führer!” rather than, “Thank you for the note.”  This MD wasn’t expecting same the impossible, implausible perfection the other music directors I worked for had.  He just expected hard work and attention.  And oddly enough, that’s what I gave him.

It’s funny to me how people think yelling and screaming will get you more results.  Sadly, it does work to a point in this country.  The loudest voices get heard.  Just look at Donald Trump (sorry, he’s everywhere these days).  That doesn’t mean the content is there, nor is the content worth hearing.  When you are calm, still and focused on the work, the results shine through.   This reminds me of a conductor who used to throw chairs at his choir when he didn’t get what he wanted.  All I can think is: any idiot can throw a chair.  How about instilling confidence in your performers?

Mama’s Talkin’ Loud

Children and theatre are interesting when missed together.  Children, theatre and parents are even more fascinating together; some combinations are the best combinations in support and encouragement.  Some aren’t.

Every parent raises their child with their own best judgement.  Not being a parent, I suppose I have little to say about parenting.  However, working in theatre with child actors and their parents show a very different, very thought-provoking side to the parent/child relationship.

There are the quintessential stage-mothers (and fathers).  Mothers get a bad rap in this situation; fathers can be just as guilty of over-stimulating and over engaging their child.  I’ve seen the parents who have announced proudly, “I decided he was going to be a performer before he was born.”  That’ll get your kid in therapy faster than you can say “time step.”

Encouraging a child in the arts, or in any discipline can be tricky.  Observing the parents who truly want the best for their children, and what the child wishes to accomplish is wonderful.  When the situation becomes about the parent, it is absolutely dreadful.  There is pressure pushed on the child actor; many of them are earning the living for their family, and that is a heavy burden when you’re 10 years old.

Short of calling Child Services, little can be done when a parent is pushing themselves and their agenda on their child’s career, if you can call it a career at the age of 10.  And when I’ve worked with the children of aggressive parents, the child is not altogether well-adjusted with their peers.  What seems obvious to others is not clear to the parent.

On the bright side, it is encouraging to see the young performers working and learning along side their elders.  Whenever there’s a chance to teach and to learn, that is an exciting time to be working with them.

All By Myself

Working in a theatre company, with actors, directors, company managers, is an intense experience.  It is pressurized even more when you are traveling together, pulling a five or six-show weekend together; you practically live together.  Throwing a group of performers together, with their fun, yet eccentric artistic personalities, the situation can feel like a strange sociological experiment, resembling The Lord of the Flies.

I guarantee everyone and anyone has been on a school trip be it band or choir.  And if it wasn’t either of those, you probably traveled with the debate team, football team, or some other social group.  For the majority of people this stops after high school; theatre professionals keep on doing it off and on for life.

Despite the on-stage personalities of actors, not everyone is an extrovert offstage.  It is important to find time for yourself, if you don’t find energy and enjoyment in constantly being around other people.  I had this experience recently; after the first couple hours of traveling, socializing, and small talk, I’m ready to unwind.  Alone.

I try to make this point to those around me: it’s not you, it’s me.  I cannot fully function without time to myself.  Speaking from my own experience, I can sometimes feel guilty or anti-social.  But it is the opposite.  In order to do my job and perform well, I need to recharge and relax.  That doesn’t include partying with a large group.

For those who enjoy the constant hanging out, more power to ya.  I’ve been in the position of wanting to please others, and thinking I need to schmooze and network.  This is true, but at a certain point there needs to be time away from everyone as well.  You gotta do what works for you.