Bonding Over Brisket

One thing I have observed during my career in the performing arts is that while working in performing arts is that while the pay isn’t always too good, there are always some good bonding moments you don’t usually get in for-profit companies. (Unless you work for a cool internet start up that provides all sorts of fringe activities in the office.)

I was just wondering if anyone had some good stories. Sharing this sort of information can help other organizations with some good morale boosting activities. I am looking for things outside of the annual Christmas party.

What got me thinking about this subject is that somehow tomorrow became chocolate chip pancake day. It is strange that I don’t know how that came about given that I am the one making the pancakes. If it turns out well, perhaps it will be a fairly regular thing. We just had a long string of performances so it is a kind of celebration/thank you for all the hard work.

Food seems be a common theme in some of the events with which I have been associated. One summer theatre I worked at had barbeque Wednesdays. The theatre provided the grills, you provided the meat and veggies. Since we were a bunch of poor theatre people, the cuts of meat tended to be a little on the cheap side. But I have to say that people were pretty creative about what they used for marinades. Some pretty good taste combinations that year.

There have also been some afternoon teas for staff during tense times. Strike dinners at midnight where a volunteer corps provided the food–was good for getting the volunteers and staff to bond.

I think there is some unspoken rule bumping around the collective unconscious of many performing arts theatres about the tech director buying pizza for the crew at significant stages in the building process. It is never at the same stage on every show–sometimes it was tech week, sometimes it was earlier in the process. I have always instinctively known what night it was going to happen without being told. I have also done it at what seemed to be the proper confluence of events.

My current job is the third one I have held where I have secretly hidden candy filled eggs around the building for staff and students to find (and when the plastic eggs are returned, I refill them.) It never loses its appeal for me since the people who figure out I am the Easter bunny don’t tell the new people. Actually, last year one staff member didn’t even make an attempt to puzzle out my identity. He said nice things happen around the theatre so infrequently, he wasn’t going to question it lest the benefactor decide to stop.

A couple places I worked at held all night scavenger hunts. One place did it at the end of the season to close things out. The other did it at the beginning of the season to rally energy (though in the short term, they all ended up sleeping through the next day.)

The element that contributes most to the success of any bonding/morale building event seems to be either that it originates from the workers instead of the management or the workers have really bought into the idea. It seems that if management decides everyone needs to do a teambuilding activity like a Ropes challenge course, the effort either meets a lot of resentment and falls flat or is only marginally effective.

Events like the ones I have mentioned tend not to cost as much as team building exercises either. So if anyone has some good ideas that have formed the basis of solid staff relationships, type up a comment or email me!

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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