Turning Waves Of Crisis Into Minor Ripples

You ever tried to get a large group of performers to the airport to catch their flight in the face of an impending tsunami?

Well, I have.

It is actually not as bad as you might think. Given the alternatives of a hurricane, earthquake or volcanic eruption, with the opportunity that either of the latter two will spawn a tsunami about which you will get at most 15 minutes warning, a half day’s notice is a luxury. Which is what I told the performer who remarked how calm I was in the face of it all.

It helped that the departure and arrival airports were both still open and the streets between the hotel and airport were virtually abandoned. Really the only complication we had was discovering the rental car return was directly under the civil defense siren when it blared its hourly warning.

I know I have mentioned it before, but one of the key characteristics of good management is staying cool in the face of adversity. This is especially valuable in the performing arts where you are not just providing a good example for your employees, but also creating a calm environment for artists to perform in. One of the principles a former supervisor ingrained in me was to try to make a traveling artist as comfortable as possible. His philosophy was that while our facility wasn’t home, we might be stop 15 in a 25 city tour and could contribute to getting the best performance of the person by reducing as much anxiety possible and providing the most hospitality we could.

Easy to say, tough to do though.

By the time I started working there, I already pretty much understood this to be the case. However, there was a time I wasn’t as empathetic. Between growing up in an environment that emphasized self-sufficiency and working in a few environments that were not terribly sympathetic to the needs of the regular employees, much less the performers, there was an incident I am somewhat embarrassed about that sticks out in my memory.

I was working for an organization that actually was very sympathetic and attentive to the needs of everyone working for them. You were expected to work hard, but an effort was made to find some equitable time off in return. Not being used to this, I was needlessly always waiting for the other shoe to drop and was prepared to defend myself when it came.

Not a very good outlook to have when one’s duties include company management. One of the actors twisted her ankle so I drove her to the doctor. It turned out she needed to go back for a follow up at some point and wanted me to drive her again. At the time, we were very busy and I told her I didn’t that we could drive her again later in the day.

This may sound innocuous to read and it really wasn’t a terrible or nasty thing to say. After all this build up, you may have been expecting something a little more horrific.

However… What I was thinking wasn’t so nice. I pretty much figured she was being a prima donna and like most actors was over dramatizing the whole situation into something just short of requiring amputation. I thought she needed to calm down and take a reality check. My job would have been so much easier if I didn’t have to deal with the actors.

Of course, I was talking as if I was being terribly set upon in the first place so I guess there was a little acting going on both sides. She proved to be the better actor because I got in trouble for my performance when she went to the managing director.

What I later realized I failed to understand was how distressing it is for performers to have any part of their instrument damaged. If you are not fully able to provide what you were hired to do for any significant length of time, you face the prospect of your career coming to an end. We hear about performers insuring the body parts which provide their iconic status and wonder at it all. But I would bet more people would do it if it were financially viable. This woman was at the point in her life when she wasn’t healing as quickly as she once did and this injury was likely a reminder of the precarious position she inhabited.

So now I work to anticipate any potential sources of anxiety and approach similar situations a little more seriously. Which is not to say I still don’t occasionally inwardly roll my eyes at some of the situations I run into. But as with many things, forewarned is forearmed, making real crises easier to handle.

Though it is also gratifying not to have the crisis be as great as predicted.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

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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