Ode To The Stage Technician

There is a saying among those who work in the technical side of live theatre and events that if someone notices what is going on, you are doing your job wrong.  The idea is that for the most part, the technical elements of an experience should enhance and complement rather than call attention to themselves.

But that is a double-edged sword because if people aren’t aware of all the pieces that have to come together, they think their goals are easy to accomplish.

No matter where I have worked, often one of the most frustrating parts of working with an inexperienced renter is having a conversation about their needs. Their perception is that a task can be accomplished by 1-2 people when it is closer to 6-8 due to all the locations and tasks to which stagehands need to attend at the same time. (Though truth be told, there are some experienced, returning renters with whom you might revisit the same conversation on an annual basis.)

Likewise, people don’t often think through their entire process. If something is dropped, flung, placed, etc., during a performance that wasn’t used during rehearsal, it is staying there unless someone is assigned in advance to pick it up.

What brought all this to mind is seeing a story about a week ago billing the performance by Mike Mills of the band R.E.M. at a university graduation as a surprise. While term was meant to the convey that it was a surprise to the audience, it could also be read as being a spur of the moment decision.

But the fact that there was a cable for him to plug in his guitar and another cable available to amplify the violin of the guy accompanying him wasn’t something that just happened to be there by chance. In all likelihood, he probably didn’t make the decision to perform that morning and asked that cables be run when he arrived. A number of people probably knew this was happening at least a week or so in advance.

One of the characteristics that makes for an excellent stage/movie/television technician is the ability to foresee the implications of a decision when it is discussed in advance of an event or pantomimed during a rehearsal. They are able to take action or make recommendations to solve the problems they anticipate.  But they can’t anticipate what isn’t communicated.

A lot of times they work miracles just in time anyway.

So just a little ode of appreciation today to all those technicians that make it all look so easy. Because they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

 

Measuring Our Measures

Seth Godin recently made a post on one of my favorite topics — valuing metrics that don’t really matter.

Just because they’re easy to measure doesn’t mean they matter.

[…]

If you’re working with people who say they care about measurement, it might not pay to persuade them to stop measuring.

It might make more sense to give them useful numbers to measure instead.

Personally, I think he is a tad optimistic in thinking people will stop using easily measured data if presented with data that provides a more relevant measure, especially if it is more difficult to assemble.

Though I will admit to being gratified that I am reading posts and running into people who are questioning whether economic impact is relevant when attempting to assess the value of the arts.

As we move toward the next normal, assumptions and customary approaches are being challenged so the concept of relevant metrics is something to be continually considered.

If you are a little newer to my blog, here is an entry on the topic with links to other posts on the topic.

We Work Anti-Social Hours? Never Thought Of It That Way

Artsjournal had recently included a link to a Guardian article reporting that people working in performing arts are twice as likely as the general population to experience depression.  This finding was a result of a review of over 100 studies by Dr. Lucie Clements.

Since the article was in The Guardian, I was curious to where the mix of studies were conducted. Whether it was the US, UK, Europe, Asia, etc. In the process, I discovered at Clements has a psychology practice directly working with dancers.  While I didn’t find a link to the study on her site, there was an interesting piece where she wonders why it is normal for psychologists to work with athletes but not dancers.

The reasons for the higher instances of depression noted in The Guardian article probably won’t come as a surprise to those of us in the performing arts.  However, having just written on Monday about the scarcity mindset and how it might apply to the arts provided some additional context. Especially in respect to the following about scarcity of time:

Antisocial working hours and late-night performances may lead to disruption to sleep or inconsistent sleep routines – a known risk factor for mental health problems.

“The inconsistency of touring and pressures of time travelling, erratic working schedules (including evenings and weekend performance) and chunks of time working away mean a lack of time for loved ones, family or social life,” says the review. “Musicians, for example, spoke of going months without seeing their children. This is important since support from loved ones is known to be one of the most significant protective factors for mental health.”

I hadn’t really thought about the fact that many of us work anti-social hours in order to provide others with the opportunity to socialize and spend time with each other. While it is true, I never thought of it as a zero sum situation where others’ gain is my loss.

Anxiety related to depictions of death and rape in performance were cited along with pressures performers face to maintain a specific weight and body type.

And of course the lack of stability resulting from Covid also factors in.

Other papers found that 24% of ballet dancers reported experiencing anxiety, along with 32% of opera singers, 52% of acting students, 60% of actors and 90% of rock musicians. Among the general population, 6% of individuals are thought to experience anxiety in any given week.

Too Preoccupied To Weed Your Fields

So I saw the recent Dr. Strange movie this weekend and one of the biggest takeaways I had (no spoilers) was that classical music is powerful no matter what universe you are in. Though, like anything the benefit or detriment depends on whose hands are wielding it.

While that isn’t the main thrust of my post today, the movie is somewhat pertinent. I wanted to direct readers over to Drew McManus’ Adaptistration post today where he reflects on an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast on scarcity mindset.

Since I was processing our end of fiscal year appeal letters this past week, I had some time to listen to the podcast. I recognized how a lot of the problems discussed manifest in the arts, which is always beset by a scarcity mindset. One problematic product of a scarcity mindset is tunnel vision which inhibits long term planning, rationale decision making, and awareness of repercussions.

If you have seen the Dr. Strange movie, a tunnel vision approach to problem solving is basically the central driver of the entire conflict. I felt like Drew knew about my weekend plans when he wrote the post.

However, in the less supernatural, non-fiction of our daily existence, it can also be a core problem degrading the lives of individuals and organizations.

As Drew writes:

While there are numerous examples related to the ways scarcity of resources impacts decision making, I found one of the most applicable chapters is how scarcity of time impacts professionals.

Given that the orchestra sector has a long history of staffers and managers being overworked, it’s good to have examples from Mullainathan and Shafir that quantify the dynamic impact of making this environment the norm.

Listening to the podcast episode, they made some compelling arguments about people how people living near the poverty line don’t necessarily need classes on time and money management to set them on the right track, they need support systems that recognize the impact scarcity has on people’s mindsets.

They provide some interesting examples of studies that have been conducted on the topic. I was especially struck by the observations of the change in the cognitive capacity of Indian sugarcane farmers, who go through cycles of plenty and scarcity due to when they are paid for their crops.

MULLAINATHAN: We found a huge difference. So we found that post-harvest, when they’re well-off, they have much more impulse control.

VEDANTAM: Farmers who were rich tended to think about things that would help them over the long term. This matched other research that shows, for example, that farmers who are well-off tend to weed their fields more regularly than farmers who are poor. Farmers who were poor mostly focused on how to make it to next week, short-term thinking. To be clear, it’s not that poor people focus on immediate needs because that’s all they want to think about. It’s all they can think about. Scarcity captures the mind, like it did with those starving men in Minnesota. In fact, scarcity can actually lower how you perform on an IQ test.

There is a book written on the subject which Drew links to.

All this bears thinking about because careers in the arts have always been beset by a scarcity of time, resources and money. The overall internal cultural expectation is that you soldier through and pay your dues. In the context of this book and podcast, that is the very approach which inhibits the ability to think clearly and carefully about ensuring the long term survival of our individual and collective arts organizations.

It may be why, despite the stress Covid brought to our lives, greater availability of time set into motion new ideas and practices related to programming, relationship with community, and business models.