This was the last picture ever taken of me during my nearly fifteen-year career as a theater director. After rehearsing offsite, the actors and I arrived at our performing space, in this case, a massive 10,000 square foot warehouse. I asked them to explore, gain some perspective on what it would be like to work in a place this big, and I visited each of them, one by one, to share in that exploration.
My personal website used to be full of images from these shows, testimonials from actors, writers, designers, and producers, and links to reviews. I was excited to see my name in the Philadelphia Inquirer quite frequently, though not as much as the actors in my shows, as they always had the “spotlight”, as it were. But it paid horribly. And beyond your own salary, you never had enough money for the show itself either which, over time, grew quite frustrating. (Although it would be a great lesson on how to be creative within restrictions, which I am very grateful for.)
Today, if you interviewed me for a job, you would hardly know this was a major part of my life. I can say honestly, without blame or anger, that it frequently has felt like a full stop for a recruiter reviewing my work history. It is just not something they are used to seeing in evaluating a candidate for a position – there isn’t an easy reference point. This can be frustrating, but it is completely understandable. And not just for traditional corporate interviews – it can be hard to comprehend even for companies looking for that untraditional mix of creativity and business skills. So I just stopped talking about it. I removed it from my resume. I had simultaneously played a leadership role in non-profits throughout most of this period, so I just focused on that instead.
I have wanted to work for a design thinking or other innovation firm since I started my MBA. Ideo is my “vision board” company. It has been since I first thought of going to my MBA in 2017, and I registered for two of their classes at Ideo U to begin exploring design thinking. I found myself recently preparing for my first chance to speak to someone from their offices (hooray!) and a couple of nights before the interview grew to tears that I wouldn’t be able to speak to this essential part of my experience in the way I wanted to.
So I threw out the playbook. And I talked about it. I don’t know if it mattered. But it felt great. I felt whole again. Nearly everything that has made me successful in my MBA I owe to what I learned from directing theater. Nearly everything that has made me successful in business or as a consultant I owe to what I learned from directing theater.
Or, if I want to be even more confident in myself, let me say this. What makes me special as a strategist, an innovator, and, yes, as a leader, can best be exemplified by my work as a theater director. It’s me, it’s what I bring, and I grew and nurtured it by doing an amazing activity that takes truly special skills to pull off.
So, in my final days before graduation, I felt it would be fitting to end the wonderful explorations I’ve had in the blog with this “full circle”, if you will, take on my past.
Here are the five things only a (good) former theater director can bring to your business…
- A special capacity to bring out the creativity in others.
- A unique ability to understand what a user needs and how to craft a product to tell a story that resonates with them.
- A depth of experience with research that will inspire a winning product.
- Centering a team on a central vision to bring a creative product to life.
- Unparalleled expertise at reflective listening and giving team feedback in just the right ways at just the right moments over the course of a project life cycle.
A theater director, for those who don’t know, oversees the entire life of a play. Frequently he or she leads the development process of the script itself, providing insightful feedback about what is working and not working and prompting the writer to explore new territory. My special skill at this was to be the sworn enemy of clarity – in theater, as in business, I often felt the desire to tell a “clear” story was pushed too hard, often at the expense of the discoveries that can be made in embracing ambiguity, which I would later come to realize is a calling card of the design thinking world.
Directors also structure the entire creative process for a team of actors and designers (set, lighting, costume, and sound usually). My strength here was that I would do heavy research on the play I was working on – perhaps historical research for a show set in the early 20th century “Great Migration” of African-Americans away from the Jim Crow south mixed with inspirational research from visual artists, musicians, photographs, and more that I felt supported or responded to the core of what the show was trying to say. I would then present an inspirational deck to the whole team. Another strength I was told I had was that I unified everyone around a single vision so that all the elements of the final product felt thematically linked, but I also left room for them to find their own voice by providing confines in which to explore and offering reflective listening to what I was seeing emerge in their individual work.
I would learn in business school that the tech world acknowledges these methods as “Recombinant Innovation” (a theory propagated by an amazing UC Davis professor I got to take a class with, Andrew Hargadon) and a deep belief in “Why Constraints Are Good For Innovation“. Same ideas, different names (and I will add, working within economic restraints to force creative solutions is the DNA of all theater, perpetually underfunded.) I will admit, I worried I would be a bit of a thorn in the side to Dr. Hargadon in Management of Innovation class when I kept relating tech innovation back to my experience in theater. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he pulled inspiration for his work from artists as much as Apple.
The work with the actors, however, is where a director really comes alive.
Do you need someone experienced in gaining the trust of new people sharing a process of innovation? Check. How about someone who had to repeatedly do it with a new group of people every six weeks for over ten years? Check. You want someone who can intuitively grasp what a person is motivated by but also can rely on deep experience and skillset to listen for what they are actually saying and not saying with their words? Check. How about someone who on the job thought every minute of every day about why a person would make the choice they made, then endeavored to share that in a way that someone else could empathize with (director giving note to the actor playing the role), and then turn all of that into a product that tells that story entertainingly and movingly to a consumer (the final production)? Check check check.
Most of the world knows the word “rehearsal” but many see it, and it unfortunately often is the case, as the time where the director just tells the actors where to move on the stage. I was an “actor’s director.” We would often spend all day just reading the script out loud – asking important questions about what motivated the characters to say the things they said and to do the things they do before we ever endeavored to “get it on its feet.”
On that note, one of the things that I have translated well to consulting is to recognize how to give feedback that is actually received by the client. There is a big difference between a vague note you give an actor in the first week of rehearsal when they are just exploring, a direct note you give in the middle when they are finding details and making choices that meditate their movement and actions, and an enabling and manageable note you give them the night before the show. Knowing what to say when is a learned skill and a nearly forgotten part of the literature on critical feedback in business environments.
And that is not to say that you don’t learn technical skills too, particularly in working with designers (hello Ideo :-)!) They call it “tech week” for a reason in the final days before the show premieres. Deciding how light should shine just so to tell a story, playing around with the colors in a costume, getting that drumbeat to be mixed to sound just a little bit more like a heartbeat, that’s all part of it. Every moment of every play (or movie for that matter) should be a painting for the audience, though they should never be aware of that painting’s existence or focused on its contents. It should never distract from the product: the actor telling the story.
I can’t wait to tell that story when leading a new product development process. What an exciting way to think about the work.
To be clear, I’m not saying I was good at everything. I tended to let on-stage moments drag out and move too slowly, sometimes foregoing crispness in the product for trying to build a single moment. In other words… sometimes my shows got boring. I tried to improve this but it was an ongoing challenge. There are, of course, a lot of failures when you create. Very public failures. So add that to the list about theater directors – experienced in learning from failure too.
And that’s what I wish hiring directors saw when this former theater director applied for their business design, innovation strategy, chief-of-staff, or program/project management position, to lead innovative teams to solve problems for users.
Directing plays was one of the greatest privileges of my life. And I know, when the time comes to share what I learned from it in my next professional environment, as I have again and again during my MBA studies, it will be a privilege to do so.
Thank you to everyone who read my blogs during my MBA journey. It has been a wonderful outlet for the questions I have pondered and the explorations I have taken.