Category Archives: Arts

Five Practical Job Skills I Learned Studying Theater

Being a curious and somewhat confused undergrad, I graduated college with two degrees: in theater and computer science. After working in the tech industry for over a decade, I can honestly say the former taught me more about how to succeed in the workplace.

Now, I should note that I’m not a programmer. Your mileage may vary. But as someone who works with a team of people to ship software products, I’ve found that my day-to-day work has much more in common with the work of producing a play than it does with the computer science exercises I did as an undergrad.

Inspired by Scott Berkun, I thought I’d write down a few things I learned:

1. Collaborate Respectfully

Working on group projects in most classes was a bit daunting to me. You’d be put in a group of 2 or 3 people and expected to work together on a presentation or a paper or something. It was never clear who was in charge. Oftentimes, what ends up happening is that the person who’s most concerned about getting an A does all the work and everyone else sort of coasts. Not always, but that happened to me on more than one occasion.

By contrast, in theater everyone’s roles are obvious and named up front. When we work on this project, I’m the director and you’re the actor, and that means we each have distinct responsibilities. Next time, the situation may be reversed. This mutual dependency is at the heart of all teamwork. As the Clarence Otis, Jr., the CEO of Darden Restaurants, put it,

The thing that prepared me the most — where the team was front and center — was theater, which I did a lot of growing up, in high school, during college, law school and even for a couple of years after law school. I would say that probably is the starkest lesson in how reliant you are on others, because you’re there in front of an audience. It’s all live, and everybody’s got to know their lines and know their cues and know their movement, and so you’re totally dependent on people doing that.

2. Solve Problems

With a $200 budget, you might have to convince the audience you’re in a castle, then a forest, then finally a mountaintop. No CGI. Time to get creative. Steven Soderbergh put it well:

Art is also about problem solving, and it’s obvious from the news, we have a little bit of a problem with problem solving. In my experience, the main obstacle to problem solving is an entrenched ideology. The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that that never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model.

3. Prototype

One key aspect of the play development process is the staged reading. You take the script and a group of actors, and you sit on stage and read it aloud to an audience. Before the first costumes are sewn, before the first set is built, you will have a pretty good idea of what aspects of the play are working and what aren’t. The staged reading is the minimum viable product

4. Tell Great Stories

Storytelling is at the heart of great theater, great marketing and great businesses. From the macro mission statement down to the most inconsequential PowerPoint deck, a great story is powerful. One thing I’ve learned from my years in the workforce is that the data is less important than the story you can tell around the data. We usually aren’t running double-blind experiments in the corporate world to see what works and what doesn’t. What tends to happens is: a project gets done, and the story of the project’s success or failure propagates throughout the company. If the story is a good story, it will propagate faster, and it’s more likely that the project will be held up as a model (or a warning sign). The story you can tell about the project is often as important as the project itself.

5. Ship

The first thing you learn in theater is that you have a ship date. It’s called opening night, and barring an extreme emergency, it’s not slipping. So immediately you’re forced to focus and prioritize. This is a skill that’s surprisingly hard to learn in college. You can usually ask for an extension. Or even if you can’t, it won’t hurt anyone but yourself. In the real world, no one’s going to to your job for you, and everyone else is relying on you to do your part.

To quote Clarence Otis again, “You could have your piece down, but if one person on the team doesn’t, you’re in trouble, and it’s embarrassing because people aren’t used to seeing errors in theater. Theater is seamless every night.” Or, as the Navy Seals say, under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to your level of training.

So why does any of this matter?

I’m not trying to talk anyone out of a CS degree. CS is fantastic. It’s a total shame that my local public university, the University of Washington, can’t make enough room for all the undergrads who want to enter the CS program. It’s doubly outrageous that we, the citizens, underinvest in our youth in such a way.

However, in an era where undergrads are running to so-called “STEM” degrees out of fear of unemployment, I’m worried we’ve put too much emphasis on what we deem a “practical” education to be. The arts matter, and not just because Steve Jobs studied calligraphy at Reed College (though that’s a helpful anecdote). The arts give us new ways of looking at problems, as Soderbergh elegantly put it. Which is why I applaud the efforts of folks like John Maeda at RISD to move from “STEM to STEAM.” Because the things you learn in school are profoundly important, just not always in the ways you assume.

New Models for Arts Organizations

I’d been thinking about Michael Kaiser’s call for new models for arts organizations, and was happy to stumble across this post from playwright Gwydion Suilebhan on the subject.   His idea for a “New Model Theater,” a “platform” for artists, sounds a lot like the organization we originally intended when we founded Shunpike 12 years ago.

The point is: everything about the New Model Theater would be redesigned around a DIY approach. Its whole existence would be centered around helpingother people put on shows. The theater itself wouldn’t have an artistic identity. In fact, it would probably do best to keep its own identity as thoroughly submerged as possible, letting the artists come forward and become the face of the theater. After all, organizations don’t make art, artists do.

To elaborate on a comment I left at the bottom of the post, there’s a tension in such a business because businesses – especially small businesses – need to focus and specialize to be successful.  Shunpike toyed with the idea of being both a rental venue for artists and a consultancy on the business of art, but decided to focus on the latter.  In part this was because we identified the latter as a bigger need in Seattle at the time, and in part it was because we knew that a successful rental venue would have to focus on attracting renters from everywhere, and a successful consultancy would have to focus on consulting for anyone who asked.  There wasn’t an inherent synergy between the two lines of business.

But I want to return to the idea of a platform, because I think it has promise.  When I think of a technology platform, I think of Microsoft Windows or Apple’s iOS.  Former Microsoft employee Charlie Kindel describes the success of the Windows platform thusly:

In each of these cases, and other examples I’m sure you can come up with, there was a multi-sided market, and, at least for a while, a virtuous cycle existed because one vendor created a platform with the characteristics required to allow the sides of the market exchange value efficiently.

I think the example most people understand is Windows. The market sides were (are): Windows, Intel, OEMs (e.g. Compaq, DELL), IHVs (e.g. ATI, SoundBlaster), ISVs (e.g. Lotus, Adobe, Office), retailers & channel (e.g. Egghead), and of course, end users.

The ISVs of today are the app developers. For Windows to continue to be a platform that enables a virtuous cycle (and therefore to generate the historical profits it has in the past) there must be an efficient and natural exchange of value between app developers and the other sides of the market.

The phrase “efficient and natural exchange of value” nicely encapsulates the value that a platform can provide. Windows customers bough more software because they knew platform was likely to be around, hardware companies could standardize and lower prices, etc. Standardization creates efficiencies.

So how would you structure a platform in the arts so as to create a similarly virtuous cycle? A multi-sided arts market might include artists, administrators, funders, venues, and audiences.   You’d want to structure it so that audiences benefit from having guaranteed expectations of quality, artists are more productive and profitable, venues make more money, and funders get more impact for their buck.

So, to use theater as an example, a series of venues might open around the country that all feature the same size stage and lighting grid, and use the same ticketing system.  An artist could then easily tour a show from one to the next. Audiences who created an account on the platform could buy tickets and learn about upcoming shows.  Administrators would optimize their services around serving these audiences.

To take this even further, playwrights on the platform might agree to write shows with a certain number of actors and of a certain length. This would allow more streamlined casting and reliable revenues. Rehearsal hours could potentially be shortened, as actors who are on the platform begin to learn the platform’s plays.

So who would oversee such a platform? There are several options.  In the Windows/iOS model, the platform provider is a gatekeeper, deciding who’s in and out.  The venues themselves would be a natural fit for this role.  You could also imagine a more decentralized “open source” approach, like the Linux platform, or any number of approaches in between. Whomever it ends up being, the overseer would have to navigate thorny questions about how to restrict or open up the platform in a way that maximizes artistic creativity, efficiency and value creation for all the players.

Would we like the resulting art that would emerge from such a system? Or would we have created the Olive Garden of theater? These are interesting questions that merit further exploration.

Creativity and the Arts

Barry Hessenius examines whether it was worthwhile for the arts sector to re-brand itself as part of the “creative economy” to chase the Richard Florida gold rush:

So while the bigger tent provided by our embracing creativity has opened doors to us, given us additional ways to make the case for our value, and arguably even expanded the audience for our arguments, it hasn’t yet anyway turned out to be the magic bullet that is our savior.

I agree that simply rebranding the arts as part of the “creative economy” is not going to bring success.  The way that arts organizations join the creative economy is by actually joining the creative economy.  That means either (a) creating lots of high-paying jobs, or (b) serving as an amenity that attracts the sort of people who get high-paying jobs.

Arts orgs don’t do too badly at (a), but they’re certainly not the best at it.  A pure cost-benefit analysis would tell you that there are cheaper ways of creating high-paying jobs than subsidizing a large arts organization.

Where arts orgs can have the most impact is (b), creating the kind of city in which young, creative class types want to live.  But they won’t get there simply by re-staging the same repertory of plays, ballets, and symphonies of the past or by holding a thirty-something mixer event every now and then.  They need to fundamentally rethink their programming to attract this audience.  Simply re-labeling themselves to chase more funding isn’t enough.