Management Lessons from Play Directors
By Marty Nemko
I’ve never taken a course in directing, but wanted to direct a play, so I read a half dozen books on directing. In them, I found principles very applicable to managing people in the workplace:
Casting is critical. All six directing books agree with my directing coach Jerry Johnson’s dictum: a good play is 50% script, 40% casting, and 10% directing. Once you’re working for a good employer (the script), put your effort into recruiting and retaining the best people (casting), and you’ll have little directing (managing) to do. Indeed, if you do too much directing (micromanaging,) you’ll probably make the play worse—you’ll demotivate or stress your actors (supervisees.) A stressed actor can’t perform well, and may even storm off the stage.
Be brief. When criticizing or praising, keep it to a few words. For example, if your actors, in rehearsal, did a scene abysmally, rather than recount all the problems, say something like, “Let’s try that again. Play with it and see if you come up with something you like better.”
That doesn’t overwhelm nor denigrate them, and empowers them to come up with improvements. If their performance doesn’t improve, give a single specific suggestion. “For example, “Let’s see how it looks if the emotion starts small and builds through the scene.” In the workplace, that approach can be especially useful when a supervisee’s proposal or report feels all wrong. You might say, “How about taking a fresh crack at that? Do you think you might be able to come up with an approach that’s more compelling?”
Know your script. All six directing books urge the director to read the script a number of times before starting your rehearsals. Similarly in the workplace, you can’t expect your supervisees’ respect if you don’t know your stuff. Do your homework.
Be decisive. The worst directors allow decision making by consensus. That turns rehearsals (meetings) into marathons, often reduces the play (the to-be-implemented work product) to the lowest common denominator, and, because the norm is to welcome actor (supervisee) input, makes actors upset when they don’t get their way. Frank Hauser and Russell Reich, authors of the pithy Notes on Directing write, “Please, PLEASE (emphasis, his) be decisive. As the director, you have three weapons: “Yes,” “No,” and “I don’t know.” Use them. Don’t dither; you can always change your mind later. What actors do mind is the two minutes of director (manager) agonizing.”
Of course, being an autocrat isn’t good either, but the best directors and best workplace managers make many decisions unilaterally, only sometimes getting input from individuals or the entire cast.
Questions are key. If you’d like an actor to do something, try phrasing it as a question. For example, I’m wondering if it might work better if we did it this way. What do you think?” Similarly, when an actor asks a question, first throw it back to him to solve. “What do you think might work well?” You’ll get less resistance.
Always begin on time. William Ball in A Sense of Direction writes, “Wasting the first ten minutes awakens a sense of sloppiness in the actor and gives him the feeling the work isn’t important.” Same in the workplace, so expect people to arrive at work and meetings promptly. Start meetings as scheduled so as to reward the prompt and subtly punish the tardy.
Praise early and often. Hauser writes, “Assume every actor is in a permanent state of catatonic terror.” While that might not be quite as true when managing people who aren’t doing Hamlet, most employees do a better job and are less likely to quit if they’re frequently praised. Ball reports that Francis Ford Coppola, in directing Private Lives, didn’t tell actors what not to do; he had the actors do a scene again and again and each time would say only what he liked.
Of course, only give praise when earned or it won’t be credible. In addition, unearned praise can give a bad employee a sense of entitlement to a raise.
Touch. Of course, don’t touch employees in a way that could be taken as sexual harassment, but Ball writes, “A wise director touches…A recent experiment took place in a bank. One week the teller brushed people’s fingers lightly as she handed them their money. The following week she didn’t. The customers were polled after leaving the bank. In the first week, the people evaluated the bank as trustworthy, efficient, and cooperative. In the second week, they rated the bank, unreliable, sloppy, unfriendly, even suspect. …If a person in authority touches an individual on top of the head, it has a connotation almost like a blessing. Cheek, neck, forehead, top of the forearm, and foot (playful) each give different messages.” I would temper Ball’s penchant for touching by reminding you that today, people, especially those from different cultures, may have different sensibilities about the propriety of touching. So, when in doubt, don’t.
By the way, after reading the half-dozen books on directing, I applied to direct a play at two community theater companies, and one (www.chanticleers.org) said yes. Lesson: Self-directed, focused learning can teach you a lot, fast. Lesson: Ask for what you want, even if it’s slightly audacious.
© Marty Nemko 2004-2018. Usage Rights