The Stage isn’t the Roll Out Stage: Lessons from Agile Methodologies for Theatre Kids
Disclaimer: I wrote this article two years ago for a class on digital government at the Harvard Kennedy School. Thought it’d be fun to share. I enjoyed conceptualizing this!
Why an iterative process early on in the theatre production process matters.
It’s 7.15pm, and showtime is in fifteen minutes. My best friend, Sarah, holds my hand. “It will be fine, Eunie. You’ve worked hard on this — it’s going to be great!” But is it? I think to myself. I haven’t actually watched the play itself; I didn’t even get to go through the last scene with my cast. My palms are sweaty as I dread the moment the show begins, as horrific images fill my mind — what if the props fall to the ground? What happens if Soala forgets his lines? And what if the audience does not laugh when that punchline drops… Soon enough the lights dim, a Florence and the Machine backtrack begins to play, and the curtains rise. The show, after all, must go on.
Opening night is the unprepared theater director’s worst nightmare.
I started writing plays when I was 14, and by the time I was 18 I had taken the two-fold role of writing and directing shows upon myself. Like many other directors before me, I followed best practices tried and tested over the years. Wait for inspiration (or fight for it, depending on the length your writer’s block takes to crumble). Write up a draft for a script. Edit. And edit and edit. Andeditandeditandeditandedit. Find actors. Dislike the actors you find. Like the actors who don’t like you back. Weep. Work with what you have. Actors memorize script. Actors don’t show up to rehearsal. Weep. Play is in two days. You’ve never watched the final scene. Dress rehearsal. Find mistakes you have no time (or energy at this point) to fix. Weep. Opening Night. Sweaty palms. Lights.
And so it wasn’t a surprise that I felt so angsty on this particular night. I should have known. But I didn’t know any other way of producing a show of that magnitude.
Lean Startups, Agile Methodology and the Answers We’ve Been Looking For…
In 2001, a group of seventeen software developers sat and came up with the “Agile Manifesto”, in an attempt to transform processes of software development that focused too much on documentation, were cumbersome in their implementation and ultimately made plans that were never quite adaptable to the fast-changing nature of technology. An agile approach would, instead, focus on shorter periods of work, sprints if you will, that allow developers to examine the feasibility and effectiveness of software and, therefore, make changes before it’s too far ahead into the development process.
I had spent years trying to find ways to fight the disappointing feeling on the night of the show. How could we have possibly made the show better? Was it that the actors just weren’t prepared? How did I miss that part of the script? And what about the stage — maybe we should have organized it differently… But by the time these are in question, it was always a tad bit too late.
Perhaps I had been looking for solutions in all the wrong places. And at the wrong time.
So why was I so reluctant to test anything?
As I spend more time reading about the value of agile approach for software developers (among other sectors that have incorporated it into their own project management toolkit), it intrigues me to think of the endless possibilities such an approach could have to the creative process of any theatre kid out there. I’m pretty sure the thought of ‘testing the script’ or ‘going through that one scene before the entire play is complete’ crossed my mind once or twice. So why was I so afraid to do it? And why does applying agile into my own creative process still feel so unnerving now?
Because failure sucks. (For me, at least.) And here’s why.
1. Because I have THE PERFECT STORY
Anytime I shared a script with other people for feedback, I always felt a mix of excitement and anxiety. Excitement because it seemed to be the perfect story, and I could not wait to share it. Anxiety because I knew not everyone would think it’s the perfect story (obviously), and I would get to hear what they had to say. Like all forms of creative work, the process of receiving feedback can be daunting, and that’s usually because creative work often feels like a mere extension of yourself.
The problem with thinking that I had the perfect story was that this was a hypothesis that had not been tested, and hence the likelihood that it was even a true statement was dismal.
It takes a huge amount of vulnerability to put yourself and your work out there. And while the thought of receiving rejection after rejection over an idea you may feel protective over, that vulnerability early on is more worth it than you might think.
2. Because I want to be in control
There is no greater pleasure for a director than to be in control of the story. I always felt, in the work I produced, that because the idea in my head was so clear and perfect (see number 1), then who was better equipped to have it come to life than me?
Unfortunately this creates a dynamic in which power is heavily centralized — it’s no surprise when one individual is cited as director, playwright and producer at the same time on a show pamphlet. For someone who has been that name overly spread across the pamphlet, I must admit that, more often than not, I relished on the pleasure that comes with that kind of autonomy over a story.
The problem with this is that this structure limits the level of innovation and creativity for both the creator and the work. It also leads to a lack of a sense of ownership from other stakeholders, making it difficult to receive input and collaborate with others to make an even better story come to life. Actors just won’t give it their all, if it’s all about doing as they have been told.
A decentralized approach to creating work for theatre goes a long way in making both the product and the process of getting there worthwhile for everyone. Had I known this, I would have prioritized the need for seeing the story from different angles, exploring ways that the show would be more enjoyable for both the cast and audience, and giving both the cast and crew the sense of ownership necessary for it to be a group effort — lest it begins to feel like the weight of Opening Night falls entirely on my shoulder.
3. Because EVERYTHING needs to be PRESENT at the SAME TIME HOW ELSE WILL PEOPLE SEE THE MAGIC (NB: Magic > Efficiency of time, energy, life savings, labor costs, administrative costs, data…)
There is beauty in spectacle. The element of surprise, the unexpected, the pizzazz when every other element of the play comes together (music-meets-dance-meets-drama) — there is beauty when all these come together at once. I have always enjoyed the feeling of bringing different elements together at once, and the sense of novelty that comes with this new creation from the culmination of everything else has a feel-good effect for any director.
The only problem is that magic is the epitome of a high-risk-high-return situation, presenting a highly unpredictable situation if it only takes place on the final days of rehearsal. I fell into this trap unknowingly, following my gut not to bring the show together or test any of its parts independently until the very end. Another way this manifested itself is in the ways in which we programmed rehearsals, expecting every actor to be present at all times, in a way that was not efficient for anyone, just because of the magic of a filled auditorium at rehearsal.
An iterative shift system for rehearsal might have worked better in this case, allowing short scenes within the play to be tweaked and tested. It would be way more efficient for actors time-wise, and would probably allow for changes in consequent scenes to be determined early on in advance, based on the way in which previous scenes panned out.
There is a better way…
In his book, “Lean Startup”, Eric Ries proposes the lean startup method, easily summarized into a three-stage cyclical loop, where ideas are built into code, measured, and the data is then learnt from.
The Lean Theatre Production might look something like this:
Please note that as an artist — unlike most entrepreneurs — I have the privilege of deciding who the end-user is. It could be the audience. It could also just be me. And honestly, you’ll just have to make sense of what’s on stage and move along :)
STAGE ONE: Ideas
The director of the play (or playwright, whoever is first with an idea) is hit with a brilliant epiphany that finally brings an end to a long writer’s block bravely borne.
STAGE TWO: Staging
Director drafts something quick (a MVP of about two or three pages), and workshop it with a small group of people (another director, producer, stage manager etc) that already have stakes in the creation process and therefore do not accrue any extra labor costs. They read the draft out loud, or perform on a simple set up (a small dorm room, studio or even classroom), and take note of anything that doesn’t read well or make sense.
STAGE THREE: Response
The small group hear the script and give feedback on ways it could be better. Director(s) take note of the responses, and continue to write with these in mind. Stage One begins once again, and the process continues, hopefully more collaborative as it returns back to Stage One.
All in all, an agile approach to the stage changes opening night into more than just a final reveal for the cast, crew and audience alike. If implemented early on, agile methodologies turn what is a “fingers-crossed” affair into a culmination of a fulfilling story, tried and tested, and found to be powerful way ahead of time.