Innovation process and theatre

25 05 2011

Here’s a weird mashup of my life and work… some may know, and some not, that I do a lot of disparate things. They all relate in my head, but perhaps not to the outside observer.

They do contribute to the reason this speck of the internet is called “Spackle”. By combining the things I get paid to do and like to do, I get disruptive and refreshing ideas.

Innovation and development as a process to “attaining the remarkable result” is slow in the technology space compared to a confined time frame of a theatre production. And, after nearly 10 years of being off stage and taking pictures of people doing theatre (and basically being jelly of them), I decided I’d try acting again.

You can see pictures I take of productions over here at my photography web site.

The process of creating a remarkable theatre production is very similar to creating a remarkable product of any sort. Except your tools are humans, words, and your physical assets don’t need the same rigorous testing as a product you’d allow the general public to use. I mean, they’re actors, so who cares about safety, right? (Note: Actor’s Equity Association exists so that catastrophes like Spiderman don’t kill people… they need to do a better job on that production, but I digress…)

So in essence, with theatre, you get to bring to market an amazing prototype and sell it.

The process and delivery is therefore very very agile.

To be remarkable in theatre requires the same components as any other endeavor:

  • A good team
  • Shared Vision
  • Trust
  • Stepwise achievements
  • Positive outcomes from failure (see Trust)

These ideas are detailed in a series of posts over at a blog I tend to follow called metacool. Check it out.

The show we’ve opened is called “Rabbit Hole” by David Lindsay-Abaire. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winning play (2007) and is really a wonderful place to start creating a remarkable piece of theatre.

However, just because you have a foolproof recipe doesn’t mean you can bake a good cake.

Creating remarkable theatre (or anything else) demands a tremendous, trusting environment and is a task incumbent upon the director. In our case, Mary Ann had to cast appropriately and envision the final result and coordinate all the details in order to manifest her vision.

Her leadership and open process nudged performances past roadblocks and kept every element of the production focused on the outcome. She was honest when our choices worked and when they didn’t. Her style was focused on suggesting new choices rather than demonstrating her interpretation of new choices.

This is a key difference in style from other leadership styles in business and theatre. Some “leaders” decide that they have to “do” in order to lead, rather than trust the people they hire / cast to do their job.

Another key point is that she acknowledged when something was correct, and moved on. However, she was unafraid to revisit an established choice when it was working if some other major discovery had occurred in order to further optimize the show as a whole.

The subject matter itself is tough. I mean, it’s hard to describe the psychological impact it has on the actors during the process to speak the words and tell the story as honestly as the play is written. The brilliance of Lindsay-Abaire’s writing is that he leaves no room to hide. Both the actors and the audience can’t escape the truth and the feelings he conveys.

Another thing I (re)discovered is that the cliche “drama is easy, comedy is hard” just isn’t always true. Comedy is hard. But, go ahead and try this show and let me know how easy it is for you on any front (acting, directing, producing, etc.). A good director will beat the “pregnant pauses” out of a show (which many actors confuse with gravitas). We could refer to that as “de-Pinterizing” a play (though we’re doing Pinter a disservice here).

External validation

So, how do you know you succeeded in being remarkable?

One way is audience response. “Emotional terrorism” is a phrase my wife an I use to describe tactics that can be used to evoke reactions from the audience. Things like using swelling music during emotional scenes or tearing lovers apart irrevocably (I’m lookin’ at you Shakespeare!) could be done as stupid actor / director tricks to manipulate the audience.

But, you can differentiate tactics like that from effective theatre from audience comments like “this was a journey” and “I didn’t know I what I was getting into, but I’m glad I came to see it.”

Audience reaction is been extremely positive. Both from those who see lots of theatre and those who do not. To me, theatre for people who see theatre is sometimes interesting. But theatre that inspires new audiences is far more interesting and compelling to me as an actor.

Another metric is of course, critical success. And we have that too. The theatre company (Ross Valley Players) doesn’t get the big papers to see its shows, but the overwhelmingly positive (and sometimes surprisingly so) reviews indicate we have done something remarkable.

“Rabbit Hole” is definitely worth the journey (both the physical and emotional) and I’d like to share it with you if you are in Northern California.

You may be scared of the subject matter, but I guarantee the comedy, humanity, and emotion of it will make you feel complete at the end.

Come see the results of a short-term innovation process with limited resources and tremendous leadership.


Pacific Sun – RVP pulls a ‘Rabbit’ out of its hat with Lindsay-Abaire tragedy

Marin IJ – RVP presents a powerful ‘Rabbit Hole’


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