Are we losing the ‘community’ in our community theatres?

 

BLOG IMAGE

I can still remember the opening night of my very first show. As a 15 year old, you are a messy mix of wanting to be noticed and being horrified when you are. Oh, the ‘actoring’.

The joy was that I was surrounded by experience; people who helped me learn to perform and become brave enough to grow. The community in ‘community theatre’ was strong and, while I learned that there are good and not quite as good ways to approach a piece of theatre in the amateur world, I became aware that it was what participation in community theatre did for individuals that made it most appealing to me.

I love the ones who struggle with nerves, but do it anyway; who are brave; who step out of their comfort zones and into the cushioned and understanding arms of fellow performers in their local community theatre company.

Since I began the Idiot project, I’ve studied the challenges of many companies and developed ways to make things better for them. This has exposed me to many wonderful theatre communities who love what they do and support and respect the people who do it with them.

But there’s a disturbance in the force that is really starting to tick me off.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I am passionate about encouraging and equipping community theatre to expect more and to be extraordinary. I see this approach in so many productions, performers, producers and companies and it thrills me to pieces.

But this drive to improve should never be at the expense of people. We should always respect the time and talents offered to our companies. We should never treat our volunteers like staff, we should keep our heads out of our asses and seek to include the diverse range of people who seek to participate in the arts.

It saddens me to see some community theatre companies be overcome by what can simply be described as a sense of embarrassment about who and what they are. They’ve leapt over the line of ‘community theatre doing the very best they are capable of’ and landed right smack in the middle of ‘we’re going to be better than anyone else’ – a very, VERY different attitude.

Working to create a piece of theatre that is the very best that your team is capable of, carries a beauty and value, not measurable at any box office. This attitude empowers individuals to reach further, respect everyone’s efforts, and encourage each other to create something far bigger than themselves.

Once you enter the realm of wanting to be better than everyone else, you do so by stepping over people to get there. Theatre companies make decisions that jeopardise their future. They insist on hiring theatres that are too big and expensive for their budget, everything becomes about ticket sales, and volunteers burnout at an alarming rate.

“But we have to sell tickets,” you cry!

Then let’s step sideways for just a moment.

I have recently come across companies making major decisions for their future based on false information. They have struggled to sell tickets and interpret this as a need to go bigger, change their culture, drastically alter their show choices in a way that does not reflect what their audience wants and build shows that force them to price themselves out of the community theatre market. These changes in and of themselves are not bad. It’s the reasons these decisions are being made that is challenging.

The statement, ‘we can’t sell tickets’ is false. It can be complex, but when it comes to community theatres run by volunteers without marketing skills, it’s false, and here’s why.

You are not marketing your shows! You think you are because you post a few things on social media, maybe spend money on print ads in your local newspaper and badger the cast to sell more tickets but, from experience, I can almost guarantee that YOU ARE NOT MARKETING AND THAT FEW PEOPLE KNOW THAT YOUR SHOW/COMPANY EXISTS.

The mistake people make is thinking that the world is no bigger than their own – “I think this way therefore everyone else does. I know the show is on, I’ve posted on facebook so everyone else knows what I know.”

FALSE. WRONG. NO. NO. NO!

Marketing 101 – Do not market to yourself! And, I’m sorry, but that is exactly what you are doing. Please, please, for the love of all the gaff tape you have used in your career, stop making decisions based on these assumptions.

Improve your marketing first. You haven’t even scratched the surface of ticket sales yet, I guarantee it. It doesn’t matter what the show is. I’ve sold thousands of seats to Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hammerstein through to contemporary theatre simply with good, basic and inexpensive marketing techniques. Learn the basics, do the basics consistently. Everything else is a bonus but not necessarily sustainable.

DISCLAIMER: I still can’t sell crap! End of conversation.

Stepping back to what’s really important!

Our theatre communities are all different and extremely valuable, making up a smorgasbord of creativity that provides training and companionship, a place for our creativity to thrive and even explore the potential of making it a profession. Size does NOT matter. Bigger is not better. It’s simply different. Whether your season is a series of plays, musicals or cabaret, or whether you perform in a 90 seat hall or a 500 seat theatre, know that you are family to thousands of creatives who need to feel accepted, challenged and seen.

I do not want to be part of a local theatre community that is embarrassed about their amateur status, who feel the need to be better than everyone else or want to be considered ‘professional’, and fail to cultivate a culture of belonging, joy and humility.

I want to be part of something great, but that greatness comes from all of us working together to do our best, not from a company driving their cast and volunteers to be a product, simply for the purpose of selling tickets and satisfying individual egos.

Actors and creatives who have worked with me could tell you that I love the people I work with, I will challenge them and expect them to challenge themselves, I will protect them and I will fight for their joy in what they are doing, but I will never waste their time telling them what they want to hear, only what I believe will make them better – for their sakes.

I love you, community theatre. You are joy, family and passion.

Don’t forget who you are and what you are worth.

It’s everything.

Sher.

 

“Just Begin!” Taking back your passion for community theatre.

an-idiot-on-stage-blog-header160217

As I took my seat at the meeting table, I struggled with the overwhelming desire to scream. Scream at the people sitting around me; scream in the face of every decision made; scream at the fact that I couldn’t develop any enthusiasm for the one place in the world I loved so much – my local theatre company. I was angry at the world for using me up and taking advantage of the fact that I was a passionate ‘doer’ of things.

The passion and enthusiasm I had once shared with my team members had dissolved into a cynical, bitter, angry mess of tears that threatened to spill out with the least provocation. I couldn’t remember the days of freedom to create, joy in sharing my passion with my theatre community, excited by the goals the team was working towards.

A beautiful woman serving on the team with me, noticed my unusual state and privately challenged me to acknowledge my burnout and reconsider my approach. As I sat on my couch all those years ago, considering what my friend had said, I was shocked to realise something.

I recognised that I was the problem!

I had allowed myself to get beyond passion into being driven. Once I got over myself, I determined to make the changes necessary to allow me to function effectively and have the positive impact I dreamed of. Change is constant and ongoing but what I learned has been the basis of many conversations with colleagues experiencing what I did all those years ago. So fire up your ‘self awareness’ and think about this –

Being DRIVEN means

  1. Boundaries are exploited and you say ‘yes’ too much;
  2. You stop listening to others and yourself; and
  3. You feel you are the only one who can fix everything.

Being PASSIONATE means

  1. You set boundaries that ironically making you more effective. You are deliberate in your choices and ‘no’ is acknowledged as valuable.
  2. Passion wants the input of others, to share ideas, to be encouraged, and to encourage. It listens and values other opinions and it is self aware.
  3. You are not alone, you acknowledge the team and seek to include others.

So how do you get from there to here? How do you recover from burnout or even a loss of passion? All I can offer is what I learned for myself. It involved being willing to make decisions, large and small, and began with one simple thought – just begin.

“Just begin!”

Begin by acknowledging what you really want.

Do you want to help out front of house or are you excited by encouraging change within the culture of your community theatre company? Every role in your local theatre company is valuable, regardless of its prominence. Be prepared to help out where and when necessary but don’t be pushed into a role you know you’re not suited to, long term.

Begin by recognising what you’re good at or what really fires you up.

You have a gift for something. Don’t give me the humble bit – “I’m not good at anything.” – That is total rubbish. You are. Find it, own it and do it! The mistake you’ve probably made is trying to work outside your gifts and talents. You compare yourself to others and try to function in a role that doesn’t suit you. Choosing to do something you’re not suited to will lead to stress, burnout and being a pain in the behind to all who have to work with you.

Let me figuratively slap you around a little here. You will never be happy trying to be something you’re not built for. Acknowledge your gifting, work in it, and get good at it. There is nothing to compare with the feeling you get when you know you’re doing what you were built to do, and seeing the positive impact you can have will bring you immeasurable joy.

Begin by learning to be really good in your gifting.

Get better. Study, learn and practice your skills. This is a forever thing. Enjoy the process. You’re going to make mistakes. Acknowledge mistakes as a step to improvement, not a wall to stop you. I know it’s cliche but if I could get back all the hours I wasted letting my mistakes bring me down, I would be ecstatic. It is the biggest waste of freakin’ time!

Mistakes don’t make you a bad person, they don’t make you a stupid person, they don’t mean you will never get where you’re going. They mean you are taking a risk and actually living life, and anyone who tells you different needs to get out of your way and go back to sitting on their big fat behinds, achieving nothing in this world!

Keep seeking. Keep moving forward. Keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t talk so much. Listen more. Learn more. Say ‘no’ more. Be deliberate in your plan for your theatre life. Don’t let it just happen to you. You’ve got this!

Cheers, Sher.

sher-profile-image-2016Sherryl-Lee Secomb is the “Idiot On Stage”.

The Idiot exists to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Learn more about the Idiot at www.anidiotonstage.com.au, follow on Facebook, Instagram and enjoy hundreds of theatre resources on the Idiot’s Pinterest boards.

Oh, and I’d love it if you would share this post.

Don’t Stew the Fish.

Don't Stew the Fish

How do you deal with difficult people in the theatre? You know the ones; always rude or short tempered, who seem to have no concept or care about their impact on those around them. If you’re anything like me, your first reaction is to smack ’em round the head with a wet fish. Of course, your second reaction should be to fry the fish and move on but you don’t. You stew the fish instead, having the conversation you wish you’d had, over and over in your mind. Snappy smack downs that make you look like a hero but totally destroy the dignity of the offender. Yep, that feels good for about a minute and then you remember it’s all in your head and nothing has changed. You still have to turn up to your next rehearsal and live in the real world, only now it’s worse because all you’ve ‘rehearsed’ is your verbal destruction of the other person.

Good grief, I hate passive aggressive behaviour. I hate it because I’ve done it and when I’ve allowed myself to do it, I feel like a 14 year old girl; no control and no brains (sorry 14 year old girl). I’ve realised that this approach to life is a complete waste of my mental energy. It’s taken me a long time to figure this out but I want to share 4 lessons I’ve learned the hard way.

If you want to get on with those you work with in community theatre you have to accept these 4 truths – 

  1. Not everyone is going to like you.
  2. You can’t take offence at things that don’t matter.
  3. Respect for others is required to live with 1 and 2.
  4. You’re a grown up.

Not everyone is going to like you. When I started the Idiot project I was determined to be myself. That meant owning what I said, telling it like I saw it and loving the people I write for – the people of community theatres. I know I can be strong but that’s who I am and I speak what I believe. The reason I do this is because I am so passionate about encouraging community theatre to be more. I love everything about what we all do and I am determined to make an impact while I am on this planet.

That said, I’m human and if I let my guard down, I can creep into people pleasing mode. Ironically, the blog posts that have the most impact are the ones where I am true to myself, strong and not aiming to please but rather to equip.

You’re gong to have to accept that you’re not everyone’s cup of tea – and that’s ok.

Be truthful and honest with yourself otherwise you’ll miss many great years, too busy being a version of yourself that you were not meant to be. Be brave and own it. The world needs the real you and you deserve to spend your life as a real human. It can be tough to realise that not everyone you meet will like you but if you want a full life, you’re gong to have to accept that you’re not everyone’s cup of tea – and that’s ok.

Can we please stop behaving like 14 year olds when someone steps out of line and offends us. You know what I mean – someone makes an off hand remark that is insensitive and instead of maturely challenging them on it, we clam up and behave like a school child in the principal’s office.

How about we try being grown-ups and set some boundaries for ourselves. The truth is we can allow people to speak to us that way. If they are insensitive and rude, that’s on them. But if we allow them to continue to be insensitve and rude, that’s on us. By the way, stand up for those who are fragile and unable to set boundaries. “Use the force for good, Luke”.

Be a grown-up and quietly tell them that you don’t allow people to speak to you that way and that they need to find another way to communicate with you – you have that right. 99.9% of the time, they will be shocked, mortified or at least embarrassed.

The trick is respect. As difficult as it is, you have to swallow that tirade you’d like to unleash. Be unemotional, speak quietly and respectfully. You may not end up friends, and that’s ok. Your objective is to set up boundaries of communication that allow you both to work together.

Here’s a secret: you don’t have to love everyone you work with but you do have to treat them respectfully. Theatre people get way too emotional far too quickly. Keep your heads, people.

A note to those of you who speak from a heart of contempt for others or are just insensitive, arrogant and rude – get your head out of your arse and learn that you are not the centre of the universe. Respect those around you as people with lives outside the theatre, with difficulties and struggles, and open your eyes to the potential in every person. If you truly don’t like what you’re doing, get out and find where you’re really meant to be. If you are accidentally insensitive or so stressed that your words are a reaction to your life, own it and apologise.

Finally, a word to leaders/directors – company culture comes from the top down. The group reflects the leadership. Make sure you’re reflecting the right stuff.

More red wine.

Sher.

Facebook: An Idiot on Stage   |   Instagram: SherSecomb