Truth in Numbers

by Jay Duckworth
Truth in Numbers
Truth in Numbers

Diogenes was an ancient Greek philosopher who would wander around Athens with a lamp, day and night, looking for an honest man. I have empathy for his plight, and I know a lot of people are out there looking for something that is real, something that is true, and in this world that is a very hard thing to find. Truth means taking our own opinion out of the equation. It goes from being subjective to objective; subjective being the individual’s feelings of observation versus objective dealing with the attributes of the object alone and in the objective, we can leave the emotional side behind and deal with facts. The truest thing that we have is maths. That’s right I said maths, and the reason I say maths is not because I’m British or highly educated, both of which I am not; it’s because I’m a snooty pretentious twonk. Well that and if I put one coin down and say it’s two coins you can know for a fact I’m lying or that I’m nuts. You guessed it... I’m both.  

Don’t Fear the Budget
When given a budget for a show, a good majority of us look at the challenges put in front of us with the design and the actual money that we are expected to use. I at least go into an emotional place of ‘how am I going to do this? I am definitely going to fail!’ I don’t have any of these things in stock and I know I can’t borrow any of this stuff. I’m sometimes met with ‘well there is hardly any set so there shouldn’t be any props.’ So when you hear that statement, you know scenic is in the same boat with you having to make something out of nothing. As I have gotten older, I have moved away from the knee jerk reaction and jumped into breaking the budget down as small as possible. It takes a lot longer but I can see where I can turn back to my production manager and say here is what I can do. Because numbers do not lie. Numbers take out the emotion and can back you up in any discussion. 

Numbers and the Law
A friend of mine interned at a law firm, mostly doing clerical work and billing. Something he told me, that stuck with me, was that the firm charged .25 of a penny for a staple and .75 of a penny for a paperclip. Only now do I understand what I once thought was penny pinching was tactical prudence. Because I was the one out there shopping. I thought I knew how much things cost, and I always ordered 15-20% more material than I needed so that if another show didn’t have the budget for a sheet of plywood, I would have something on hand in stock that we could use. When looking for items to buy I would always look at the higher end price so that I could make sure that I had money set aside for tech. 

Not until now did I realize that it wasn’t management that was screwing me with unrealistic budgets it was me. I would take from my overstock and use that on shows then on paper it looked like I made something out of nothing. If I asked production interns if they wanted to help on a project, then I was also giving false numbers on labor. If I borrowed a bunch of props from NYU or Pace, then those numbers were never tracked in the bookkeeping. I would work weekends doing research or online shopping and think this is part of my job, taking the time I should be unplugging and recharging for work. 

Keeping it all on Track
So, Chris Ziccardi, a stage manager and I, have started to tell our students to make a spreadsheet with a budget and a labor sheet to log their hours on projects that they do for our class. The first couple of times, most of what was turned in was less than average—receipts taped to a piece of paper with a total written at the bottom. Unless you were a stage manager—there is something inside a stage manager’s mind that LOVES making order out of chaos and loves lists that they can check off—this is really unacceptable. So, we made a template for the students to follow, listing: the location where they bought items—either store or online, estimate cost/real cost, materials, and labor so they could reference the item again in the future.

This is when the lightbulb went off and I—and the students—had a big learning moment. The students didn’t know why they were doing this; they just thought it was extra busy work for them. Once we explained that this was a practice for them to get used to; that they would be smarter in estimating gigs in a freelance world and they would now be as versed in the business as they are in the show end of things. I was never trained as a manager; I read books, but none were written for theater tech to manage a department; at least when I was moving up the ranks. With our industry moving more and more into a freelance model it will become increasingly important that we rely on the truth in numbers to help in this business we call show.