Taking Chances

by Cary Gillett & Jay Sheehan
 Sheehan and Gillett, the proud authors, at USITT 2018
Sheehan and Gillett, the proud authors, at USITT 2018

Both of us love the thought of making art. Be it theater, special events, opera, or dance, the fact that we can both make a living doing a job that helps create art is a blessing. So, what binds the two of us, and makes us so similar in our successes and our failures? 

Both of us are risk takers. There is no doubt that we have taken chances and not been successful. We have made mistakes, some corrected in time with no harm, no foul. Other times our errors may have cost us resources due to our lack of attention to one matter over the other during the production process. The fact is, we have taken chances all our lives, and continue to take chances now, even at this point of our careers. The second factor that binds us is that we both come at a risk with the approach of ‘It never hurts to ask; all they can say is no.’ 

So, what drives us to continue? What motivates us to get up every day and have passion for what we do? For both of us, it’s the fact that every day is a surprise in production management, and every surprise can be a fulfilling experience; be it positive or negative. 

Jay Sheehan
I sought excitement and taking chances. I was all ready to fail in order to achieve something grand.” – industrial designer Raymond Loewy

Little did I know when I read this Loewy quote on a poster at Sea World over 30 years ago, that it would become my muse, my mantra, my guide and it would help focus me and shape me on my path to becoming a successful production manager and person. As I look back on this quote now, I realize that at that time, I didn’t really understand what the words would fully mean, or how they may affect my life. So, at the ripe old age of 22, I thought I knew what taking chances meant—what risking meant. I was set—or so I thought.

Often, I would take chances, and accept the risks, completely diverting my attention from the potential consequences of failing, should the risk head in that direction. Failing didn’t matter, and I had an aggressive attitude of always being good at what I did. Early in my career, I thought it was important to get my name out there, as it was all about who knows you, or so I was taught. As I was in life, I was cavalier in my approach to apply for jobs. Jobs that I wasn’t sure I was qualified for or be good at, but I would apply anyway and save the rejection letters as motivation. On one HUGE chance, while still attending classes at San Diego State University, I got a break to work on my first show in New York. It was what I had dreamed of all my life. It was a chance, a big risk. I could always go back to SDSU, but would I get another chance at this? ‘I was already to fail in order to achieve something grand.’ I went to New York. Now I teach production management at San Diego State, and every day is a surprise still. 

Cary Gillett
One of the biggest risks I took in my career was transitioning from stage management to production management. I had dabbled in production management before, but it was always small projects or temporary positions to fill the gaps between stage management gigs. It was my dream to be a stage manager, so why would I do anything else? But after a while it became harder and harder to manage the freelance life style, so I knew a change was necessary. I wanted a full-time job in the theater with benefits and a decent salary. I had seen a few people make the step from stage management to production management, so I thought it was my next logical step. I started applying for jobs. What did I have to lose?

When I landed my job at the University of Maryland I remember sitting in my office (I had an office!) on my first day and staring at my computer thinking—now what? I had no idea what I was doing. Why did I think I could do this? Why was I hired for this job? How could I have possibly fooled them into thinking I was the right person? Yet here I was, so I started making it up. And then the next day, I made it up some more. In reality, we all fake it until we make it. 

Another thing that helped me immensely is that I had people who believed in me. I was hired by a committee of people; they would not have put me in this position if they did not see something in me that convinced them I could do the job. And I had a boss who never once came into my office and announced that they had made a mistake and that I should pack my things and go. Yes, I made mistakes, quite a few I might add, but I kept going and trusted that if others thought I should be here, then I must be able to do the job.

I think everyone has a different definition of what it means to take a risk. Some people will jump into the unknown with reckless abandon, with no regard for what might happen. Others might hesitate, weigh the pros and cons of the situation, look before they leap. For some risk is fun, for others it’s scary. But every person, at some point in their lives, will need to accept that risk is good, risk is necessary; risk pushes you to the next level.

So, what’s the common denominator that gave us the chance to take risks and dream endlessly? We had nothing to lose! If you think you have nothing to lose then the risk will always be worth it. If you want something, ask for it. All they can say is no. This type of mindset is entirely responsible for how The Production Manager’s Toolkit became a reality. Read the story of how Gillett and Sheehan wrote their book at bit.ly/SD_PMToolkit

What will motivate you to keep working day after day? What mantra will alleviate your fear of failure? Try doing this quick five-minute exercise. Sit in silence and allow words to formulate in your mind regarding risk, chances, fear of judgement, or rejection. Visualize in some way taking a risk and seeing success. Repeat this for a few days and see how you feel. Why not? You have nothing to lose.