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Production Manager’s Corner: Adapting to What Comes Next

Jay Sheehan • November 2020Production Management • November 4, 2020

Change to Grow and Flourish

On the first day of classes, I always tell my students that being adaptable is one of the most important traits of being a production manager or stage manager. I tell them to be ready to “change it up” at a moment’s notice, and to have a good, positive attitude while having to navigate and accept the potential changes that lay before them. I explain that change can often be hard, that uncertainty in life is a given, and that being prepared to adapt is their best option for success. 

Adapt and Grow
But what are we really asking of them when we say, “be adaptable?” To me, it means they should be thinking about the changing situations, they should quickly learn new skills, and they should accept the changes that are out of their control. I tell them that being adaptable also means being resilient… and that being adaptable means being able to recover quickly from difficult conditions and decisions that swirl around them. 

At times, the class discussion leans towards Charles Darwin and his philosophy on adaptation. During this discussion we remind ourselves that it is not the strongest of the species that survives… it is the most adaptable and cooperative ones that continue to the next level. The same goes for being a stage manager or a production manager or a producer. Being adaptable means your successes will take you to the next level. 

Embrace the Mess
Over the course of the semester, I share the opportunities that come to me and challenge me to constantly adapt to new strategies and behaviors in producing events. In my professional life outside of teaching, I plan approximately 50-60 special events and live concerts across the country on an annual basis. I tell the students that as an event producer and production manager, I must understand that every day something changes, that every day is a new adventure, and that my successes will be determined by how well I can manage these daily disruptions in life, and “embrace the mess” that might be before me. 

Today, being adaptable has never been more important. During the current pandemic, we are all being tested on our adaptability. We are being challenged about our acceptance of the situation. Our resiliency is being confronted, and our ability to recover quickly from difficult conditions becomes more taxing on our psyche. 

During the current COVID crisis, all of us in the entertainment industry needed to adapt quickly to the changes in the world. I was no exception. In a matter of three days, all the events I had booked for 2020 canceled. No one really knew what was happening and I suddenly found myself going down a dark depressive path, as getting to acceptance proved difficult for me. 

Forge a New Path
I kept trying to visualize what a “pivot” might look like for me. Planting one foot firmly on the ground and then a sudden 90-degree change of direction that would set me on a new path. Thinking about starting over, at this point in my career, sounded daunting at best. 

Pivoting would mean that I would have had to leave my current situation behind, along with my 30 years of management experience in the arts. I would have to learn all new skills and techniques, learn how to produce virtual events, and I would have to start relationship building all over again. I also lamented to myself that I was “too old” to learn new technology. The idea of retirement started to sound pretty good at this point. 

I didn’t like the word pivot anymore either. It was so overused by everyone in the industry, and it didn’t really explain what I felt I needed to do. Instead of keeping one foot firmly planted on the ground and moving 90-degrees in one direction, I felt that I needed to move forward with both my feet headed in the same direction and forge a new path. It wasn’t easy, as fear and uncertainty were my two best friends during the first three months in isolation. 

The Vocabulary of Change
So, I started to think about what other words I could use instead of pivot that still made sense with what was happening. It wasn’t until my husband mentioned that I should look at it more like I was “branching out.” Not just pivoting in one direction, but rather expanding in many directions at once, like a majestic tree in the forest. A tree with branches extending out in all directions. The conversation continued for some time, and before I knew it, I had a new way of adapting and looking at moving forward with my career… with both feet moving and forging the path that I would soon find myself on. 

I started thinking about the integration of the skill sets that I already had in my toolkit. Each skill that I possessed would be a branch of that majestic tree in the forest. On this new path, I wouldn’t have to leave any part of me behind, and I wouldn’t just be pivoting. 

What happened next was something I didn’t see coming. As I was getting ready to produce my first online virtual gala for a nonprofit organization in San Diego, I started to see the lines of artistic responsibility get blurred. 

Redefining Traditional Roles
In theater, it is very clear that the stage director has the overall creative vision and the rest of us work towards providing that vision in its physical form. In the virtual world, all bets are off as far as doing just one specialized job. Many job titles, such as the director and producer, blurred and crossed over into new creative areas that you wouldn’t see under “normal” circumstances. 

The traditional stage director is now a TV/film director, setting up short scenes, and calling camera shots to the technical director in the booth. The traditional director now also becomes a huge part of the editing process, working to weave together the story. The director will discuss fade in and outs, music beds, green screen backgrounds, scene transitions, camera angles, and a plethora of other items as the virtual director must have a fully immersive vision of all the elements. 

Everyone involved in the virtual production should see opportunities to branch out as well. The virtual production’s stage manager is a cross between a traditional theatrical stage manager and second assistant director on a film set. They still do the traditional stage manager duties such as setting schedules, communicating with the actors, and sending out rehearsal reports. For the virtual stage manager, gone are the days of taking traditional blocking, to be replaced with executing camera cues and calling audio cues. Creating personal preshow checklists for each actor to have at home also becomes a new part of the stage manager’s duties. 

For the assistant stage manager, they may take on the duties of running audio or video cues, checking in actors, and then going thru each actor’s personal preshow checklist to make sure all their elements are working properly. 

The traditional actor is no longer just concerned about learning lines and making their entrances and exits. The “Virtual Integrated Actor” now has to be involved with many of the technical elements and will often, in addition to acting, have to operate their own virtual backdrops, cameras and shutters, lighting instruments, microphones, props, and execute their own costume changes… all without any traditional crew to help them. 

Lighting designers now have to think about Zoom Room lighting at the actor’s homes, overexposure of the shot due to sunlight entering the actor’s rooms, and time of day sunlight changes due to actors being scattered all over the United States. 

The Resiliency of Theater
We all miss doing live theater. There is nothing that will ever replace it, and it will be back in full force in the future. There is also the possibility that virtual shows may also not be going away. Some theater patrons like the idea of staying home, not having to deal with parking issues, long lines at intermission, and bad seats. It’s too soon to tell just how long virtual shows will stay around, but we all should be prepared for whatever comes our way. 

Adaptable, Flexible, Resilient, Immersive, and Integrated are the traits of the future production team. From the director, to the stage managers, to producers, editors, and actors…. All now make up the majestic tree in the forest, with strong branches and grounded roots.  

Like I tell my students, all of us should embrace the uncertainty, embrace the mess, and immerse ourselves into the new “now” of performing and integrating in a virtual environment. If we can all do that, our forest will flourish… I have no doubt. 

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