Essay by

Social Skills and the Theater

Essay by

I was quietly reading a script in the living room while Lynette was cooking dinner. Even though this was very early in our relationship, I was too engrossed for small talk and couldn’t be bothered to look up. From the kitchen I heard Lynette say, “If you don’t put that damn thing down and talk to me, this relationship is over!” She’s Sicilian so that’s part of it, but my social skills were also lacking, to say the least.

I’ve always longed to be a natural in social settings—one of those people like your favorite hairdresser or bartender who can effortlessly carry on an engaging and witty conversation with anyone or any number or people—but guess what? I work in the theater and like a lot of people I know in this business, I’m kind of a geek. For me this manifests in an obsessive one-track mind about this business. I’d rather edit HowlRound articles than go out for drinks with friends. I’d rather read plays and books and poems and essays than do just about anything else. And I’d rather have a ginger ale and munch on cheese sticks and pretzels while reading yet another script than go to the neighborhood block party.

I think I’ve made some headway in becoming more socially skilled in the last several years thanks in large part to my desire to stay with Lynette. But I also picked a business where my geekiness is embraced. I have many colleagues whose spouses and children I’ve never met. I consider them my closest collaborators and yet, I know little about how they live and what they love outside of the theater because when we’re together all we do is talk shop.

I have a theory about the social geekiness of theater artists. I think we act like working in the not-for-profit theater is simply an extension of the rehearsal room. We go to work like we’re on our way to produce a play; we have four weeks to get it all done and we need to be ready for opening night and we have to do whatever it takes. We have to work day and night for weeks on end; we don’t have time for small talk, we don’t have time to bake our own bread or to wait for the pork chops to defrost; we don’t have time for hobbies or pastimes or outside interests. We get our hair cut at walk-ins are welcome salons, we butt in lines, and we aren’t as accountable for our actions as we might be in real life because, well, we’re under a lot of pressure.

Is a Play Like an Institution?
I’ve always wondered why with a few exceptions, nonprofit theaters are run by directors. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be run by directors but why would directors seem the obvious choice for artistic leadership? Why are actors, playwrights, designers, dramaturgs, or producers less viable choices? I don’t think anyone would argue that directors naturally have better taste in plays or a more sophisticated aesthetic. Perhaps it’s that a director is responsible to look at the whole of a play and that this more naturally translates to looking at the whole of an organization. You might argue that directors have to have more people skills to navigate the myriad personalities in a production. In conventional producing environments it is the director who is most responsible for being the nexus of communication.

a man smiling at the camera
P. Carl. Photo by Mike Ritter.

But in what way are plays like institutions? And should we run theaters like we run a rehearsal room?


We have to work day and night for weeks on end; we don’t have time for small talk, we don’t have time to bake our own bread or to wait for the pork chops to defrost; we don’t have time for hobbies or pastimes or outside interests. We get our hair cut at walk-ins are welcome salons, we butt in lines, and we aren’t as accountable for our actions as we might be in real life because, well, we’re under a lot of pressure.


The Opening Night Mentality
When we go into the rehearsal room we feel instantly the sense that time is limited because we know we have about four to six weeks or less to get to opening night. This frame drives everything. The audience is coming. They’ve paid for their tickets and we’ve made a promise to deliver a complete experience. When working on a new play, we push ourselves to reach that moment where we “freeze” the script so that actors can be done with new memorization. Shortly thereafter we codify the blocking and we agree upon a finished product in all of its imperfections. For better or worse, we start something and we end it in a confined time and space.

This mentality is widespread in the nonprofit theater. The work hours have no cap for those who aren’t under a union contract. We build morale around unreasonable requests of time by emphasizing our cultural value, our love of the art form. And we point to the product, the work on stage, to justify the unreasonable circumstances that lead to the product. We make excuses for the low wages with comments like, “Well at least we get to do what we love.” Yet, my experience in the rehearsal room is that the tremendous pressure to get to the final product, makes love not an emotion of the moment but usually something that follows after the show opens. We all look out at what we’ve accomplished and accept and appreciate the tensions and conflicts that ultimately resulted in this piece of art.

But at what moment do we embrace one another in this mutual affection within an institution? Usually a show opens and most of the institutional staff is well on their way to the next production. We don’t work toward a culminating night. We don’t have an opening. We don’t mark an endpoint and so we have to preserve our energy for the long haul, and in a sense, if there’s a comparison to be had, we’re in a constant state of rehearsal. How would we run a rehearsal room without our eye toward that culminating moment?

The Rehearsal Room Hierarchy
In the conventional rehearsal room, though we encourage multiple voices in collaboration throughout the process, we acknowledge hierarchies around decision-making. We know like most hierarchies, tensions are ever apparent as actors and directors disagree and playwrights and directors disagree and designers and directors disagree…but all communications run through the director. Of course the director in a nonprofit theater may get trumped by the theater’s artistic director, but in general we respect and grumble about the hierarchies. And if we are going to make it to the culminating moment of the opening night, well for better or worse someone has to push us there, there isn’t time to haggle over every idea or upend the forward progress. We must put the show up.

Is this implementation of hierarchy necessary to the nonprofit theater? In an organization chock full of creative people, might we allow ourselves the time for more haggling? Might this saturation of creativity lead us to new ways of conceiving of artistic and organizational leadership? We would all acknowledge that the director in a rehearsal room isn’t necessarily the most creative person in the room, but rather someone trained to move a rehearsal forward. And most directors I know would say that their success is a direct result of the creativity that surrounds them. Most directors would also say that the production benefits from more rehearsal time, more opportunity for collaborators to explore the possibilities for the best outcome. So why are nonprofit theaters limiting their creative impulses to the rehearsal room mentality?

We Live and Die by the Work on the Stage
I’ve heard many an artistic director point to the stage (I’ve probably done this myself) and say, “This is why we’re here. This is what it’s all about.” But is it?

For many employees working in a nonprofit theater, they truly love the product. But they are passionate about other things too. In fact they live and die for other things—things like family, friends, politics, their own creative careers, etc. They hope that the work place where they spend more time than they spend at home will be a place that inscribes meaning, brings joy, offers fulfillment, and challenges them to be better people. And speaking for myself, it’s not all about what’s on the stage for me either. That’s not to say I’ll lower my standards around the quality of the work, but only to say I care about other things too like:

  1. The ethical behavior of the nonprofit. Are we living our mission not just by what we produce but by how we treat people on our way toward production? Are we prioritizing fair wages for artists and administrators? Are we truly behaving like a nonprofit or are we mimicking corporations while taking advantage of the tax break?
  2. The work environment. Is our workspace a health hazard? Are we creating work environments that foster collaboration, inspiration, and basic comfort?
  3. The people. Do we have, to use the business guru’s Jim Collins’ phrase, “the right people on the bus.” Or is managing people something that takes up too much time for leaders who are always in the rehearsal room, or traveling to meetings, or schmoozing donors?

I care deeply about going into a building everyday where I’m happy to see my colleagues and where interaction isn’t driven by protecting our turf, elevating our own importance, perpetuating my individual aesthetic, or caring only about what’s on stage. I care as much about the whole of the institution as I care about the product it generates.

Social Skills Versus Social Media
We’ve all become more adept at social media in the last few years. Our status lines and tweets have become snappier and quippier. Perhaps we’re smarter about what we keep private and what we share with others, but our expertise in representing ourselves doesn’t necessarily translate into improved interactions in the workplace. Social media can be a place to perfect individual messages, to rally revolutions, but what happens when we arrive at the public square of our individual or political aspirations? In other words, what happens when we go to work? The great thing about identifying with an institution is it’s bigger than you. How do we integrate our messy individual lives with the mission and vision of an institution?

I’ve affiliated myself with the American theater over these last many years like one might connect with a church. I tithe to the theater. I live in service to it. I believe in its power to create something bigger and better than anything I could make on my own. But will the theater come to my funeral? Will the theater bake me a hot dish after my hip surgery? I give my life to the theater and not a corporation not because I want to make one good play, but because I want to make a meaningful life.

So yes, I’m a geek but I’m not comfortable using that as my excuse to overlook the need to improve my social skills. And I believe I have a responsibility to the institutions I work with to question accepted modes of practice that may not be serving the lives of the individuals who inhabit these institutions. And I think it’s important to say that I’m not perpetuating the clichéd way in which we tend to address this issue in organizational speak: let’s improve our work/life balance. But rather I’m saying that for those of us working in mission-driven organizations our work and our life are intimately connected. Perhaps it’s time to think beyond the rehearsal room and acknowledge that we have plenty of time to recast and rewrite and plenty of time to improve the social and cultural life of our institutions.

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Hey PollyI've been so interested in and stimulated by all these conversations. A number of them have about being in the room, who is in the room, how it feels in the room, whether it should be in a room or rather in nature, who the work belongs to and who gets to say. All these issues seem central to making theatre and making something we are calling art.When I was twenty-one I went to Marseilles and joined Jerzy Grotowski and Richard Cieslak and I think it was six or seven other actors--four French, one Brazilian, the other two or three from the States--for a workshop or what they called "stage," two or three weeks of meeting in a room and exploring. Grotowski required that a room be found where we wouldn't be interrupted or distracted, and our sessions were for about 8 hours each day, and the only room they could find was available from about 8 at night til 6 in the morn, so that's when we met. It was completely disorienting and wonderful. We'd break in the early morn and all go out to dinner/breakfast and then sleep through the hot days in our hot rooms with the traffic and bustle on the street below.I asked M. Grotowski, on the first night of the stage, as we walked across the city to clean the space, whether we were all meeting to clean it so that we would bond with the space and he said no, because it is dirty.

I will bake you a hot dish after your hip surgery. I'm from Minnesota, and I know about the Cream of Mushroom soup. I would never even remotely consider going to a walk-in hair salon, but yesterday I spent $300 on my hair and the woman turned it slightly blue, so maybe you know something I don't.

In all seriousness...I try to be relentlessly transparent about my work/life because I find that work/life separation somewhat unnatural, especially for creatives. I know what I know at work from past experience, but I think my clients appreciate me the most because I make art (and was a performer in my youth and beauty) so I totally get it - the time, internal fortitude and external resources required and put it out there for everyone else to see (and judge). Run-on sentence.

One of my very best friends, a lesbian, accepted a job at a company that sent her out to America's more rural, sexually repressed parts. She was "out" in the home office but felt that she needed to keep her personal life hidden from folks in the field (for the first time in decades). In doing so, she found that she compromised one of the truths that made her who she is, at the core, and without being able to introduce herself as a "lesbian mom of three" her strong moments at work dwindled. These folk didn't ask her to do it, but in deciding that she needed to establish a professional distance, she did actually hand some of her power over to them.

I don't want to bowl or have "family days" or have birthday lunches at work. I just want that to be clear. I will leave a birthday message on your FB wall, though.I don't care so much about someone's new baby (I do, but I don't, you know?), but I do care what shaped their thinking about particular topics, how they've come to approach their personal reality over the years. Social media does help with that a little bit. If it doesn't, then where can we really be ourselves? If we can't be ourselves then....what?

Finding balance in anything is, I believe, a cliche. I'm with whoever said that earlier. Find where you're at your best (and with whom) and catch and cradle those moments for whatever they are worth. Good work is about putting those strong moments into action, taking the people you want with you; the people you can be yourself with. When we don't respect each other as managers, as individuals, as directors, it definitely shows in the quality of the work.

I'm sorry, I know that was long. Eek! @heidirettigWe need directors who can manage people; say goodbye to that certain someone who is like a cancer to the organization, for example, or identify when morale is low and understand that it cannot be fixed with a box of donuts on a Friday. And a good leader should take a moment to reflect on those accomplishments *before* curtain on opening night. (Not a curtain speech.) My opinion.

I think most institutions and companies would be better off if they were run like theatrical productions/rehearsals.

Also, it's "chock full", not "chalk full".

I love this piece and found it deeply moving (and provocative) in a super-intimate, "gee she is saying things so clearly that I struggle with so deeply," kind of way. It made me so differently aware of the character of the different institutional settings I traffic and have trafficked in... from a big bureaucratic academic institution to the little theater company I founded and ran for fifteen years, and all the bigger theaters that sometimes employ me now but where I don't truly work (the visiting uncle who comes for the weekend, but certainly not the Dad). Thank you.

Polly: this was an amazing read. As you said the cliche "balance" conversation is something I know we all struggle with, but i have been stressing out the last few years as I have seen my intimate circles close smaller and smaller as i have further and further assimilated my life with the institution i work for. And I couldn't agree more about your comments regarding directors and their function. I think because Teatro Luna is a collaborative space, and the director has a different function than in more traditional settings, we also have a collaborative approach now to the business side of our organization-- this has led to vast changes in how we plan, how we market, and how we strategize because we have removed traditional hierarchies and moved to a different leadership model. Perhaps it only works for us now because we are so small, and it might not translate to the larger institutions, but your words made me deeply reflect on the recent changes we have and continue to embark on, and am inspired. thank you so much for your words and thoughts. this was a necessary read for me this week.

I wonder if the true downside to this is even further isolation from the outside world. Rehearsal rooms are notorious for being closed. No one is let in until it is "safe" and often there's a sense of Omertà for all involved.

I wonder if reproducing the rehearsal room dynamic at an organizational level, even without the specter of an opening night looming, atuually replicates the worst parts of us, not just the ones we think we love?

I wonder if it isn't a long-term fatal illness for organizations, let alone improving the social and cultural life of our institutions?

Perhaps forcing those invisible walls to fall is one key to creating an internal culture where people can find their happiness together, and evolving from a theatre of I's to one of "We" (to use your earlier metaphor.)

Also wonder how much that ties in with what you've previously said about the need for openness and a sense of a cultural commons, the need to be more sharing with credit and ownership.

super interesting.

I do believe I started an ensemble based company out of an interest in figuring what sort of organizational culture I wanted to not only lead, but be a part of.

And as I start my third mission driven entity over a span of twenty years, I am asking, more than ever, about how I as a theatre artist and culture-maker (in big and small ways, i hope) am responsible to those who work towards that mission, and those who have no knowledge or interest in it do I place my values in service of my values, not just in the service of advocating for my values?

I really identify with this post
I have always been good with conversation, pretty extroverted
but its been in later years that i realize that I don't really reveal intimate thoughts very easily
I like your comments about building your life/ not just about the play/ not just in the rehearsal room
i believe that
i was just having a conversation with a friend about some of these thoughts a couple of days ago

I want to be apart of organizations that treat their artists well
Theatre is a home/ not another huge corporation
theatre is like your favorite meal
it should be a safe place where i can bear my soul

We are all freaks in our own way
its cool to me

I'm not always a huge fan of David Mamet's work as an essayist but he does have a very good bit of advice to actors seeking to be authentic characters, in his collected essays "Some Freaks", and his wisdom can be translated to any working environment, "Be what you wish to seem."

Good post.