Virtuosos: Some Thoughts on the Tug-of-War of Group Work in Theatre – Jackie Mullen, Tuesday Thoughts

Jackie Face

As a stage management MFA student, I spend a lot of time squinting at pages of articles with titles like ‘Competencies of the Stars’ and ‘The Processes of Group Dynamics.’ Most of these came from MBA programs and books for executives, in which a new vocabulary has sprung up to give credibility to the importance of people skills for leaders. The most tickling thing in these readings were when they used theatre as an example – always with a tone of awe. In one text about the separation of tasks in groups, the article seemed almost confounded by the efficiency of a film crew for the BBC, remarking on the fact that only one person set up the microphones, while others worked with the cameras exclusively, in a frighteningly efficient pace. Anyone who has ever worked in a theatre smirks at that.

The more I read, the more I realize how far theatre is on the forefront of managing groups. Choosing a career in theatre is committing to a lifetime of group projects. Often times, theatre makers are among the most talented, volatile and egocentric individuals – yet they have chosen a career that forces them to collaborate time and time again with not one but dozens of other artists. And the management practices unique to theatre reflect that.

In one article, the production team of West Side Story was held up as a shining example of what the Harvard Business Review has deigned a Virtuoso Team. Virtuoso teams are comprised of elite experts in their particular fields, which are specially convened for ambitious projects – and they differ from other teams in their focus on the process, and the value of creative confrontation over group consensus. The article focuses most on how to put these teams together in a corporate world, but through reading it I was struck with how every team in theatre is by nature, a virtuoso team. Designers, directors, and actors are all hand-picked for their artistic brilliance – almost never because they are pleasant to work with backstage. And so in doing this, lessons on Virtuoso Teams were learned by rote in the theater way before they were analyzed by business.

Virtuoso teams flourish in chaos, and a focus must be made on allowing ego’s room to soar, instead of valuing a culture of politeness and diplomacy in the room over innovation. This is true in theatre, and especially true of my experience with Critical Point. I’m proud to say that we exemplify a Virtuoso Team – really, I made notes in the margins about the ensemble the whole way through. I think the hallmark of a virtuoso team is that every member is personally invested in their contributions, and the product. No one is in the room for an easy paycheck. This is especially important for Critical Point. As Dylan Amick, our production manager, said at our last bi-annual ensemble meeting, he realized after a particularly difficult tech that his frustration stemmed from the passion of having such personal ownership of a show – an ownership that was unique to this process, and to the work we are creating.

Forming a virtuoso team is exciting. Functioning as a one is hard. As a stage manager, it’s really challenging for me to let go of my role of calming presence in a room and give space for disagreements. As young professionals, it is difficult to navigate the line of personal and professional disagreements among friends. In the end, we are all always learning, and we are exploring challenges that would be difficult for even the most seasoned groups.

A hallmark of Virtuoso teams is that they work best in tight spaces and under strict deadlines. Critical Point is attempting the opposite in a unique developmental process that happens online, with weekly 2½ hour Skype meetings to create the content of a show about internet culture, the development of which will take years. This would be hard with any group, but is especially and intrinsically difficult for a team of virtuoso artists.

2cpt

Communication online is difficult. We don’t realize how much of communication comes from body language and facial expressions until those senses are cut off from us. An online meeting is a scary place – one in which things you say can be misunderstood, bad connections can imply a lack of response that becomes a slight, frustrations become overblown grievances. The common response to this is an effusion of positivity, using emojis to waylay awkwardness and show encouragement. I realized once that comparing the meeting notes of one of these meetings with the written comments of the skype chat, there was a pattern where the contentious commentary was spoken, while encouragement was written – taken separately, the records could come from two different meetings.

Going into this process, I didn’t realize how great the task was. In my mind, it started as a fun creation idea designed around the practicalities of members in three different states and having the process of our show reflect the internet-focused content – but it has become so much more of an experiment. Most times I walk away from meetings feeling enthused and excited about the project – but how much of that stems from true progress, and how much from my internal happiness at getting to create with friends that I don’t get to see often? I don’t know. It’s especially hard to analyze a process from the inside – it’s difficult to get to the balcony and overlook the group when one eye is on your video feed. Only time will tell what we’ve found in this process.

Either way, I’m looking forward to shaking it up this weekend with our bi-annual meeting, when our ensemble of virtuoso artists will finally be in a room together again.


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