Backstage during a quick transition from one dance piece to another, I found myself stage right in the wings without my fellow dancer who comes onstage with me.
“Where is she?” I asked one of the other dancers.
A peek around the corner revealed that she wasn't ready yet. While the stage was dark, I attempted to communicate with the person on headset across the stage that we were not ready. First, I made a thumbs-down gesture. Then, I frantically made the slicing-neck gesture for "cut it." When the lights came up and the music started, I realized that I had failed in my nonverbal communication. Through the darkness, the person on headset must've either not seen me or thought at my "cut it" gesture was a wave meaning "go."
What do you do when you think you are communicating “stop” but your counterpart hears “go”? While recently performing, I was faced with this exact problem.
Shining a Light on the Real Problem
Most professional theatres have backstage operations down to a science. It's truly incredible to observe how it all works. And still, there are always glitches that can't be predicted, such as a costume malfunction that created an entrance delay; a loud party happening next to a live performance; a janitor coming on stage to sweep during a show; a light falling from the catwalk onto the stage while dancers are performing; someone jumping up on stage from the audience and yelling, “Oh sh*t, I forgot the fabric softener!” All of these things have actually happened.
Performers like to think that we are a special breed, but these types of hiccups are found all over and in every field. The problem often isn't in careful planning or building processes. We had planned for there to be a person on headset to communicate to the booth. We had planned to have dancers help each other with quick costume changes. But we hadn't decided how to send a message when something wasn't going right. We hadn't agreed ahead of the show how we would communicate "dancers are ready" or "not ready" messages.
So, what ended up happening? When the lights came on, the person on headset could actually see my "cut it" gesture. Then the music was paused and we had a chance to reset and start again, once all the dancers were actually ready. The issue was resolved when we (literally) shined a light on what was happening.
In high school, my theatre teacher used to have one special dress rehearsal before each show known fondly as "the disaster run." The idea was that we would have to go on with the show no matter what kind of unpredictable scenario he introduced. Of course, over time, other cast members added their own disasters, and the process was more of a hysterical team-building activity than practice with going "on with the show,” but in theory, this was a useful exercise.
How often do we consider all the things that could go wrong? How often do we question our assumptions? How often do we think that someone has received a message in the way we intended to give it?
Groups and teams struggling with these kinds of “backstage” hiccups don't always shine a light on what is creating the issue. They often think that fixing or creating processes is the answer, but that often creates more confusion. What might have helped in our situation would have been to establish norms for communication prior to the show. How will we communicate in darkness and without words that we aren't ready?
Here are two important project planning tips that can be abstracted from this story:
Establish communication norms: What is the reason for our need to communicate? How often do we need to communicate? What are acceptable channels for communication? Who will take ownership of drafting and sending the message? Who needs to weigh in? Who needs to be informed?
Plan for unlikely scenarios: Consider a recent project that went well or moderately well and create a list of all the things that had to go right to make it happen. Consider what would happen if each of those things didn’t go right. How you will operate in each case?
What types of scenario planning have you taken part in?