by Sharlan Douglas, president, Douglas Communications Group

Whenever I’m directing a play, I see the effects in my work. It makes me more creative, opening my brain in unexpected ways. Directing especially makes me receptive to new ideas and teaches me how to accept and acknowledge them.

All creative people are defensive about their ideas. When someone says, “Why don’t you just …?” my first instinct is often to say, “No.” But I have to remember that theater is a team sport. If I’ve done my job as the director, I’ve chosen staff who are as creative in their realms – music, choreography, lights, sound, costumes, sets – as I am in mine. Actors, too, want to express their creativity, beyond just speaking the lines in the script and hitting their marks on the stage. I’d be foolish to ignore all that talent.

Here are some of the guidelines I try to follow.

Evaluate the intensity of the idea. Many suggestions are offhand. Be alert to the source’s tone and urgency. If they’d mentioned it more than once, you need to respond.

Acknowledge the idea. If it’s a good idea, say so! And thank the person who offered it. If you’re not sure, don’t say “No.” Say “I’ll think about it.” If you’re rushed or preoccupied, suggest a better time for them to present their idea.

Explain why you didn’t use an idea. If you know you can’t or won’t use a suggestion, try to tell the person why; give a lesson that may help their work in the future. “Gut instinct,” used judiciously, is an okay reason.

Tone of voice. Think about your favorite teachers. Did you like the ones who treated you like an idiot or the ones who made you feel like you were almost right and just needed a little guidance? Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Don’t confuse the messenger with the message. Whether you’re in a show or at work, there are people who are constantly offering advice, and others who are critical or dismissive (see my notes on “tone of voice.”) Sometimes even those people have good ideas. Take a breath and don’t say “No” just because you’re annoyed.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Don’t you admire people who aren’t afraid to admit they made a mistake? If you say “no” in a heated moment, then reconsider, the other person’s satisfaction will offset the pain that comes from saying you were wrong.

Give credit. Acknowledging that a good solution came from someone else does not diminish your status; it increases it. It shows that you are thoughtful and open and it makes the person who gave the idea feel great.

When I watch the final performances of the shows I direct, I found it hard to sort out which ideas were mine and which came from others – and it didn’t matter, because they came together in a way that was even better than I ever imagined.

Copyright Douglas Communications Group LLC 4/1/08

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