I just spent a few days in a room with corporate executives who were talking about their process of performance review and development of their employees. They described an annual procedure where members of the company receive performance reviews by their supervisors and discuss their professional development. In turn, this would have a positive impact on the employee and therefore, a significant benefit to the company.
It was an eye-opening experience – cue the mind blowing music and fireworks! What an incredible idea!
As a freelancer, which most all stage managers are, we do not have a process of performance review. We get a job, we do the job and if we did a good job, we get hired again.
If, for whatever reason, the employer/director/producer/PSM didn’t like the job we did, we simply don’t get rehired. It’s usually that simple. I believe that every good job you do will get you two more; but no one is perfect, we all make mistakes, so what happens when it doesn’t go well. That’s when you don’t get the next job. So unemployment, game over, should you just pack up and go home? Shouldn’t there be another option?
So while you’re sitting around checking your email, waiting for the next job offer, does your stomach turn hoping you did well enough on that last job to get asked back. That just doesn’t seem right, does it? There’s always a cloud of mystery about how good a job you did. I bet, like me, you’ve wondered, “why didn’t I get that job?” “Why didn’t they call me back?” “Why didn’t they want to work with me again?”
A process where you can learn and grow would be a welcome opportunity to the mystery and concern.
If something didn’t work, you would have the ability to learn and improve. If something went well, you’d know that you’re on the right track. If these large companies fired every employee who made a mistake or messed up, they’d be firing and hiring more than getting work done. I think we can learn a few things from what these corporate execs were talking about.
Performance reviews give the opportunity to learn and grow in an environment that is respectful and appreciates your value.
It’s much more than assessing errors or weaknesses. It’s about learning from in order to improve and grow. It’s about getting better. And who doesn’t want to be better? What’s wrong with that?
Performance reviews are also about what is going right and continuing to develop those strengths even more. That leads into the development phase. Development is about recognizing a person’s talents, ambitions, goals, and how they can best use their strengths for personal advancement and the company’s benefit. That could mean a better position, more responsibility, improved salary, etc… Pairing performance reviews with development opportunities is the formula that brings the most growth and opportunity.
But again, we do not have a development process in place for freelance stage managers. You just hope to strike just the right chord and hit it off with a PSM, director, and/or general manager. If you do, that can lead to a great career of steady work on exciting projects. I know stage managers who have made a career stage managing for the same director over and over again and also assistant stage managers who have worked for the same PSM time and time again. But without that great connection, we are left struggling, guessing as to what is working, what isn’t and trying a variety of ways to adapt our methods, practices, and attitudes in hoping that we find the right combination.
It’s like shooting in the dark and it isn’t a very practical way to build a career. Wouldn’t it be better to invest some time and energy into a process dedicated to our continual improvement?
That is where performance reviews and professional development come in.
So the big question is, how would performance reviews and development look in our professional freelance stage management lives?
As PSMs, we could make the time for performance reviews with our assistants. By taking some time to think critically about the process and assess how the work has contributed to the team would be invaluable feedback. Perhaps this could happen after the first few weeks of rehearsals, before the craziness of tech begins. Could you envision the team taking an hour one day after rehearsal to assess their process so far and discuss what is working and what could be done to improve each individual and the team’s performance overall. Then the same could be done after the show opens, so the team can reflect on how the review went and set a foundation for regular check ins. Therefore, on a long running show, making time to review individual performance, work flows and processes can become the norm.
This process would help each stage manager to become the best they can be. In turn, this would improve the team, making them even more affective and responsive to the company and thereby have a positive impact on the show.
As a PSM, input from your team could make you an even more effective leader, understanding what techniques are working and what can be made better. But is there a way directors, producers or GMs could be involved in this process to give feedback to the PSM as well? At a regional theatre with a resident staff, this could be easily implemented; however, on independent productions, this is more challenging.
One option that I see is to actively seek out the feedback.
This can be difficult to do because it means inviting criticism and that can be hard to hear. It challenges our insecurities and preys upon our fears. If we can be strong, ask for, and accept feedback, it can help us to be better, do better, and open doors to new opportunities. How amazed will your director or producer be when you say, “Hi, I know our show is over, but I would like to get your feedback on how I can improve, so that if we work together again, I can be even better in supporting you and managing your production.” I think that would score major bonus points and I bet would leave them stunned and in awe of your consideration, confidence, and courage. I had a new assistant on an event once ask me this question and I tell you, I was VERY impressed. In turn, I have recommended him to colleagues for other jobs.
To make this process of initiating your own performance reviews (as a PSM or assistant), one needs to be open and able to really listen. No matter what the feedback, you can’t be defensive, as that only shows your inability to hear, accept, and improve from the criticism.
Reviews are a two-way street, it requires the reviewer to be thoughtful and communicative and the reviewee to be open and accepting.
The process is not just about looking back, but about looking forward and what could become by utilizing the person’s skills to the greatest advantage. So make sure you are ready if you are going to initiate this conversation.
Once we can establish performance reviews, how can we move in to the development phase where we apply the comments and put them in to action?
As a PSM, maybe I can let the ASM take the lead in understudy rehearsal, perhaps the PA should learn to call the show, what if there is a special project that can be undertaken or delegated? These are just some options for developing talented people who are ready to step up. I’ll share an example from when I was on the Les Miz tour as a 2nd ASM. After a year on the tour, I was given the opportunity to teach a Marius understudy which was not something the 2nd ASM usually did. Taking on that responsibility helped me stretch and grow; therefore, becoming more confident and capable.
By pairing performance reviews with development opportunities, we can all improve our abilities and employment options.
If we start by seeking and accepting performance reviews, development opportunities should arise. In this way we freelancers are helping each other, learning to communicate better and building stronger relationships. And just like the corporate execs discussed, this process of developing and rewarding talent makes more effective employees (aka stage managers), and it also helps the company (aka the show) be the best it can be. In turn, I believe this would improve our entire industry.
Also by Broadway Stage Management Symposium
Published in cooperation with the Broadway Stage Management Symposium
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