In middle school I had an amazing teacher named Wendy Kotrba. On the most literal level she taught my class about things like distopia novels and about mechanical stresses when building bridges from toothpicks. What she was less obviously giving us were lessons in how to take initiative and think for oneself, learn how to solve complex problems and get shit done.
“Knowing everything matters a lot less than you think it does. If you sit in the front row and nod, teachers will assume you’re smart.”
From that moment I used this technique ALL. THE. TIME. I now make sure to say it to my students whenever I can.
When her class bemoaned our vocab books for their mind-numbing repetition and rigid structure, Mrs. Kotrba told us to create our own. And so every week following, one of us had to create a lesson based on the 10 words they selected from the dictionary and a test that included a random mix of all the words we’d learned that year. Want to know the best way to teach kids what words are most useful? Make them write an essay in which all their words have to appear.
But my favorite lesson of Kotrba teachings was about goal setting. She made it clear that goals are the path to making things happen and the best goals had clear, obvious measurements for success.
This is why, to use a timely example, I think most New Year’s resolutions fail.
“Goal: Lose Weight”
How much? By when? For how long? Through what means? By what measure?
If your metrics for evaluation are vague, so will be your assessment of success. It’s a lot less satisfying to toil, to deal with the discomfort that your new habits engender, if you never know when you’ve achieved something. And if you don’t have a way to find satisfaction from the new routine or habit, it’s probably a lot less likely to continue. I think it’s also why artists find themselves in sticky situations of being taken advantage of or overtaxing others. I think it’s why we too often see the very people who rail against larger theaters taking advantage of the little guy, turn around and adopt the very same practices when they have to take charge.
I know that in theory we all believe in fairness, in appropriate wages, in treating each other with respect. We all want kind working conditions and productive and fertile work. So why are there so many people who feel like they despair at getting these things? Why do I hear stories of burnout from the best of intentions? Why are we so often over worked and under paid for projects we don’t actually care about? And why do we inflict the sins visited upon us onto others?
It’s not because we’re bad. It’s not because we don’t care. There are too many wonderful people with good intentions in our field for that to be true. None of us went into theater for the money. So why do we end up letting money make us do things we don’t want?
I propose it’s because we never take the time to write down what we believe and why we believe it. Just like unclear goals, ill-defined codes of conduct and ethics are hard to evaluate. “Be kind to your creators” is like “Lose weight.” It’s a good general idea, but in the nitty gritty of reality you need clearer rules to apply. What is your definition of kindness? How does it manifest? Does it relate to payment? Is it about the kinds of words you use? What exactly do you define as a “living wage?”
If we haven’t defined what our values are clearly, how do we know if we’ve stuck to them?
In high school I learned about a psychological phenomena called cognitive dissonance.
You can read this pretty interesting summary about it here.
The idea is that we as humans strive towards what’s called cognitive consistency – aka we like to believe that our actions and principles are in accord with each other. We are made uncomfortable or put into “dissonance” when we are forced to confront a state of conflicting beliefs and behaviors within ourselves. We have our theoretical ideals and we have our actual actions. When they don’t align it’s uncomfortable and we are wired to find a way to reduce that cognitive dissonance. There are two ways to restore consistency: change the behavior or change the belief. We either have a strong enough principle that we need to stop the behavior or we keep the behavior and shift the values to align.
Can you guess what the psychologists demonstrated people doing all the time? Especially when money was involved in the experiment?
There are lots of times when situations arise in which outside factors exert pressure on us to do things that violate our principles. Those pressures can be really strong. And when we find ourselves doing things that result from that pressure it’s easy to tweak those principles just a tiny bit to include our behavior in what’s “acceptable.” In the reality of daily work, these external forces are made incredibly tangible and specific while our principles stay in that vague soft and touchy-feely place. Humans are highly adaptive creatures. Don’t underestimate your ability to acclimate. You can’t afford to move through your work unthinkingly. You must be a part of the change you seek.
So here’s a challenge for the new year: create a set of working codes that’s as strong, as badass, as those external pressures. Define how you believe art making should happen so that you know when it’s not. Write them down and keep them visible. Share them with your peers. Compare and contrast.
If you’re dependant on others to create, really write out what you think is acceptable. How many hours for what kind of pay? What kind of work do you want to pursue and what work is a drain? What kind of qualities do you want from co-creators? What happens if someone doesn’t have them? How many negative tendencies are you willing to deal with before you need to walk away? If you don’t define for yourself what is and isn’t acceptable in the creative process, how can you ever know when to tell someone that it’s not.
If you’re a generator or producer, think about how you would want to be treated. What are the things you complained about? Or better still, if you had all the money in the world, what’s the way you’d want to treat everyone? Where’s the distance from that you can live with? What’s the art community you want to create for the future? How are you working to make it possible? How are you building more than just a single play, but a place that people trust and look forward to returning to?
Don’t be afraid to get down and dirty with numbers. Put dollar amounts in there. Write down the hours you’d like to work in a week. Define the role that you want to play in a process. Think about the amount of leadership you desire. What kinds of physical comforts actually matter and improve you as an artist? Write down the people that consistently make you crazy and stressed and unhappy in process. Define the qualities you need from others and the ones you promise to display yourself. Then create the ranges of each of these things that you think move you towards happiness and sustainability.
Whatever you believe in, whatever things you hold as principles in how art should be made, these are the things you need to articulate clearly and with specificity. In ways that you can measure so that you know if you’ve stepped out of bounds. And then you can use that cognitive dissonance to really show yourself all the little places you undermine them. And hopefully, those principles will hold stronger, and though it’ll be hard, you can actually find new ways of working that stick to them.