Choose your company wisely. Most of us have heard this old adage so many times that we don’t give it a second thought. When working in a field as small as the entertainment industry, though, the sentiment should serve more as a way of life than a suggestion. As a freelance theatrical designer, I get the opportunity to work in a number of different settings. Some have been idyllic families that are hard to say goodbye to after opening night and others are the stuff of dysfunctional legend that remind me how lucky I am to have a “day job” in an amazing university. In either situation, the success or failure of the collaboration invariably comes back to that thought of how we choose our company.
When my wife and I moved to Michigan in 2008, my first production at Eastern Michigan, Romeo and Juliet, featured a guest director from Chicago named David Blixt. As luck should have it, it was one of those instant friendships that was struck up where you meet someone and seem to know all the same inside jokes without ever having met. Within a short period of time, David’s wife, Janice Blixt became the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. I recall vividly the evening that Jan and David came over to our apartment to discuss the future of the MSF with my wife and I. By the end of the evening, I had agreed to become the Technical Director / Resident Scenic Designer and my wife Katie to be the sound designer / composer.
In those first years, the budget was lean and that meant a relatively small number of designers and technicians we could bring in. Luckily, I have been blessed over the years by working with a number of amazing folks who love to tell a story on the stage. It was in those times that I truly realized the importance of choosing my company wisely. It is one thing to consider that phrase as it relates to your friends, it is something altogether different when you are choosing to bring people together for a communal experience that unites two dozen actors, designers, and technicians together for 10 weeks through the good, the bad, and the ugly of a classical repertory theatre company.
As the Technical Director, I have been responsible for some good hires and some bad fits. Those bad fits weren’t always bad people and, in almost every instance, they were people who excelled at the job they were hired to do. The simple truth was that working in a repertory theatre company is a delicate balancing act of professional and personal life. Sometimes the folks who are the best at their jobs simply don’t play well with others. This ties into one of the most important lessons that I try to impart on my students: strive to be someone that other people like being around.
Having done this for awhile now, I have the benefit of having watched a lot of stories, both successes and failures. Those idyllic families I mentioned at the top of the story all had something in common; they were a group of artists who sought out like-minded hard-working individuals who shared a common vision for their art form. Along the way, they no doubt experienced their fair share of bad fits. The difference between the artistic family and the dysfunctional organization was a willingness to accept that bad fit for what it was and move forward to find the right fit. Not only choosing your company wisely, but choosing your company mindfully.
In the end, I’m not saying anything new – be a good person. Treat others the way you would want to be treated. Surround yourself with people who play well with others.