Last March, I had the opportunity to travel back to my alma mater to be a guest lecturer at the weekly Wednesday Seminar for the Technical Design and Production MFA Students. I was honored and humbled to be asked. It’s been almost 20 years since I graduated, and I hadn’t had the chance to go back and visit since I left. I asked what the topic of the discussion should be, and they told me that I should just talk about my career path. How did I get from there to here? What did I wish I would have known back then? What had I learned along the way?
At first I was terribly nervous – what on earth could I possibly have to say that would be interesting to them? What cool technical solutions could I show them? Which big name designers or directors had I worked with? What have I learned? How could I impress them the most?
But as I went through photos from old summer stock productions and grad school notebooks, drafting from the Guthrie and production shots from the Children’s Theatre Company, I realized that the most interesting thing I could share had nothing to do with any of those things. What I have learned over my career that has meant the most to me, is coming to terms with who I really am as a Technical Director, and using those strengths to bring out the best in the work that I do.
I have often said that there are two kinds of Technical Directors out there:
First, there are the TECHNICAL Directors. These guys are the gear-heads. They love math, and structures, and can memorize and recite endless facts about sprockets and motors and the d/D ratios of cable. Their strengths lie in solving the technical solutions in each production.
Then there are the Technical DIRECTORS. These are the classic Type A organizers. They love checklists with check boxes and schedules and planning. They are “people” people, who are constantly analyzing the process of how we get from point A to point B and trying to figure out the most efficient way to do it.
I remember being in grad school like it was yesterday. Everyone was playing the game, trying to out-TD the next guy. Everyone was, on some level, pitted against each other to come up with the best solutions, or the coolest technology, or the most accurate budget, or the best production assignments. While this kind of competition can be great for pushing students to learn, and it does bring out the best in some people, I found it incredibly draining. I never felt like I had the best technical solution. I wasn’t the best carpenter or welder or electrician. I often felt like I was running to keep up with everyone else. Much of the program focused on training us to be TECHNICAL Directors, and while I loved learning about the technical details and finding the sexy solution to a technical challenge, I knew that it wasn’t the whole picture for me.
When I graduated, I got a job as an Assistant Technical Director at the Guthrie. Like most success stories in this field, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and at that time the Guthrie was moving from having one ATD to having two ATDs. I had specifically looked for an assistant position at a large organization because I knew that while I had learned a lot at grad school, there was still so much I didn’t know about managing people. I knew how to do a bit of the TECHNICAL, but I had no idea yet how to be a DIRECTOR.
And the Guthrie was an amazing place to figure it out. Here was a shop filled with experienced and talented carpenters, and all of them had been doing this for a lot longer than I had. Believe me, I made a ton of rookie mistakes. Here I was, this fresh-out-of-school face, who was trying to figure out how to earn the trust and respect of these seasoned artisans. I remember thinking to myself, “why won’t they just do what I ask of them? I’m supposed to be in charge! Why is everything always a battle?” I didn’t yet understand how respect and trust had to be earned over time.
And it got harder before it got easier. Nine months after I arrived, the TD left, and for 13 months, while they did a national search, Craig Pettigrew (the other ATD) and I became Co-Acting Technical Directors of the Guthrie Theater. I was 26 years old. I was still greener than the grass and now Craig and I had to steer the whole ship! To our credit, we got the job done. We got the shows up on time and on budget, in part due to the wonderfully talented folks who were in that shop who helped us figure it all out, but the experience left little room to learn the management skills I was looking for.
It wasn’t until they hired a new Technical Director, and I could step back into the assistant role that I had expected to fulfill that I finally started to figure out what was important to me. For better or worse, the experience of being given too much responsibility had forced me rely on help from others to get the job done, and in doing so, I learned that in order to gain control of an overwhelming situation, sometimes the best thing to do is to let go a little bit. I had to let go of some of the details in order to be able to keep my eye on the bigger picture. I had to trust that my staff had the experience and knowledge to get the job done without me micromanaging every detail. And they did, of course they did!
From that experience I learned that sometimes it’s more important to just get from point A to point B, and it’s less important for me to specify exactly how we are going to get there. Giving people the freedom to make choices and do the work in the way that makes the most sense to them is often the most efficient and empowering way to get something done. Once people understand that you trust them to get stuff done, they are more willing to listen and work with you when you need them to make changes for reasons that might not seem clear to them at the moment.
When the new Technical Director was hired, I finally had the chance I was looking for - to learn more about management from someone who was way more experienced than I was. And I learned a ton - not only from things he did that worked, but from also things he did that didn’t work. I remember that one time we were going to split the shop into two groups because we were working on two shows at the same time. He said, “ok, we’re going to call them the A Team and the B Team.” I said “What, are you kidding?!” I told him there was absolutely no way we could do that. He couldn’t see anything wrong with the idea, but I sure could. Both teams were equally skilled, but no matter what you do, calling a group of people “the B Team” makes them feel inferior. I told him we could call them colors, or birds, or ANYTHING else, just not A and B. In the end, I think we went with the Purple Team and the Gold Team, but the lesson stuck with me. This was the beginning of my understanding of what it meant to be a Technical DIRECTOR.
For many years I stressed over the technical details, always trying to prove that I knew enough, that I could rattle off the right acronyms, or spout off the correct math to prove the structural analysis of a project. I knew that a deep mastery of the technical details was not my strength, and I was terrified that someone would find out I didn’t know everything. I knew a lot - enough to ask the right questions, and design the appropriate solutions for the technical challenges, and above all, make sure everything was safe onstage, but I thought that I was supposed to know it all, supposed to be the TECHNICAL in Technical Director. As time went on though, I found that my strength was really in the DIRECTOR part of the job. My best work is done in discussions with the directors and designers and the production staff. I love organizing the process, and not just the product. When I learned to embrace that as my strength, that is when I feel like I really settled into becoming the manager I am today.
Now, I am the first to say that the one thing I know, is that I don’t know everything. How could I? We work in a constantly evolving field, where we never do the same thing twice. I have come to embrace my inherent Type-A, list-maker, box-checker, organizational tendencies. I revel in the planning and the collaborative process that is putting on a show. I am the first one to say I may not have the answer, but I know who I can ask, and I’m not afraid to do so.
And that’s what I told those students at that Wednesday Seminar. Embrace yourself. Whether you are a TECHNICAL or a DIRECTOR, there is room in this field for both. Use your strengths and surround yourself with great people who can help with your weaknesses. I love my job for so many reasons, but the part I love the most is that I get to collaborate with passionate, talented people everyday, creating magical worlds for others to enjoy. And knowing that I don’t have to figure it all out myself makes the journey so much sweeter.