Do-lists

For many years now I’ve been a maker and user of do-lists, and I think they’re great, especially when I’m working on a complex show or on more than one show at the same time. A professor in grad school introduced me to them, and, after my initial gut-reaction resistance — and thinking that they would take up time to make and that I would be a slave to them — I gave them a try and haven’t looked back since.

A do-list is nothing more than an ongoing reminder of stuff that has to be done. It can be on the back of an envelope or in the computer or smart phone. You can add to it, delete from it, check things off (which feels fantastic), and make a new one whenever needed. You can use it to prioritize and re-prioritize items and even to decide that you don’t need to do “that one item” after all. It’s like the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” You have this huge amount of stuff to do, so you break it down into smaller chunks and deal with it one item at a time. This post is about how I used do-lists to greatly simplify several concurrent projects.

Some years back I was asked to take over the front-of-house operation (box office, marketing, and concessions) at a theatre that presented four large shows a year, plus three chorus concerts and three or four other events, all produced in-house. Each show required a given amount of marketing, promotion, and other work, and, because the schedules overlapped, we were often working on different parts of two or more shows at once. My predecessor had done a good job of keeping track of things, but, even so, tasks often fell between the cracks until the last minute.

Once I realized that each show or event required basically the same tasks, and that each task usually had to be completed so many days or weeks before opening night, I decided to get organized. I started by making a detailed list of everything that had to be done for each show, including collecting cast and team bios, designing the program, sending it to the printer, writing press releases, inviting critics, ordering stuff for the concession stand, and so on and on. The first draft had about forty items.

Then I sorted the list, from the earliest tasks to a couple after the show closed. This took some discussion with other staff members and my predecessor, as well as going back over old records, but eventually the list made sense and I had a good idea of how long before opening each task had to be completed. All this time the list was on paper.

Then I created an Excel spreadsheet consisting of five columns: the tasks themselves (from earliest to closest to opening night), when each was due, who was to do it, a column for checking it off when it was completed, and a column for notes. I don’t remember the exact order or dates, but here’s a sample:

schedule-2

Now came the fun part. I went to the earliest item (say Collect cast/team bios, which happens forty-five days before opening in the sample) and wrote a simple formula for calculating that date: cell B6 (the due date) equals cell D2 (opening night) minus 45 days. In Exel-ese, this formula would be entered in cell B6 as =D2-45. Excel then calculates and inserts the actual date as 30-Apr.

I wanted to keep this as simple as possible, so I resisted the temptation to go any farther with Excel. In any case, by entering a similar formula in each “Due” cell, Excel provided the date:

schedule

Once I had all the due dates down, I printed the spreadsheet. Then, because each due date was “always” so many days before opening, I could use the spreadsheet as a template and simply change the name of the show and the opening date, and Excel would take care of the calculations. I printed the lists for several of the upcoming shows and placed the printouts in a clipboard, where we could review them every day, see what tasks were coming up, check them off when completed, and add any notes.

During the first year under this system, we realized a few dates needed to be adjusted, and we ended up adding a few items, but, once the template worked, we kept using it for the rest of my time there. It saved a ton of time and ensured that tasks for the various shows didn’t fall between the cracks.

Incidentally, another staff member brought up the question of what happens if a date falls on a weekend or holiday: should we change the formula for that date?. Nope. We just took care of the task before the weekend or after it. The list was meant as a reminder, not as a dictator.

And here’s a sneaky little tip: from experience, we knew that actors were often late with their bios. If we said they were due on a given day, some showed up a week later or more, even with friendly reminders. This had created a problem with my predecessor, who was often late sending the program to the printer because of it. So, if my real date to finish the program was, say, the 15th, I would tell the cast that I needed their bios by the 1st. Of course, I didn’t tell them about the two-week period: that was my secret.

Along the same lines, some events, like chorus concerts, did not involve cast/team bios or a few other tasks. I could have deleted those lines before printing the list, but we decided to keep it really simple and either ignore those tasks or just cross them off on the printout.

These lists simplified the process of managing several projects at once, but even a simple handwritten list on plain paper (which is what I’ve used for years) can make a huge difference in everyday work. You can change the list as needed, re-prioritize items, delegate them, decide a task doesn’t need to be done after all, and even crumple it up and make a clean new list anytime you want. And checking tasks off when they’re done… rocks!

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Don’t open the door

I’m continually amazed at how often I find the solution to a problem, or the answer to a question, in a totally unexpected place. Just like inspiration, which can come from anywhere, different perspectives on a given idea can be found in lots of places if we’re open to seeing them. In this post I’m going to relate an experience I had a couple of days ago.

I’ve been a horror movie fan since I was a kid, but I’m very picky about them: they need to have a real story, believable characters, and a mostly supernatural element. Ghosts and vampires are okay, but I’ll pass on zombies and werewolves, and most certainly on slasher movies. Actually, an item on my bucket list (along with writing this blog) is to produce a horror movie, and I’m already working on a couple of scripts.

Anyway, so a couple of weeks ago I bought a copy of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which I had read maybe twenty years ago. The book is an overview of the horror genre, focusing mostly on movies and stories in the twentieth century, and one of the chapters is on radio and how effective it was in the 30’s and 40’s. And right there, in that chapter, out of the blue, I found a great message for set designers: Don’t open the door.

King’s point was that radio, along with novels and short stories, were more effective at scaring us than movies, because we had to use our imagination. And, as he says often, what we can imagine, due to our own fears, is probably going to be far more scary than what movie art directors can come up with. When somebody (or something) starts pounding on that door, and we have no idea what’s behind it, we get far more scared than if we open it and find out that it’s not that bad. So one of the tricks is to “not open the door” —  don’t show us the monster, but let our own fears and imaginations create it.

If you ever saw Alien, you’ll remember we didn’t see the grown-up critter until the very end: we knew it was killing the crew, but we had no idea what we were dealing with. In the case of The Haunting (both movie versions), we never saw what was bulging the door in Eleanor’s room. A classic example, from the radio days, was Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in 1939, which scared millions who never even saw the aliens. But so many movies do show us the monster right up front, and it’s often disappointing. It’s not as bad as we imagined, or — worse — we immediately go “gee, is that real or CGI?”

But I said this was a message for set designers, not creature designers.

A stage set can work the same way: it can suggest a location (and a feeling) without being literal, without showing us everything. It’s very difficult to do a “realistic” set on stage: elements and colors need to be exaggerated so they’re visible from the house, and there’s always those annoying sight lines that force angles that you would never see in real architecture. And, of course, the “fourth wall” that we’re supposed to accept and see right through. I’ve done realistic sets, and I try to avoid them as much as possible.

Realistic sets are fine as long as the story itself really wants a literal visual due to the subject matter. Two examples that come to mind are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Odd Couple, in both of which we almost expect to see a “real” location. Even so, both plays have been done non-literally — with varying degrees of success.

But lots of plays — and especially musicals — don’t need literal sets. They need a suggestion of time, place, atmosphere, and mood, and that can so often be far more effective. For instance, here’s a concept sketch for The Diary of Anne Frank, which I suggested to a high school in 2015:

anne-frank-3

I wanted to create a sense of isolation and vulnerability, so I omitted the walls (those ubiquitous flats) and showed mostly the structure of the attic. Everything else was just an empty stage draped in blacks. The window at the back, which was the characters’ only connection to the world, was to be a backlit box which could show us a clear sky, a dark stormy sky, or a night sky depending on the scene. There was no need to show the flats… er… the walls: the audience could fill those in according to their own experiences and create the attic in their own imaginations.

anne-frank-3

By keeping the four spaces small and crowded, bringing the set right down to (and beyond) the apron, and raking the whole thing, it was possible to create that sense of isolation and vulnerability. The effect was almost like the characters were in a fishbowl — an effect of course enhanced by not having any actual walls.

Something like this — showing us just enough and letting us fill in the rest — can be very effective in a wide variety of stories. It can also enhance the theatricality of the piece, create a more interesting visual, and, as a side benefit, greatly simplify construction.