Performances or projects?

The 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival is drawing to a close as I write this. If you’ve been to Edinburgh in August, you will have experienced the incredible vibrancy, lunacy, and energy that is the Fringe Festival. With thousands of shows, street theatre (even in the rain), tens of thousands of visitors, and every nook and cranny turned into a performance venue, there can be few events anywhere in the world to match it. Some people go to just a couple of shows, while I know of one person who was in the audience for one hundred and thirty five different shows – comedy, theatre, and music – during the 2011 festival. That’s commitment!

I think I went to eight or nine shows this year, including an excellent musical tribute to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Junior – the Rat Pack. Apart from the three leading performers, there were three backing vocalists, and at least twelve on-stage musicians. No doubt there were also several people backstage to keep everything together.

It may be obvious, but shows like this don’t just “happen”. They have to be planned, coordinated, organised, developed, rehearsed, and then presented every night for a month. The cast and crew may have come from Edinburgh, but in all probablity they did not, so someone had to arrange travel, transport, a venue, and accommodation for the cast. Publicity had to be arranged. Leaflets had to be designed and printed. Money had to be raised to get the show to Edinburgh, and to pay for the venue, and to fund the publicity, and no doubt to fund all sorts of other expenses that I can’t imagine. All of this is undertaken with no guarantee of a return on the investment: every show stands and falls on its own merits.

I reckon there are great similarities between producing a show and running a business project. I doubt whether many producers would classify themselves as project managers, but perhaps they should. Perhaps the theatre could learn from professional project managers about planning, risk management, progress monitoring, and organisation. But what about the other way round? What could the theatre teach the project manager? Well, let’s start with drive, commitment, and enthusiasm. Then we’ll move onto deadlines: you’ll never hear anyone saying “Sorry, this year’s Christmas Panto has been delayed until January because we found a few lines that didn’t work in rehearsal and had to rewrite them”! Budgetary control? – essential! Motivation? – absolutely. A common purpose? Well, it would be a bit of a problem if some of the cast thought the show should resemble a Noel Coward comedy while others were expecting something more like a Shakespearean tragedy. So yes, I would argue that the theatre could indeed teach the professional project manager a thing or two.

Should we be surprised about this? I don’t think so. The best ideas have always been shared and developed between different groups of people. The Disney organisation are experts in managing queues of people, so they teach their techniques to other industries. I’ve also heard that airlines have learned from boatbuilders about making best use of space in their first class cabins, as small boats need to make efficient use of very limited areas.

I guess that what I’m trying to say is that if we get too narrow minded about our own specialisms, if we turn up our noses at lessons learned elsewhere, or if we are simply too arrogant to recognise that we don’t always have all the answers, we will lose out and other people will take away our work.

But what I’m also saying, and what I passionately believe, is that you should never write someone off as being incapable of doing a job just because he or she has never done it before. Look behind the specific experience and try to see the capability and general abilities that the person has. You may just find a whole new talent pool to tap into!

Iain Millar, 29 August 2011

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