I'm a stage manager with an unmanageable partner

We're working together but she's so flaky it feels like she's working against me.

By Cary Tennis

Published April 17, 2008 10:12AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I love your advice, so I thought I'd present an issue I'm facing right now. I run a beautiful stage at a lovely folk festival. I was offered the chance to create a deejay stage a couple of years ago and eagerly jumped on the opportunity. It has been great, good vibes, wonderful music, people connecting and dancing and enjoying the art, decorations and energy. This is the third year that the stage has happened and I ran it last year with a colleague and friend. Last year, despite serious issues, we pulled together and it blew people away.

Now, the planning is starting and I can feel the issues brewing beneath the surface already. My friend, let's call her Jolene, can be flaky, and not great at following through. She does things last-minute. Which on one hand works really well with this festival because it's a hippie, free-love folk festival. Go with the flow. But on the other hand, it can be exasperating and frustrating and I am having issues maintaining my respect for her skills.

Communication is the biggest issue. Phone calls are rarely returned and when they aren't, there isn't an explanation beyond "You need to flow. I've been busy." Areas that need to be defined, like how much people get paid, whether they get food, how many guests they get, etc., don't get written or communicated well or the decisions get made on the spot, so sometimes mistakes are made and people get screwed around. I have had a couple of hiccups lately with her where I feel she is lying to me about receiving the messages or getting the texts. I have noticed when this happens, she almost regards it as a license to act unilaterally. Like she can't get ahold of me so she'll just make the decisions.

She consistently tells me she respects my organizational skills and structure but that's not how she works. Which is to a certain extent fine, but I feel that some of the underlying trust is being chipped away at, and I am being slowly pushed out.

I guess I am asking for input on how to address the communication issue and trust issue constructively, without spending tons of time on it, because I'm really busy. I don't want to lay down the law, but I don't like the messes that bad communication inevitably make, and have little energy or inclination to struggle with her. Any thoughts?

Stage Manager With Unmanageable Partner

Dear Stage Manager,

You are two very different people. Each of you has important strengths. Together, if you can create a system that gives each of you what you need, you can be a formidable team.

In order for each of you to get what you need, I think it will be helpful to distinguish between style and the bottom line. Style is how you work. The bottom line is the end result.

So divide up your concerns into piles. In one pile, put the things that absolutely, positively have to happen by a certain time or the show does not go on. If they are things with absolute drop-dead deadlines, write down those deadlines as well. For instance, the performers much be onstage performing at a certain time. There must be proper equipment in working order onstage in time for sound check. There must be electricity. If there are legal requirements and contractual obligations that must be met before the show takes place, put them in that pile as well. This is your pile of critical-path things. These are non-negotiable.

Now, if a performer must be onstage by 8, you might want him to be at the venue by 6 in order to feel comfortable. But he does not absolutely have to be there by 6. If he is like your partner, he might arrive at 7:55 by helicopter and yet still go on at 8. People backstage will get tense but the show will go on. So arrival time at the venue is not on the critical path. Arrival time onstage is on the critical path. In this first pile, put only things that are bottom-line critical.

Then make a second pile of things that must be done but which will not prevent the show from going on. For instance, vendors must be paid and contracts signed but as long as vendors vend and performers perform, these items are not in the critical path. They will get taken care of when there is time.

In a third pile, put all the things that would make you happy. For instance, it might make you happy if things ran like clockwork. It might make you happy if all participants -- workers, performers, volunteers -- were fully informed of their responsibilities and all their needs were taken care of to their satisfaction. And if all the paperwork was turned in on time and deadlines were met, that would be nice. It would be more than nice. It would be the hallmark of a great, smoothly running organization. But it would not ensure that it's a great show. It would just be a smoothly running organization.

The ideal thing would be to have a great, dynamic, fun-loving show that also runs like clockwork backstage. Let's call that your dream.

So do this preparation and then tell your partner about your dream. Tell her you know it's just a dream, but it's what you'd like. Tell her you know it's not going to be that way, because things never are, and nobody gets everything they want, and you love her energy and you share the same vision. Tell her you get nervous when she appears to be flying by the seat of her pants but you know that's just her nature and you appreciate that. Tell her that certain things are non-negotiable: The show must start on time. The equipment must be working. There must be a sound check. Tell her you love her like a sister but you will go absolutely ape shit if her style of working interferes with the bottom line.

And then try to relax and have a good time.

Actually, come to think of it, don't just lay out your side. Give her a chance to lay out her side. Ask her what is the best possible outcome for her, and what can you do to help her get that.

One other thing you can do is find a volunteer to work with Jolene. Tell Jolene you are getting her an assistant. Have the assistant tag along with her and communicate back to you what is going on.

Most important, when you are uncomfortable with what she is doing, ask yourself: Is she jeopardizing the bottom line? Or is she just being herself?

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