I’ve been holding on to this one for a couple of days, out of courtesy. You’ll all have been washing that minging bag of clothes you brought back from the Festival, catching up on your sleep, opening your mail, and avoiding looking at your bank balances.
That period has now passed, and it’s time to consider what you’re going to do with the experience that the Edinburgh Festival provided.
Firstly, stop. Just stop.
Give yourself a week, maybe two, of having nothing whatsoever to do with theatre unless it’s a paid gig. You’ve just worked yourself really hard, your body and mind both need rest, and working when you’re not rested and have no distance between yourself and your recent experience may result in clouded judgement. You can read this blog, and then shut up shop for a bit.
When you come back though, rested and refreshed, it’s time to use what you’ve just learned. That’s right – no matter how many times you’ve done this, you have to come back to what you did with a clear head and do what we at Red Table call a ‘Post Mortem’. I’ve heard other people in other industries call it ‘Doing the Washing Up’, and ‘Cleaning House'; it doesn’t really matter what you call it, what’s important is that you do it. But what is ‘it’?
For us, it’s a fairly simple affair. We use Magic Whiteboards. We sit in a room, we stick them to the walls, and we make two lists. List one is ‘Things That Went Well’, and list two is ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’. If you’re aiming to make a long term go of this, having this session is essential. That’s right, it’s so essential that I used italics.
This is the session where you get a chance to congratulate yourselves on the things that went well – and don’t be disheartened if it starts out as a short list. You also get to have a look at what will most likely turn out to be a massive list of the things that you perceive went not-so-well. Don’t worry that this list looks so long at first. Just concentrate on actually writing down in big letters on the wall every aspect of your Edinburgh campaign, and how it went. It’s difficult to give you detailed guidance on what your lists should look like (as every company and show is different), but you can start on your ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’ list with things like ‘We didn’t sell enough tickets’. Sadly, I know from experience that it will appear on most lists.
Then use a big, sweeping statement like ‘We didn’t sell enough tickets’, and start to break that down on the ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’ list. What marketing strategies weren’t in place? How could we have used our complimentary ticket allocation better? What did we not do that meant the reviewers didn’t publish our reviews until the last two days of the Festival? Keep going on this list until each statement cannot be broken down into any smaller constituent parts, choices, events and oversights.
Damn. You now have a massive list of ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’ (ours have been known to cover sheets and sheets), and a tiny list of ‘Things that Went Well’. Boy, you really messed up badly at Edinburgh this year, didn’t you! Not only that, I bet you lost a load of money messing up that bad, as well as all the money you didn’t earn from your soul-destroying day job while you were up there. Your bank account is hideously overdrawn, and you’re seriously considering giving all this up. Now is the time to make sure that you Stay On The Bus. Because all of that is about to turn on its head.
All learning costs money. You either pay an institution to teach you it, or you go out and make mistakes, which cost you money, and learn that way. Continuous learning is also continuous payment. This one, I’m afraid you just have to deal with. Either that, or give up and go and work for someone else doing something you hate for the rest of your natural life.
So, you’re now sat in a room looking at a list of how many things you did wrong, and how few you did right. You feel despondent and rejected by the world. Know what? Shut up.
Because what you’ve actually done is achieve something incredible. Firstly, you did it – you took your show to Edinburgh, and put your backsides on the line doing it. Most people are too scared to get even that far. Secondly, you’re now committing to learning from that experience – and this is the bit that so few people actually bother to do, and yet it’s arguably the most important. And here’s how you handle it…
Look at all the things on the ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’ list of many pages. You just paid money, time, sweat, stress and quite possibly some tears to get your hands on that list. And in buying that list, you bought the tools that will help you get better next time you do this.
So, go over to that list now, and wipe the title ‘Things We Could Have Done Better’ off. That’s one of the reasons for using whiteboards and not pen and paper. Now re-title that list – name it ‘Things We Learned Not To Do Next Time’. Stop, step back, and take a look at that list. Because, suddenly, it’s not a list of mistakes any more, is it? It’s now a list of all the learning that happened while you were on this journey – a list of things you won’t do again. You can now use this list of learning to start to make decisions about what you’ll do differently next time.
One that always bites us on the bum is not getting our print done in time. We bring the print deadline forward every time, and yet for about four shows ‘Print wasn’t done in time’ turned up on our ‘Things We Learned Not To Do Next Time’ list. You’d think that after a couple of times we’d have learned that lesson, but it took us four shows to get that one right. Learning is hard – and it’s even harder when you’re taking the responsibility for your education upon yourselves. It’s so much easier when you just turn up on your course and the tutors tell you how to do it.
Unlucky. You’re on your own now, and so you have to take responsibility for continued learning yourselves.
Luckily, these lists make it so much easier. As you go down your ‘Things We Learned Not To Do Next Time’ list, you’ll actually start to spot things that you thought you did wrong, but on closer inspection you’ll see that actually there were elements of it that you did do right. When you spot these, write them up straight away on your ‘Things That Went Well’ list.
Hold on. Something strange is starting to happen here. Your ‘Things That Went Well’ list seems to be getting bigger. And you now have a decent list of ‘Things We Learned Not To Do Next Time’. This process usually takes us a full day. With lots of tea and biscuits. At the end of it, stop and take a break. Walk out of the room, have more tea and biscuits, and laugh about all the fun you had while you were up there. Relive the good memories of your Festival experience.
When that tea is drunk, and you’ve all had a good laugh (and a few more biscuits), return to the room with the lists in it, and just cast your eye over them. Then take pictures of all the whiteboards so you can read them back whenever you need to in the coming year – and you will need to.
Because what you should now have realised is that you and your team are currently standing in the Command Centre for your next show, surrounded by the resources that will help you to make that production better, slicker, sharper and more professional. You’ll do this with less stress, because you know where a lot of the bear traps are hidden, and you’ll be able to avoid most of them next time. There will be new issues next time, and you’ll miss some of the old ones (remember our print deadlines?) and have to relearn them. But this is how you learn and improve. It’s what most companies don’t do, and I firmly believe that’s the reason most startups never get past their second show, if even that far.
While I’m not a fitness enthusiast, I do know that they have a useful saying for the building of the body: Eat. Train. Sleep. Repeat. I would humbly suggest that we might adapt this for ourselves.
Create. Produce. Learn. Repeat.
It doesn’t matter how many shows or how many years it takes.
Create. Produce. Learn. Repeat.