Contingency Plans, Contingency Targets
This weekend I taught a class about performance art. If saying that phrase makes you wince or roll your eyes, I understand. There’s a lot of bad performance art out there, and I’ve created my own share; I remember the first performance in college that my parents, bless them, attended and dutifully watched. It involved Electric Avenue played on medieval instruments and kaluripayat asanas and even a (wince) candle.
That’s part of why I teach the class. It’s about what not to do in a performance – such as use Enya or Enigma for your soundtrack, or commit fashion crimes in terms of costumes. It’s also about how to deal with some of the trials and travails of being in a fringe part of the arts – such as limited (or no) access to the performance space for rehearsals, wildly varying technical setups for sound and lights, and the simple fact that what seems like a great idea for an audience in New York City might not play so well in McFarland, WI. And vice versa.
At one point a woman who is a professional public speaking coach asked for a concise list of techniques for countering the inability to rehearse. I realized as I answered her question that these are more than plans for performances; these are techniques for making sure your plans don’t gang aft agley quite so much. If you’ve been a reader of this blog for long, you know that I’m a firm believer in Murphy’s Law: everything that can possibly go wrong, will. I’ve even come up with my own “Miller’s Corollary,” born out of too many times of being in a control booth and pressing a button and nothing happening:
Everything that can possibly go wrong already has. You just don’t know it yet.
But there are ways to ease the shock. So here you go:
Gray’s Five Rules for Murphy-Resistant Planning
- Keep It Simple. The more complex your expectations and plans are, the more points of failure you create to have things go wrong. I need to have a 5-bedroom house with a pink roof and a 3-car garage furnished in orange shag may be a bit difficult to manage. I would like to have a home that I love and feel safe in gives you a lot more options for success.
- Rehearse Alternatives. Some points of failure are inevitable. So identify each one, and what you will do if they go wrong. Have extra props in case some break, backup CDs in case the MP3 player goes down. If you’re really lucky, have extra people hanging around to step in when you need them.
- Triage and Move On. W.C. Fields said it best: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it. If some part of your plan or goal can’t be fixed, don’t let that interfere with the larger picture: making the best performance you can.
- Have a Good Team. One of the most impressive performances of the weekend came from a group of people who decided, spur of the moment, to enter a competition one evening. With no rehearsal and only a few hastily planned choreographic moves, they were able to pull off a high-energy aerial dance/acro/stage-combat piece that had the crowd talking about it for days after. Why? Because the key performers were people who knew each other’s abilities well, and all checked their egos and focused on making the best performance they could. They didn’t win the competition, but they did win their goal: they performed and did it well.
- Change the Goalpost. Who defines success for you? Here’s a better question: why do you let them? If the aforementioned performers had been focused on winning the competition, they would have been sorely disappointed; the winners were far, far more polished and skilled. However, by making the goal a sort of combination of have fun and push our skillset they were able to vastly increase the odds of success. They defined their own terms for “winning.” As a result…they won.
What about you? Any tips for how to make things better?
By the way, in case you’re wondering where I got my “performing” bug from, here is an image of my father doing his own performance art. As you can guess, the fish doesn’t shoot far from the barrel…