All the Worlds a Stage, or an Ad Agency:
Three reminders from a graphic designer turned theatrical director for a week
The first two things I say when someone asks me to tell them about myself are 1) I’m a graphic designer, and 2) a theater kid. Yes, these jazz hands design, and last week, I was able to switch from the screen and pick up a script to co-direct a production of Madagascar Jr. in Seattle, Washington. Together with the creative team, we piloted a group of 13 young performers through acting, singing and dancing for this production.
This was the first time I have directed since beginning to work full time as a graphic designer. I was able to look at the world of theatre, something I’ve known my whole life, with a designer’s eye. Reflecting on this experience, here are three things I rediscovered that hold true in both the Theater and Advertising world.
The Influence of Clear Direction
More often than not, mounting any kind of theatrical production requires a rigorous schedule in order for the show to go on. In that rush of creation and direction, it is too easy for your brain to run faster than your words.
Last week, I was directing a young man in a scene. I was in the zone, and the scene was coming together nicely in my head (and was working out reasonably well on stage too). During the final lines of the scene, I told him to run off stage left, while pointing to the right.
He didn’t move.
He was doing the thing where a spooked deer stands in the middle of the road and won’t move out of the way and it started to make me a little frustrated.
I told him again to move left while pointing right, sure this time he would do exactly as I said, but he looked to his left and right and then to me, the headlights getting closer and closer.
It was at this moment I realized my failed communication. We laughed for a moment, I apologize, gestured to the left and he went on his merry way.
I wondered how many times at my desk I haven’t taken the time to make sure I was clear. In advertising, it’s easy for everything to feel like it needed to be done yesterday. If I would have taken 30 more seconds with that email, or thinking through my question, I bet I could have saved 30 minutes of confused emails or phone calls. Plus, I would avoid deer-in-headlights confused co-workers trying to decipher my direction. Win win for everyone.
Know Your Audience
Can you be eight years old and steal the whole show by knowing your audience for one scene? Absolutely. She was a little old lady that entered, hit the main character with her purse and sauntered off the other side. That was it. But she didn’t treat it as a small role. She took her sweet old lady time, swinging her hips and wobbling the cane as she took the longest, most hilarious time to walk off stage.
She knew her audience.
She knew that with the right timing, the right choices, and utilizing her props, she could find the best placement for comedic impact. See the connection? There is an instinct when it comes to performing for an audience. The funniest comedians know more than what their audience probably likes and dislikes, and listens to the reactions in the room to foster deeper laughter.
In my experience, the best designers do the same thing. Designers that intentionally think past what they might like or dislike and instead focus on the response of their target audience communicate much more effectively. This makes their audiences stop and process their work. Now if you get applause for an ad you make, let me know what you’re doing, because you’ve done something magical, but accolades and awards or not, it truly pays to think about your audience.
Be on the Same Stage
One of the biggest lessons we try to teach young actors: Be on the same stage.
What this means is to be aware of the actors on stage with you and recognize that everyone on the stage should be working towards the same goal of a successful production. No one should try to upstage, sabotage, or do anything they are not supposed to. By emphasizing teamwork and collaboration, kids become aware of the people on stage with them, and less angry when accidents happen, because it’s up to everyone to fix it.
In the same line, being on the same stage as your co-workers gets rid of comparison, competition, and builds community. If there is a problem that happens, we are all ready to jump in and help when asked. This doesn’t mean solving other people’s problems all the time. It means that they know you are in the wings. It means you have their backs and get through the show together.
It takes all the actors to make the show work. It takes all the team members to make an agency work.