I like to gamble. My game of choice is not as glamorous as blackjack or roulette, nope, I am a slot machine girl. I like to roam the casino to find the perfect machine with visual elements that appeal to me. I am particularly fond of the latest machines that take you to a bonus round where you have the opportunity for extra spins or a storyline is revealed giving you a pirate’s chests of coins, dragons laying magical eggs of money or fairies harnessing the light of the moon to shower coins down from the sky. I like these games because I can escape and let my mind wander and maybe, just maybe, walk away with more money than I put in the machine when I started.
Recently, I picked a machine with a beautiful Chinese goddess and a firebird on the front. I tried several machines before finding this machine and I won a little bit here and there but nothing huge, just enough to give me enough to keep playing. I put the money in to this new machine and I had almost exhausted my $20.00 and was ready to move on to another machine when the firebird dropped bonus fire across the screen granting me 150 extra spins. The screen informed me I could choose a payout which could range from $10.00-$750.00 or chance my 150 spins. I chose the spins and after 10 spins the bird dropped fire of 50 more spins. I was thrilled and as each spin brought me a few dollars I knew I would probably end my run with a couple hundred dollars. Then, the unthinkable happened, the lovely Chinese goddess dropped diamonds to fill the screen and the machine shouted out “Les Toreadors” from Carmen Suite No. 1 as the winning total box climbed to almost $2000.
I was beaming as they came to hand pay the jackpot and I filled out the tax information. Then something interesting happened. I didn’t want to play anymore. In fact, I wanted to leave the casino and put the money in the bank and go home. In my mind, I would not be able to top the win and I didn’t feel like playing anymore. The more I considered the feelings, the more I began to relate the experience to competitive theatre and some of the feelings that come following a successful year with great kids and successful productions. Sometimes when I had a fantastic year with wonderful teams of students, I had extreme anxiety going into the next school year. How would I top those well received shows, great classes, going to state in OAP? Sometimes that anxiety crippled me in planning for the new year and made me hesitate in selecting shows. Much like following the win on the slot machine, I wanted to walk away, fixate on the win in the past and I couldn’t focus to envision future wins. I was stuck on how to repeat the win.
Just like trying to repeat a jackpot on a slot machine would be futile, trying to recapture the experience of a previous year would be futile. Taking the risk to move forward once you have had a successful experience can be daunting but jackpots in educational theatre are not exercises in chance; they are calculated exercises that are earned. Unlike playing a slot machine, theatre is not a solo activity. Teamwork is critical to a successful year of class productions, mainstage plays and One Act Play. In theatre, hitting the jackpot means having the best team, doing their best work together. I believe that in order provide successful opportunities for your students, the key is not just the finding the right play; you must harness the power of teams.
I recently read a book by Geoff Colvin titled Humans Are Underrated which challenges a long standing belief that you need the “best and the brightest” people to be successful in your projects. In fact, Colvin suggests that you don’t need the best people, you need the best teams. Following the tragic events of 9/11, the CIA commissioned a study to determine what attributes made for the most effective analyst teams. The study revealed that what made the most effective teams was not the individual attributes of the team members, or even the coaching they got from their leaders, but the interactions between the team members. Theatre Directors have long focused on casting productions with the best performers. However, research shows that we can create more successful productions by shifting that focus from individuals to teams. For theatre purposes I like to call this the “Ensemble Effect”.
To understand how to create more effective teams, MIT and Carnegie Mellon have identified a collective intelligence factor that predicts group performance. Their findings show that instead of a successful team consisting of “Type A Personalities”, the most successful teams who show high performance results are made up of people with high social sensitivity. High social sensitivity includes skills that engender trust and respect like taking turns when speaking, facing each other when talking and making eye-contact. The study also revealed that teams with more women in the group tend to be more successful.
Earning your production jackpot means developing high social sensitivity with your students and developing the ensemble effect early in your classes and plays. Here are some activities to assist in building highly successful production teams:
Tag Team Game
Time Required: 20-30 minutes
This adapting exercise requires just a few simple tools, which include large sheets of paper, writing paper, pens, and markers. In this exercise, participants are broken up into groups of 4-8 people and instructed to share with their group their individual strengths and the positive attributes they feel would lend to the success of their group. They are to write these strengths and attributes down on a piece of paper. (If you are looking for a great way to identify individual strengths that can contribute to the group success, I recommend using the Gallop Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath quiz). After their group discussion, each team will be given one large sheet of paper, writing paper, markers, and a pen. The groups should then be instructed to make the “ultimate team member” by combining each team member’s strengths and positive attributes into one imaginary person. This “person” should also receive a name, have a picture drawn of them, and have their different attributes labeled. The group should also write a story about this person, highlighting all of the things their imaginary person can do with all of their amazing characteristics. At the end of the exercise, each group should share their person with the group and read the accompanying story. This exercise will help company members adapt to weakness they feel they or a team member may have by understanding that as a group, they are capable of having more strengths and positive attributes then they would have working solo.
The Paper Tower
Time Required: 5 minutes
This planning exercise is very simplistic in its approach, but it teaches participants the importance of planning, timing, and thinking on their feet. Each participant is given a single sheet of paper and told that it’s absolutely necessary that they construct the tallest free-standing structure in just five minutes using no other materials. After the five minutes and a review of the structures, a discussion can be had concerning who planned out their structure, who ran out of time, and what could be done differently to maximize their success as a team next time. This is a great activity to try before planning your set up and strike for OAP as a lead in to plan a successful use of company members and time.
Time Required: 20-30 minutes
This trust exercise requires some setting up before it can be executed. It also requires a large, open area like a stage, cafeteria, gym or an empty parking lot. The leader must distribute “mines,” which they place haphazardly around the area. These “mines” can be balls, bowling pins, cones, etc. This exercise gives company members a chance to work on their relationships and trust issues, which is why they are paired into teams of two. One team member will be blindfolded and cannot talk and the other can see and talk, but cannot enter the field or touch their blindfolded teammate. The challenge requires each blind-folded person to walk from one side of the field to the other, avoiding the mines by listening to the verbal instructions of their partners. Penalties can be put in place for each time a blindfolded person hits a mine, but the real idea behind the game is to get the team members to trust their partner’s directions and to teach them to communicate in a more effective way.
Slice ‘n Dice
Time Required: 15 minutes
This trust building exercise should take place outside and preferably, should be done with a large group of 20 or more. Participants should be instructed to form two equal lines facing each other (creating a corridor) and to put their arms straight out in front of them. Their arms should intersect, overlapping by about a hand with the arms of the people opposite of them. The person at the end of the corridor will walk down the corridor of arms. In order to let the person pass, the other participants will have to raise and lower their arms. That person will then join the corridor again and then the next person in line will walk through. This process will continue until everyone has had a turn. Now that the group is more confident, participants should be instructed to walk quickly, run, or sprint down the corridor, trusting that the other participants will let them pass without making them pause. For the last turn, the participants making the corridor should be instructed to chop their arms up and down as people run through. This exercise allows participants to build trust in their teammates while also having fun.
Time Required: 5 minutes
This trust exercise requires no special equipment, just an even number of participants. Making eye contact is sometimes difficult for people, as it requires a certain amount of trust and respect. Some people avoid it, while others simply aren’t very good at it; they make look away often or appear awkward or uncomfortable, sometimes fidgeting with other objects. This exercise, though simple, can help company members become more comfortable and trusting of each other through the practicing of eye contact. For this activity, have people group into pairs and stand facing each other. The idea is to have them stare into their partner’s eyes for at least 60 seconds. Neither participant should be wearing glasses or sunglasses of any kind. There may be some giggles at first, as it can feel somewhat awkward during the first try, but as participants get the hang of it, it should become easier for them to make eye contact for prolonged amounts of time.
Willow in the Wind
Time Required: 20 minutes
This particular trust building exercise goes by different names, but usually illustrates the same idea. This exercise is best suited for company members who already know each other fairly well. One participant must volunteer or be chosen to be the “willow.” The willow must stand in the middle of a group with their eyes closed, their feet together, and body upright. They will perform a series of “trust leans” against the other participants, whose job is to hold up the willow and pass them around without allowing them to fall or feel frightened as if they’re going to fall. Before beginning, the instructor should discuss “spotting” techniques to all participants. Those who are not the willow must have one foot in front of the other, have their arms outstretched, elbows locked, and fingers loose, as well as be ready and alert. This will ensure that they will successfully pass the willow around without any troubles. Various company members can take turns being the willow. This technique helps company members establish and build trust with each other in an open, fun environment.
In addition to a variety of activities, students should create norms for class and productions that engender true collaboration, trust and respect so their individual strengths can be maximized in cohesive teamwork. Developed team skill sets helps students stay focused and productive over long periods of production planning and rehearsal and more importantly, these skills will help them transition more effectively to higher education or career opportunities. Knowing that harnessing the power of teams will not only make next year’s productions more successful but will also translate to long term student success in life is a jackpot where we all win!