This weekend we held the opening (and closing) day to workshop a new theatrical production called the “Kaidan Project.” The idea: invite a group of guests on a tour of a Japanese garden. Along the way, share and reenact ghost stories of things that happened in that very garden, once upon a time.
The stories themselves are based on 100 Japanese ghost stories that were once told among the Samurai as they completed their warrior training. We used all forms of theater to tell each of the stories: puppetry, dance, masks, music and dialogue.
I played two roles in this show: the ghost of a storyteller named Rosalie, and a Slurpee-loving loner named Oiwa.
The time frame for this entire project was fairly tight, about 2.5 weeks from start to finish. We performed the full piece 3 times, and after each performance asked for feedback from the audience.
For those of you familiar with the concept of Lean Startup, it felt kind of like this…except instead of coding and coding and coding, we were rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing.
For those of you not familiar with Lean Startup – it’s the opposite of what I was taught about entrepreneurship in business school. Instead of perfecting a business plan and then systematically (and sometimes painfully slowly) building your business to that plan, you put something (your product or service) out there for an audience to react to and iterate on that concept until you’ve achieved a product you and your customers love and/or a business you can scale. Here’s a great primer on Lean Startup from Eric Reis.
5 lessons from the Kaidan Project & how you can apply it to your own work:
Lesson One: Creation is an iterative (and collaborative) process. Stay open-minded. From the first table read to the final performances, many things changed: casting, scripts, choreography and blocking (where actors move within a scene). We needed to adapt to new spaces – from one theater to another, and then to our outdoor garden “stage.” Very rarely is the first version the final draft.
As we rehearsed our scenes for this show, we never knew what we would find when we arrived at the theater. A few new pages of dialogue, some new blocking. Maybe a new puppet or prop to experiment with. There is so much joy in the discovery – figuring out how all the pieces work together and making adjustments if they don’t.
In your own work, don’t be afraid to experiment. The first draft should evolve. If you find that you need outside eyes and ears, invite a group of trusted colleagues to weigh in. Add. Subtract. Subtract some more. And keep iterating. You may or may not use all the advice that you get. That’s okay. But keep an open mind. Maybe, if you’re feeling brave (and especially if you’re not!), invite the devil’s advocate to critique the work.
Lesson Two: What works in the lab might not work in the real world. Our rehearsals began in a theater, but the show actually took place in a garden.
There were things we tried in a theater setting that worked well. But when we got outside, in the real world of a garden, we needed to make adjustments. For example, in one of my scenes, we planned to dance barefoot. When we arrived at the garden, we saw that our area was packed earth and loose gravel; great for exfoliation, terrible for dancing. So we adjusted our steps and wore shoes to protect the soles of our feet.
In your own work, stay flexible. Sometimes when we shift from prototype to mass production, we need to account for the limitations and freedoms that come with scale. Machines must be recalibrated. Specs must be adjusted because the tooling may or may not support the original design. When a team of 1 grows into 2 or more, we (as the CEO or solopreneur) learn to delegate and let go of things. Flexibility aids in adaptation.
Lesson Three: Get feedback. Then iterate. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Make adjustments as needed. The production team tested our concept at least 6 times:
- At the table read.
- At the first full run-through of the entire show.
- With a small group comprised of theater board members and other influencers
- With a curated audience from Atlas Obscura
- With the two audiences who came to our only show day
And this doesn’t even count the workshops and test runs that occurred before they assembled a full cast for this show. At each point, the team solicited feedback and made adjustments. I absolutely loved this process. It felt good to play and experiment and then see if the changes suggested worked or not.
In your own work, sometimes it helps to get another set of eyes or ears on your project. This is especially true for me in copywriting or editing when I need a logic check or to ensure continuity. But when you work for yourself, or even in teams that have worked together for some time, there is a tendency towards groupthink. You work in your little bubble and forget that the outside world, where your customer is, isn’t always you. When I worked in marketing, I had to constantly remind myself: I am not the target market. That was the reminder to ask for feedback, whether that was conducting a short survey, or doing a quick check in with my colleagues on Facebook or elsewhere. There are very few instances in which the first draft is also the final draft.
Lesson Four: Give yourself a deadline. The entire process from the first table read to first (and final) show for the Kaidan Project was approximately 2.5 weeks. Compressing work that we could have stretched into months and years gave us little room to be precious. There was no fussing over every single detail. We just had to GO. Whatever it was, it was.
In your own work, enforce a deadline (even if it’s one you made up for yourself.) I don’t know about you, but I love deadlines. I work best under them. For those of you who hate them, this might not be a great fit, but I encourage you to try. I have been known to blow through timelines if a deadline is not enforced, so I give myself stakes. (Such as: No cookie until you finish this blog post, Ratana!) If you have a team, use them to keep you accountable. Work expands to fit the time allotted. Give yourself a small window of time, and then ship! It might not be 100% perfect, but at least it’s out there, and then you can update based on the feedback you receive.
Lesson Five: Check your ego at the door. It just gets in the way of getting things done. I admire the fearlessness of this production company. Ultimately, we created something that felt beautiful and haunting, and yet no one seemed upset if we needed to change something. Every time I came to rehearsal, something had changed – the roles we played, the script we were given, the blocking of a scene. Because we had a show to do, we all focused on making the best show we could. And we let go of any attachment we had to… anything. We didn’t really have a choice, and it wouldn’t have served the piece if we did. By checking our egos at the door, we freed ourselves up to experiment, to fail and to play.
In your own work…and especially for my friends who have “political” work environments…I know this one is a hard one. When I worked in corporate, marketing was often the “hub of the wheel.” We were expected to have all the answers even if it was our first day on the desk. And if we didn’t fight for a project (even if you agreed it was crap), it looked like we were weak. (And your colleagues quietly marked you for death by pink slip.) But sometimes we need to understand the endgame and the end customer so that we can better advocate for that outcome. It means leaving the politics and the ego behind. It means being okay with looking “weak.” It means collaborating and listening to all opinions at the table. And it means being willing to play.
Closing thoughts on Lean Startups and Creation. Seth Godin talks a lot about “shipping.” The idea that after a certain period of time, you can’t get too precious with perfecting your product. It just has to ship.
And until you ship, you haven’t actually done anything of value. There’s nothing for the world to react to.
I think this is true in the creative space as well. We can get very precious about artistic works. We can perfect every dot and line, every move and word. But at a certain point, it just needs to fly. My entrepreneur friends will also understand this – especially my wanna-preneur friends. The ones who keep telling me they’re going to get started “when…” (…I have a great idea, …my business plan is perfect, …I win the lottery.)
I loved being a part of the Kaidan Project, not just because it was a fun and interesting piece of theater, but for the process of its creation. It’s a great case study for applying the principles of Lean Startup to our own work. And it was a valuable reminder that sometimes you have to move fast and fail hard in order to succeed.
There is no perfect time or space to create something, whether it’s a piece of theater, a product or a business. There’s just now. Or never. Which do you choose?
And I want to know… What will you start now? What project have you been waiting on shipping? What’s held you back? Let me know in the comments.
Before I leave you, one last view of the incredible Japanese Garden we used as our in-situ theater for Kaidan Project. (Some of you may know it as Starfleet Academy.)
P.S. For further reading on Lean Startups here’s a great 2013 HBR article on Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything.