There’s not a great way to write about success without seeming self-aggrandizing or falsely humble. So, I’ll attempt to relay a recent success by first explaining a project that was so necessarily a group effort, it defies outright ownership. But first…
“It’s a prerequisite that our artists maintain humility toward one another and the end product.”
The paramount, and hardest concept to negotiate for those new to creative collaboration in the Second City style is that both our victories and defeats have many fathers. It’s a prerequisite that our artists maintain humility toward one another and the end product by sharing ownership for; the actors in a particular scene, the other material in the show, and most profoundly, the people in the audience night after night. The thing that saves this ‘others focused’ culture from becoming a insidious cult is two fold, first, comedy attracts society’s iconoclasts, wild-minded and contrarians who have a very low deference to power and secondly, our audiences ultimately say who’s in charge by virtue of their response to the material.
As a director at the Second City Works, it’s my job to visualize both the optimum and worst outcomes of a performance or presentation. In spite of an overwhelming predominance/preponderance (depending who I asked) of successes in my 20 plus and Second City’s 50 plus years, our bias is to vividly imagine the possible shortcomings of a show. The performers, writers and producers are also acutely aware of those the odds of success. This said, It is near impossible to innovate something new while living in a place of fear.
We do live next door and are quite nosey neighbors, but our audiences expect us to perform beautifully and without reflexive doubt or self-awareness. We do that by convincing ourselves that the thing we’re attempting to create will be more amazing than any pain or embarrassment or failure. Simply, we love the thing more than we love our egos.
“It is near impossible to innovate something new while living in a place of fear.”
Has there ever been a more clearly self-destructive question? Yes. “Is there really anything that hasn’t already been done?” See? Way worse. A prospective client came to us asking for a way to convince their managers, employees and most impossibly, franchisee owners to spend a bunch of time, training, and money trying to implement a rebranding and management style change. The company wasn’t in dire straits but they were in a deep stasis and executives decided the time was now or never.
They brought in an interim CEO to affect the painful change and shoulder the possible fallout from the big shift. We had worked with him a decade earlier when he was an executive at a coffee company named for the first mate of a doomed whale hunting captain. The irony wasn’t lost then either. In any case, he was known for being forward thinking and available to unusual solutions to usual problems. So we were shortlisted as a creative place that might help convince this audience to adapt some possibly painful cultural changes. He gave us carte blanche when it came to how to do this. We sputtered a bit in the first meeting, taking his deferential confidence for temporary bravado until he would eventually understand the magnitude of the undertaking. But he kept daring us to be more, well, daring. So, after we got through a few familiar and previously successful meeting formats, we pitched a few red herrings to make the logical, tested formats more obvious.
Oh, yes he did. “A Rock Opera?! That sounds amazing! And we can intermingle interviews with management who will suggest why these decisions were necessary!” So we set out to make the inanimate brand, the hero, who would undergo an emotional, cathartic journey of self-discovery, i.e. rebranding. Awesome, I get a hero’s journey, but, I don’t write music, read music or have an innate musical aptitude. Also, I sing terribly. Jeez, why did I pitch this dumb idea?
“In the creative mind, it’s important to write things down because it’s abandoning ideas as fast as it’s creating them.”
The poise of an unapologetic, frail memory is that it forgives easily, accidentally, and it necessitates that everything be written down. In the creative mind, it’s important to write things down because it’s abandoning ideas as fast as it’s creating them. Some creative people have shelves full of sketch books, full of nonsensical ideas, weird turns of phrase, and drawings of people they’ve never met, and others have a brain full of these distractions. I’ll call it “muse hoarding.” For instance, yesterday I wrote down, “A Cheapskates Keepsake”, “Who wakes up the rooster?” “A Ferrari Parked at a Dollar Store,” and “Donate me because I’m Beautiful.” I don’t currently have use for any of these things, but I like the way they sound or that they have linguistic irony or that they represent something funny. I may find a use for them eventually (beyond this example) but they are solutions to problems that I don’t yet have. There’s an unbelievably talented musician, composer, actor at Second City named Jesse Case. The day before I pitched the Rock Opera, I watched him playing (just for practice) in the main stage at Second City. Creepy yes but, It’s amazing to watch someone excellent being excellent. I wrote in my book, “Shit, Jesse can play!”
Jesse eventually created 15 songs for our rock opera. Our writers created a story line that had both narrative and emotional weight. Our actors sang and acted beautiful and hilarious songs and scenes about new queso dip, employee dress policy, and in-store redesign. Our hosts interviewed executives in front of 3000 people making them more human. Our facilitators indoctrinated managers with improvisation based listening and creating. I mean, it sounds insane but, it really worked and the owners, managers, and employees all came away feeling inspired to implement these new changes. There was still hard work to be done, but the fact that their executives had gone to such lengths to explain why they were making these changes and in an artful way made the message much more emotional, understandable, and empathetic.. That’s 1025 Words. A slightly bigger picture.