In a conversation about his career, Broadway actor and theater veteran Joel Vig shared with me how working internationally changed perspectives. Mr. Vig was one of the original stars of the Broadway smash hit Hairspray which won eight 2003 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. He has played opposite leading ladies including Gena Rowlands, Jean Stapleton, Stephanie Zimbalist, Patricia Neal, Carol Channing, and Cherry Jones. He wrote and directed Tammy Grimes in her one-woman show in New York and at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and is a recognized director, theatre writer and playwright.
While this is literally a “behind the scenes” story, the insights are apt beyond show business.
Joel, how did working in a new environment affect your views about directing?
My leadership style was indelibly influenced by my experience as Stage Producer for a Broadway show on tour in Tokyo, The Sound of Music starring Debbie Boone. The previous technical director had been unsuccessful, so I was walking into a situation with fresh remnants of failure.
When I first got there, I managed the crew like I did in New York. At the beginning of the day, I explained in detail to each person what he or she had to do. Towards the end of the day, I checked up on everyone or had them report in to me. After a few days, they approached me through the translator and suggested, “If you tell us everything you want done, we can work it out. If we have questions or need help, we’ll come to you.”
I was really taken aback.
In New York, stage production jobs are detailed and specific. But in Japan, each person’s job was to contribute to the big picture. They helped each other and worked as a team to make everything run easier. Rather than focusing on confining their roles or hours, they focused on getting the most out of their collective talents.
After a few days, I began to trust their methods and respect the results. The work flowed smoothly. It was like the “hive principle” – everyone chips in to complete the most for the best overall results in the least amount of time. Roles were flexible and fluid. If one person was doing laundry, during the washing machine cycle, she would help someone else with a costume alteration. I never once heard “That’s not my job.” They had pride in being part of the team rather than owning one little niche, so if the play went perfectly, they had a great sense of accomplishment.
How did their attitude affect your day-to-day management practices and effectiveness?
In New York, if the crew hit a snag everything would stop. If the steamer broke, they would sit around until I instructed them as to what to do. In Japan, if the steamer broke, someone called to rent another one, or called for a repair, or in one case, went home and brought back irons to make do temporarily. They were motivated and proud to make decisions that made sense and moved the show forward, rather than act like helpless pawns.
Unlike in New York, where I rarely dared to leave the theater building for fear nothing would be accomplished, in Tokyo I could go shop for just the right fabric or object, with confidence work would progress. So the costumes and props got better and better.
When they approached you for direction or with questions, how was it different than what you had experienced previously?
These people took initiative and took on responsibility. They would be quick to tell me what I needed to know to make a decision. They did the groundwork on my options, so I could make faster, better decisions – whether to rent or buy new stage equipment or replace a sewing machine. They came to me with questions, but they came prepared.
How did their workstyle lead to better results?
I’ll give you an example of just how much pride they had in their work. When I first toured backstage, the washer and dryer seemed too small. In New York, we use huge dryers. Two football players could fit inside. But in Japan, they have another method – they wash far more by hand and hang to dry from lines. The minimal use of dryers meant more work but better results. Hang drying considerably increases the life and improves the look of the garments – the difference is impressive. Commercial dryers are like kilns and essentially bake the fabric!
But making this method work required the crew to stay after the show for 50 minutes or so to wash and hang the costumes. In New York, the crew stays for half an hour after the show. If you want someone to stay longer, you have to pay for an entire four hour block of time. In Japan, everyone stayed for 50 minutes and everything was done. It was as though there was initiative taken by the group on behalf of the show itself.
It reached the point where I was not an overseer anymore, because I had an autonomous crew. Being able to delegate errands and tasks freed me up to look ahead, proactively plan for costume replacement, and experiment with ways to improve the production.
Did this open up more options for you or elevate your own abilities?
Absolutely yes. It reached the point where I was not an overseer anymore, because I had an autonomous crew. Being able to delegate errands and tasks freed me up to look ahead, proactively plan for costume replacement, and experiment with ways to improve the production.
Later on, when I returned to Tokyo with a tour of The King and I, starring Stacy Keach, it was a piece of cake, as I had learned how to work best with a Japanese crew, and my team knew the drill.
Whether I am directing or running a crew, or even acting on Broadway, my perspective has changed. I came to a much greater appreciation of being someone who earns trust and respect, rather than demands trust and respect.
The thing I’ve found most interesting is that it’s not the overseer’s whip mentality or the idea of harsh criticism that makes one a powerful leader. Expecting people to think creatively, take collective pride in their work and being gracious to them when they do, brings out the best for the crew, the director and ultimately the audience.
I find more often than not with directing, one should not look at the role as leading or getting behind people and pushing. What really makes sense is to clear obstacles so that they can find their own best path.
Clearing the path for a hit performance?
You got it!
What you can learn from Joel:
* Clear the path for people to reach their own success. Motivate and trust others to take responsibility and clear the path for you.
* Once you learn a new perspective or technique, it empowers your next leadership experience. So stay open to evolving your own bag of tricks.
Now it’s your show!
* How can you shift your perspective to creating a smooth-running show, rather than monitoring individual tasks.
* Is it possible for you to allow more flexibility among team members and encourage them to back each other up.
* When might you set some time aside to encourage your crew to raise questions but come prepared with possible solutions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Stefanie Smith leads Stratex (www.stratexcoaching.com), an executive consulting and coaching firm based in Manhattan, providing customized group workshops and private coaching programs to guide executives and their teams to reach the next performance level. Her blog: www.coachstef.com provides resources and advice for professional advancement. Her ebook: The Power of Professional Presence: Get Their Attention and Keep It! is available on Amazon , iTunes or on Barnes and Noble here. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download free Kindle reading apps for iPad, Mac, PC, iPhone or Android – you can get free reading apps here .