October was my official one year anniversary as Artistic Director for M.I.’s Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, CA. It’s been an amazing learning experience. You see, there are tons of books on how to do improv, maybe too many now, but there’s not a book about how to be an Artistic Director. It’s like only other AD’s can pass their stories down from generations past, much like the Native Americans did passing on their stories on and on to preserve their history. I know this blog might not interest a lot of you, I’m sure there are only a handful of AD’s in the world that specifically run comedy theaters. But I want improvisers to see the insides a little bit and show you what’s up in the business end of things. Here are some observations, advice I’ve learned over my year as AD:
- It’s rewarding! You get to see the growth of many of your performers. It’s an honor to help artists reach their full potential and seeing it is an amazing experience. You see novices turn into masters at playing the piano and actors shine brighter than the first first day they stepped onto the stage. I never get tired of it and it’s what keeps me going.
- It is a hard job. You have to cut troupes, players, your friends. This is a very hard thing to do, to e-mail or call a friend or performer to tell them you can not longer perform for now. This sometimes causes strains in friendships and with your performers.
- Professionalism – You find out, who is a professional and who is not, really fast. People who don’t show up for a show, are unorganized, flaky. You name it you’ll find them fast and have to deal with it.
- You’re the middle man! Yes, you’re the balance of the force. You are the liaison between the business itself and the artists that perform with you. You have to find compromise on a daily basis.
- You can’t please everyone – You’re dealing with a ton of personalities. Imagine you can’t even get your team of 8 to decide on a Monday rehearsal, imagine that with hundreds of people and having to get decisions made.
- Compromise – I’m not always right and some decisions I’ve made are not the best. But you have to make those mistakes so you can learn from them.
- You Should do this – You’ll hear this a lot. So what do you do? Listen, their could be a good idea in there. But know that most of the time the person saying “you should do this.” will not help you carry out that idea. Try to get them involved in helping with the idea instead of just suggesting. I’ve actually found out when I was more forward about that and gave them tasks it worked.
- You hear more complaints then praise. Not that I’m looking for praise at all, but your job is to have a vision and direct a theater into that vision. Sometimes people have issues with that, again see 5 and 6 above. HA!
- Have a vision and communicate your vision – You can’t just be an admin. You have to have a vision on what you want done and how it fits with the theater. Communicate all your ideas and why you’re doing them with your community. To make sure the community is involved so they have a say.
- The Community – That’s what it’s all about. My community has surprised me on many levels and I’ve been doing this for years. At the end of the day you do it for them. They are awesome, deserving and most of the time do this for free. That’s one thing I will always remember when I go into the theater. My philosophy I’ve made with them, if you’re doing this for free you should be A. Be having fun and B. Learning something. If you’re not let’s talk and make sure you can accomplish those.
- Be Available – Don’t hide in an office, be available to talk to your community. I have an open door policy. I can be available for anyone in my community to give them notes, listen to what they have to say etc.
- Lead by example – Don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do.
I’m sure their are a ton more little things I’ve learned along the way, but these are the pretty major ones I’ve learned and hopefully a little advice and an open door to see what your theaters owners or Artistic Directors go through. I’m pretty lucky to have a wonderful comedy community at The Westside Comedy Theater. They make my job worth it and they are a great group of people.
Nick is an Actor, Improvisor and Writer living in Los Angeles, CA. He is the Camp Director and Founder of Camp Improv Utopia a a 501(c) (3) Non Profit improv retreat for grown ups, Artistic Director of Mi’s Westside Comedy Theater and is a founding members of the The Improv Network. Nick has also taught at iO West, The Pack Theatre and The Groundlings and has taught workshops all over the world.