Five customer experience lessons from fringe theatre

Stage set of The Bevellers, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, 2007

The fringe of experience

A long time ago, I directed a range of fringe theatre productions.

As a training ground for management or innovation, it could not be bettered. Consider what we had to do: select a cast and crew, motivate them around a vision, handle multiple egos under stress, capitalise on a diverse range of talent of every sort, generate and build on new ideas, conduct marketing, PR and sales campaigns and deliver something which we hoped would be wonderful.

And all by a fixed and imminent deadline: first night.

A Brazilian challenge

One production required that we interrogate a reformed murderer in a Brazilian police cell, have a dinner party in a Sao Paulo penthouse, attend a US evangelical revival at a jungle plantation, and have helicopter gunships attack a native village in the Amazonian rainforest.

Did I mention this was fringe theatre?  Our vision may have been limitless but our budgets were trivial. And so we struggled as the scale of our vision foundered on the rocks of penury.

A change in perspective

In first weeks of rehearsal, we focused on the script and tried to think of ways of making the production real.  But we got nowhere.  The cast was frustrated, the crew even more so.  People were fractious and unhappy.

First night loomed like an iceberg in the night, getting ever closer.

Then, in a blinding flash of the obvious, everything became much easier.

What was different? We stopped thinking about making the production real.

Instead, we started thinking about the experience which we wanted our customers, the audience, to have. What did we want them to feel? To think? To take away?

Thinking like this, from the audience in, rather than from the production out, unlocked our creativity.  Suggestion, not realism, became our driver.

  • The prison cell became one man lit by a single light in the darkness, shining through bars.
  • We painted the black interior of the studio theatre – set and auditorium – with foliage and vines like a jungle so that the audience entered the rainforest as soon as they came through the doors.
  • We placed the dinner party table on a dais in the middle of the stage and lit the background dimly so that the rainforest was only hinted in the shadows.
  • For the plantation, we lit both the dais and the rainforest, placing it in the jungle.
  • And we turned the lights of the helicopters onto the audience and played the sound of machine guns with the bass turned up to insane levels so the audience heard gunfire through their ears and felt it through the floor.

Total cost of the set? £200.

We opened on first night with a slick, professional production that was very well received.

Innovating success

Five lessons from my theatre experience have stood me in good stead in business and innovation ever since.

  • The greatest creativity comes from the greatest constraints.
    Three things govern all projects: time, cost and performance.  If time is fixed and costs are limited, then the only way to achieve breakthrough performance is through creativity and innovation.  Having limits drives creativity.
  • Think from the customer inwards, not from the product outwards.
    We only got traction once we started thinking from the audience inwards.  Our only arbiter of success is the effect on the customer, not the features of our product. What do we want the customer to think, to feel, to take away? Having these as our goals frees us to be creative.
  • Recruit for attitude and energy.
    We chose people for our production not only for their talent but for their enthusiasm and willingness to try.  We only succeeded because all of us – cast, crew and production – contributed to the creative process. As a result we generated many more ideas than we could use, so we could pick the best ones.
  • Leadership is about trust.
    The Director may have a vision for a show, even if s/he does not quite yet know how this vision will be realised.  The Director has to trust the cast, crew and production team to come up with good solutions to the many, many unanswered questions with which any production begins.   They in turn have to trust the Director to make the right decisions about which ideas will work. And it is only by trusting each other that they find ways to make them work.
  • Nothing drives creativity more than urgency.
    First night is a fixed and unforgiving deadline.  Such deadlines offer an imperative focus for a team.  Knowing that a deadline is real, and that it matters that the deadline is met, drives the delivery of new ideas better than anything else.

In my experience, when these drivers have been in place, I have only ever seen business innovation projects succeed. Where I have seen innovation failure – or deliver mediocrity, which is worse – one or more of these factors has been missing.

Always.

How about you?  If you are innovating for customers, do you recognise these? Let me know what you think.

(Image credit:  Blurredyvonne at en.wikipedia, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

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