A Letter to My Daughters

img_0944Dear Girls,

It’s Thursday November 10 2016, and the results of the election two days ago have thrown the world – our world – into a fair amount of chaos. It’s a tough time for America right now. I don’t know how to do this, really. I don’t know how to focus on getting back to running my company or to any sense of normalcy. But the one thing that has been a tremendous relief to me is to have this opportunity to be your dad. I decided to write this because, well, I’m a writer, and writing has helped me through some tough times. Hopefully, I can write my way through this.

Twins, you’re almost 15 now, and your younger sister is 11. It’s been a few years since that photo. I had hoped that you would not have to confront harsh realities like this election for a few more years. I had hoped that you could be little and innocent for a while longer. But I guess it snuck up on me. You’re growing up quickly. This election, and the campaign leading up to it, and the years that will follow, will force us all to grow up a lot more. So whether I was ready or not, it’s here. We’re in it. We have to keep going.

This election was very hard on me emotionally. I didn’t expect to feel so many things about it. From moment to moment over the last couple of days, I’m trying to just let myself feel whatever it is that I feel about it and what it means for our country, for the world we live in, for your future. Honestly, I have a different emotion about every six and a half minutes. I would love to feel an extended, deep, seething rage about it for a few hours right now. But I’m fluctuating between sadness, some rage, utter despair, tentative hope, shame, and a feeling of wanting to shield the three of you from this reality (even though I know you are prepared to face it with me).

First, you need to know: I am SO proud of you. I’m so glad that I’m raising girls. It has been the greatest gift of my life. Whenever I think over the last couple of days about what a privilege and an honor it is to be your dad, and how you’re dealing with this election, I can’t hold back a smile. Sometimes I start crying with joy. When I joke with my friends about how I feel like I’m raising a small army of feminist activists, it’s a sense of pride that warms my laughter about it.

When I realize what amazing strong women you will become, how you and your friends and the girls your age are going to become an unstoppable force for good, I know that our country is going to survive this. It’s going to be a lot of hard work. It’s going to be tears and heartbreak and triumph and joy in turns, for the rest of your lives. But I already know that you’re prepared.

Today, I’m just trying to revel in how proud I am of you. Tomorrow, we begin the rest of our lives. No matter what happens, and no matter who occupies the White House — or the state house, or city hall — I want you all to remember these things, because they will guide you in the years ahead:

  1. I know you have heard this before from me, enough times that it might even be annoying by now, but this is the big one: No one EVER has the right to treat you like garbage. Not anyone. Not ever. The president-elect has said some truly disgusting things about women, and he appears to have gotten away with it. Sadly, he’s not alone. There are thousands of men out there who believe that they have the right to treat women like crap. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to have to tell you that men will probably try to hurt you at some point in your life. Men have tried or succeeded in hurting literally every woman I know. All of them. It hurts to tell you that I know women who have been harmed so badly that their emotional scars may never completely heal. But you don’t have to accept that things will always be this way. You don’t have to stand for it. You can always say “no” to a man, no matter what he asks of you, and you don’t have to give him a reason. You don’t have to smile back at a guy because he smiled at you. You can always speak up if a man threatens you or another woman or girl or makes them feel unsafe. In fact, you have a responsibility to fight back wherever and whenever this happens. You have to stand up for each other as sisters, and to stand up for other girls and women. This kind of nonsense could end in a generation if women all locked their arms together, and locked arms with every man who believes what I believe (and there are a LOT of us). You can always call on me to help, and if I witness it myself, I promise you I will speak up without being asked. Having daughters has made me a better man, and this year’s presidential campaign has made it clear that even the best men (including me) have room to improve when it comes to respecting women. Oddly, the president-elect’s horrible behavior may have been a tremendous gift to the country, because it has inspired women to speak up, and inspired me and other men I know to change how we think about the importance of ending mistreatment of all women. So I’m committed to that deeply and personally now, in large part because of the three of you. And I will help you recruit other people – allies – to help with this too. We can change this. Little by little we can change this.
  2. Speaking of allies, they are super important. Not only do you need to seek allies (as I mentioned above) but you need to BE allies. And it doesn’t end with simply being allies to other women. You all have a responsibility to be allies with your LGBTQ friends too, no matter their orientation or gender. We live in the Pacific Northwest, and living in this particular city was a conscious choice your mom and I made, in part because we wanted you girls to grow up in a community that’s tolerant and safe, so your minds and spirits could thrive. I’m thrilled that you get to grow up in a place like this, where LGBTQ kids can be themselves openly in school, and I’m delighted that you’ve befriended some of them. These people need you. They need you more than you might realize. Because even though we happen to live in an amazingly tolerant place, there are still a whole bunch of places in the world where your LGBTQ friends are quite literally in physical and emotional danger, simply for being themselves. The world is not yet entirely safe for LGBTQ people, and they need us. They are going to need us for a very long time. We have to stand with them, we have to fight for them, sometimes we may have to even shelter them from harm. As heartbreaking as it is for me to tell you that, I know you’re three people who the LGBTQ folks can count on to be a friend, an ally, or even just somebody safe to sit with or talk to. Don’t underestimate how important even small gestures are. That stuff matters a lot, and all of my LGBTQ friends will tell you the same thing.
  3. It doesn’t end there either. You three are all white girls. One of the tradeoffs about living in the Northwest has been that you have not been exposed to much racial diversity in your lives. But the world, as you will learn when you grow up and leave home and travel on your own, is an incredibly diverse place full of amazing people of all colors and ethnic backgrounds. Our country, as you will learn over time, has a troubling, regrettable and sad history of treating non-white people like garbage. From old hurts like slavery and the systematic extermination of Native Americans, to the killing of African-American men and women by police that happens even still in 2016, this nation we love and call home has a lot of problems when it comes to equality. Just as I told you that no one has a right to treat you like garbage, and that you have to be an ally to LGBTQ people, you have a responsibility to first learn about people who look different than you, and about what they and their ancestors have endured. You have to listen to them. Then you have to not allow anyone to treat them like garbage, either. And you have to be an ally to them too. There is no such thing as “other people” – the problems and the struggles that any one group faces are problems and struggles that all of us face. We are all humans. Never forget that.
  4. There’s been a lot of talk about Democrats and Republicans in our house, on the news and probably at school too. Those are the two dominant political parties in the US, but are by no means a complete picture of what everyone believes when it comes to politics. There are more than 300 million people in this country, and probably roughly that many different points of view. Some points of view you will agree with passionately, others will profoundly shock you. Find your own point of view. This requires listening to people who may not agree with you. It requires believing in ideas and passionately debating them and defending them too. But never forget to listen. I have found (because I discuss politics a lot) that sometimes when you talk with someone who disagrees with you, the discussion breaks down very quickly over some small point of disagreement. And for many people, those disagreements end there, or escalate into a shouting match. As Michelle Obama said recently “when they go low, you go high.” I have found her words to be so validating. Many times in my life I’ve found that if you can avoid shouting, if you can listen, if you can take the high road – it is possible to get past disagreements and to find things you can agree on. That is how you can build a better world. When your mom and I got divorced seven years ago, one of the earliest and most important decisions we made was that we were going to set aside the differences in our marriage and do everything we could to stay focused on raising the three of you, even though that meant we’d be doing so in two separate houses. Your mom and I couldn’t stay married anymore, but she loves you every bit as much as I do. You may not realize it, but even to this day, she and I talk about you a lot, and we always work together to help you girls get what you need, and to help you grow up to become the women what we both know we’ll be proud of for the rest of our lives. I’m saying this because I want you to know that you’ve already experienced personally the healing of a divide like the one our country is going through right now. Your mom and I, through a spirit of collaboration on a greater goal managed to find a way to work together. If she and I can do that, I believe that anyone can. Keep your head up and your eyes on the bigger goals — that’s how you’ll know where you are and stay focused on where you’re going and fixed on what’s important.
  5. Get involved. Volunteer. No matter where you end up living or what careers you may choose, find a way to get involved and to make your community a better place to live. There’s always work to be done, and great organizations that need your help. I don’t care what the organization is, just do something that you can believe in. For me, that’s always meant volunteering with arts organizations, because I believe so strongly in the power of art, music, dance and storytelling to make our world more beautiful and to help us understand each other better. For some people, it’s serving food to people with no homes or money. For others, it’s walking dogs at the humane society. Some people coach kids’ sports. There are thousands of important causes and ways to serve your community. The important thing here is that you do it, and in a meaningful way. You all have so much to give. And there’s a bonus too: in doing this, you’ll meet some of the most amazing people in your life.
  6. Speak up. That’s a common theme here throughout all of this, obviously. But I want you all to write, to create, to work for change. That’s going to take many forms. You might need to write letters to the editor. You WILL need to send emails to your congresspeople and elected representatives. You’ll probably need to participate in demonstrations, marches and protests. You may decide to run for political office yourself someday. This country has still not elected its first woman president, so consider that one of your options as well. It could be one of you. But don’t keep your voices quiet. Speak up. The activist Maggie Kuhn said “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” Speak up for yourselves of course, but more importantly than that, I want you to speak up for the people who have no voice, or whose voices have been silenced or marginalized. This is what it means to be an ally. Use your voices. Nobody knows more than your mom and I what voices you have! Use them!
  7. VOTE! It seems hard to believe, but women didn’t always have the right to vote in the United States. People had to march and write and scratch and scream and fight (some people even died fighting) in order to make that possible for you. That’s a big responsibility. The three of you all are related to Susan B. Anthony (on your mother’s side), so you quite literally have an important family legacy to uphold. Just like your mom and I, Susan would want you girls to vote every chance you get. Vote in special elections, vote in primaries, vote in midterms, just register to vote and vote in every election you can until the day you die. Voting is your right, and it is your responsibility. This is your dad talking now, in my Most Serious Dad Voice, but if I ever find out that you did not vote in an election that happened after your 18th birthday, we’re going to have a serious talk.

I’ll stop here. You’re probably getting tired of it and rolling your eyes thinking this sounds like a lecture or something. It’s not. It’s just the thoughts of a dad who loves you more than you will ever know. I cannot wait to see what amazing women you become, and what great changes you bring to our world. You’re my three most favorite people, and I’m proud of you every day. I promise I will do everything I can to support you in all of these things above and anything else you need for the rest of my life, for as long as it is in my power to do so.

Love,

Buddy

 

How to Silence The Censor and Step Into Creativity

“Do not fear mistakes – there are none.” – Miles Davis

“You shall not pass!” – Gandalf the Grey (to the Balrog, a demon of the ancient world, a foe beyond any of you)

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As a creative person, one of the books that most changed my perspective on what creativity means is The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. I read it probably 20 years ago now, but a number of concepts have stuck with me all of these years.

I was having a conversation this morning with a friend of mine, and Julia’s inspiration revisited me again.

My friend (who is a private person, and shall remain nameless) is an intensely creative person, and is very accomplished academically – he holds a couple of impressive Master’s Degrees. He has an interesting bit of personal mythology: he tends to believe that his nature as an academic means that he’s naturally inclined (trained?) to be somewhat perfectionist about anything he writes. I can certainly understand that. Apart from his extensive work in his graduate programs, his research and his academic writing, he’s been published. So my friend isn’t somebody who is perennially hiding away and refusing to share his creative gifts with the world. But perfectionism, as Julia Cameron explains, “is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop – an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.”

This morning my friend and I were discussing a political issue and I reminded him that he needed to write about his perspective in it. He and I discuss these issues regularly, but I told him “If it just stays between us, you’re robbing the rest of the world of your point of view.”

He told me something that so many of us creative people all too frequently say. He said “I’m far and away my own worst critic.”

Aren’t we all? My friend has a bad case of perfectionism. And he knows it.

So I wanted to write this post for my friend, but also for all of you. Because you all have creative projects inside of you that need to get out, I just know it. To paraphrase Julia Cameron from her book, “if you don’t share them with the world, you’re ripping the rest of us off.” I’ll tell you what I told my friend. Feel free to substitute your preferred pronouns. Here goes …

So …

You think your work sucks? You think it’s not worth sharing?

You gotta silence The Censor inside your head. Think of it as The Balrog, and yourself as Gandalf. Tell that asshole, “You Shall Not Pass!”

Tell him to shut up. He’s relentless. He’s going to tell you that your work is shit. He’s very loyal that way, because he only really cares about censoring your work. He might even be the most loyal follower you ever have.

As loyal as he is, you just need to tell that asshole to shut the hell up. Seriously.

The Censor does indeed have a purpose, though. He’ll never go away completely, so don’t expect him to. But he needs to be relegated to a minor role. He needs to be dealt with. You have to face him and call him out.

The Censor is like a stalker, hiding in the shadows. He knows your every move. He may even know you better than you know yourself. He anticipates your best countermeasures and will try to head them off.

When you start telling The Censor to shut up, you learn to deal with his nonsense. You learn that all of his censoring bullshit can actually focus you.

The censor basically is telling you that your work sucks, and that you’re going to fail if you put it out there. Because he thinks that failure is your greatest fear.

And this is where you reframe your thinking.

I have learned that stepping into my own creative self means that I must have the courage to fail. I have also found that when I am willing to fail, I rarely do. Seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.

The times when I fear failure are when I am most likely to fall on my face. When I confidently move into a project knowing that it’s probably going to suck, thinking that failure is a very likely possibility, very often I do excellent work. Sometimes facing certain failure is when I do my best creative work.

They say you have to laugh at the devil to defeat it. The Censor is like that. You gotta laugh at him. You gotta stare him in the eyes and say to him, “alright asshole, let’s see what you got. Take your best shot. But you’re not getting by me. You shall not pass.”

You face him head on. You don’t ignore him. You make eye contact, keep your shoulders square, and your head up. It’s intense, but the moment you turn sideways, or look down, or break eye contact … that’s the moment he beats you. He’s an opportunist. He looks for the easy opening. You can’t give him the pleasure.

I said it before, he’s your Censor. He’s incredibly loyal. Like it or not, he’s yours. Every time you step into a creative project, you get a fresh opportunity to square off with him. It’s just the two of you, alone on the bridge, and one of you is going to stay standing.

When you face him, he loses power. But when you look away, he gains power.

So don’t look away from your Censor. Face him. It’s the only way you take away his power. And that’s how you share your creativity with the rest of us, because we’re really excited to see what you’re capable of.

Now get to work!

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

6 Problems Facing the Los Angeles Theatre Community

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[DISCLAIMER: This post contains explicit language.]

TL;dr summary: It’s time for fair wages in LA’s 99-seat theatre community. 

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” – Richard Bach, American Novelist

MARCH 24, 2015 – There’s a schism happening in the Los Angeles theatre scene. Just Google “LA 99 seat plan” and you’ll be treated to more news and opinion than you care to read. I’m here to offer an outsider’s perspective. I don’t live in California, and I’m not a member of Actors’ Equity Association (the actors’ Union, also known as Equity, or AEA), but I am a lover and follower of theatre. I did get my undergraduate degree in theatre, and I have worked on both sides of the curtain over the years, though I would say that I think my years of DOING theatre are behind me. That said, I have many friends who are working professionals in the performing arts, some are members of AEA. On any controversial issue, sometimes the insider dialogue becomes a feedback loop, an echo chamber. I’m here to offer a different perspective than what I’ve read on this issue. I hope that it will add to the discussion.

The issue: AEA wants its members to be paid at least minimum wage when they work in AEA-sanctioned productions. Currently, when AEA members work in theaters with fewer than 99 seats, they are paid less than minimum wage, often a LOT less. In many cases, they work only for small daily stipends which could equate to less than $2 per hour for their work.

AEA members will soon vote on a proposal regarding the pay structure for actors who work in Los Angeles’ many 99-seat theatres. On March 25, Ballots will be sent to AEA members in good standing who live in Los Angeles County, and voting ends April 17. Then, the AEA governing council will act on the proposal sometime after April 21. The vote itself is advisory in nature: the council will factor in the results of the vote, in addition to other variables. The vote itself is not binding, but it will inform the outcome.

The vote concerns what’s known colloquially as “The 99-seat Plan,” which is essentially a waiver program allowing producers in theaters with fewer than 99 seats to pay their actors a stipend (a sub-minimum-wage rate) for their work. AEA has decided that this program is out of date, and a change in the structure is in order (Twitter is predictably abuzz…the pro-change folks are using the hashtag #Changefor99, while the folks who like the 99-seat plan as-is are using #ILove99). Enjoy reading the twittersphere’s take on the issue if you like.

This post is not about the mechanics (or the rhetoric) of either side of the debate. Lots of other folks are doing that. This is going to be more of a deconstruction of the state of theatre and the performing arts in general, and more specifically a commentary about how I’ve always felt that actors have been under the sheets (in some cases literally) with the exact people who wish to exploit their labor for far too long. This needs to stop. This 99-seat plan schism would be a good issue around which that relationship could/should have a big public breakup.

As I wrote in an earlier post which a lot of you read, “Theatre is a BUSINESS.” Don’t forget that. Like any business, it requires a workforce. If you’re an actor, you’re part of that workforce, just like every stagehand, stitcher, electrician, scenic carpenter, rigger, sound technician and usher. Without you, The Actor, there is no production. It’s a value equation in a sense: on the one hand theatre work has intrinsic value (a total warm fuzzy). On the other, it is essential labor (which feels like a cold prickly to some folks … “my work is not LABOR, unless you mean labor of LOVE.”)

This leads me to the first of the problems I see:

Problem #1: Actors tend to think of themselves first and foremost as artists, not as workers. Many actors like to believe that they alone are the unique and special person who will elevate the work to legendary status and thereby transcend all things. That’s a noble pursuit, and I don’t begrudge anyone for it. But don’t let it get in the way of you getting paid for the hard work that you do. Most actors will tell you (if they’re being honest) that these small theatres in LA are merely places where they hone their craft and stay fresh. LA is the place for film and TV, and therefore you do live theatre between film and TV gigs primarily to demonstrate that you’re still “castable,” that you’re still working, and to keep your skills sharp. Acting, for most, is a perishable skill. If you don’t use it, it begins to atrophy. Even the best actors in the world still work and study and endeavor to improve their skills. Many great film actors, if you press them hard enough, will tell you that they only do film in order to support their love for theatre. That’s because there’s nothing quite like the feel of a live performance – for both the performer and the audience. When you’re on stage, in front of an audience, it’s unlike anything else. It’s infectious. SOLUTION: Actors, sober up to the notion that you are a labor force first and foremost, and make your peace with this. Recognize that it actually gives you tremendous power.

Problem #2: Under the 99-seat plan, actors are volunteering themselves against their will and best interests. It’s one thing to consciously volunteer your time when it’s your own choice to do the project and you do so on your own terms: a pet project, a charitable cause, occasional work for a nonprofit, or helping out a friend. It’s quite another to be expected to work for free just so a for-profit business can stay in business. If a theatre owner has to use free labor to stay in business, perhaps that person is in the wrong business. Theatre is a business: you sell tickets, and people buy them. If you can’t manage to generate enough sales to support your business, it’s time to step back and re-assess your choices, rework your budget, adjust your pricing, or find a new line of work entirely. If you’re a producer who can’t seem to budget for success without needing free labor, maybe you’re not very good at business. Maybe you should go back to doing community theatre in Boise or Birmingham or Bethesda or wherever you came from before you settled on producing 99-seat theatre in Los Angeles. SOLUTION: Actors, you should only work for free on your own terms. Don’t work for free to advance someone else’s agenda, or to prop up their poorly-run business, or to fatten their wallet unless yours is also being fattened. Better yet, actors: produce your own work and get paid for it. Which leads me to…

Problem #3: A lack of empowerment among the actor community. A filmmaker named Alex Munoz said recently, “Green light your own project, don’t wait for others to do it.” Film is different, sure. But the sentiment is the same: Actors, you have the power. If a producer wants to profit from your labor without fair compensation, tell him politely to fuck off. We have always been able to produce our own stuff, and find an audience, and tell a story that moves people. For us to buy in to this notion that the producers hold all the cards and that we, as creative artists are privileged to work for them for no pay, just for the honor of “honing our craft” and “keeping theatre alive” then I got news for you, friends: The joke is on you. Again: “Argue for your limitations and surely they’re yours.” I say to the AEA membership, look at how your brethren in the stagehands union would respond to a free labor proposal. If you asked professional stagehands to work for free, they’d laugh and tell you to go fuck yourself. And yet, are not actors every bit as critical to a production? You can no more mount a production without stagehands than you can without actors. So why have actors agreed to work for free for all these years? SOLUTION: Seek out producers who are interested in fair wages. Figure out who they are, and tell people who they are. Support their shows with your ticket dollars. Audition for their shows. Create demand for the people who support fairness, and the unfair practitioners will have to follow, because the audiences will.

Problem #4: The misplaced, yet lingering fear that a failing economy is still wreaking havoc within the Los Angeles Theatre Community. Last time I checked, Los Angeles is in CALIFORNIA. The California economy is quite strong right now (impending water shortages notwithstanding) and it’s not easy for a producer to argue the widespread detriment of theatre in macroeconomic terms. So any arguments about “the economy is weak” are pretty much null and void right now for theatre in Los Angeles. But so many people love to argue for their limitations. So many excuses why “we can’t survive without free labor” happen in every industry. And this is nothing new. It’s called slavery (at worst) or exploitation (at best). And I don’t buy it. So many actors are arguing the producer’s point for them now. It’s staggering.

Furthermore, there’s the persistent mythology that A) making money in the arts is hard, and that B) the only true art is created in poverty. Yeah OK. You’re a “starving artist.” Keep telling yourselves it has to be that way. Again, argue for your limitations, and they’re yours to keep. You’re making it very easy on the producer when you argue his point for him. He’s not going to debate you if you argue that you want to be impoverished. He’ll take it. SOLUTION: Remind producers that California has a strong, vibrant and growing economy, and that they can find a way to afford to pay you a fair wage for your work.

Problem #5: The ILove99 side seem to be arguing this as if it’s a zero-sum game; as if a vote for fair wages will instantly put small theaters out of business. That’s the great thing about American Theatre. You can’t kill it. Nope. It won’t die. It’s like a fucking cockroach. You try to burn it, poison it, or step on it and it just scurries off and finds a new corner to inhabit. It’s fantastic that way. But let’s also remember, theatre (outside of NYC) has in fact already been considerably marginalized in recent years. Attendance is down nationwide over the last generation, absolutely. It’s hard to compete for mass audiences in the age of YouTube-enabled smartphones and the Xbox. But this is not a zero-sum game. Adding fair wages for actors back into the equation need not subtract from somewhere else in the production budget. New, business-savvy producers and artists will crop up who find ways to innovate, to attract paying audiences, because don’t forget: the whole reason we do theatre in the first place is because we all desperately want to make real human connections with each other. There is NOTHING like live performance. There is nothing like the shared experience of an audience. It’s a fundamental part of our humanity to watch someone act out a story for us. This will never die, despite what the technology futurists tell you. SOLUTION: Innovate! And believe in the power of live performance.

Problem #6: There’s an argument being put forward by the producers that “we only want what’s best for you.” This whole “we’re here for the actors” tone is on display in this article. Go ahead. Read it. You know what that tone is? It’s 20 pounds of bullshit in a 10-pound bag. It’s disingenuous. Once again, AEA’s membership has largely been duped into believing that the producers actually want what’s best for the workers. Nope. They want what’s best for their wallets. And that means exploiting cheap labor at every opportunity. Their attitude is “Oh yeah? You want to be paid more than this other actress who will work for free? Then OK fuck you. I’ll ‘hire’ her and pay her nothing. Because she’ll work for free, and free labor equals a future full of theatre opportunities for you.” SOLUTION: Don’t be fooled. Open your eyes. The producer who supports this plan as-is only wants maximum cash at minimum cost. Don’t ever forget that.

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So where do we go from here? As I was writing this post, I wrestled with this issue quite a bit. It’s complex, and it’s frustrating at times. And confusing rhetoric is flying all around. Especially troubling are the high number of prominent celebrities who have weighed in on the side of the producers. The playwright Neil LaBute, and a host of actors like Tim Robbins, Jason Alexander, French Stewart and Kirsten Vangsness all seem to believe that professional actors working for free is a good and noble thing and that it should continue. Many of them marched in Los Angeles over this past weekend to protest the change. I had a hard time wrapping my head around that, because A) people like Tim Robbins have come out in support of social causes in the past, and B) AEA has always stood on the side of the labor movement as a whole. Robbins even seems to be suggesting that actors actually WANT to work for free. I scratched my head at that one.

But on the positive side, People like Samuel L. Jackson will be voting “YES” on the proposal. So that’s a good thing. In a recent letter to the AEA membership, he wrote “… fair is fair. Other cities across the country have vibrant intimate theatre communities, while managing to pay actors. Surely LA has as many resources to be mined and cultivated like any other city, and its theatrical producers should be encouraged to do so.”

I agree with Mr. Jackson. If I were an LA-based AEA member, I’d vote YES on this proposal as well. Fair is fair. It’s time.

Thank you for reading.

Pick Two

“Fast, Cheap, Good: Pick Two.” Intersection_sign

A former colleague had a triangular graphic posted on the wall of his office, similar to the one here. At each corner of the Triangle was one of those three words: Fast, Cheap, and Good. I’ve never forgotten the valuable lesson. It’s true in my field as it is in any other. In the relentless pursuit of balancing the quality/economy/speed equation, we have to remember that one of those will always be secondary.

You CAN have something Fast and Cheap, but it isn’t going to be very Good. (Think McDonald’s. Or cheap Chinese-made toys. Or cheap, Chinese-made toys from McDonald’s.)

You CAN have something Fast and Good, but it isn’t going to be Cheap. (Think about the time you needed a plumber at midnight. In a snowstorm. On Saturday.)

And lastly, You CAN have something Cheap and Good, but it isn’t going to be Fast. (This one always reminds me of pro-bono graphic design and creative services… “I’ll get to it when I can.”)

If somehow you can manage to deliver all three of these simultaneously, you’ll be well on your way to changing the world.

 

Four Cheers for Reporters!

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The author (in white vest) being interviewed (by Kyle Jordan, professional journalist, with cameraman Stephen LeFranc) during the Deepwater Horizon spill, June 2010. Pensacola, FL.

If you read this blog, you know I’m a PR guy. And today, I am working with a new client. I’ll be providing a spokesperson media training session to three of the firm’s partners next week. I love doing media training for my clients. It’s a lovely marriage of my theatre background and my PR career. In a way, it’s analogous to directing a performance. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but there are similarities. More importantly, this process helps my clients become more effective spokespeople who understand how to help the reporters get what they need, which tends to result in better coverage for my clients and better stories for the journalists. Win-Win.

Anyway, part of the preparation process involves asking the trainees a few questions before the training day in order to gauge their experience, attitude and opinions about reporters. Armed with this knowledge, I am able to make better use of everyone’s time and customize the session to the needs of the individuals I’m training.

One of the questions is:

“What opinions do you have of journalists?”

As I was reviewing this client’s responses today, I asked myself, “How would I answer that?”

It’s quite simple and can be summed up in four points.

  1. I have genuinely liked more than 90 percent of the journalists I’ve worked with in the past 15+ years. They’re kind, curious, polite (but firm), hard-working and professional individuals. As for the other 10 percent: I’ll tell you about them over a beer sometime. They are the exception, not the rule.
  2. As a spokesperson and a PR representative, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to end an interview prematurely because of a combative, rude or unprofessional journalist (and I’ve done hundreds of interviews, with reporters from at least a dozen countries around the world).
  3. These journalists have my respect because they’re doing an incredibly demanding job, most of them for very little pay, under the kind of nonnegotiable daily deadlines that would make most of us cringe.
  4. Most reporters have a largely thankless job. But they do it anyway because they believe in telling the story.

In that spirit, I’d like to tip my hat to all the journalists out there who are bravely facing the world with their inquisitive minds, their sharp pencils and their steno pads. I’ve enjoyed working with you (well, 90 percent of you) over the years. And I thank you sincerely for the job that you do. You’re great!

Hats off to reporters! Won’t you please join me? Thank a journalist today!

The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. You can follow him on twitter: @bsibley

3 Steps to a Great Marketing Strategy

I love a good road trip.

I try to take one at least once a year if I can. Road trips are exciting. There’s nothing like it, really … the thrill of the open road, the sense of possibility, good music, the freedom to stop along the way and check out a roadside attraction, or just to look out the window and admire the scenery. I roll the windows down, open the sunroof and let ‘er rip. (It helps that my car is really fun to drive.)

Running a marketing program is a lot like a road trip. The only trouble is, many people neglect to properly consider one of the critical components of the trip – The Map.

A map shows you where you are (Point A) and where you’re going (Point B, a.k.a. “Your Goal”). You wouldn’t set off on a road trip without at least some idea of where you were going and which roads will take you there. [Well maybe you would, but I certainly wouldn’t.] If you don’t know where Point B is, how will you know when you’ve arrived?

Without a clear strategy, all the tactics in the world won’t get you to your destination. Without a destination, you’re just aimlessly driving.

This is one way I have explained the difference between strategy and tactics, which are two deceptively simple concepts that are frequently misunderstood. The tactics are everything I described at the beginning of this post: the car, the freedom, the music, the things you pack in the trunk, the fuel in the tank. The strategy is the road map.

You first need to know why you’re going to Point B from Point A. The map won’t show you that answer, but you need to know why you’re going, because it will help you make other important choices along the way. The “why” is your mission.

You look at the map to plan out these critical things, the three steps to your strategy:

  1. Where you are. It seems basic, but you’d be surprised how many organizations don’t really know where Point A is when it comes to marketing. Some don’t even know where Point A is when it comes to their overall business. If you ask them where they are, they’ll say, “I’m here!” as if it’s self-evident.
  2. Where you’re going. Again, a surprising number of organizations are seemingly just out for a drive with no particular destination … and they wonder why they’re not getting anywhere. They know a lot of things about their current status, like how much fuel is in the tank (the organization’s financing and resources), the engine temperature and what song is playing on the radio (employee productivity and morale), the outside temperature and weather (market research, web traffic, social media metrics), what other cars are in their immediate vicinity (competitors), maybe even their current heading and bearing (those nebulous performance “metrics” we all impulsively track). Many of these things are useful when traveling. But not one of them will actually help you get closer to Point B unless Point B has been clearly identified.
  3. The routes available to you. Generally there’s more than one way to get from Point A to Point B. There are usually several options: The shortest route. The fastest route. The scenic route. The route that avoids bad traffic jams. You can take any of these routes you choose, and each has benefits and drawbacks. But you need to choose one. It’s probably best to select an alternate route as well, in case a bridge is washed out along the way.

When was the last time you thought about your marketing in this way? The road map is how you find your strategy. Without a strategy for getting to your destination, you’ll probably wind up hopelessly lost, even though you might be having a great time in the process. Developing a strategy doesn’t have to be a chore. It doesn’t have to take months or cost millions (although it can), but it is something you must do.

I’ve enjoyed the many times I’ve been fortunate enough to work with clients who knew that they needed to look at the map first, before they got behind the wheel, and asked for my help planning their route. Still, too many times I’ve seen organizations say “I have an awesome car and a full tank of gas! I’m on my way!” and sped off, burning fuel and rubber. They left without answering a fundamental question: “Do you know where you’re going?”

Where are you going?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley, principal of Sibley Communications. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

Jargon – Symptoms and Home Treatment

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On a conference call last week with a potential client, I was again confronted with a disease that plagues businesspeople: Excessive Use of Industry Jargon. This is a serious disease that often goes unreported. It’s time to bring it out into the open and talk about it.

Because the majority of my professional experience has been spent practicing PR and marketing communications, I’ve seen many cases of this condition. But today what I wanted to address are some of the possible reasons why it continues to plague businesspeople. It’s an insidious condition that infects people without regard to age, gender, level of education, race, color, or creed. You may even carry this disease yourself without realizing it. That’s OK, the diagnosis and cures are both simple and can be done in the privacy of your own home. But first:

Who is prone: this disease is borne out of either insecurity, or a kind of boastful pride (the same kind that infects schoolyard bullies and information hoarders). The afflicted believe that if they hold esoteric knowledge and don’t share it, then they are members of an elite club. They have heard (but misinterpreted) the phrase “knowledge is power,” and misunderstood it to mean that “knowledge is power … when that knowledge is not shared with others.” If that were true, then teachers would be unquestioningly the most powerful people in the world, and none of you would have learned anything in school.

Jargon and buzzwords are words and phrases that appear within organizations and industries and are used to describe products, services and unique characteristics of that group. The key thing to remember is that they are a form of shorthand, and do not instantly make sense to people outside the group. Everyone is guilty of this. It may be the most prevalent disease in business. For example,

  • Journalists talk about “ledes” instead of introductory sentences
  • Hotel people talk about “rack rates” instead of standard prices 
  • Ad sales people talk about “avails” instead of available space
  • Graphic designers talk about “mock-ups” instead of prototype designs
  • Marketing people talk about “The Creative” instead of the art concept

  • Biologists talk about “macro-invertebrates” instead of insects 
  • Corporate trainers talk about “staff augmentation” instead of … well, I still have no idea what this means in plain language

You get the point. Your industry has its own terms just like these. 

It is important to note that there are times when use of jargon is totally appropriate. Feel free to use it at meetings of other employees in your group who know these phrases and their meanings. But don’t use it in public. Don’t use it on a sales call. You might think it makes you sound like an expert, but it really just confuses your audience.

The Symptoms: self-detection is difficult. But you may have noticed these signs in others… Use of buzzwords, industry terms and three-letter acronyms (“TLA’s”). Audience members seem confused, isolated and distant. Quizzical looks from others following your talk.

Home Treatment: first, learn to think like a teacher. Observe your audience. Look for nonverbal cues – a furrowed brow, a confused expression, total silence on the other end of the phone – because your audience may not be confident enough to ask for clarification of your buzzwords and jargon. Ask simple questions like, “do you understand what I mean when I said ‘Price Point’?” And then of course you need to define the term and confirm understanding. (by the way, “price point” is just a lengthy way to say “price” …)

With effective home treatment, the prognosis is good. Anyone can learn to use clear, plain language to get their point across. If you manage to correct this condition, others will find you more personable, more effective and more likable.

And who doesn’t want that?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

9 Ways a Theatre Degree Trumps a Business Degree

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Some of you may know this about me, some may not. Despite having spent the last 15 years as a PR & communications professional, my college degree is in theatre. I have never in my life taken a marketing class, or a journalism class, or a business class. Yet, by most measures, I’m enjoying a successful career in business.  “So what?” you ask… read on.

I was having a conversation with my friend Sara this week. She’s an actress. Like most actresses, she also has a Day Job that she works to pay the bills between acting jobs. This is the reality for most working actors in LA, New York and the other major centers of the entertainment industry. She was pointing out to me that she viewed her theatre background as a weakness in her Day Job career field, and that it was holding her back. She asked for my advice.

My advice? There IS no weakness in having a theatre background. There is only strength. Here are just a few skills that a theatre degree gave me that have served me enormously well in business:

  1. You have advanced critical thinking and problem solving skills: taking a script and translating it into a finished production is a colossal exercise in critical thinking. You have to make tremendous inferences and intellectual leaps, and you have to have a keen eye for subtle clues. (believe it or not, this is a skill that very few people have as finely honed as the theatre people I know. That’s why I listed it #1).
  2. You’re calm in a crisis: You’ve been on stage when somebody dropped a line and you had to improvise to keep the show moving with a smile on your face, in front of everyone. Your mic died in the middle of a big solo musical number. You just sang louder and didn’t skip a beat.
  3. You understand deadlines and respect them: Opening Night is non-negotiable. Enough said.
  4. You have an eye on audience perception: You know what will sell tickets and what will not. This is a very transferrable skill, and lots of theatre people underestimate this, because they think of theatre as an ART, and not as a BUSINESS. I frequently say (even to MBA-types) that theatre was absolutely the best business education I could have gotten. While the business majors were buried in their books and discussing theory, we were actually SELLING a PRODUCT to the PUBLIC. Most business majors can get through undergrad (and some MBA programs, even) without ever selling anything. Theater departments are frequently the only academic departments on campus who actually sell anything to the public. Interesting, isn’t it?
  5. You’re courageous: If you can sing “Oklahoma!” in front of 1,200 people, you can do anything.
  6. You’re resourceful: You’ve probably produced “The Fantasticks” in a small town on a $900 budget. You know how to get a lot of value from minimal resources.
  7. You’re a team player: You know that there are truly no small roles, only small actors. The show would fail without everyone giving their best, and even a brilliant performance by a star can be undermined by a poor supporting cast. We work together in theatre and (mostly) leave our egos at the stage door. We truly collaborate.
  8. You’re versatile: You can probably sing, act, dance. But you can also run a sewing machine. And a table saw. And you’ve probably rewired a lighting fixture. You’ve done a sound check. You’re good with a paintbrush. You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty for the benefit of the show. In short, you know how to acquire new skills quickly.
  9. You’re flexible: you’ve worked with some directors who inspired you. Others left you flat, but you did the work anyway. Same goes with your fellow actors, designers and stagehands… some were amazing and supportive, others were horrible and demoralizing to work with (we won’t name names). You have worked with them all. And learned a little something from every one of them.

These are the top reasons I’ve found my theatre degree to be a great background for a business career. What are yours?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

11 People to Unfollow on Twitter today

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Let the record show that I am about to write a Listicle*. The internet is rife with articles on “Who to Follow on Twitter” but I’ve seen scant evidence regarding the contrarian view. Since I generally prefer the contrarian view, I offer the following.

I did this exercise recently, and was sharing my process with Brendan Lewis, who shares in my love of all things snarky, especially when it involves Social Media. He encouraged me to write it up. So you can thank him if it seems helpful. (Note: If it’s not helpful, please direct all complaints to: Goldman Sachs, 200 West Street, New York City.)

Specifically, who should you unfollow? Unfollow these people, and enjoy a Twitter feed with substantially less narcissism, solipsism and self-promotion. Read on:

  1. Unfollow anyone who claims “guru” status of anything. Do I need to explain why? Same goes for “raconteur” and “diva” and some others. If you have to SAY that you’re a guru, odds are you are not. These words are pretentious when self-applied.
  2. Unfollow anyone who lists “running” in their profile. While I generally have nothing against athletes, people who call themselves “runners” bug the crap out of me. There are people who go for a run. There are people who run marathons. But people who identify as “Runners” tend to be self-important types who never played team sports or don’t realize that you CAN play team sports after high school. Crossfitters and triathletes, this means you, too.
  3. Unfollow anyone who unironically retweets Gary Vaynerchuk, Peter Shankman, or Brian Solis. If you MUST follow these guys yourself, do so only for comic value, because these guys actually believe that they are God’s Gift. In reality they exist largely in a feedback loop of their own creation. Same goes for Michael Brito, Jeremiah Owyang, David Armano, and Chris Pirillo.
  4. Unfollow people who use the phrase “content marketing” in their profile or in their tweets. They heard this buzzword recently and decided to catch the wave. This wave will have crested and crashed in six to 12 months. Something else will take its place. Simply “marketing” is OK.
  5. Unfollow anyone who is a self-proclaimed “thought leader” immediately. (For more information, see #1 above). As Bob Dylan said — at least apocryphally —  “Don’t follow leaders.”
  6. Unfollow most PR people. They’re easy to find: their agency name usually appears in their twitter profile (firm names like Edelman, Waggener Edstrom [a.k.a “WaggEd”], Shandwick, Burson, etc.) Most of these folks don’t do anything on twitter but parrot their clients’ messages anyway, and talk about their regimen for training for the upcoming Metro Half-Marathon and Wine Festival (see #2 above).
  7. Unfollow anyone who says on their twitter profile that they’re “gluten free,” or “paleo,” or ”vegan” … these folks are compelled to share their quotidian food choices globally. You don’t need to know, really. It isn’t that interesting.
  8. Unfollow anyone who uses more than two hashtags in their twitter profile. #youre #doing #it #wrong #jackwagon #stop #trying #to #draw #attention #to #yourself
  9. Unfollow anyone who lists their Myers-Briggs personality type in their profile. I can only assume that this is a carryover from online dating sites. What gives? If you’re an INFJ, shouldn’t you be reading a book with your cat anyway instead of managing your Twitter account? Get off the internet! It belongs to us ESTPs anyway!
  10. Unfollow people who claim to have written “bestselling books” that you have never heard of. Authors who have actually written bestselling books generally don’t need to claim authorship of same on their twitter profiles. Having written a book that’s #46 in Amazon’s category Business> Business & Investing> Management & Leadership> Management> Marketing> Digital & Interactive Marketing> Social Media> Does not qualify as a bestseller. For a list of Bestselling authors, see Publisher’s Weekly or The New York Times. J.K. Rowling is a bestselling author. So is John Grisham. So are Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. Unfollow authors who aren’t in that category.
  11. Unfollow any remaining mommy bloggers. That thing was so 2008.

Once you’ve unfollowed these people (if there’s anyone left in your feed), you’ll find that it probably contains interesting things about the world you live in or the industry in which you work. It might even contain things of real intellectual value. When you unclutter your feed from the narcissists and self-promoters, you can follow things of genuine interest. Isn’t that what a tool like Twitter should be used for anyway?

(Disclaimer/Warning: Following the advice in this post may negatively impact your Klout score. But if you’ve read this far, it’s a safe bet you don’t care.)

And now, gentle reader, I eagerly await your vitriol.

*Listicle, n. – a portmanteau of “List” and “article” … get it?

For our daughters and sons

Saturday December 15, 2012

Dear Mr. President,

As I write this, my daughter is asleep in the next room. She’s in the second grade. Tomorrow we’re going to a performance of The Nutcracker. She has a new dress, hat and shoes that her grandma bought just for this occasion. She sleeps tonight in safety and security, anticipating the joy and wonder that tomorrow will bring. And I know that tomorrow when I wake her up, she will never have looked more beautiful to me, never more precious. Her eyes will never be more blue, because of what happened.

My heart breaks for those parents in Connecticut who will not wake their daughters and sons this morning. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile them from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. I cannot imagine their horror, for it is, most truly, unspeakable.

Many people have said today that, “today we must grieve, and tomorrow or the next day we can talk about what happened, and why.” While I can understand — and even appreciate — the reasoning behind this sentiment, I cannot, and I will not, agree that we must wait to have a national discussion about the growing epidemic of gun violence in the United States. And I urge you and the members of Congress to do the same. Please do not wait to have this debate. And please, Mr. President: be strong. Something has got to change. What we saw today is not what James Madison intended when he wrote the Bill of Rights. It cannot be.

What we need now is to get real. We need to put aside the rhetoric of the past, and we must focus on a new future, one that represents the reality of today, and honors the memories of those sons and daughters who died needlessly. This is the greatest country the world has ever seen. And yet, for some reason I cannot comprehend, and I cannot explain to my daughter, we are killing each other at a rate much higher than every other developed country in the world. How can we be at once so great and so murderous? It does not have to be this way. How can we, as a free people, accept this much murder as the price of living in a free country? I’ve tried to understand it, but I cannot.

You and I have many things in common, and I’m sure we’d enjoy each other’s company. I’d very much like to share a drink with you someday. I’m sure we’d tell each other stories about the daughters we both have, who we’d do anything for. And I hope when that day comes, we can share that drink in a nation that has found a way, has seen the imperative, to prevent these mass killings from happening.

Our daughters and our sons deserve nothing less.

Respectfully,

Brian Sibley (Bellingham, Washington)