Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 14: Your Quality of Life Statement

 The Quality of Life Statement is an idea that was developed by Shannon Hayes in her fabulous book Redefining Rich: Achieving True Wealth with Small Business, Side Hustles, and Smart Living, a book I highly recommend you read as soon as you can (have I said this before? I've lost track). Hayes is an author, blogger, and farmer who also runs a farm-to-table restaurant and a community space in the small town of West Fulton, NY.
I’m not a major fan of the development of “mission statements” and “vision statements,” not because they can’t be useful, but because they tend to be written in such broad strokes (often under the guise of being “inclusive”) that they embrace pretty much everything in the whole world. I remember examining the Mission Statements of several major regional theaters in the US, and I was appalled at how unfocused they were. Exaggerating only slightly, they often sounded like this: “We are committed to doing plays from the past and plays of today; large cast plays, small cast plays, and solo plays; tragedies, drama, and comedies; and we will perform for an audience of anyone who wants to buy a ticket.” Of course, they said this using many more grant-friendly words than that.

When you write a Mission/Vision Statement that includes everything, then it serves no purpose.

A Mission Statement should create boundaries

A Mission Statement ought to be a circle that includes some things, and excludes other things. If you are developing a Mission/Vision Statement, one way to test if you are creating something worthless is to add a “not” to the sentence to see if it is something that another theater might claim. For example, “Our theater will create high-quality productions…” Stop right there, and add a (grammatically appropriate version of) “not,” i.e., negate the descriptive term: “Our theater will not create high-quality productions…” Would anybody make that their vision? Imagine the marketing materials! “Come to Our Theater where you can see lousy productions.” No, high-quality is a given.

Your Mission/Vision should leave something out. “Our theater will do plays by white playwrights and playwrights of color.” Nobody is left. All you’ve said is that you’ll do plays. But “Our theater will produce musicals from the Golden Age of Musicals that have been unjustly neglected.” That leaves something out: non-musicals, musicals written after the Golden Age of Musicals (often said to have ended with the original production of Fiddler on the Roof), musicals that have been popular ever since. (Am I ranting?)


Quality of Life Statements

Anyway, this chapter isn’t about Mission Statements; it’s about Quality of Life Statements, which are about how you want to live your life.

Unlike Mission Statements and Vision Statements, which are for the world to see, the Quality of Life Statement is for the members of the company only. A QoLS “will help you choose, envision, and attract what to bring into your life,” Hayes says. It does that by focusing on “our personal wants and needs. That black-and-white statement spells out plainly what you’re after.” In other words, it describes the life you want to create. And also suggest what you don't want—again, it should create things that fall outside it’s boundaries. QoLS’s allow you to know what to say “no” to.

What makes it different from a Mission Statement is that it is about how you and your partners (and your families and your friends) want to live. Hayes provides an outline of the process, which I will summarize below, that she used for her farm that includes three generations of family:
  1. Start with core values. Make sure everyone agrees on them.” For instance, Hayes and her family were not interested in “any kind of business or lifestyle choice if it depletes the soil, pollutes the air, or fouls the water, or if it pushes you toward divorce, estranges you from your kids, or tears apart your community.” Put in positive terms, they wanted their lives to be environmentally-friendly; provide enough time to support their marriage; spend lots of time with their kids and parents; and that contributed to a stronger sense of community. So if they are trying to decide whether to, say, buy a large piece of land that adjoins their property in order to expand their operations, they would need to discuss whether the acquisition would create stress and time demands that would undermine the strength and enjoyment of family.
So start with yourself: what are the central values that you feel strongly about? What kind of life do you want to lead? How much time do you want to devote to the company? How many days do you want to have off each week? Do you think it would be good to have sabbaticals built into your career? Would such a sabbatical be for rest and restoration, or would there also be a component devoted to exploring new ideas? Do you want your theater to be environmentally friendly and use as few raw materials as possible? Make a list, and then prioritize them: which are preferences, and which are do-or-die needs? When you start adding to the company, ask potential members to do this exercise to determine whether their values are compatible with yours. You're not looking for an identical list, but whether there is a fit between your list and their's. 
  1. List the people that you want to populate your daily life. Who are you and your family members making time for, no matter what? In what ways do you expect to make time for them?” I sincerely believe that, if this question had been discussed long ago, the 6-day/8-performance week of most professional theaters would never have happened. The current theater world is notoriously hostile to families and extremely difficult on relationships. It can be very difficult to just have a life outside the theater. Amber Gray, one of the leading performers in the Broadway production of Hadestown, said in an interview in the New York Times that she “asked for an alternate to do the Sunday matinee and Tuesday night [performances], so that I could have three days off, away from that building, one of those days being Sunday, when my children are not in school. I wasn’t seeing my kids, and that was deeply painful. I didn’t have kids to not raise them.” How might your theater support (or at least not prevent) the growth and happiness of members’s whole lives, not just their artistic lives? (You might want an entire company of hard-driving artists who have no interest outside of the theater work they do, and that’s up to you, as long as you’re all on the same page. In my opinion, that will quickly lead to burnout, but you do you.)
  2. Describe the home and land surrounding you as you want it to be. Full of your kids’ friends? Serene and quiet?…Is everything in place? Or do you accept and welcome chaos?” Again, imagine what your theater is like to be at. And I would say not just for you and the other members, but for your audience as well. When you arrive at the theater, how do you want it to feel? For instance, are company members’s kids welcome to hang out at rehearsal, even if they are not quiet like a mouse? Is there a theater cat? When a spectator opens the door, how are they greeted? What about after the show—is there a place for the spectators to gather to have a refreshment and talk about the show? Do the performers join them? If an audience member encounters a company member at the grocery store, how do you want them to talk to each other? How is that embodied by the way you lay out your space?
  3. Describe how each of you sitting at the table wants to spend your time.” Visualize your day and your week. What times of the day do you want to have available for family time? For seeing friends? For spiritual pursuits? Do you want to always be working on the next show, or do you wany some time available to explore other ideas, art forms, or theatrical traditions?
  4. What are the essentials that must be in your life in order to enjoy it? Foreign holidays? Mornings off? Daily naps? Camping trips? Home-cooked meals? Dinners out?” Being a theater artist should not involve sacrificing everything that you find pleasurable. That’s the way to create stress and burnout. But also be aware of the word “must” in that first sentence. This isn’t a laundry list of “wouldn’t it be nice” items; it’s about the things that make your life worth living. On the other hand, don’t think you can live like a monk for years on end (unless you can, and your other company members can as well)!
Hayes notes that “everyone sitting around the table doesn’t need to agree on everything. A lot of answers will be unique to each person. That’s fine. But you need to hear one another. You need to know what makes each person…tick, what makes them buzz with joy or feel like life sucks. And then figure out what you can agree on, and what you can agree to disagree on. That’s a good enough start on a QOLS. Tack it up where you can all see it and refer to it and move on.”

It doesn’t have to be long. Here’s what Shannon and her husband created together in one morning when they were just starting out: “We wanted lots of time together, and plenty of rest. We wanted a home-centered life with family, friends, and community around us. We wanted quality food, lots of music, clear water, fertile soil, time to travel, and lots of time to play outdoors. And there were the dogs. We needed to pursue lives worthy of our dogs’ esteem and companionship. We wanted the farm to thrive. I needed to write. He needed to work with his hands.”

Keep it simple.

Let’s pretend that the people in your company value home-cooked meals and many really love sharing a meal with those with whom they’re working. Perhaps you could arrange to cook a couple meals together each week and eat around a large table at the theater. Maybe it would be a pot luck, and once a month audience members were invited to join the company members as well! Maybe you'd build a kitchen and eating area into your space. Do you see how this is different than a Mission Statement? This is about your day-to-day joys and lives!

This is an opportunity to learn who you are working with, and it relies on people being honest about their needs, wants, and desires. It is part of the Planning Process, an important preliminary activity prior to starting The Work.

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