I am often asked, “How many shows do you have going on?” And my default answer is “Always at least four”…I don’t mean four different projects or clients; I mean always at least four shows in one. “What?” I hear you saying, “Great, forty words in and I’m all ready confused.” Well, let me explain. I consider every show I do to actually be four projects all going on at once — I call this my “four shows theory.” Let me break this down for you.

1. The Show I Do for Myself

We all got into this business to express our creativity. To work in a field where we can be ourselves or have some degree of control…oh, and we all have egos too — come on, admit it, I know I do! So the show I do for myself is very important, as is the show you do for you. It is where we all get that deep, creative satisfaction and reward. I think we have all been in a situation where we thought the show stunk but everyone else loved it…doesn’t really matter, does it? The praise rings hollow, no matter how abundant. If we aren’t happy with our own work, something irreplaceable is lost. But as I work in the real world, I need to balance that need for self fulfillment with other factors too — or as the inimitable Tom Mendenhall says, “Never let art or ego stand in the way of a good invoice.”

So by all means do the best show you can for yourself, but I suggest you always try to keep it in perspective.

2. The Show I Do as Part of a Team

The second “show” I’m doing is as part of a creative team, and it’s two-fold. The first is as a designer and a team leader, I need to make sure all the people on the lighting crew who work SO hard on my behalf feel their labor is worthwhile. That sometimes means sucking it up and putting on my “big boy pants” after what I thought was a lousy show and sharing some positive energy and gratitude with my crew. No one wants to work hard all day just to see his or her team leader all bummed out at the end.

The second part is my role as part of a broader creative team, working with the production managers, the set designers, the video crew and audio guys. I know there is a history of interdepartmental friction in our business, but it makes me CRAZY. “We all have to win for any of us to win” is my philosophy — it doesn’t matter how great the lighting is, if the audio guys have a crap show, it’s a crap show for all of us.

As a lighting designer, this especially applies to working with the video department. I make sure I talk to the engineers and they have what they need. I try to be one step ahead of the director’s next shot, I make sure they get to white balance, and generally help them as much as I can — I cannot abide the “video verses lighting” mentality some people seem to have. We are symbiotic. I often say, “lighting makes memories, but video makes evidence.” I don’t care if it’s a concert, a corporate show or a special event, the first thing the client will do if they have doubts about how it looked is review the video. I feel it is hard to not sound defensive and childish standing there trying to explain why “it really didn’t look like that” — the client won’t understand, and they won’t be happy.

So be such a consistent team player that people don’t even notice, its just part of who you are — make sure you do everything you can to make sure everyone wins — it’s the only way you can win too.

3. The Show I Do for My Client

Unless one is practicing “pure art,” we all have a boss. It might be a band, might be a business theater producer, might be the client for a special event, but we all have someone we need to keep happy. Their metric for success might be significantly different than ours. So I first try to get as clear as I can on what my clients vision of a “win” is. One concert performer we work with is adamant that the cuing of his video content had better be perfect — useful to know. A different client of mine in the business theater realm is all about the I-Mag — the room has to look good, but the camera is paramount. Both pieces of information are “gold” in terms of making sure my client is happy. Speaking of happy clients, I always tell my team “clients don’t ever get any happier than ‘really happy.’” So if you reach the point where your client is really happy, but you’re still working, perhaps that is a good time to review your motivation. Do you really think your client is going to value you working past that point and spending their money on overtime? Will you risk tipping over into that weird spot where they start to question why you’re still working? Or are you letting the show you do for yourself eclipse the show you do for your client? Now I think we have an obligation to push the creative boundaries, but that needs to be done with caution, and respect. I have heard people say “yeah, but the client doesn’t know anything.” Well, they may or may not. But the one thing they DO know for sure is the phone number of the next ten people standing in line for your gig.

So be really clear on what your clients’ “perfect show” looks like, and make sure that is “one of the four shows” you deliver too.

4. The Show I Do for The Audience

Ultimately, this is often the farthest show from us, but I think the most important. If the audience doesn’t have a great time, it’s really all for naught. If the audience isn’t having fun, none of us are getting hired back.

So try to experience things from their perspective — during rehearsals, get up from the riser or backstage and go sit in the house. In both good seats and bad. Think about how what you’re doing impacts the audience’s experience. For example, are there lights in people’s eyes? Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but a certain LD/editor I really respect always makes sure his Sharpy focuses are as out of the audience as possible. He focuses them into concourses, onto signs, voms or above people’s heads — understanding a Sharpy in the eyes the entire night is a mood killer. These are just a few examples of keeping the show for the audience paramount. I try very hard to make sure the show I’m doing for myself never eclipses the show I’m doing for the audience.

Four Shows = Win

Keeping these “four shows” in balance isn’t always easy, and sometimes they are downright contradictory. But getting really clear on what the “win” is for each of them and reviewing a project using that measure after the fact is really fundamental for me. I find the “four show theory” keeps my work balanced, the needs of the team I’m part of acknowledged, my clients well served and makes sure my ultimate employer, the audience, get the best show I can possibly deliver. Give it a try — I’d be interested to hear how it works for you.