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It Should Matter That It's You

I grew up doing theatre, went to college for theatre, and taught theatre for a few years. Nearly all of my theatre experience --- as a performer, teacher, director, stagehand, designer, or even audience member --- was non-profit and the bulk was non-professional. High school, university, community, non-profit regional.

I saw a lot of shows where it didn't seem to matter who had directed it, or who had designed it. So many high school and community theatre shows are bad reproductions of the professional version of the same show. Musicals, comedies, murder mysteries... musical comedy murder mysteries. Names the audience recognizes, with poorly built sets that look pretty much the same as every other production of the show, and costumes assembled from what seems like the same pile of thrift-store refuse.

The major license holders that lease titles to amateur and non-profit theatres make this boring situation even worse by selling convenient production packages. You can rent costumes, props, and scenery along with performer scripts and orchestral scores. Everything shows up in a bunch of boxes, you pull your show out, and ship everything back when you are done.

There are a lot of problems here. It leads to boring theatre; it devalues the talent of individual contributors; it promotes the idea that culture and art come from some other place and even passionate amateurs are really just consumers.

This inside the box approach teaches everyone involved that there is one right way of doing things. And that gives the impression that outcomes exist on a one-dimensional scale of quality: it was either a good version of the same thing, or a bad version. (One might say, a good copy or a bad copy.)

Of course, the number of things that can affect the one-dimensional rating is pretty small. With school shows, its usually money --- schools with rich parents do a better copy than schools with poor parents. It also might mean talent --- better dancers doing the same moves, a better school band playing the score, a better actor playing the lead. (This is mostly money, too --- but at least it's slightly indirect.)

This one-dimensional scale affects how audiences perceive the work. The most common compliment you will ever hear from audience members in an amateur setting is, "It was so professional." If the complimenter is an arts fan, this will be followed by a comparison between the present production and some other "real" production (yes, that word gets used), and how this one was "just as good."

It isn't just as good, of course. One wonders --- why not just stay home and watch the movie?

It also affects the way people talk about career trajectory. As a teenager doing theatre, I was constantly told about New York. Someone saw a show in New York and thought of me. I should move to New York when I grow up. That director is really good... did you hear? He's from New York. This is the way they do it in New York.

Local, Specific

I never had any interest in this approach.

Maybe it was because I was never any good at copying. My attempts in that vein were always quite low on the one-dimensional quality scale.

I just wasn't interested in making a copy of someone else's production.

When other theatre kids were listening to cast recordings and looking at coffee-table books about Broadway, I was reading Brook, Artaud, Mamet. When everyone else was dreaming about New York, I dreamed about a Living Theatre, a Poor Theatre, a Holy Theatre.

I wanted to create something that was specific. Something local. Something that could only be created there, that time. Not just my vision as a director or designer --- though, yes, that too. But the synthesis of everyone's vision. This particular team, in this particular space.

One of the most interesting books on theatre I've ever read was an account of a tour by Peter Brook's company. (It may have been The Open Circle, but I'm not sure.) The book detailed how they adapted each venue they performed in, and how the show itself adapted to each new location. The same actors, the same production, was different each place they performed.

If a change in building matters that much, how can it make any sense that a thousand productions with different casts and different directors, in different cities, should all look so much alike?

Not Just Theatre, Not Just Me

It's been a long time since I've done any theatre, but I continue to be bad at making copies.

When I sold insurance, I developed my own pitch. When I was a church choir director, our repertoire and programming wasn't the same as anyone else's.

And I'm hardly unique in this desire to be unique.

Speaking of church music, my current parish has perhaps the oddest assemblage of musical variety I've ever encountered in a single worshipping community. There's a professionally trained opera singer, a banjo-playing early music specialist, a bluegrass band, a gospel choir, and a pipe organ. On any given Sunday you might hear a Bach chorale, some Gregorian chant, a contemporary Gospel number, your grandmother's favorite hymn, and a Johny Cash song. It's weird, and it doesn't always work. But it's unlike any other place. And even though it would drive some people crazy, there are a bunch of us who can't really imagine being anywhere else.

Tech Writing

What are the chances that you can be the best at something? I mean really --- in the top 1% of any particular skill?

I am not the best writer. I'm certainly not the best coder. Not the best project manager. Not the one best, and probably not even one of the best, in any of the individual skills needed to have a career as a Technical Writer. But my career has taken off since I have focused on answering two questions:

  • What is my unique combination of skills?
  • What is my particular approach to technical writing?

I gave up trying to be the best, and have focused on being myself.

Let me clarify that I don't especially try to be different. I don't go out of my way to find out what other tech writers are doing and then do things differently. I think each one of us is different naturally. We have particular experiences, preferences, interests. Some of these differences are big (work experience, degrees), and some are minor (favorite editor) --- but each of us is particular.

Focus on the particular, and the right opportunities find you. And just as importantly --- focus on the particular, and the wrong opportunities avoid you like the plague.

Have you ever told someone in an initial interview what technologies you like to work with and which ones you don't want to have anything to do with? Or told them what you love and hate about doing this job?

If you're a bad fit for a job, you find out right away. And if you're a good fit, you find that out, too.

What About You?

What makes you weird? What do you like that everyone else thinks is silly? What does everyone do the same that you absolutely hate? How is your writing different than anyone else?

Further Reading

The ideas here are mine, but not mine alone. You may also appreciate:


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