In a former life, I was a scenic and lighting designer for theatrical productions. While nothing I worked on was on Broadway, the egos of the producers, directors, and the choreographers were big enough to be in a traveling circus. As the stage and lighting designer, it was my role to take the hopes and dreams of the technical team and make it come to life, visually. All of the stakeholders had different ideas of what the design should look like and no one ever wanted to step on anyone’s toes (this is community theatre). One such project was for a little play called “A Christmas Story.” For those familiar with the famous line, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” that is exactly what I wanted to do by the end of the project. It is actually the one that ended my stint as a scenic designer. It took years of turning down projects afterwards for them to take a hint that I was out of the business.
According to Portny, Mantel, Meredith, Shafer, Sutton, and Kramer (2008), the scope of a project should be clearly laid out to ensure everyone is in agreement and understands what would be covered under the project build. During our initial meeting, everyone was given a budget and a venue that the show would be held in. The entire creative team sat down and sketched out exactly what they wanted and how they wanted to accomplish it. The team originally understood the budget constraints and kept the thoughts and ideas about the set, minimal. As we left the meeting, everyone had their expectations set and I began to work on my concept designs, knowing what was in the prop shop and the money I had. I wanted to exceed their expectations and amaze them with something truly immersive and exciting. So what went wrong?
In our follow up meeting, it was my duty to deliver my concept art and present the design and cost to build. They became excited at the concept and couldn’t wait to see it built. The only problem was the director than announced that we were changing venues due to scheduling issues. Where did we wind up? In an old vacant strip mall store. Not exactly ideal to build my stage. Now, all the people would be on a level floor so I would have to elevate my stage. There was nowhere to hang lights, so we would have to build scaffolding. I was given a smaller area to build in, shattering the concept I had originally built. The only problem was…I had already shown them the design. Everything that I engineered would have to be rebuilt and changed to accommodate the space without getting additional funding. How did everyone react to my warning?
The stakeholders insisted that it wouldn’t be that hard to build a couple platforms and didn’t understand why I was fluster. I made the mistake of over-promising and never left enough buffer for disasters such as this one. Had I known to hide 20% of my budget, I may have been able to avoid a problem (Laureate Education, n.d.a). I should have under-promised and over-delivered (Laureate Education, n.d.a). As I tried to pull back the design concept to match the budget, only certain stakeholders were satisfied with my plans, but I went with them anyway. The original scope was now abandoned as they expected me to still build the stage, add in new scaffolding pieces, and vary stag levels as if we had a full theatre space.
As I built out the set, actors (supporters), stakeholders (drivers), and parents (observers), all critiqued the lack of scenery (Portny, et. al., 2008). Of course no one cared that we lost the venue that could accommodate the proper set. I was constantly requested to build more out of thin air and people start donating supplies and money to accomplish the vision later in the project timeline. Scope creep continued to be an issue throughout the project as the set continued to be constructed. As I tried to accommodate as best I could, I was left with little time to finish the set by Showtime. Surprisingly everything worked out, but the stress and aggravation made the experience very unenjoyable. How could this have been prevented?
Communication was the biggest issue in this scenario. I believe the director should have contacted everyone before the meeting to let us know the venue was changed (Laureate Education, n.d.b). My design could have been altered appropriately and expectations could have been adjusted. The change produced risks that were not identified early enough to fix the situation. As the project manager, there should never be nasty surprises (Laureate Education, n.d.b). I was blind-sided with the alteration and many of the drivers of the project figured I’d find a way to deliver my original proposal anyway. They had distributed my drawings to everyone, setting unreasonable expectations. It was a tough pill to swallow. If I could have designed less and budgeted for a disaster, I would not have been in the position I was in. Better communication and more buy-in from the start, would have made all the difference.
All I can say is, if life is a stage…then I want better lighting!
Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.a). Creating a resource allocation plan [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu.
Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.b). Monitoring projects [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu.
Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.