50 Things I Learned About Leading A Big Team
Good day! How you do?
I thought it would be good to write about my experience working with a big team. I’ll forever be grateful for everything that everyone has contributed to the process. And let me be clear, it wasn't all doom and gloom when working on JUMBIE. But you know, as they say, there is the good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s be grown about this, there is no such thing as the perfect process. I’m writing this because I don’t think I’ve read many things about messy creative processes. And it’s time that people start being more brutally honest about it.
There were a bunch of things that happened in the 5-week creation period, 2 COVID cases, someone having long COVID, someone having a long term illness and needing surgery, an injury, a dental emergency, and someone’s family member passing away. All of that alone is a lot, which led to a necessary cancellation. But there was way more.
We were resurrecting the Jumbie dance, a trance ritual. One element of the Jumbie dance was healing, the irony. It is something that no longer exists. There is no footage of it online anywhere, there is only one book on it. I was mostly working from the one book, journals that mentioned the Jumbie dance briefly, and what I was told by Montserratian people in interviews.
I would have benefited from having more time to sit with my research and ideas. 2 years wasn't enough. There was also an element of decolonising going on and I don't think some members of the team were ready for it. The fact that the work didn't happen, and the Jumbie dance was done in secret is fascinating. And something I will further explore in the future, as my ancestors didn’t want this particular public performance. Something written and kept in the archives is probably more fitting.
Me writing and sharing this is a part of my learning and healing. If you can't handle the truth, please stop reading. I’m already known for speaking my mind anyway. There's a side to every story, and this is my side. So, let's get to it. I started my practice off as a solo artist. I have now transitioned into becoming an artistic director of my own company. Going from working in mostly small teams to leading a process that had multiple collaborators and performers is such a big jump.
There was a clash of experiences and backgrounds for sure, as people had different expectations of what a process should be. My company Dudaan currently consists of me and my producer. With some support here and there but that was it. My team for JUMBIE had 16 people. There were also some other people I had to deal with outside of the team. This team needed a team behind it. To me, it’s unrealistic to put all of that work on a new company that is only still a baby.
Another reason I’m writing this blog post is that I would hate for anyone to go through what I went through. I’m also leaving names out and making some things quite vague because I’m a decent human being.
I'm in no way innocent. Here are some of the bad things I’ve done:
- I gave up. With all that went on, I was overwhelmed. I also didn't feel like the performers were listening to me. Although, I felt I gave a lot. From emails including Google docs of the breakdown of all my research to a creation period plan to the dramaturgy of energies to my intentions for the work to useful quotes. Some of these were even printed out and put on the walls in the rehearsal space. After all of this, and the things I shared with them and repeated in the space, it just wasn't sticking with them. But they would listen to other people in the team. So, I thought it would be best for other people to engage with them instead of me. Not the wisest decision, but it felt right to me. I was also scrolling through socials on my iPhone a bit too much, after giving up. I should have been giving the performers my full attention. But as I said, I gave up.
- I got some anonymous feedback from the performers. Because I needed clarity on what they needed going forward. I didn't get what I wanted from the feedback. But I was told there was anxiety in the room. And that I take things too personally and get very defensive. Because of this, I needed time to figure out how to communicate with the performers. And it hurt to receive the feedback because I set up Dudaan to create brave and safe spaces for Black queer artists. I still engaged with the performers. But I probably wasn't doing enough to everyone else’s standards. I was talking to my mother about being told that I make the performers anxious. And she asked: “why because you're a Black man?” At first, I didn’t think that was the case. But now after doing some reflecting, I believe that was the case. As I doubt the performers have been led by many Black men before.
And now onto the main part of the blog. Here are the 50 things I learned:
1) Leading a team is like being a parent. Some people don't stop being children.
2) Be mindful of the way you express yourself. And I hate to say that because it may come across like I’m saying police yourself. I’m not! However, some people can’t handle bluntness, but I would argue if someone can’t handle the way you express yourself, they shouldn’t be working with you. Honestly, I did the bare minimum, I never disrespectfully cussed at anyone, rarely raised my voice and I was told there was anxiety in the room. I feel that I was vilified for being a Black man. The space was giving anti-Blackness because I couldn’t be myself.
3) Just because someone wouldn’t lead the way you would, or make work the way you would, doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
4) Take accountability for things that were in your control, nothing else. Don’t expect other people to take accountability, though.
5) People bring their anxiety, trauma and insecurities into the room and project them onto you. If you’re not a professional, there is nothing you can do besides be patient.
6) If you’re feeling shit, you’re allowed to feel it. Don’t pretend to be happy all the time. That’s unhealthy.
7) You’re not a terrible person if you want to have lunch by yourself. I’m an ambivert. I can be outgoing but I like my space and peace when I’m at work.
8) Only apologise if necessary. Apologising can sometimes cause more harm than good.
9) Snakes exist. Watch your back. I was told that I created an unsafe and toxic environment. And that there was anxiety in the room. I found this puzzling as there was an intimacy co-ordinator. I and the performers discussed what they are not comfortable doing. I took it in and accepted it. One performer said I never caused them any harm. And then another performer said they’ve rarely been anxious in the process, and asked who said that? Hmm. Interesting.
10) Have boundaries in place. This will be different for each person.
11) Making work in a pandemic is not the one. I hate having a plan B, but having a plan B will be so beneficial since we’re currently in a pandemic.
12) Expect to kiss ass a lot. People love to be complimented all of the time. Some people are not secure within themselves and need constant validation. But also collaborators could be out of their comfort zone and need reassurance that they're doing a good job.
13) Consider leadership of giving, instead of leadership of expectation. You may think you have given a lot, but continue to give more.
14) Just because something isn't clear to someone, doesn't mean it’s not clear. Some people are slow. Some people need time to catch up, even if it may take up until the last week of rehearsal. If someone says “none of this makes sense!” in the last week of rehearsal, you probably should’ve never worked with them in the first place.
15) If your project is ambitious be aware there could be bias, jealousy and resentment in the room. I say that because I'm a young, Black, queer, artistic director of my own company, and got just over 50k from Arts Council to make something, as well as commissioned on top of that. People be salty.
16) If you need to have a bitch, only bitch to someone that is completely outside of the process. Don't bitch to your colleagues.
17) People have certain views on power, and once you have it, people will treat you differently because of it. That's what comes with levelling up. But I felt powerless in my process.
18) Don’t work with friends. There can be a blurring that can become dangerous. And they might not take you seriously as a leader.
19) Making work is vulnerable and people show their vulnerabilities in different ways.
20) White people’s whiteness will pop out eventually. You may think you found good white people, ha. Watch it.
21) All skin-folk ain’t kinfolk. I thought my people (Black people) would have my back.
I was wrong. Only two out of the seven did.
22) Just because someone says they can do something doesn’t mean they can. I thought I was working with people that could devise, they knew it was a devised process, it was mentioned in their contracts, but I kept getting looks from people like they were Alice in Wonderland. People lie because they want to be a part of something.
23) Work with people that already have an interest and experience engaging with African diaspora religions and BDSM. A lot of people are not about that life.
24) Some people are still very much colonised whether they realise it or not. People are freaked out about engaging with the dead. If you come across people like this, don’t work with them.
25) It doesn't take one person to create a toxic environment. It's a group effort.
26) People show up to work all the time, but it doesn't mean that their heart is truly in it.
27) Trust your gut. Don't let people gaslight you.
28) Repetition is necessary. However, if you’re still talking about that same thing in week 4 of the process, it’s starting to become a piss-take. I came across this lovely quote on Instagram:
“Stop over-explaining yourself.
If they wanted to understand, they would.” - The Pulp Girls
29) Work with people you are compatible with. Think of it as a romantic relationship, if it's working, yay. If it's not, it's not. It's time to move on.
30) If you check out mentally, don't let anyone try and take over the process, especially if you're Black and they are white. Watch out for the coloniser!
31) Not every idea needs to be a collaborative process. Some things just might be for you alone, and that’s okay. Fuck sharing shit with everyone. Because not everyone deserves it.
32) Mental health is tricky. There were access forms sent out to the team members. And no one mentioned issues with mental health, even though it was evident that it was present in the process. Some people will have difficulty being honest about any issues they have with mental health and that’s fine. People need things, but not everyone knows what they need.
33) Don’t take on too much. I was the lead artist, co-director and performer. I also took on some other roles when people couldn't come into the space due to illness, etc.
34) Things may seem way worse to other people than they do to you. And then here comes the white saviour to save the day because they think the space is unsafe due to their issues.
35) Listen. Don't take things personally and try not to get defensive. But expect people to take things personally and to get defensive.
36) If your mental health starts to take over - STOP. No work is worth this amount of stress.
I nearly checked into a mental institution.
37) Don’t let people overstep their roles. No seriously, don’t. People get excited and carried away.
38) People have an agenda and will project their views onto things.
39) Make compromises but not to the point where you become numb to the work.
40) Have a mediator and therapist present in the process from the beginning. You can’t hold everything.
41) Trust in people but mostly trust in yourself. People are fickle.
42) People will bitch to you about one person, although will point the finger at you with them in a group setting.
43) You can always benefit from having more time and money. If you need more flexibility around when your work can be made, then you need more flexibility. Don’t work on an organisation’s schedule, work around what is best for you and the work.
44) Not everything is your job. But expect to be blamed for things that are not your job.
45) I thought that since I was working with adults, I shouldn’t have to check up on them to make sure they are doing their job. But I’ve learnt that you have to check up on people, even if they agreed to do some work by signing a contract. Line management is vital.
46) People find it difficult to express themselves. Create something that will help make it easier for them.
47) High school never ends. People change once they start getting closer to other people.
48) Don't be surprised that secret conversations about you are happening. I had a feeling this was going on, next thing you know I was having a conversation where my character was assassinated. I was unfairly compared to Chris Goode because I checked out of the process, and stepped back slightly from engaging with the performers. I was told that the process is like a Chris Goode process. For those of you who don't know, he was a theatre maker, who was an abuser, and predator and later was outed as a paedophile after he committed suicide. Even though I wasn't called those awful things, to me, you can’t separate the man from the process. And no one did or said anything to defend me, which led to me crying hysterically.
49) Don’t be surprised if you get ganged upon. If you ever feel unsafe in your process, do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Take from that what you will.
50) If anyone said or did something wrong to you in a process, never speak to them again.
Okay, that was quite extreme. But make sure to take as much space from them as humanly possible.
This list is quite long. But the struggle was real. I am still learning and growing. This process has helped me become wiser in my approach to making work in the future. And I am determined to come back stronger. This is my experience, not saying this will be the same for anyone else. I hope I haven't put anyone off of leading a big team. If you want to do this, I believe in you. Just make sure you have all of the support, time and the right team around you because I didn’t. And remember that you're human, not Superman, even if people want you to be.