The Art of Communication

Communication

How to Communicate With All the People in Your Process—From Creation to Production

This article is based on episode 12 of my podcast, A Scott in the Dark, and the topic is communication—communication throughout the whole process, from creation to installation. I also did a video for my YouTube channel of this episode, so you can watch that, too.

In this article, I’m going to talk about how to communicate between creatives and directors and directors and producers—you know, the people who have the money—and how to pitch new ideas. Also, I did a great interview with scenic designer and educator Chris Kleckner when I was at HAuNTcon, and highlights from that are included here, too. I’ll also be talking about a terrific new book that will help you with brainstorming. It’s called The Event Brainstormer and was written by Bob Glickman.

The Challenge

So, I’m going to start by talking about communication in general. In this industry, you need to communicate with a whole bunch of different people in different ways. In my position, I often have to communicate with somebody I don't know, somebody who has a brand-new project they want me to work on. They give me bits and pieces, and I have to figure out how to share what I can do for them. Then, after the project is approved and I'm working on it, I have to communicate with their designers—or select designers to work with—and figure out who can I communicate with the best. I have to communicate with the other folks who are on my level of the corporate hierarchy. I have to find ways to communicate with the marketing people, the merchandise people, and the culinary people, if those are part of the project. And I have to be able to communicate with the cast. I have to find out how to translate the artistic vision that either I’ve developed or is being interpreted by me and communicate that to the front-line performers.

So, I’m going to start by talking about communication in general. In this industry, you need to communicate with a whole bunch of different people in different ways. In my position, I often have to communicate with somebody I don’t know, somebody who has a brand-new project they want me to work on. They give me bits and pieces, and I have to figure out how to share what I can do for them. Then, after the project is approved and I’m working on it, I have to communicate with their designers—or select designers to work with—and figure out who can I communicate with the best. I have to communicate with the other folks who are on my level of the corporate hierarchy. I have to find ways to communicate with the marketing people, the merchandise people, and the culinary people, if those are part of the project. And I have to be able to communicate with the cast. I have to find out how to translate the artistic vision that either I’ve developed or is being interpreted by me and communicate that to the front-line performers.

Find Out the Goals, and Learn How to Translate

I’ve discovered over the years that communication is kind of tough. It’s challenging, because you can’t talk to everybody with the same language or give them the same information. I found that the easiest way for me to do this is to figure out, first off, what goals my client is trying to accomplish. In fact, when I do new proposals for anything, this is one of the first things on the written document—what are the goals of this project? Maybe those goals are to terrify the most guests or entertain the most guests or earn the most money or make the facility the star so it can be a marketing tool for other things. All of these are valid goals, but you have to identify what goal you’re addressing depending on who you’re talking to.

For example, the marketing person’s goal is to get as many people through the door as possible. The artistic director or creative director’s goal is usually to create the most amazing event they possibly can—the most artistically interesting and challenging. The producer’s goal, as the person who signs the checks, may be to make as much money as possible. The front-line actor’s goal may be to have the most fun and scare the most people. So, by identifying and talking about those goals, you’re able to figure out what words, what phrases, what things you can bring to the forefront.

Now, once I’ve done that, most of my job as a communicator during the planning and installation of an event is to act as the translator. I serve as the translator between the producer or client to the actors to let them know that the operational side is important. Without that operational side, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to scare people and do what they want to do. So, it’s all about making connections among the various goals, and that’s actually a lot simpler than it sounds.

First, you want to make certain everybody understands what’s important to this group of people, what’s important to that group of people, and what’s important to you. These goals may all be different things. It’s vitally important to recognize what’s important to each individual and be able to synergize and make connections among all the powers that be and all the elements within any production. Otherwise, you run the risk of things being siloed and having a bunch of ivory towers operating next to each other.

Communication

Emphasize the Importance of Collaboration

Another way to think of it like a shopping mall. Every store has its own goal, but, when they work together, they create an overall shopping experience. The same is true of a haunted attraction—or any performance element, really. It’s a collaborative effort. You have to make certain that the sum of the parts is greater than all of the individual parts, and that’s exactly what happens in a good theatrical production. Hopefully, people can understand that and understand what’s important to other people. That will help you choose the language and information you want to share with them.

That’s a kind of a long diatribe on the basics of communication within the industry, but it really is the best way to start when you’re trying to communicate with a bunch of different people.

Set Good Groundwork to Create Win-Win Scenarios

So, how can you apply all this information? Say it’s your first year as the director of a theatrical piece or a haunted attraction or whatever. The most important thing for you to do is set good groundwork so you can continue to do this and continue to be profitable for years to come. The more you’re able to find ways to communicate that to the rest of your team, the more likely it is they’ll be able to help you with it.

If you’re an actor and it’s the first time you’ve worked in a haunted attraction, you need to really listen to the director so you’re clear on what their their goals are, what they want to accomplish, and do what you can to help them accomplish them. In the same way, if you’re a director, you have to listen to your actors. If you hear your actors saying, “I just want to get out there and scare people,” don’t bore them with the business side but make them understand that the more successful they are at scaring people, the more successful the event will be and the happier you and the producer will be. It’s basically figuring out how to explain to people how multiple goals can work simultaneously to support each other and create win-win scenarios. That’s really the basics of communication.

Chris Kleckner on Communication

Now, let’s get to the interview I did with Chris Kleckner on the tradeshow floor at HAuNTcon. As I mentioned, he’s a scenic designer-builder-production-manager sort of dude, an all-around, get-things-done kind of guy. We had this discussion about directors and creatives talking to designers and how they don’t always speak exactly the same language.

Chris said he’d noticed from a designer standpoint that sometimes directors and writers don’t always tell you what they’re looking for or how they want things done. I asked him, “What’s the biggest stumbling block for you when that happens?”

“It’s listening to those words and then trying to extrapolate what they actually mean,” he replied. “A director has an entire vision of the entire concept of the entire production they’re working on, whereas designers spend all their time focusing on one aspect, and their whole world revolves around that one aspect. So, the level of detail from the broad strokes of the director to the fine brush of a designer is sometimes a little difficult to transpose.”

Sometimes, as a director, I know it’s hard to focus on all the fine points that a designer needs to know. I’m always a big proponent of presenting the information and then allowing time to sit down with the designer to ask questions and talk about it back and forth. I asked Chris if he found this approach helpful or a waste of time.

“It’s definitely helpful. I think that conversation eventually gets reduced as you develop a relationship with that director,” he replied. “When you’re working with someone for the first time—especially because directors are passionate about what they do, and they’re passionate about the projects they work on—it’s sometimes hard for them to trust that someone they’ve never worked with before will approach the project with the same amount of honesty and earnestness as they do. I can definitely understand why they’d have a hard time doing that.”

I agree with Chris. It’s same with a designer. A designer may want every little detail to be there and be 100%, even if it’s something nobody will ever see in a dark haunted attraction. I asked Chris what we can do to make the conversation easier and more efficient between designers and directors. What kinds of information can directors offer to designers to make them inspired to do their job?

Chris responded, “I know what I want as a director, but, also, I’ve hired a designer for a reason. They’ve got experience—not just in what can be done but in what they’ve done in the past. I want them to bring their experience to the table. So, I tell them, ‘Here’s what I’m looking for, but what do you think?’ Often that sparks something else, and what we come up with together will be much better than what either one of us would have come up with independently.”

I asked Chris what he thought a director could do to get to that place. What kinds things can a director share with a designer to make their jobs easier?

Communication

Adjectives, Research, and Collaboration

“The approach you just described is a fantastic outlook on a source, on a project, on a scope of what we’re working on. Sometimes directors think they know exactly what they want, which is often that you to pull the set they have in their head out of their head and put it on the stage for them,” said Chris. The easiest way to do this is adjectives. Adjectives, adjectives, adjectives. We may only choose four of those at the end of the day, but I’ve never worked on a project where I’ve had too much research or too many adjectives to pull from. We can decide which ones are good and which ones are bad later. I equate this to an actor. An actor brings things to the table, and it’s the director’s job to eventually decide what to keep, what to lose, what to build off of. We have to bring a pile of stuff first, and that’s what I like to do,” he explained.

“I also do some teaching, and one of the things I have the hardest time teaching students is research, research, research. In the 21st century, research is so much easier than it used to be, but I’ve never been on a project where I’ve had too much research. I always have an idea of what I think something looked like in the 1850s, but I need to do that research again and again and again. Every time I do, I find something different. That something may not ever be used in the project, but I put it in my pocket for some other day, because it’s going to become useful,” said Chris.

“It’s critical to have that open conversation and realize the end game of that conversation is the best story possible. If I’m designing what I believe is the best set possible, I’ve already failed. I want my sets to be so perfect that they go unnoticed by the audience members, because they’re involved in the story. I think we sometimes lose that sense of selflessness, and it becomes a competition of ideas amongst other designers—my set needs to be better than your lights or her costumes or her sound—and that’s not what we’re there to do. We’re all there to use what we’re good at to tell the story in a way that no one’s heard it, seen it, or felt it before. That’s why we continue to do live art.”

Those of you who’ve been listening to my podcasts for a while know exactly why I wanted to talk to Chris, because this is exactly what I’ve been saying. In fact, the moment he mentioned the word “story,” I started doing back flips. It’s interesting that he mentioned the best set in the world. One of my favorite negative critiques was about a theatrical piece in Chicago. The headline was, “Brilliant Set,” and then the article stated, “but the actors kept getting in the way.” Clearly, the actors weren’t very good, but it’s not about the set, it’s not about the lights, and it’s not about the costumes. It’s about all of them and how they work together to tell the story.

“If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t call it a collaborative art,” stated Chris.

Exactly. It would be scenic design or costumes for museums. It’s collaborative, and it’s so important that it remain collaborative. I told Chris I loved his point about it not becoming a battle of my ideas are better than your ideas or my lighting is better than your set. Ultimately, audiences don’t care. They want to be transported somewhere else, and everything has to work together seamlessly so that can happen. The more you can share with each other, the better.

I asked Chris to talk about some of the challenges he’s experienced, like a situation in which somebody says, “I want it to be this.” A friend of mine, who’s an actor, told me a story about his experience with a particular director. He said, “The only direction I got from this director was, ‘I want you to be mythical’.” Do you know how impossible it is for an actor to be “mythical”? Because who knows what that means. It was an adjective, but it was a crappy adjective. I asked Chris about direction he’s gotten in the past that he didn’t know how to interpret.

“From a designer’s perspective, it’s always, ‘I want the elements to float in space,’ and builders always want doors without walls or the doors should be skewed or they don’t want the hinges at a right angle. I have to say, ‘I’m sorry, the doors don’t work that way.’ I have to be honest though,” he said.

Well, I have to say right here that I’m guilty of the, “I want doors without walls.” I did have a designer who got pretty close. It required a welder, and he basically put the doors on a heavy metal base plate, welded a frame, and put wood around it. But it was a trip hazard.

“It’s a tough thing to do, but all builders do it. We always talk about it, we always try to figure out a better way to do it. I’ve used steel, I’ve used wood, I’ve used everything I can think of. But yeah, oftentimes directors are so caught up in the imaginative that they forget we do need to ground some of our thoughts in a reality, at least to give us a jumping-off point. It’s hard for a diver to dive without a springboard. So, once we have that diving board, we can do things like flips in the air or land without a splash. But, we need the diving board and the water first,” Chris noted.

Communication

Using Science to Create Fantasy

I was reminded of Chris mentioning the challenge of pulling the set out of the director’s head. That would be great, except there’s no science in the director’s imagination. You have to deal with the realities. For example, lighting designers will tell you, “I can’t bend the light to go around that set piece. It’s going to cast a shadow.” Audio designers will say, “No, I can’t put a shutter on the speaker so you only hear it when you’re standing here but not here.” We have to always work within the realms of science and reality to create fantasy.

Chris remarked, “On the flip side, as a designer, I want the director to tell me everything they’d love to have. I tell them we don’t have enough time to do all of it, we don’t have enough money to do all of it, and we don’t have enough resources to do all of it, but directors can sometimes limit themselves by only thinking about what’s possible. I don’t want a director to have to do that. We might miss a great opportunity, because I may have solved that problem three years ago or 12 years ago or 15 years ago. We may be able to make things happen that they might not have had experience with. So, I want to hear all that information, and then we’ll worry about how we’re going to pay for it, find the manpower, and what we’ll need to strip away to make it possible,” he said.

“I tell my students that when they first do a sketch for a design, they have an unlimited amount of money, unlimited amount of time, and unlimited amount of manpower, so go design. They’ll have to redesign later, but it’s important to get those ideas down first, because they might be missing out on the best of their six ideas if they know they can’t afford it.”

Bad Ideas Often Spark Great Ideas

And we all know that bad ideas often spark really good ideas. I agree with Chris that you don’t want to edit yourself. That’s part of the rules of brainstorming—never negate, never say no. One of my favorite lighting designers, a gentleman by the name of Chris, offers the advice that after you’ve finished your lighting design, take away 50% of your cues. You don’t have to leave them all out, but, this way, you get it down to what’s essential. If you have to add some back, great, but you’ll more than likely have a much more coherent lighting design without any of the floofy, unnecessary, distracting stuff, because everything you need is there. Then, you can go back and add one or two of the other things.

“Selective focus is important, but we don’t have to tell audiences where to look every single moment. People are pretty smart,” said Chris. “As a builder, I’m pretty good, because I know thousands of things that don’t work, and I’ve allowed myself to try them first. Eventually, I come up with what does, but it’s good to make mistakes and be okay with making mistakes.”

Indeed, the only thing that teaches us is failure, so we have to make those mistakes. You don’t know bad music until you hear bad music. You have to put yourself out there and allow yourself to stumble and fail so you can learn from that. You either learn, “I shouldn’t do that again,” or, “If I do it again, I’m not going to do it that way. I can check off one way that doesn’t work and see if I can find another 50 that do.”

Chris agreed. “Maybe it’s not even as stark as what works and what doesn’t. ‘I did this, and it wasn’t the most efficient way to do it.’ There could have been a cleaner way to do it. At the other end of the process of self-critiquing your own work constantly, you realize that just because it’s done it’s well, that doesn’t mean it’s important. That’s a hard skill to teach students.”

That’s a hard skill to teach anyone. It takes time and experience to be able to say, “This could have been better, and that’s OK.”

“I’ve never worked on a show that I wouldn’t love to revisit and correct,” said Chris. “I can look at anything in my past and see a missed opportunity now that I’m looking at it with fresh eyes. That doesn’t mean it was a failure as a design or as a production, but, being able to step away and look, you’ll always see something that could have been tweaked just a little bit more or finessed just a little bit more gracefully. It’s wonderful to be able to view your own stuff in a sort of postmortem sense, because it humbles you for the next project. I actually love to look for ways to do that, because the more humble I become in what I do, the more honest the story is that I’m trying to tell.”

I agree with Chris that the more humble you become, the more honest you’re able to be and the more each project is about the story and not about you. I’m a huge proponent of people who are confident enough in their work to step out of the way of it.

“Even with fine artists, it’s not about them,” noted Chris. “It’s about their canvas, their sculpture, or whatever their medium is, and that’s how it should be for us. It’s about the story. It’s always about the story. It’s never about the lead actor, it’s never about the classically trained director, it’s never about any of us. We’re simply the vehicle. Somewhere along the line, someone has deemed this story to be worth telling in a different way, and there’s a reason for that in this time and place, and we should all just work toward that.”

So, that was my interview with Chris. I just want to say here that if you have a project, you’d be foolish not to reach out to Chris and see what he can do for you. Obviously, he approaches his work the way so many of my listeners do—from a story-based standpoint and emphasizing the collaborative effort of any form of theater, like we all know haunting is. His contact information can be found at the end of this article.

Communication

The Event Brainstormer—an Invaluable Tool for Generating Ideas

And now let’s get back to our theme of different people having different ways of communicating. I think Chris brought up some excellent points, one of which was brainstorming. Brainstorming is an often-forgotten but essential part of the development of a new project or even polishing an existing project. The idea behind brainstorming is basically to throw as many ideas onto the table as possible. I have a friend who refers to it as “dating ideas rather than marrying them.” Throw out as many cool ideas and possible, and don’t throw anything off the table yet. Chris mentioned not worrying about budget or anything else, because the best idea, or the one that sparks the coolest idea, might be the one that’s the most ridiculously expensive.

In addition to doing brainstorming with your own team, it’s important to have tools and resources to help you. Like I said, I’m all about research, and Chris mentioned the importance of research, too. And that brings us back to The Event Brainstormer by Bob Glickman. It’s available on Amazon. The book’s blurb says, “keep your events fresh, engaging, and successful with over 800 creative concepts and elements for the event professional.” This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a book on how to start your brand-new event planning and producing business. It’s not that. It’s brainstorming in a nutshell. What Mr. Glickman has done is put together list upon list upon list of ideas, with themes, entertainment options, and scenic elements arranged in alphabetical order to not only polish the ideas you may have but to spark new ideas for whatever event you happen to be doing.

The reason I think this is so important to haunters is that we’re basically doing an event—a seasonal festival or event. The more you can make it unique, different, and exciting, the more successful you’re going to be. Maybe you’re thinking about adding something. You may want to sit down, brainstorm, and figure out what you can or should add. Should you add different kinds of queue entertainment? Should you add different scenics? Can you do a party? Can you do an off-season party with a specific theme? There are all kinds of ideas and opportunities in this book.

The layout of The Event Brainstormer makes it amazingly easy to use. It has an introduction: How to Use this Book. It’s then broken down into overarching event themes—everything from a time-period theme to a music theme to an athletic theme. Creative elements are broken down into scenery, performers, entertainment experiences, ideas for costuming, etc. Finally, there are the technical elements—audio, lighting, video, special effects, and that kind of thing. It doesn’t explain to you how Glickman Productions, which is the author’s company, works, but it shares his years and years of experience. It’s an encyclopedia of what he’s tried and what’s worked for him. It can save you a lot of time and energy, not to mention really spark creative ideas for new events, for new elements, for new parties, or whatever.

Best Room

If you’re in the haunt industry or the special events industry, you’re already a professional events planner or producer. I strongly recommend picking up this book, because it’s a great little book. It’s not very long—about 60-some pages, paperback—but it will save you tremendously in labor. You don’t have to hire someone to come in and brainstorm with you or facilitate brainstorming.

I’m curious to see how it affects Bob’s business, because he’s one of those guys that, after over 40 years of producing events, he’s pretty much laid all his ideas out there for everyone else to be inspired by. That’s pretty cool, so, take advantage of it if it seems like something that would be helpful to you.

Reach Scott Swenson at scottswenson.com.

Reach Chris Kleckner at [email protected]

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