Monday, August 23, 2010

Group projects and deadlines

Earlier this month, I worked as part of a team to create a short film for the 48 Hour Film Project. I had participated in this project once before, in 2007. That year, I was only involved as an actor. Our day of shooting started early in the morning on Saturday and continued until well after midnight. Still, most of the other members of the team had been writing all night on Friday and still had to edit all day Sunday. This made my job relatively easy.

This year, I was more involved in the whole process, mostly the script writing. I also had a small but fun non-speaking role.

Our team didn't end up winning, but I thought our final product was funny and quite polished, considering the limited time we had to create it. The process was both stressful and exciting, and it made me think about my experiences with group projects and deadlines in the past.

In fall of 2002, I spent an intense and life-changing semester at The Eugene O'Neill National Theater Institute. One of our first assignments was to dramatize a portion of a novel, working in small groups. Staying up late to work on the first night, I became completely giddy and useless to my group, joking and - literally - rolling around on the floor. This was not amusing to the poor folks on my team who were actually trying to complete our assignment. One of them had prescription medication for ADD which she gave me, as a last-ditch effort to try to get me to function like a normal human being. Unfortunately the pill only caused me to be more focused on my mission to distract the others.

Looking back on this amusing but embarrassing moment, I think I was overwhelmed by the challenge of the group project, and my antics were a way of pretending I didn't care about it, when in reality I was so afraid of failure that I essentially gave up. I was also attention-hungry and wanted everyone to think I was funny, a common but terribly annoying trait many of us theater people suffer from. Thankfully, the next day I more or less snapped out of it and got down to business, but I'm sure I still caused our group to lose precious time and hurt the process overall.

Over the course of that semester at NTI, with classes 7 days a week and little contact with the outside world, I was presented with so many "impossible" projects and tactful but ego-bruising criticism, that I emerged a far better team player than I had been on that first project.

Working with a group is still a challenge for me, and there are a few questions I use to "check-in" with myself throughout group projects:

Do I need to let this idea go? So often, as the clock ticks and the deadline approaches, we can't seem to stop ourselves from obsessing over a small detail. Why can't the other group members see how brilliant our little idea is? I try to remind myself to pick my battles. It is absolutely OK to spend a few minutes selling the group on an idea that you feel really passionate about. But you are not allowed to get over-attached to every little thing that pops in your head. This will just hold the process back. The flip side of this is...

Am I resisting an idea that one of my team members is passionate about? Sometimes someone else may suggest something that seems a bit off to you, but is really important to them. If you kinda-sorta disagree with them, but they have strong feelings about their idea, step back and let them run with it.

Is it too late in the process for my awesome new idea? At some point, the group has to commit to an idea. Sometimes you reach a point where it actually is in the best interest of the group to trash that entire idea (and all the work and time devoted to it) and start fresh. But that is a last resort, and if you keep doing that, you will never meet the deadline. This means you need to let go of some new and awesome ideas that unfortunately popped into your head a little too late. Jot them down in a notebook and save them for a future project.

Is my awesome idea worth all of the additional resources needed to make it happen? To use the 48 Hour Film as an example, you lose precious time if you have to move to a new location or locate a new actor or drive to store after store looking for that elusive perfect prop. Is it worth it? Sometimes, yes. But not all the time. There may be a more simple solution that will work almost as well. Don't let perfectionism drag you down.

Basically, all of these questions are various ways of asking Am I listening to my ego or am I doing the best thing for the project? I know this is something I struggle with. But after many years of practice (also known as fucking up), I do think I'm getting better at honestly assessing my motivations. Group projects with deadlines are excellent learning opportunities, useful for all artists to seek out and participate in. Try it, fuck up, and learn :)

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