Monday, March 14, 2011

Addendum: Your Theatre's "Why"

Last week, I wrote a series of posts addressed to a theatre major getting ready to graduate about "finding your why." Let me take a moment to state the obvious: finding your "why" is critical not only to you personally, but to your theatre as well.

Simon Sinek, in the video I have linked to several times, tells us that "people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it," and that you don't want to sell to everyone who wants to buy your product, but to those who "believe what you believe." In other words, you don't want to sell your productions as just another commodity, but rather create what Seth Godin would call a "tribe" that is committed to the type of work that you find valuable.

If you look at all the mission statements for theatres across this US, what you will find most of the time are bland generalities that basically boils down to "we do theatre," which is a what. If the "why" of your theatre is "so I can promote my career," there is nothing there for the potential audience to buy into, no reason for them to be loyal, or to follow the development of your work. People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

Many of the large regional institutions started out with a very strong "why," which came out of the passionate beliefs of the founders. But it is when leadership is passed from the founder to the next generation that mission "slip," as Sinek calls it in the chapter of "Start With Why" called "Slip Happens," is most likely to occur. The board goes out looking for a new leader, and finds somebody who is dynamic and charismatic, but who has an entirely different idea for the organization. And that's fine, as long as the organization completely changes direction. But it rarely does, because the Board also wants to hold onto the already-existing audience, all of whom bought the "why" of the founder. The result often ends up being a "fuzzy why," and slowly the audience will drift away, because they instinctively will sense that something has changed -- they no longer know "who you are."

So develop a clear, dynamic "why for your theatre, one that everyone is on board with. If the only way to get agreement is to create a "why" that is bland and general, so that it covers all the bases at once, then you have problem that may only be solved by getting rid of those who don't share the vision. Jim Collins says that an important part of going from "good to great" is to get the right people on the bus. The first step to doing that is to make sure the bus is clearly labeled with a destination, and that everybody on the bus wants to go there.


Dani L. said...

I have loved this whole series. Thank you so much for sharing your advice and contributing such great ideas to the conversation.

I'd already been working to apply the Big Why to my theater group, and reading this post just made it that much more helpful.

Thank you!

-A Former Theater Major

Dave Charest said...

Scott, I haven't followed your series. But I have seen Sinek's Ted talk. It's absolutely amazing.

This post is right on the money.

Thank you!

Moe said...

I'm going to have to disagree. The "Why" is only useful as long as it leads to an excellent "what." I don't know the mission statement of the theaters I frequent: I go because they put on great shows. Conversely, I've seen many, many inspired, hopeful and driven performance groups churn out total crap in the name of Saving the Planet or Inspiring Awe or Preserving the Work of Dead Playwrights. Intention is no substitution for craft.

Carly said...

I can tell you my why for the theatre company I hope to start one day (like every other theatre person in the world, I want to start one too.): to enhance literacy through unconventional means; to inspire a love of learning; to teach young people to be self-sufficient humans by providing them with responsibility, encouragement, and the tools to be thinkers and creative problem-solvers; to provide a space for the exploration of literature; to create a safe space for risk-taking and self-discovery. That's a monumental task, but I hope to accomplish each slowly and with delight.

Scott Walters said...

Moe -- It isn't that your "what" is unimportant, but that it needs to be an outgrowth of your "why." The audience may or may not know your "why," but they sense it nonetheless. It is what creates subscribers rather than single ticket buyers, followers rather than consumers.

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