How do you deal with difficult people in the theatre? You know the ones; always rude or short tempered, who seem to have no concept or care about their impact on those around them.
If you’re anything like me, your first reaction is to smack ’em round the head with a wet fish. Of course, your second reaction should be to fry the fish and move on but, you don’t. You stew the fish instead, having conversations with said difficult person, over and over in your mind. Snappy smack downs that make you look like a hero but totally destroy the dignity of the offender.
Yep, that feels good for about a minute and then you remember it’s all in your head and nothing has changed. You still have to turn up to your next rehearsal and live in the real world, only now it’s worse because all you’ve ‘rehearsed’ is your verbal destruction of the other person and your mindset is a mess.
I hate passive aggressive behaviour. When I’ve allowed myself to do it, I feel like 14 year old me; no control and no brains (sorry 14 year old me). I finally got sick of myself and this behaviour, realising that it's a complete waste of my mental energy and good grief, it steals so much joy. I don't have time for that. And I'm not flipping 14 years old anymore! So, I'll hold space for you while you figure this out, but here's some of the difficult truths that helped me adult a little better.
If you want to get on with people in community theatre you have to accept these 4 truths –
Not everyone is going to like you.
You can’t take offence at things that don’t matter.
Respect for others is required to live with 1 and 2.
You’re a grown up.
Not everyone is going to like you. When I started An Idiot On Stage I was determined to be myself. That meant owning what I said, telling it like I saw it and loving the people I write for – the people of community theatres. I have opinions but I generally only share opinions that are based on my experience. I do this because I am passionate about encouraging community theatre and I believe in what belonging to this community can do for people.
That said, I’m human and if I let my guard down, I can creep into people pleasing mode. I've learned that it's sometimes difficult to be honest with myself, regardless of all the flowery little Instagram quotes set to inspirational music. But until I developed some self awareness, I missed many great years, too busy being a version of myself that other people had created for me (good grief, I sound like a self help book).
"Be strong and courageous". I might need to tell myself this everyday for the rest of my life but I chose to take up space in this world so I have to accept that I'm not everyone’s cup of tea. I can't say it's easy but I'm becoming more comfortable with not being liked by everyone (ooooh, feel that internal shudder). I'm a sword wielding donkey rider, baby. I've set me some boundaries and I'm using them...if that's ok with you.
Did you know that you don't have to take offence at things that don't matter? You know what I mean – someone makes an off hand remark that is insensitive and stupid but, instead of simply challenging them on it, we clam up and stop adulting.
Tell them that you don’t allow people to speak to you that way and that they need to find another way to communicate with you – you're allowed to do that, you know. 99.9% of the time, they will be shocked, mortified or at least embarrassed. If they don't, well, remember that you're a sword wielding donkey rider.
Be unemotional, speak quietly and respectfully. You may not end up friends, and that’s ok. Your objective is to set up boundaries of communication that allow you both to work together. You don’t have to love everyone you work with but you do have to treat them respectfully (that's not the same as respecting them btw). Theatre people get way too emotional far too quickly, which shuts down our brain and stops any chance of adulting.
When you're the one that is insensitive, arrogant or rude – get your head out of your backside and learn that you are not the centre of the universe. Respect those around you as people with lives outside the theatre, with difficulties and struggles, and open your eyes to the potential in every person. If you truly don’t like what you’re doing, get out and find where you’re really meant to be.
If you are accidentally insensitive or so stressed that your words are a reaction to your life, own it and apologise. We all do it. It doesn't make you a bad person. In fact, that's adulting on a high level and I give you my respect.
Finally, a word to leaders/directors – company culture comes from the top down. Group reflects leadership. Make sure you’re reflecting the right stuff because the culture of the project is going to be highly influenced by your leadership style.
The best you can do is all you need to do!
Sherryl-Lee Secomb writes her blog, An Idiot On Stage, specifically to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Sher has been building brands for performing creatives in Australia since 2011 and now advises theatre organisations and performing artists in marketing their work and building awareness of their brand.
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