By Ariel A. Lacey
Published July 2021
Every production meeting has a presence. It is an energy created by each person in attendance, felt by all, and it sets the tone for the entire process to come. We’ve all been in the room with that one team that just clicked; you enter the space, and everyone is on the same wavelength. Successes are team successes, and, when you reach an impasse, everyone works together to move past it, no matter the department. On the other hand, we’ve all entered that same first meeting and experienced the opposite: you walk in and feel the negative energy. Your defenses go up automatically, and you arm yourself before you even know what is coming.
What if there is a way to make the production process smoother for ourselves? What if it isn’t about working with a specific set of people that “just get you,” will let you have your say, and cooperate and compromise? When each of us enters the process mentally and emotionally prepared to be the best collaborator possible, it positively changes how we approach our productions. The key is to teach ourselves to be mindful.
For many of us, creating a mindfulness practice like meditation, seems like a waste of time. It did to me at first as well – sitting and breathing and trying in vain to clear my mind was simply time spent doing nothing when I could be productive. What good could it do? Most theatre technicians I’ve met have trouble turning their minds off for any period of time. Our problem-solving brains have hacked into our survival mechanisms to run constantly after years of high-stress processing. Thinking of nothing seems like an impossible task.
The moment of clarity that changed my opinion about mindfulness came while reading Gelong Thubten’s book, A Monk’s Guide to Happiness. He describes meditation as simply a way to change our relationship with our thoughts. The idea is that thoughts are simply a mental activity, and we can train ourselves to view them as feedback even when they produce strong emotions. In this way, meditation functions as the practice of drawing our minds back to focus and releasing the thoughts we were having a moment ago – over and over again.
Mindfulness is becoming aware that your brain has attached to a thought, and returning to focus on the breath, counting, or a mantra. The act of failing is the practice itself: without the mind wandering, we cannot train ourselves to notice and refocus. For me, that made the practice infinitely more understandable and valuable. When we practice mindfulness, we are training a skill, one that allows us to navigate our often stressful and busy work lives more successfully.
Many theatre technicians, like myself, struggle to find time to practice the type of lengthy meditation that experts say helps develop these skills. Time is used as a manner of gatekeeping mindfulness; it may seem like we must make additional time to focus on ourselves which is yet another task to add to one’s overflowing plate, and it can feel like only people with large amounts of free time can focus on themselves. But this isn’t true.
I’ve found it is far more important to be consistent than spend long periods of time in practice. Even five to ten minutes a day, every day, makes a difference. This doesn’t necessarily have to be typical meditation, but a practice of intention and self-reflection before starting or ending your day.
I interviewed a freelance props artisan who shared her mindfulness practice. She wakes up each morning and makes herself coffee – reflecting as she goes on the preparation, choosing a mug, pouring and stirring the drink. As she drinks her coffee, she focuses on the present – on her mindset, the taste and heat of the coffee, the warmth in her hands.
Her practice resembles an incredibly effective technique taught in A Monk’s Guide to Happiness, called “moments of awareness.” This exercise involves learning to be present with your surroundings, intentionally noticing the things around you, focusing yourself on one set of senses, and creating stillness and calm. These two states—stillness and calm—cannot coexist with a state of internal stress, regardless of external chaos. This exercise helps disrupt the line of thought and emotion over which we previously had little control. This exercise can be completed a minute or two at a time, focusing purely on one sense and drawing focus to it again and again. In our busy careers we can find two minutes to sit and focus, and even those two minutes can make a difference.
Though it is taught more exclusively to actors and directors, mindfulness is a necessary skill for theatre technicians and designers but is neglected in our careers. By practicing mindfulness and training ourselves to view our thoughts with clarity, we also teach ourselves empathy, increase our ability to analyze a situation more critically, and increase our understanding of our own minds. When we do so, we create internal balance and become more able to recognize and address emotions because they are no longer attached to closely held thoughts and beliefs.
These benefits are imperative both in the design process and on the shop floor. When we do not grasp our ideas so tightly, we become more open to solutions and possibilities from others as well as the world around us. Pedram Shojai in The Urban Monk shares that studies show that even beginning meditators further develop their prefrontal cortex, which helps them stay calm under pressure and navigate stressful situations more gracefully. This makes us infinitely better collaborators and problem solvers. Built over time with practice, mental fortitude creates resilience. In the face of obstacles, it helps us persevere when otherwise we might have been stumped or unwilling to shift our preconceived notions. Mental fortitude makes us more creative in our problem-solving. I cannot think of a single situation in which mindfulness does not benefit each member of a production team and our industry as a whole.
As important as it is, I’ve realized that cultivating this type of awareness is disappointingly lacking in the field of technical theatre. We become so entangled in the stress of our own part in the process, our own art, and our own deadlines that we forget how to move with intention and calm as part of a team. I’ve seen how quickly this deteriorates our relationships with each other in what should be a collaborative art form. I’ve also noticed how we trick ourselves into thinking that the negative mental spiral we create is a good thing—something to be proud of or even that makes us right or superior. Which is a different, but not unrelated problem.
Self-awareness is key. In our internal calm we can release ourselves from our emotional grasp on our careers and come to the table with that clear sense of self, unencumbered by the ego that shackles us to our ideas. We make the mental space for clarity and kindness, and as a result, we also make space for more effective collaboration.