9 lessons from theatre for community pros

Before I became a community manager, I studied at Tisch School of the Arts and worked in musical theatre. I grew up a performer and still work as a choreographer.

Since transitioning to a career in online community, I’ve found I draw on lessons from that former life regularly. After participating in a Google Hangout about this exact topic with the crew from My Community Manager, I thought I’d reflect what’s translated over the years.

An acting teacher once told me to be a great artist you need ‘the hide of a bear and the soul of a poet’. The strength to let nothing bother you, yet empathy for others and the belief their stories matter.

It’s what I look for in community management hires to this day.

1. Authenticity

“Never allow yourself externally to portray anything that you have not inwardly experienced and which is not even interesting to you,” wrote iconic acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski.

To act well is to summon another’s truth, and intimately understand your own. If you cannot access and harness authenticity, you’ll falter before you begin.

So it is with conceiving, building and managing communities. If you don’t have a firm grasp on who you are, your strengths and vulnerabilities, what you love and hate, where you draw your boundaries – it’s difficult to support others and keep things upfront.

2. Motivation

‘What’s my motivation’ is the old actor catch-cry. As a community manager and strategist you need to understand motivating behaviours, influencing drivers and desired outcomes.

What is the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation of your members? How can you help extrinsic become intrinsic (deepening connection to the community and strengthening ties)?

Actors ask explicitly what their objective is in every scene, as well as through their whole narrative. Community managers need to determine the purpose of every task, feature and mechanic within their community; they should relate directly to the ‘play’ – the needs of the community.

Want to introduce a new bell or whistle? A new marketing campaign? Make sure you’re in the same play and on the same stage as your ensemble, or you’ll be out of tune.

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3. Resilience

Systematic rejection is character building. As a performer, you learn quickly you’ll be judged and turned down on a regular basis. You’re just not right for the role, even if you’re the best actor in the room. Or the chemistry with other cast members wasn’t quite right.

Taking knocks and getting back up again is part of the game and can’t be a big deal if you want to survive and ultimately thrive. You learn the value of failure, and that you won’t succeed without it.

Bonus: you develop the kind of thick skin necessary for dueling with trolls, serial pests, sock puppets, bullies and other critters without flinching. Creation demands you don’t give a crap.

4. Improvisation

Most performers learn the principles of improvisation. They’re pretty great rules for life generally. And they’re definitely practical for community management.

The first rule: accept the ‘offer’. Always say “Yes! And?”. Don’t block. Don’t shut the situation down by saying “No”. Accept the circumstance and build from there.

“Yes! And?” drives constructive collaboration, problem solving and creativity.

Other improv rules equally golden for the art of managing community: add new information (take things forward, not backward), play in the present and use the moment.

This ingrains adaptability, a key quality of a good community manager. You need to be able to connect and communicate with anyone in any (social) language. To quickly read the power dynamics of a ‘scene’, dive in and accept the context you’re given. To be material agnostic – managing a Chekov play or a Joss Whedon script with equal awesome.

Improvisation techniques remain some of the most useful skills in my CM (and life) toolkit.

5. Humility & gratitude

Staying humble is a big part of sustaining a career in the creative industries. That fellow auditionee you’re snippy to could be sitting behind table directing the next show you’re vying for.

Be proud of your hard work. Be confident in your skills and knowledge. But be grateful and humble about every opportunity that comes your way and every amazing person you have the chance to learn from.

6. Understanding people

Performers make a study of the human animal. It’s our job to scrutinise people and figure out what makes them tick. It’s a skill we need to inhabit on a character, get under its skin and bring a story to life.

My ability to read digital body language was honed by years of theatrical ethnography – being trained to observe, interpret (and emulate) how people convey their state of being at the most nuanced level. It was an exercise in extreme close up of the best and worst of people, and basic training for community management.

7. Co-operative direction

Working as a director and a choreographer you get good at mobilising a group of people around a common goal.

Along the way you need to temper egos, keep people focused, indulge eccentricities, support quieter voices, moderate dominant ones, bring out the best in disparate types and adapt your outcomes (without compromising your vision), to suit the talent on the floor.

You need to lay down a strong framework and destination, then support your cast and team as they experiment with the best ways to get to that destination. It’s chaos within order analogous to online community.

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8. Good work takes time

Ask any ‘overnight success’ and they’ll tell you they’ve been working at their craft for years; taking bit parts to keep working and learning, slugging through materials and experiences that flex and tone their abilities.

Community is a long game and ‘overnight’ strategies are smoke and mirrors.

9. Courage

Bearing your soul is a leap of faith. It takes guts to stand on a stage. To belt out a tune. To dance a solo. All the while fearing your voice, muscles or nerves will seize, exposing you as an impostor not worthy of the work or the attention. And the nerves never leave you, as I learnt working alongside some extremely famous folks who assured me they still got those butterflies.

Studying, working and living in the theatre world, you absorb a sometimes irrational tenacity that carries into every other aspect of your life.

If you don’t go for it, the work is inauthentic, labored and half-measured. You doubt yourself, and you can’t inspire trust or action in your fellow cast members or your audience. Pussyfoot in the business of community and you’ll have the same struggle.

In theatre, and community, you give it a shot, knowing you could fail. Because you know the really great stuff happens mid-leap (or for some of us, mid-jete).

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One Reply to “9 lessons from theatre for community pros”

  1. I really enjoyed this post, Venessa. It was enjoyable to listen to you talk and share on #CmgrHangout on Friday and hear about your experience I love how you’ve taken what you’ve learned in theatre and applied it to what’s needed to be a community manager. And that quote from your acting teacher – fantastic!

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