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Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

Chris Lose • LD at LargeSeptember 2019 • September 9, 2019

Illustration by Andy Au

We provide a world of circus-like fantasy. We produce vital escapism for the humdrummers who crave three-ring enjoyment. I used to have a hard time separating the fantasy world that we provide from the logical world where we exist. I used to think that I could be all things to all people. I thought that I could get every client and every crewmember to like me if I could give them everything they wanted. I thought I was just a helpful, intuitive person. I wanted to be the lighting designer, the programmer, the tech and the loader. I wanted to use my own truck to transport gear back and forth from shop to venue so that I could save my client a few dollars.

I kept up that pace for a few years until I realized that I was getting taken advantage of. I discussed it with my therapist, and she giggled. She loosely diagnosed me as a people-pleaser. People-pleasers have a hard time saying “No,” so friends and family turn to them when they need something. I’m still not perfect at saying “No” to some requests, but I’m getting better. The goal that I am still searching for is that perfect balance between giving myself completely to the project and saving some resources for myself.

Like a German Shepard, I was eager to please. I would jump when told to jump. I would attempt a backflip when asked. As a stagehand, I would find myself working hundred-hour weeks on minimal sleep. As a programmer, I would pat myself on the back for sitting in a chair for 40 hours straight. As a director, I would try to please multiple clients even though they had opposite requests. Finally, I heard the quote that snapped me out of my eager-to-please-ness: “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys.” A ringmaster can manage three rings, but no more. If the master is expected to take on a second circus, she has to say, “That’s not my circus.” If the master is expected to tame extra monkeys, he has to say, “Those aren’t my monkeys.”

‡‡         Six Things to Consider

Here are six things to consider before you take on taming someone else’s monkeys.

  1. Responsibility. This requires you to know what you are capable of and to be honest about how much time and effort you are able to give. Just because you signed up to be the programmer for the lighting rig does not mean that you need to be the video programmer as well. I have seen this come up several times. The producer thinks that running their content is as easy as pushing “Play” on a DVD player. They will interrupt your lighting session to make content requests. The old me would step away from the lighting console to set resolutions on an Image Pro or tweak colors on the content in After Effects. I would return to the lighting desk only to realize that I missed my opportunity to get the perfect shutter cuts on the podium before it was moved. The new me says, “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys.”
  2. Accountability. This is similar to responsibility, but it’s more about letting people know your skill sets. In the previous examples, I would get up from the desk to take care of other problems that I knew how to fix. Accountability refers to problems that you don’t know how to fix. For instance, I turned down a gig because I don’t know how to program a d3 media server. I can program an MA2 that controls a d3, but I don’t know how to program the d3 itself. I was honest and frank with my client. The old me would have just said “Yes,” and I would have tried to figure it out on the fly. I would look like a fool and would most likely not get a call for any upcoming programmer gigs. The new me is better at saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that, that’s not my circus.”
  3. Clarity. Being able to clearly explain what you can and can’t do is a key part of the process. It is crucial that you are able to explain the timeframe of fulfilling your clients’ demands. I receive some long-winded requests sometimes. I soak them up, and I start to push the buttons that I think will create the looks that best manifest their vision. If I get it right on the first try, we all celebrate. If I don’t, it will take me some time to dig deeper and find the right keystrokes to fulfill their desires. That process takes time. I am getting better at being able to set realistic expectations with clients about how long it might take to get that perfect light-bending chase. I may need to experiment with grouping, wing-styles, individual timing, phases, ramps, cosines, etc. They don’t want to hear all of that. They just want to hear, “I need seven minutes to make that happen.” I have been known to request that my designer check her emails for five minutes while I monkey around.
  4. Principles. Our principles primarily come into focus when the tent is falling down around us. We need to know what our core values are and how we will react. Recently, I was on a high profile gig and I got a call from my wife that our 10-year-old Labrador was really sick. She had been diagnosed with Osteosarcoma three weeks earlier. The vet said that she had approximately six months to live. I took a gig that took me out of town for a month. After 28 days of a 30-day gig, her conditions worsened, and we needed to make a really tough decision. I had to decide if I was going to disappoint my client or abandon my wife and dog in their time of need. I checked my principles; I booked the next flight home and called my client immediately. I was transparent, up front and honest. I told him that I was flying out to be with my dog for the last few days of her life.
  5. Boundaries. I still find it hard to say “No” to people. I want to take all the jobs and I want to be home with my kids at the same time. I want to be a lighting director and a crew chief on two different tours and a house lighting designer in Las Vegas at the same time. I can’t run multiple circuses, though. I can only care for so many monkeys. I can only juggle so many chainsaws. Having strong boundaries is the best way to prevent your monkeys from escaping.
  6. Vulnerability. This is the part I am still having trouble with. It’s so hard to tell people that you can’t do something and then apologize for not being able to be everything to everyone. I constantly have to remind myself of the wise moral of Aesop’s fable about the man, the boy and the donkey — “If you try to please all, you please none.”
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