The Brain Trust

Kristen Coury is the Producing Artistic Director at Gulfshore Playhouse and the Director of  The Mystery of Irma Vep.

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Kristen directs Jeffrey Binder during a tech rehearsal.

I want to create a revolution.

After a very challenging week of tech for a mind-melting and exhausting show, The Mystery of Irma Vep, I am thrilled to say we opened a brilliant production. It took a village, and what a village it was. Despite the challenges we faced, our team stepped up to the plate in every instance. From the incredible backstage crew to the production and creative team, I felt blessed every step of the way.

41xs4vbcTPLAfter reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar, I was inspired by a model they called “the brain trust.” In this model, a team will watch a rough cut of Pixar’s latest animated feature and will follow the viewing with a roundtable discussion. This table is populated by the creative team as well as other directors, expert storytellers, and professionals who are there to critique what they saw, point out what didn’t work or was confusing, etc. Following the discussion, it is the job of the director to listen to what isn’t working and decide how to fix it.

Is it possible to take that model and lay it over the collaborative process of making a play? Can we invite all these wonderful theatre professionals into the process of feeding back openly and working toward the collective goal of creating the best possible product?

This isn’t usually the case. Normally, the lighting designer only focuses on lighting, the scenic designer provides feedback for the set, etc. The conversation is not usually open in such a way that the sound designer might say “I don’t understand why that door opens that way because we can see backstage,” and the director isn’t typically open to this kind of “cross-pollination.”

But I think we proved that not only is it possible, that it is preferable, with this most recent production.

It started with the collaboration in the rehearsal room. I introduced an idea and these two comedic genius actors ran with it, sometimes “playing” for fifteen minutes before I commented and offered my guidance and direction. The result was they felt proud of their work and contribution, more invested in the final product, and the gestalt was much much better and funnier than anything I could have thought up on my own. We’d open the floor for feedback from the team which included myself, the actors, the assistant director, and stage manager. From there I’d hone all of the ideas into the best possible version. Rinse and repeat.

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Scott Greer and Jeffrey Binder in The Mystery of Irma Vep.

Once in tech, the designers, production manager, stage manager and I created our own brain trust and the show was so much better as a result. Every night after tech rehearsal and the production meeting, we held a “brain trust” meeting. The sound designer suggested the top was muddy so we fixed it. The scenic designer didn’t understand why we revealed the sarcophagus so early so we moved the reveal. The lighting designer, Jimmy Lawlor, had a much better idea of how we could perfect a “bit” about screwing on a fake leg, so I invited him over to be “Director Jimmy” for five minutes to help us fix it. And it worked! On an incredibly challenging show, with more than 500 sound cues, over 200 light cues and more than 50 costume changes, what could have been tense and curt was instead open and collaborative.

What did that require? It required me to be really open, to empower others to be the same, and to acknowledge that we are all talented theatre-makers with great individual ideas that can be part of a stronger whole. It required the willingness to listen to someone saying “that’s a terrible idea” without getting offended. We are all striving for perfection and while perfection is impossible, I think we moved a step closer in our journey towards happier, healthier, and truer collaboration. If we all take the idea of the “brain trust” to heart, I think our industry will be stronger for it.

2 thoughts on “The Brain Trust

  1. What a wonderful season thanks to you and the creative geniuses you’ve gathered about you. Let’s do it again.

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