Thursday, January 31, 2013

Builders and Managers

I am at it again. After an inspiring podcast courtesy of Dean Dwyer, I became acquainted with Michael Hyatt, a gentleman who is one of the most popular bloggers in the world! Michael had something very interesting to say that led me right back into thinking about Fringe and artistic work in general.

Like many entrepreneurs, Mr. Hyatt has been a busy man over the years: finding his own publishing company, experiencing a bankruptcy, rising the corporate ranks to become a CEO, and most recently going back to the purely entrepreneurial realm of writing, speaking, and inspiring for a living.

What struck me was when Michael explained how he made the decision to leave his (admittedly, admirable) role as head of a major publishing company. As CEO he ended up doing more management than he really felt a passion for, and as he put it in the show, "I am a Builder, not a Manager."

Two thoughts immediately came to mind:

  1. I am like that: a Builder, not a Manager
  2. Everyone in Chicago Fringe is, to one degree or another, a Builder like that
Let me explain.

What was really exciting to me, when we began thinking about Fringe as a reality, was that we were creating something from nothing. Brand new opportunities for performers, brand new opportunities for patrons to see new works--and we had set a date when 50 acts were going to descend on Pilsen to perform, whether we were ready or not. (Don't worry, we were ready!) All the preparation and scouting and dealing it took to get buy-in and create that thing from scratch was incredibly motivating. And very much aligned with my "Builder" skill set. What we didn't know, we made up along the way, and that was ok.

On the other hand, my more egregious mistakes with Fringe have usually been in the "Manager" category. Need me to run a meeting? Watch me blow up communication and get frustrated. Want to see me full of anxiety? Ask me to think about keeping everyone's jobs and tasks on track. Looking at me to keep the paperwork in one place and the spreadsheets balanced--what are you smokin'?!

Point 1: I am a Builder.

Point 2: Some of our most valuable movers and shakers within CFF operate on this "Builder" mentality. It's everywhere in our organization. I also try to make this exceedingly clear with anyone who expresses interest in working with us. 95% of the time, there is no management--you dream the dream, do the work, and find the necessary resources to make it happen. In fact, that is how many people have come to work with CFF. They see a hole in the organization or take on a project thinking, "Yes, I am interested in this and can make it happen successfully. I can own it, I can build it." Maybe all small organizations are like this--too small and cash-strapped to operate otherwise.

All in all, that "Builder" mentality makes the Chicago Fringe Festival a unique working environment. Instead of top-down management, we operate more like a think tank*: A group of people with a like-minded goal who are still quite independent and disperate. We get together from time to time, but so much of our collective accomplishments are done in a "what-am-I-working-on-now" sort of framework. It's worth mentioning that this has led to some disparity inside Fringe, because some parts of our organization have outpaced others--we have not necessarily worked in logical "order." But that is ok, too, and we are young.

All of this is not to say that Fringe jobs are devoid of management either. We all have things to manage, my job as Executive Director included. Maybe even more so. I am also not saying good Managers are not important--they are SO IMPORTANT. But at Fringe, we are first and foremost builders. 

There is much more to unpack in this Builder and Manager breakdown, but that's more than enough to chew on for now.

Peace and Fringe,
Executive Director
Chicago Fringe Festival

*To give credit, my friend Scott Barsotti put this "think tank" idea into my head after he was doing some research around the aptitudes of actors. Turns out that actors working together in a play often operate in a similar mode. And then Fringe came to mind for me.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fringers Solve Their Own Problems

I'm drawn to the self-help section of the library. Nerdy?


I also just really like to learn. I get a lot out of motivation out of the prospect that I can teach myself new things or more effective behaviors. That's why I like entrepreneur, author, and podcast guru Dean Dwyer. He's all about looking for unconventional answers to life's problems.

Recently I was doing a bit of extra reading around one of Dean's pivot points, "Solve Your Own Problems" (it's first in big, bold letters at the top of his website). Dean had made a personal breakthrough when, frustrated with not suddenly discovering his life passion, he began to look at problems he wanted to solve about himself. Only then was he able to take that knowledge and begin sharing it with others.

Dutifully, I sat down and thought, "What problems could I solve for myself?" I raised my pen, began my list, and then a revelation hit me: Unbeknownst to me, Chicago Fringe Festival's history had followed this very "solve your own problem" model.

Let me explain.

In 2004, I moved to Chicago with a flimsy dream about being an actor. Several awful jobs and many an improv gig later, I found myself not exactly frustrated, but not exactly bursting with success either. Things were going--I still acted--but I was also stuck with a smaller pool of opportunities than I wanted. And I certainly was not acting for a living. That's when I contacted my friend Natalie Sullivan about creating a new show, which eventually became our two-person comedy Hopelessly Devoted. That show went on to have two successful runs in Chicago and at the Capital Fringe Festival. Experiencing the Fringe in DC was the springboard to returning to Chicago with a vision. (In fact, Sarah Mikayla Brown had that same vision and had already incorporated the Fringe name. It was good to join forces. Great minds...) The rest is history, as Chicago Fringe now enters its 4th year.

Do you see what happened? I started with solving my own problem: creating more performance opportunities for myself, and ended in a place where I could share that knowledge with others: creating the Chicago Fringe Festival. Now more paid performance opportunities exist for others.

Of course, I still believe in the other noble goals behind the Fringe (returning healthy ticket sales directly to artists, serving under-represented communities, ensuring small artists get seen). And a Festival of this size was NEVER A SOLO ENDEAVOR--a lot of people are responsible for what you see today. But if it weren't for that impetus to solve my own problem, I would have never have sought to co-found Chicago Fringe.

In just over a month, we will select the 50 performing groups (historically out of 150) who will be the artists of the 2013 Chicago Fringe Festival. It can be overwhelming to think about all those shows happening at once. At the same time, it's exhilarating to consider how many of those artists submitted their application with the thought, "Today is the day I solve my own problem."

Peace and Fringe,

Vincent Lacey
Executive Director
Chicago Fringe Festival