It was the second day of Arts Camp 2012—while waiting for our turn to shower, a facilitator came over to chat with us freshmen.
Facilitator: "So what arts CCA are you planning on joining?"
Me: "StageIT! *smiles*"
Facilitator: "StageIT? What's that?"
Me: "SMU's theatre club."
Facilitator: "SMU has a THEATRE CLUB?!?”
Needless to say, we weren't exactly a popular club back then—but a lack of popularity wasn't the only challenge we had to contend with. Immediately after taking the helm of the club just four months later, my EXCO was faced with a budget deficit, low signups, a store in a complete mess, three months to put an entire production together; and as the icing on the cake, we had seven members—less than half the minimum number required for us to retain our status as a student club.
So, did StageIT MakeIT? Before I spoil it for you here, here are three lessons my EXCO learnt from the decisions (and mistakes!) we made over the journey of leading our tiny CCA.
One: Learn Accidentally & Experimentally.
In Noel Burch’s “conscious competence” model, he describes how we go from not knowing what we don’t know, to being competent enough at a skill that we can do it easily without much thought. In the same way, we don’t just learn things accidentally—learning from accidents requires a conscious choice to experiment, and a commitment to being comfortable with learning from mistakes.
As an A-level Theatre Studies student, I experienced these 4 stages myself. I started out scared to death of heights, and had (more than) my fair share of accidents, including burnt fingers, near electrocutions, and an incident involving white smoke and a subwoofer I’d rather not talk about!
But these experiences ensured that I would never make these mistakes again. Setbacks like these taught my team and I how to build our own sets for our production, repair the lighting power distribution panels of SMU’s Arts and Cultural Centre (delaying a costly repair), and culminated in Convocation 2014, when we designed and soldered the lightsabers and droid costumes that the whole school saw on stage.
But I digress. Back to StageIT!
The silver lining on the cloud of being a tiny CCA is the autonomy. Moving fast helped us learn best from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. We did our homework—meeting with the Office of Student Life and past leaders of StageIT, looking through production archives, and reviewing recent productions.
Our research enabled us to build a better legacy for StageIT, and learn from the past, instead of rushing in with our own (mis)conceptions on what would work.
Two: Killing the Diva
As we looked through our archives, our EXCO discovered that StageIT was once one of the largest arts CCAs in SMU. Old production booklets that told of incredible shows, and musicals so large they involved over a hundred Stagers and the construction of an entire stage on the Campus Green!
But I said a hundred Stagers, not a hundred actors. Then, stagers took on roles from costumes/makeup to stage management and technical design (SMU Broadcast & Entertainment originated from our technical team, and SMU Symphonia, from the band that played in one of our early musicals).
What killed the StageIT of the past was a certain ‘diva’ culture: if everyone wants to busk in the limelight, who’s going to turn the limelight on? StageIT changed from being a theatre company to an acting company, gradually losing its student directors, makeup experts, playwrights, and more, because most of the members then were only interested in performing. Our EXCO recognised that we had to rebuild a sense of team spirit if StageIT was to survive.
First, we instituted the theatrical role of the Understudy. In theatre, understudies serve to replace lead actors when they can’t perform. Having understudies reminded our actors that they were not indispensable. This later saved us when a lead actress pulled out of a show!
Second, we constantly involved everyone in the whole process, from stage preparation to the tear-down at the end of each show. Our crew even joined the cast in a fried food ban in the week leading up to a play, and set a record for the fastest stage setup that remains unbroken till today!
My EXCO was indispensable as a team too: sorting through 7 years’ worth of old costumes and launching an initiative to make the store clean enough for 3-hour long meetings, we played on our strengths to build a team that went beyond the sum of its parts.
A CCA focused on the individual star is no CCA at all. Instead, a club that works together stays together!
Three: Remember Ozymandias.
I recall a debate I had with a senior. “Focus on systems and structures,” he said. “These will survive no matter how bad the team may get. And you never know when you’ll end up with a bad team.”
“But you need people to make sure the systems run.”
In hindsight, both of us were right. You’ve got to implement the right structures, but invest time and effort into grooming those who will take up the reins. The biggest regret of my term was that we were too occupied with structures and initiatives to spend much time on grooming our successors.
But in the end, there are circumstances you can’t control: structures change and people graduate. Eventually, you’ve got to hand your responsibility over to the next batch—we’re all runners in a long relay, and what matters is to run the race well.
Well, how does our story end? StageIT went on to win the Best Visual and Literary Club Award 9 months later, edging out category heavyweight SMU Broadcast and Entertainment. Two sell-out shows refilled our coffers, and we began our involvement as creative partners in producing SMU Arts Camp's skit, a tradition that continues till today.
But, ultimately, what matters most are the people we impacted during our term as leaders—each other, our members, and our audience who, hopefully, left our theatre a tiny bit different from when they stepped inside.