Day 9: How a director’s communication can make or break collaboration

by Tobi Mattingly | Jul 30, 2016

If you’re spending the weekend at the beach and looking for a good book to take along, today’s Lab countdown resource may be just the thing.

I started reading Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg thinking of it as a personal development book, one that would help me understand and explore the way motivation works in my own life and actions. And it is that, most certainly. But as I was reading the second chapter which is all about teamwork and effective collaboration, I was struck again and again by how what I was learning could inform my work as a director.

Most directors understand the importance of quickly establishing a common language among a new cast. This was one of the primary drivers behind the creation of Viewpoints, for example.

Earlier this summer, DirectorsLabChicago hosted TUTA Theatre for a joint workshop exploring TUTA’s unique directing style. TUTA Artistic Director Jacqueline Stone led a group of actors through an exercise demonstrating one way she would establish shared language early in a rehearsal process.

In the exercise, actors moved about the space and passed a large beach ball from one to another, with layers added (faster movement, the addition of more balls, and so on) to increase the difficulty. Any time a ball would drop, the actors were to freeze and wait for the ball to come to a complete stop, and then the person closest to it would shout, “Is everybody ready?” Actors would respond, “Yes!” Person closest: “Is everybody in this?” Actors: “Yes!” The person closest would then pick up the ball and action would resume as before.

This exercise then became a blueprint for rehearsal. At any time throughout the rehearsal process now, Jackie explained, she can bring distracted or frustrated actors back into the moment via the shared language of, “Is everybody ready?” “Yes!” “Is everybody in this?” “Yes!” And the actors, reminded of their connection to the group, are able to make the choice to come back to the moment, to make the choice to be ready, to be “in this”.

But while shared language is an important part of effective collaboration, it’s only a small piece of the puzzle.

According to the research Duhigg reports on in his book, the single most important factor driving successful collaboration is psychological safety: “shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks.” And it turns out, the single most important driver of establishing a culture of psychological safety is the behavior of the group’s leader:

In general, the route to establishing psychological safety begins with the team’s leader. So if you are leading a team—be it a group of coworkers or a sports team, a church gathering, or your family dinner table—think about what message your choices send. Are you encouraging equality in speaking, or rewarding the loudest people? Are you modeling listening? Are you demonstrating a sensitivity to what people think and feel, or are you letting decisive leadership be an excuse for not paying as close attention as you should? – from Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

Duhigg goes into significant detail (far more than I can cover here), well-supported by studies and anecdotes, fleshing out all the ways in which the most effective leaders foster the cultural norms that lead to the most collaborative and healthiest group settings.

As a director, this modeling of culture comes into play not only with our actors, of course, but with our designers as well.

As theatremakers looking to deepen our skills, we’re generally more likely to pick up a book like A Director Prepares or The Empty Space. I’m a huge proponent, however, of actively looking outside the usual suspects when seeking to learn and grow; and I think Smarter Better Faster could be an important part of any theatre director’s personal library.


Tobi Mattingly is a Chicago-based director, actor, music director, and teaching artist. She is the founder of Artistic Conspiracy, an arts organization dedicated to creating and enabling world-changing theatre. Through this organization, she helps professional theatremakers take control of their theatre careers through learning and balancing artistic craft, bodymind practices, and business/marketing management.