Tag Archives: Performance

Poison on the Team

As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
    so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.

Proverbs 26:21 (NIV)

There is a client of mine who had a team that had been struggling for some time. While other teams around them were making great strides in their service performance, this one particular team languished in mediocrity. My quarterly training sessions with this team were sometimes painful. Silence. Arms crossed. No eye contact. No participation.

There was one member of this team who was, by far, the worst performer of the group. His performance on the phone calls we regularly assessed were so bad, that one almost had to willfully try to be that consistently awful to their customers. Over several years, the management team tried just about everything to motivate a change in this person. They tried offering cash bonuses for better performance, they provided remedial coaching (I had the joy of conducting many of the coaching sessions…ugh, also painful), they wrote him up on multiple Performance Improvement Plans with HR, and they made threats to fire him. Nothing worked. The longer this went on, I believe the more convinced he was that he didn’t really have to change and the more stubborn he became.

Coincidentally, I was asked at one point to mentor this team’s new supervisor. The newbie had been a member of the team for a long time and was promoted to his first managerial position. I watched him go through all of the same efforts as his predecessor trying to motivate behavior change in the team’s entrenched curmudgeon.

“What am I going to do with him?” the supervisor eventually asked me directly.

“Fire him,” I responded just as directly.

The supervisor seemed shocked by response. I explained.

Look,” I said, “Your management team has wasted their efforts for years trying to get this person to perform. There is a well-documented track record of a bad attitude, poor performance, and an unwillingness to do any more than the very least that is required to avoid getting fired. His attitude has poisoned the entire team and your team will never be healthy until you get rid of the problem at the source.

I had made this same suggestion multiple times to the supervisor’s predecessor and managers, but they could never take the final step of terminating his employment. I actually expected nothing different from the new supervisor, because he was new and firing a team member went against this client’s corporate culture.

I was, therefore, surprised to learn that my managerial protégé took my advice and fired the team member a short time later. Wouldn’t you know it? That year the team that had been mired in mediocrity reached their service quality performance goal for the very first time. I handed out more year-end performance awards to members of that team than ever. The team that had been so painful to train for so many years was laughing, cheering, clapping, and celebrating.

In today’s chapter, Solomon wisely says that a quarrelsome and contentious person is like adding wood to a fire. It spreads. My client’s entire team was stuck in their contentious mediocrity and poor performance because of one team member’s poisonous attitude. I wish I could say that this is the only example I’ve seen in my years of helping my clients improve the quality of their customer service, but it’s not. It’s actually fairly common. What isn’t common is a client’s willingness to do the right thing for everyone (especially their customers) and decisively extract the poison from the system whether it is firing the person or moving them to a different job with a different team that might be a better fit.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about other poisonous team members I’ve encountered in my vocational journey and the reticence, even in my own company, of confronting it. What I’ve observed over time is that these individuals really don’t want to be in their positions. Sometimes getting rid of a poisonous team member actually frees that person to find something better for themselves. I have followed the careers of a few fired team members on social media and it appears that they are much happier after finding a job that better suits their talents, desires, and personalities. And, some appear to be tragically angry and contentious people in any role no matter where they work.

At least a company can fire such a person. When the contentious and quarrelsome individual is part of a family system, it’s a far more difficult situation. Solomon had another proverb for such tragic circumstances:

To have a fool for a child brings grief;
    there is no joy for the parent of a godless fool.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Purpose in the Process Prepares Me for Performance

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets.”
Joshua 6:2-4 (NRSV)

Wendy and I are just two and a half weeks away from opening night of Almost, Maine. Every production has a life of its own and this show is no different. The normal rehearsal schedule for a non-musical spring show is 8-10 weeks. We’ve put a few shows on stage in 4-5 weeks. Almost, Maine was cast on December 13 and there was a read through or two of the script before Christmas. We’ve took a break for the holidays, a week’s hiatus in February, and another week for spring break in March. Nevertheless, we will open the show 17.5 weeks from the day the cast announcement came out. That’s a long amount of time to rehearse for four performances.

When it comes to shows, my Wendy and I are “process” kind of people. We love the rehearsal process. We love digging into characters. We love experimenting on stage. We love exploring how one costume piece or prop can transform a character. We love the exploration of the human condition and interpersonal relationships. We’ve done some very unique activities over the years as part of the rehearsal process. Some of them would look quite foolish to the casual observer. There is, however, a purpose to the process that prepares you for the performance (how’s that for alliteration?).

As I read God’s instructions to Joshua and the people of Israel this morning, I couldn’t help but think about process. It all seems a bit silly to the casual observer. March around Jericho once a day for six days. Blow the trumpets but otherwise keep silent. Repeat seven times on the seventh day, then shout. Then, as they say, the walls come a-tumblin’ down. Wow. Okay. Really? You want me to do what?

Along life’s journey I’ve come to realize that God is a great Director with a flawless sense of pace, timing and preparation. God understands process. There was purpose in the exercise of obedience for the people of Israel. There was time, an entire week, to consider that this victory had nothing to do with their human brilliance, strength, or tactics. Obedience to the prescribed pre-victory script would remind the players that there is value in sticking to the plan, and that would help ensure their adherence to the post-victory instructions, as well.

I woke in the deep watches of the night this morning. It’s been happening quite frequently of late. My spirit feels that God has some impending act on the schedule. Opening night is growing closer. I can feel that life has been rehearsing us in preparation for it. But, like Josh and the band marching around Jericho on the fourth day I’m still scratching my head as to what we’re actually doing or envision how this is all going to work out. It’s okay, though. I’ve learned this in theatre. Stick to the rehearsal schedule. Continue in the process. Some rehearsal periods are four weeks and some are 17.5. Some might even be 40 years. Trust the Director.

 

chapter a day banner 2015

The Power of a Play

Michael Buesking painting depicting the events of today's chapter. His artwork can be found at prophetasartist.com. Click the painting to be taken there.
Michael Buesking’s painting depicts the events of today’s chapter. He teaches painting at Evangel University in Springfield, MO. 

“They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear.”
Ezekiel 12:2b (NIV)

I received an inquiry yesterday from a community theatre who would like to do a group reading of a play I wrote, Ham Buns and Potato Salad. What excited me about the request is that it came from a town not far from where I live and in my reply I inquired about the possibility of sneaking into the reading anonymously to listen to the reading and to hear what the readers thought of it.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about watching a play I’ve written being produced is listening afterwards to what others saw and heard in it. I have been struck by the wide range of perceptions. Some people catch the jokes and enjoy the characters but clearly don’t get the things I was really trying to say about humanity, community, family and faith. Others really perceived the themes I wove into the fabric of the story and were touched deeply by them. 

God, the Author of Life, was having frustrations with His people in today’s chapter: “They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear.” God instructs Ezekiel to produce another performance art piece. This time, Zeke is to metaphorically act out being taken in exile. It is clear that God intended the play (that’s really what it was, Ezekiel was an actor playing out a scene) to communicate to people in ways that all the sermons delivered by the prophets had failed. The goal was to provoke thought and prompt questions as God asks his actor, “Son of man, did not the Israelites, that rebellious people, ask you, ‘What are you doing?’”

Today, I am reminded that a good story, well produced and performed, can be more powerfully moving and create more productive conversation than a Sunday sermon. Today’s chapter is evidence to me that our creator/artist God knows this to be true. It’s a tragedy that the institutional church, by and large, abandoned the arts centuries ago. I am excited that this Saturday night our local group of Jesus followers is having an “Original Works Night” which we do periodically for artists among us to have a venue to present their works. It’s a start. There is hope.

Process, Not Results

Wendy Vander Well, Doug DeWolf (Dean De Haas) and Jana De Zwarte (Marian De Haas).
Wendy enjoying the rehearsal process with Doug and Jana.

You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen….
Ezekiel 2:7a (NIV)

Wendy and I have often conversed about our love of process as it relates to the theatre. As actors, we love the process of character development and scene exploration during the rehearsal period perhaps more than we enjoy performing in front of an audience. Don’t get me wrong. Performances are wonderful and intoxicating, but they are often a very momentary high. In the rehearsal process you grow, you make new connections, you explore new challenges, and delve to new depths in ways that stick with you long after the final curtain falls on a production.

I found it interesting this morning that God tells Ezekiel to speak the words given to him without regard to the results. Ezekiel was not to worry about whether people listened or not. He was not to concern himself with huge Billy Graham style calls for salvation. The only thing Ezekiel was to concern himself with was being faithful in the process of listening and speaking. The results were not his responsibility, nor were they an indicator of success or failure.

These things were rattling around in my head and heart this morning as I prepared to walk up to my office and write this post. I’ll admit that there are days that I question why I write these posts each day. It’s Monday. I didn’t sleep particularly well last night. My morning feels fubar-ed before it ever began. Arrrghhhh. Who cares? I confess that there are days when I feel quite profound and the response is the internet’s equivalent of crickets chirping. Other days I feel like I just puke something on the page in order to hit “Publish” and be done with it and someone, somewhere replies that it was just what they needed to read that day. Go figure. Whether you’re a prophet, a preacher, a poet, a playwright, a blogger, a writer, a songsmith, an actor, a filmmaker, a dancer, et cetera, or et cetera the truth remains: It’s about the process. The results will take care of themselves.

Happy Monday. Grind it out.

Preparing for a Role: Ready for Performance!

The pre-battle speech is an icon of literature, stage and film. From Shakespeare’s Henry V admonishing his band of brothers on the field of Agincourt to William Wallace admonishing his Scottish army to Knute Rockne encouraging his boys to “win one for the Gipper.” Most of us have experienced the mental preparation and psyche up before we are to participate in a big event.

Performance on stage is no different. Weeks of preparation on Ah, Wilderness!, hours of tedious rehearsal, and the combined efforts of a small army of cast and crew culminate this week in just four performances. Every stage troupe has their own unique pre-curtain rituals. Some are very ritualistic and others are more loose. It’s been fun for me to enjoy being part of the pre-show ritual with the Theatre Central cast this week.

Each actor is given his or her “call” time by the Stage Manager(s). This is the time you are required to arrive and begin the make-up process. For Ah, Wilderness!, some of the ladies have more time consuming hair preparations for that 1906 coiffure, so their call is earlier than most of the cast. My call has been one hour before curtain, so I have arrived at the Kruidenier Theatre Center on the campus of Central College about 6:30 each night. Hair and make-up is the first order of business.

Me and Jake Anderson getting ready in make-up alley.
Me and Jake Anderson getting ready in make-up alley.

I start with wetting down and plastering my hair with goop to get that slicked back look. Then apply make-up. The harsh, bright stage lights tend to wash out natural complexion, so stage make-up helps to balance this out. Foundation, eye-liner, rouge, highlights and wrinkle lines are applied and then powdered. Yes, I do this myself. Most stage veterans learn the process and take responsibility for their own basic stage make-up. It’s generally only  when more complex make-up techniques are required that a make-up artist is brought in. The hair and make-up time is also a social time. Actors do this together, music is generally playing and there’s a lot of good natured joking and jovial conversation going on.

It’s during this period that Stage Managers also remind actors to “check props.”  It is ultimately the actors responsibility to make sure the items you need on stage are where they are supposed to be. Once in make-up, I put on the iPod ear buds. Since college my requisite pre-show psych up has begun with the Talking Head’s Psycho Killer followed by Burning Down the House a ritual I picked up from my roommate and senior theatre classmate, Kirk Anderson and one that I’ve never altered. Even thespians have their superstitious rituals. With music cranked and adrenaline beginning to pump through my veins, I check to make sure that cigars, handkerchiefs, newspapers, reading glasses, and hat are all where they need to be on stage and back stage.

Warm-ups!
Warm-ups!

It’s now about 30-40 minutes before curtain. I head to the studio theatre next to make-up alley where I begin to stretch and continue to let the Talking Head’s pump me up. Pretty soon the rest of the cast wander in along with Stage Manager(s) and Director, Ann Wilkinson. The cast forms a circle and we go through a series of physical and vocal warm ups. Soft stretches and tongue twisters are primary as we get our bodies loose and our mouths ready for reciting our lines. Here are a few we’ve done this week (try saying each 4-5 times in rapid succession):

  • Unique New York
  • Irish Wristwatch
  • Aluminum Linoleum
  • Geranium Chrysanthemum
  • Bears eat beets on Battlestar Galactica
  • A box of biscuits. A box of mixed biscuits. A biscuit mixer.

As I mentioned earlier, each stage troupe has their own unique rituals. Ann Wilkinson enjoys an exercise of “singing the theatre alive” which is based on a tribe in Africa who each year gather to “sing the forest alive” by chanting/singing the same phrase over and over and over for an entire week. We divide into groups and perform the chant (phonetically: Ah-mah-ee-boo-oh-ee-ay) in a round with each group choosing a different physical action to complement their vocals.

We then will get our pre-show speech in a quick word of encouragement from the Director and/or Stage Managers along with the occasional instructions or reminders before being dismissed to get into costume. I go into the Costume Room and pull my costume from its place on the rack and head to the locker room to change with the other actors. By the time the costume is on the Stage Managers are generally calling for “places” and it’s time to head through the back stage entrance to take our places for the start of the show.

Cast photo taken after Dress Rehearsal.
Cast photo taken after Dress Rehearsal.

It’s been an enjoyable run. We’ve had good audiences and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with the exceptional young people and profs at Central. Thanks to everyone at Central for their cooperation and support. Thanks to family and friends who have come out to see the show. Tonight is the final performance and the curtain will close another production. There is always a bittersweet feeling with closing night. While I’m ready to have my evenings and weekends back, there is a sense of loss as I think of the fun and camaraderie I’ve enjoyed in the past weeks.

Next up for Wendy and me is another production of The Dominie’s Wife for the Pella Opera House during Pella’s Tulip Time. It will be Wendy’s third production of the show and my second. We’ll begin production meetings next week. Stay tuned!

Chapter-a-Day Matthew 23

 

“Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.” Matthew 23:11-12 (MSG)

I’m almost 45 years into this journey, and I’m still trying to get a handle on the whole “be yourself” thing. I must confess that in my younger years I professed to have a good handle on who I was. In retrospect, I think my self confidence was part honest ignorance, part youthful innocence and part self-delusion. I’ve learned a lot about myself along the way, and the times of greatest clarity come from periods of “stepping down.”

I’ve had a lot of experience standing in a spotlight and it is a very interesting experience. The spotlight can at once be exhilirating, addicting, and powerfully intimidating. All of that attention focused completely on you. All of those eyes staring at you in the same moment.  You had better be “on.” You had better look the part. You had better not embarrass yourself. Make sure the costume is perfect. Push the energy. Turn it on for the audience. Play the part. The spotlight has a tendency to reveal our blemishes, so we tend to cover them up with just so much make up.

Stepping down affords introspection out of the spotlight’s penetrating glare. It reduces pressure. It allows for things to be revealed in the normal light of every day life. It gives opportunity for change. Stepping down allows me to figure out who I am back stage and off stage. In an interesting paradox, I’ve found that the better I know myself outside of the spotlight, the better and more authentically I play my role in it.