What we can learn from theatre’s performance reports

I’ve always admired how the theatre industry handles feedback.

First of all, it’s all happening in real time…for everyone. This makes it much harder to cover up slip-ups. If you’re a singer or musician, you either hit all of the right notes, or you can mess up. If you’re a technical operator, you either trigger the correct spotlight or microphone cue, or you miss it. Since every part of the show — good and bad — happens in front of everybody else, there’s no hiding from mistakes. Everybody learns how to hold each other accountable and look for opportunities to make the show even better.

While real-time feedback is important for the actors on stage, it’s also important to capture the aggregate view of what’s working and what’s not working on a more macro level. You need a way to provide a comprehensive look at the show as a whole and share just enough details with all of the senior leaders to help people make better decisions about where to make changes.

That’s why whoever invented the performance report in theatre is a brilliant, management genius.

How performance reports work in the theatre world

Each night, the stage manager sends an email report of that performance. It typically includes general notes, attendance details, schedule/timing updates, and management and technical notes. No matter if it’s the first show or the five-hundredth show, these notes are sent around to the producers, the creative team, management, and the technical staff.

This keeps everyone honest. Like any intense project, when people work long hours crammed into the same space for too long, emotions run high. Add to that people pouring their hearts and souls into every component, and you can imagine there are a lot of fragile egos in the mix. Nobody wants to offend or hurt each other, but everybody wants to make the end product better. How do you address this? By objectively documenting the same things every single day.

There’s no room for ego in the performance report. It’s simply an objective retelling. If someone forgot to prepare the props for the Act II entrance and had to delay intermission by 7 minutes, it’ll show up in the report. If a musician shows up late, it’s recorded in the report. If it happens twice in the same week, this may trigger a more substantial conversation on the company management level.

It’s a quick skim to read a performance report — maybe two minutes — and the beauty is in its simplicity and consistency. The equivalent of “opening a second office” in theatre is “launching a touring company.” If you have five tours happening simultaneously all over the country, it can be pretty hard to keep up with what’s happening where. Performance reports level the playing field. Each night, you’ll get five reports — one from each performance — which will take you about 10 minutes to read. The details are just substantive enough to help you make smarter decisions about where to allocate your time and resources. You might conclude something like, “Oh, the Austin run has had several people out sick; maybe we need more swings as covers in that show.” It’s a really tight feedback system.


Bringing performance reports to startups

I sometimes fantasize about what it might be like to have performance reports for things like recurring weekly meetings, sprint meetings, or events in the tech and startup world.

There’s something so elegant about objective documentation that I have a feeling even the act of writing down what happened would bring to light interesting issues.

For instance, here’s what one might look like from a weekly meeting where I work:

Performance Report: Weekly Meeting
Location: Conference room
Start Time: 12:03 p.m. // End Time: 2:48 p.m.
Travel: Bethany in SF this week, Lauren in Europe
Late: No notes
General: Solid meeting; kept tight to the schedule and moved through each person’s agenda items at a good pace. Nine companies had board meetings last week. Greeted entrepreneur with good energy and questions from the group. Facilitated an inconclusive brainstorm about the location for an upcoming event, which ate up 8 minutes. Bethany’s update devolved into a 22-minute rabbit-hole discussion that could have been avoided if she came in better prepared. No new hires this week.
Management Notes: No notes
Engagement: 90% of people in the meeting spoke at least once (up from 80% last week); several people on their phones during one department update
Technical: Had videoconferencing connectivity issues again
Security: No notes
Lunch Food Selection: Mangia catering continues to be a hit
Upcoming: CEO summit scheduled for May 2019

I imagine after several weeks of reports like this, you may pick up on some interesting trends. There’s something about the forcing function of documenting these little details that adds up over time.

You could even try it with your one-on-one meeting with your manager:


Performance Report: Weekly One-on-One: Aaron & Erin
Location: Erin’s office
Start Time: 10:07 a.m. // End Time: 10:48 a.m.
Late: Erin was 7 minutes late to the meeting, then had to leave early to get to a lunch in midtown
General: Aaron came into the meeting with an agenda emailed in advance. It was apparent that Erin hadn’t read it yet. We lost 4 minutes as she looked through her emails, then another 3 minutes as she had to respond to a text from another colleague. It’s clear that Aaron is looking for a conversation on career advancement in the role but we didn’t have enough time to get into the monologue due to the late start and early finish; need to revisit next week.
Management Notes: Aaron didn’t make eye contact with Erin when she asked him to share feedback about her as a manager; he had no comments
Performance Feedback: No notes (worth noting there has been no performance feedback shared in the last 3 one-on-ones)
Coaching: Erin provided Aaron with a good set of inquiry-based questions about his new project; prompted him to think about it in a new way
Personal Development: No notes
Technical: No notes
Upcoming: Annual performance reviews scheduled for Dec 2019

Changing behavior

If you’re hoping for a behavior change, it’s not good enough to just share immediate feedback at the time something goes wrong. As humans, we hear only what we want to hear. If you tell me “great job” on a presentation but suggest that I may have been speaking too quickly, the story I might tell myself is that you listen too slowly. Or I might just hear “great job” and completely ignore the constructive criticism as an ego-protection tactic.

You can prevent a lot of this by putting it in writing. If you email me after my presentation and say, “Great job on the presentation, really good stuff…but you spoke a bit too quickly,” now 100% of my attention is fixated on the last part of that clause: but you spoke a bit too quickly. I might not believe it at first, but maybe upon the 32nd re-read of that email, I’ll start to believe there are things I can do to make it better next time. (Yes, I may go home and binge eat olives that night in protest. But at least I heard your feedback.)

Writing and documenting these things removes a lot of blurriness, and the theatre industry has figured this out. The goal of a performance report is not to call people out for mistakes; it’s to find opportunities for improvement. Sometimes the problem may may require a technical fix; other times it may be a staff change. But by holding everybody and every show to the same standards, it makes it so much easier to tell when there’s something “off” and where to focus your energy.

Performance reports bring objectivity to the complex and subjective world of theatre. If they found a management tool that helps systemize something so abstract as art, surely we can find a way to better self-report our internal operations in the tech world too.

I look forward to your report of this blog post.