Keeping it on track
Now that you have the basics of your team on paper and you have your team in place, we need to discuss a few things that will make or break this newly birthed team.
It is vital that you have a weekly practice time. This is the only way to effectively work on programs, keep well trained on the fundamentals, work out the muscles that will be used on a regular basis, and develop that team mentality. How and when you run your practices is also important.
It will be easy to pull out the rank card and get together with the leadership to come up with a time and place for the practices, but if you include the entire team in the decision process, it will be more time consuming, but will pay off in the end. By having the whole team involved, you will narrow down a time and place that will be more likely not to interfere with pre-existing schedules, which leads to better attendance. Saying that, I now say this; a puppet team requires commitment, so if a member isn’t willing to adjust their schedule to be a part of it, then they don’t need to be a part of it. You will not be able to satisfy everyone, so you need to go with a democracy “majority rules” mentality.
The “where” can be an issue when first starting out. Most of us aren’t lucky enough to start off with a full stage with lighting, puppet stage, and audience seating below stage level, so you will need to make sure that you have an area large enough to seat all of your team members plus an area large enough to block off for a mimicked stage area.
If having your practices at the same time and in the same location of another event, such as a church function or around other classes, you will want to make sure that the room is somewhat soundproof so that there will be no disturbances.
In order to develop trust, professionalism, and habit, there needs to be consistency in your practice times. Everyone has a schedule outside of the team and to assume that your team members will show up when ever you decide to schedule a practice time will go over like a lead balloon when you have that first meeting where only one or two people show up and you have to cancel a show because you haven’t had time to properly put together a program. Or worse yet, when team members start to quit because they find it frustrating to continually change their plans to accommodate practice.
There are going to be times where practice meetings will need to be canceled or at least postponed, but this should not be the norm. If there is a set time for the meeting, a set place, and a set time frame, then it will be easier to get people to commit as well as easier to keep people committed.
Structure is important to keeping things professional. A lack of structure during a practice will lead to goofing off and wasting time. Lack of structure and fooling around shows others that we aren’t taking what we are doing seriously.
When practice time comes, it is always a good idea to have a set agenda in place. The agenda helps keep the team focused on what needs to be done and also helps the leadership know how to use the time wisely.
Things will come up, as they always do, that will disrupt a set agenda on occasion, but to have the entire practice time structured with a set agenda, you can look at it and customize it to see what is vital and what can be put off until next week, then make sure to have next week run like clockwork and you are back on schedule.
Now that I have said that, I am going to contradict myself. Structure is great, but do not go to the extreme that you are controlling a bunch of robots. Keep it fun. One thing I like to do, is on the last practice of the month, I take that practice (or at least part of that practice if we have a performance coming up soon) to just have fun. A good way to do this and keep it somewhat structured is to celebrate the team member’s birthdays for that month. Now if you are naturally “snarky” like me, the first thing that popped in your head is, “what if we don’t have any birthdays that month?” Well, then you have a “no birthdays” birthday party.
If you want, you can also dedicate the last 10 minutes of practice to just adlib and improv. You sometimes come up with new material during these times. Never stifle creativity, just direct it if you can. The key is to find and maintain a balance.
However you do it, you are going to want to create an agenda sheet for each practice. Break it down into minutes and try to keep as close to the agenda as possible. An example of an agenda sheet that I have used can be found in the appendix of this book.
Warning: Practice time is not a time for friends to visit, baby brother or sister to come in and do their own thing or people to randomly come in to just sit and watch. I know this sounds a little abrupt, but you will find that you get less accomplished when you have “visitors” in the practice.
Once your initial team is in place, create set tryout times and, prior to the tryout times, set up an open house where anyone can come in and view how a practice is set up. As for potential event prospects, create a professional video that incorporates practice shots, as well as performance pieces and contact information. There will be no need for anyone to set in on a practice. Keep the momentum going in a professional direction, not one that makes you appear to be a babysitting service that plays with dolls for entertainment. Plus, the magic of the Wizard was lost once the man behind the curtain was revealed…
Yeah, yeah, I know, I am dating myself by making a Wizard of Oz analogy, but it is true. People, who see how a performance goes seeing the performers, kind of lose interest in the performance. Just like watching a magic show and knowing exactly how each illusion is performed.
This is why a big concern of mine is when I see puppet teams with members as young as five working with puppets. When starting out, your pre-school and early elementary ages are going to be your main audience. I can’t tell you a cut off limit for your group, but I tell people that they should have no one under the age of 10 and I personally do not take anyone under the age of 12 in the groups that I have started in the past.
Scheduling is a monotonous function that has to take place if you are to keep consistency and professionalism in your team.
Have it on paper. I am kind of an overkill kind of person when it comes to this, but I always believe that it is better to be safe than sorry. One of the worst things that you can do is to have to call someone that you have made a commitment with to tell them that you can’t because of a prior engagement that was already organized. I tell people to keep three calendars:
a large calendar hanging in a prominent place that is easy to look at.
a day planner where you can be more detailed about an event
a logbook or diary to keep a complete detailed schedule in.
At first, this might seem like overkill, but if you start it now, it will become second nature by the time that you need this level of organization.
As you become more and more professional and known, you will find yourself doing more and more performances. It is imperative that you have a system in place that will keep you organized as well as log your progress.
The large calendar serves two purposes. The first is so that you have an easy visual of what is planned and what dates are free should you be on the phone trying to set up a performance, practice time, or special event.
Don’t just use this for performances; use it to put down everything dealing with your team. Your practices will need to be on this as well as things that might interfere with practices or performances such as graduations, team member’s vacations, etc. This gives you an at-a-glance view of what is going on so that you won’t ever have an issue with poor scheduling.
I personally love the dry erase board calendars because they are so easy to change and adjust. If I have something tentative planned, I can write that in using one color and that way I know it is something I am still working on. If it comes to pass for that date, then I just rewrite it in another color and erase it if it doesn’t come to pass.
You will find that the day planner is going to be your brain once everything gets rolling. This is where you are going to be detailed in every event. Many day planners allow you to break things down in hourly/weekly/monthly increments and give you sections to organize phone calls, to do lists, etc.
One of my favorites to use is the Day Timer two-page system in desktop size because it is easy to keep track of and carry around. Of coarse now you can do the same thing in many smart phones, I am just nostalgic I guess. I like the writing it down and going over my notes aspect of it. Helps me remember to go over things daily.
As an event takes place, you want to write a note about it; things that will help you in planning in the future.
The log book is a record keeper to put down ideas on how to make an event go smoother in the future, to remind you of issues that need to be addressed at the next practice, and so many other things that will detail and enhance future performances and practices.
If nothing else, you can pull out these log books from when you started and see how much you have improved over the years.
Attract new blood while keeping the old blood pumping.
This works into scheduling, but I gave it it’s own section to point out the importance of continually keeping newbees interested in joining, while keeping your veterans happy and content with continuing to be a part of the team.
The new Blood
Once you have your team established and have everything set up, you only want to bring new people in during certain times. As I spoke about previously, there are two fall away seasons and during these times will be the best time to have a drive to get more people involved. This does not mean that you have to wait until these two times to get people interested. You need to consistently do things that will spur on interest in someone.
The Open House
I am totally against people just setting in on a practice, I also have a pet peeve (like I said, I have a lot) with people coming in and telling me how they are interested in joining and just want to check it out. It is for this reason that I suggest an open house.
Set up a time and a place to have a performance, but set it up as if it were a practice. Have chairs and tables set up so that people can come and go. Have the leadership keeping track of the team while the director (you) walks around as the emcee of the event, mingle, and answer questions. Lay out a section of space where the team members will get someone from the audience to come up on stage and participate.
As you get two months away from accepting new members, start doing small build-up ads. Obviously use puppets, make them funny, and change them up every week. If you are doing this as a church group, make small video performances that can be shown at the beginning of service or even set up a small skit.
If you are doing this as a school organization, such as an offshoot of the drama club or something, then blitz the school with posters and set up small announcements and skits at the beginning or end of school.
Keep the veterans
The number one best way that I have found that breaks up the same old same old and keeps team members plugged in as well as staves off boredom is to schedule some sort of weekend retreat at least once a year. A great way of doing this so that it benefits the group on multiple levels is to have it coincide with a puppet festival. A time where it is just the leadership and the team away from their everyday lives for a couple of days. If you can’t get away for the weekend, then try a day at an amusement park as a group.
Keep the Leaders onboard. It takes more time to train up a new leader than it does to keep an experienced leader happy. Plan to have a one day, or weekend event for just the leadership to honor them for their dedication and to let them know that you see them as more than just workers.
Also, don’t be afraid to honor your leadership on an individual basis in front of the team to show them that they are appreciated as individuals and not just a gear in the machine. This also shows the entire team that everyone is important as an individual.