Which works better, the carrot or the stick?
March 20, 2012 7:46 PM   Subscribe

GroupCommitmentFilter: I've been trying to put together a large group of people to participate in an artistic performance-based hobby that they all claim to enjoy. I'm the group leader, and it feels like I'm herding cats when it comes to getting people to commit to attending training sessions so that our shows will be of a high quality. I'm constantly altering my plans so that the least experienced people aren't left behind. How can I get people to step up their game and commit to the group without alienating them?

People who participate in after-work sports teams probably aren't professional athletes. People who participate in community theatre groups probably aren't professional actors. Still, there's always that one kickball team that has their shit together enough to dominate the league, or that local theatre production that is genuinely good despite the cast only rehearsing on occasional nights and weekends.

There's obviously individual skill involved in these activities, but a lot of the magic surely comes from dedication to the group and a shared goal.

I'm passionate about improvised comedy, and perform with a few ensembles that put on rather "safe" and "vanilla" shows. Some of my friends from these groups are just as passionate and talented as I am, and together we're trying to start a new ensemble that focuses on edgier, more unconventional shows. We have some friends and acquaintances who have no experience with this hobby, but are upbeat, funny people and are interested in the idea, and are willing to take direction and learn in order to put on a great show down the line.

So, I've been running weekly workshops with these people for the past few months. I teach for free, because I have no interest in making money off of these people. I'm in it because I'd like to bring the finished product to fruition. Unfortunately, some people don't seem to take a free workshop seriously.

As the teacher/director I haven't missed a single session in 4 months. I have some people who have been to every session, and a few who have just missed one or two due to illness or conflicts that they tell me about ahead of time. No problems there.

The problem comes from the fact that about half of my participants are unreliable, and don't seem to care. Almost every week, I get text messages a few hours before our training session like "oops, forgot I had a big assignment due tomorrow, sorry!" or "hey, forgot that I'm supposed to meet a friend for drinks tonight, sorry!", or "just gonna watch a movie tonight!". Basically, excuses that seem to result from a lack of poor planning and a lack of consequence about blowing off the training session.

It's so weird, because when people actually attend they have a great time and thoroughly enjoy themselves. We usually go for drinks after, and everyone raves about how much fun they've had. Anyone who doesn't enjoy is pretty good about flat-out QUITTING and letting me know that they want nothing to do with it.

So, I'm looking for ways to incentivize people to actually show up and participate. Some ideas and discoveries I've made:

- People who have actually performed in front of an audience get bitten by the bug and are far more interested in attending. There's a chicken-and-egg problem because the people who benefit the most from the training sessions are the people who have never performed in a real show before. When we have shows, those people aren't prepared to go on stage, because they haven't been training regularly with the group.

- I simply don't have enough dedicated people yet to tell the non-dedicated people to take a hike. Plus, a big part of my goal is to create NEW improvisers and get them on stage.

- There are currently no penalties for missing class. It's not like they forfeit a portion of their tuition money that they've pre-paid, or that they get put on "probation".

- In some groups I perform with, the penalty for missing a rehearsal is that you aren't allowed to perform in the next show, but that only works because we have a talent pool that is much larger than the minimum number of people to do a show. In this case I need every warm body I can get.

- I'm not out to make a profit, so I initially shied away from charging tuition. Additionally, I feel like some very talented people wouldn't want to pay tuition, or couldn't afford it.

- Some people have suggested that I take money from participants as a deposit, and then refund it if they prove themselves to be dedicated. For instance, that I take $100 from everyone. As soon as they hit some milestone like attending 5 consecutive workshops in a row, I refund it. If they don't hit the goal, they don't get their money back. I'm strongly considering this.

- Additionally, in the interest of attracting new members, we had the idea that newcomers could have 1 or 2 "trial" weeks to see if they like what we're doing before being required to dedicate themselves to the cause.

Any great ideas or anecdotes, oh hive mind? These are my friends, not evil bastards.

I just want them to respect what they claim they're interested in doing, and to take a supposedly fun thing a bit more seriously. I worry that if I start making ultimatums or too many rules I'll alienate everyone completely and be left with nothing.
posted by adamk to Human Relations (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a timeframe in place for these sessions? As in, is the start/end date of the entire process clear from the beginning? For a learning/performing opportunity like you describe, I would be a lot more likely to be fully dedicated to something that I know is a short committment with a carrot at the end (6 sessions then PERFORMANCE!) then something that is open-ended with no carrot in sight. You could have cycles of that nature be ongoing so that there's always something in particular you're striving for and so that people can "commit" for a cycle and then step away if they want.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:53 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are currently no penalties for missing class. It's not like they forfeit a portion of their tuition money that they've pre-paid, or that they get put on "probation".

This is the source of your problem. If people subconsciously know that nothing happens if they slack off, they're gonna slack off.

I realize that you don't want to shut them out entirely, but how about a demotion? If it's the lead who keeps slacking off, demote her to a smaller part and get the other chick who's been showing up on time reliably. Yeah, maybe the other chick isn't as empirically talented, but she shows up and does the work, which is actually a larger part of the battle.

I know you want the best possible show, but a consistent rehearsal schedule is going to be what does that, not the constant shifting to accomodate flighty-but-talented people. Talent does nothing if the work doesn't get done.

And I've also seen time and again that performances benefit from someone REALLY strong being in charge. If there isn't someone In Control, people can get a little uneasy. You laying down the law finally may also be what finally brings some people around.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:12 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

From your description, it sounds like people are enjoying the classes a lot, and you're getting new people. That doesn't sound it's broken, so it doesn't need to be fixed. If you try to hassle people for not coming you're going to see a dropoff in attendance, and if your goal is to find new people, that would be bad.

Your other problem is getting trained people for shows. Here I think it's perfectly reasonable to have a policy where only people who come regularly to the workshops are considered for the performances. If your policy for the shows is "any warm body", then there's no downside to skipping workshop.
posted by zompist at 8:17 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

How are your sessions structured? I would consider naming what you're going to focus on in advance, so people know that they'll learn a particular skill in that class and it's not just going to be the same old warmups, short form games and a long-form game at the end (as fun and useful as that is!). You might start with 'Spontaneity' and then move onto 'Narrative', 'Character', 'Song' etc. People might be less likely to miss a session if they know they'll be learning a specific skill that they can't just pick up on the next week. I think the problem with impro training sometimes is that the line is blurred between 'fun times for two hours' and 'learning a skill'. This is especially so if you're not paying for a course. I wouldn't feel guilty about missing two hours of fun times to finish an assignment, but if it was a 'course' and I knew I was missing a lesson I couldn't make up, well, I would make sure that assignment was done beforehand.
posted by lovedbymarylane at 10:28 PM on March 20, 2012

Response by poster: lovedbymarylane: I'm basically presenting multiple years of longform training I picked up at the "famous" improv training centers in Los Angeles: the Upright Citizens Brigade, iO (Improv Olympic) and Second City. The lesson plan varies, but the takehome message is "we work on the Harold, as a group, until it's amazing". There's always room for improvement, as the group is only as strong as its weakest link.

Which might sound boring, but I assure you it's not. It's all anyone does in Chicago, NYC and LA, for good reason.

We're doing this in Melbourne, if you're interested -- I see you're in Ballarat. We have 4 shows in MICF (starting next week) but the goal is to do a full run in the Melbourne Fringe in September/October.
posted by adamk at 11:07 PM on March 20, 2012

The Harold is just the format; performing it requires many skills that need to be grokked and honed before it can be amazing. So lovedbymarylane's good advice is still appropriate: Let people know this week you're working on edits and narrative, while next week you'll be working on characters.

Also, there's a difference between coaching or teaching new skills and directing. If you're just drilling skills all the time without actually rehearsing, it's going to produce a sloppy product. Conversely, if you're trying to rehearse with performers who haven't had enough education to get through rehearsal without remedial coaching, you're all probably frustrated--and the audience will be too.

Have you considered separating your interests from your goals a bit? Plan a 3-person Harold show on x known date with known performers. Rehearse them. Then hold a drop-in improv salon every week for whoever's interested in just playing around and/or learning new skills.

Lastly, have you considered whether you have spotty attendance because, although people might be interested, you're not effectively teaching the skills you yourself learned? Could you find a mentor, either to help you teach or direct? Improv folks are generous, and I'm sure you could at least find someone more established to email with.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 2:48 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


From experience with similar activities I can tell you that the problem is not with you. People just don't always show the kind of dedication you're looking for. Sure, they have fun when they're there, but that, for them, doesn't mean they're going to be there every time. It's just something they like to do, an activity they enjoy as much as, say, watching a movie, so sometimes they're going to do the one and sometimes the other.

I've been (still am) in your position and it really, really sucks: you're pouring your heart into this and you feel like they just don't care or even that they're using you, but it's just a matter of looking at it differently; it's not ill will and it's not something you can change. You'll just have to accept it or quit teaching, because otherwise it's going to eat at your relationship with these people.
posted by Skyanth at 3:59 AM on March 21, 2012

I wouldn't recommend penalising people, as unless you are going to charge huge amounts (and then how are you going to actually get the money? Send 'the boys' round?) then people will actually see it as more OK to miss a session - after all, they are paying for the privilege.

I would charge an upfront fee (not a deposit - if you don't want to keep the money then use it to buy refreshments or something- say it's for admin costs, whatever). Charge for a set number of sessions. Don't change any arrangements for people - they should be planning round you, not vice versa, and it's not fair on those who always turn up. If you really feel there are people who can't pay, deal with them privately and let them off.

You don't have to charge loads, it's just that people don't place any value on stuff that's free. Look at how much better MetaFilter is than so many other websites, and I'm sure a lot of that is due to the 'entry fee' - which is basically neglible to your average Westerner, but sets some barrier to participation and gives the product value in the eyes of users.
posted by KateViolet at 6:24 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

We're doing this in Melbourne, if you're interested -- I see you're in Ballarat. We have 4 shows in MICF (starting next week) but the goal is to do a full run in the Melbourne Fringe in September/October.

Whoa, small world! I'm fairly sure we've met AND I've seen you perform (I'll memail you my secret identity). I will be over in Melbs for a lot of the comfest so I'll most likely see your show - best of luck getting your troupe together!
posted by lovedbymarylane at 6:27 AM on March 21, 2012

I have the exact same issue with my choir - I have a core group of stalwarts that come all the time, a few who miss practices here and there, and some who are complete flakes. If what you're running is volunteer, then there isn't much you can do to force them to come to practice or even to a performance - you don't have a lot of stick to beat them with if the carrot isn't working.

For me, and other choir director friends of mine, the solution is to have a larger group than you strictly need. Then, in performance, you have a strong core of good singers, and maybe a few hangers-on who aren't as good 'cause they didn't put the work in.

For you, would you consider a "junior" and "senior" improv team? Those who have come regularly to practice and are solid performers are in the senior team, with the less experienced performers in the junior team.
posted by LN at 6:43 AM on March 21, 2012

Additional comments:

1) I do the "trial" thing as well but I haven't found it makes much of a difference. Most people have resolved to come before they make the effort to turn up for practice.

2) Having a "no practice, no performance" policy is definitely a good one, but as you note, you need a really solid (like, 15-20 people to choose from) core group before you can start turning people away. One really great way to drive the point home to your group is to plan a joint performance with a much more practiced, more solid team. Your people will realize they need to step their game up.

3) Be demanding, and nit-picky, even if you're not sure the level of skill in the group warrants it. People appreciate pushing their boundaries in a safe place, and the director/leader/team captain is just the person to do it. Don't be inclined to say "good enough, considering the group". Demand more from them (in a nice way!).

4) Recruit people to help you, particularly in recruitment and PR. Have you got someone with a comms or journalism background in your ranks, who might have some connections with local newspapers or TV stations? Use that. Got a graphic designer in your group? Get that person to do up a poster or something. Hold a "bring a friend to practice" day, with coffee and cookies afterwards.

5) Strengthen the community in your group. Plan occasional "fun" activities for the group, like a BBQ or party at someone's house. Or busk in the local town centre, partly to fundraise and partly to give your group some practice performing in front of people. Volunteer to perform at a food bank drive.
posted by LN at 7:01 AM on March 21, 2012

I do improv as well. I have an independent team, and we meet weekly and practice with a coach. It was a nightmare at first to figure out everybody's schedules and get people to show up consistently, so I absolutely know where you're coming from.

First off, I think you should charge for you time. It doesn't have to be a lot, but improv coaches in NYC generally charge between 20 and 30 dollars an hour, and practice sessions almost always last two hours (note - that rate is for the whole group, not per individual. So you'd be making 40-60 dollars total). I understand why you don't want to charge, but I urge you to reconsider. This is a valuable skill that you've acquired, and you deserve to be compensated for doing the work of teaching it to others. You paid them at UCB for the same instruction, right? By not charging, you're sending the message that this is just a fun, casual thing that people can sign up for and then treat as a very low priority.

More importantly, charging will allow you to institute a dues system, which I've found is the best way to get people to show up. Where are you practicing, and where are the shows? Are they in places that cost money to rent? If you're running it out of your house, I'd encourage you to rent some studio space for the class, which will also make it seem more like something that needs to be taken seriously. If so, figure out how much per month is required to cover all space rentals, then add that to the amount that you will be paid for your time for the month (so, $160-$240, assuming four sessions per month and depending on your rate). Then the people in your class pay you upfront for the month, dividing it amongst themselves. If they don't pay you at the beginning of the month, they have to wait until the next month. You have to be really firm on this - don't let people show up the first week or two and promise to pay you later.

This way, people are making a formal commitment to attend all month. And if they don't, they're wasting money. You don't have to penalize them directly for missing a week, because they've penalized themselves by throwing away that money. It won't even end up being that expensive - my team currently has three people on it, and we each pay $100 per month. But any amount of money is enough to make people take it much more seriously.

I've been involved in a lot of teams over the years, and so have a lot of my friends. This is the only thing that I've ever seen work.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:39 AM on March 21, 2012

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