I think feeling overwhelmed by deadlines is a pretty common feeling among working professionals and students. I’ve dealt with some pretty tight deadlines over the course of my career so far, and thought I would share some tips that have really helped me manage deadlines.
First of all, you’ve got to understand why deadlines matter for your line of work. I personally love having deadlines for a number of reasons. It holds people accountable for their work, it gives me motivation to meet certain goals, and it keeps everything on track.
Make sure you are aware of dates and deadlines associated with your contract.
As a freelance set designer, I need to make sure I have an MOU (memorandum of understanding) or some sort of agreement of certain dates or milestones throughout the design of the production. It’s great if these dates are part of your contract. Things like, final design package due, lighting plot due, props list due, first production meeting, bid package due, etc. These are imperative to making sure your team is working towards a goal in a timely manner.
As a charge artist, it’s slightly different. I find that I need to be more proactive about asking for dates from my technical director or supervisor. I will advocate for a gantt chart or calendar where I can see mutual goals for the shop and events that pertain to all departments (focus, load-in, strike, rehearsals on stage, etc). This helps me figure out how to schedule the painting of major scenic units (deck treatments, scenery that needs to be flown/rigged, etc). After I plot major dates on the calendar for myself, I can estimate how much time a unit might take to paint. If I know a deck treatment needs 4 days to paint and seal, I can request stage time for that in advance, and thus – meet that deadline without feeling too rushed.
Budget your time realistically.
So if you’ve received a contract where the dates seem really tight – take a minute and do the math to figure out what you would need to get the job done by the proposed date. I used to push myself to get it done no matter what, and not only is that harmful for your mental health, it sets a tone for the company to think that working under that much pressure is okay – or to be in the mindset that just because it was done once, means they can do it again. Look – I would love to always get things done by the proposed date that a company wants it to be done by – but sometimes, it’s just not healthy to expect that much out of yourself or your crews.
There are a lot of different ways to approach budgeting time and managing “impossible” deadlines – here’s a couple things I do.
For set designs –
I’ll block out the proposed deadlines on Google Calendar so I can see all the dates at once.
Then, I’ll estimate how much time I need to complete a couple milestones and see if they align with the proposed timeline. So, let’s say I need about a week to read the script, do some image and period research, and sketch up a prelim concept.
I’ll then add a couple days for the director to look at it and respond back. If the proposed timeline is asking for prelims and then an estimate package for the TD a week later, I know that can be a little tight because it may not leave room for a revision based on the director’s response.
I can then take this information to the Artistic Director or Production Manager and open a conversation about how to best handle the turnaround time.
Hopefully that conversation happens early enough to build in some flexibility into the schedule, but sometimes – dates just can’t move.
Let’s say you need to deliver prelims for your TD to provide a bid package, but deadline for that seems pretty tight. This is where I pull out the ol planner and get to block scheduling.
This is what a typical journal spread will look like if I’m working on more than one show at a time. I’ll usually have a monthly layout close by as I’m scheduling weekly tasks, just to make sure I’m track for the big picture. By having a to-do list for each day separate for each show, I can avoid double booking myself.
Let’s say the prelims are due on Friday, and it’s currently Monday (this sounds really familiar to me right now). I know that Thursday is most likely a big day for plating and dimensioning everything, so my goal is to have the show designed by Wednesday. If I have a general sense of the groundplan, I’ll start with that on Monday and save Tuesday for detail drawings of larger units. It’s dangerous to compromise here because you want your TD to have a complete picture of the show in order to bid it.
By scheduling specific goals for each day, having the package ready to e-mail out on Friday doesn’t seem so daunting.
For the paint shop –
The same overall concept can apply to deadlines in the shop.
Let’s say scenery gives you a unit and needs it back for load-in in 3 days. You’ve done your labor estimates and figured out you need 4 days to complete the unit. (This happens a lot, give yourself a break and don’t panic!). There are a couple ways to deal with this.
First, I would open a conversation with the shop foreman or technical staff and communicate your needs to them in a respectful way. Inform them of your needs and see if there is any flexibility in the deadline. In most cases, there isn’t – but it’s important to communicate your difficulties along the way. Don’t just assume that you can’t move a date on the calendar – ask!
Next, go back to your labor estimate and figure out how you can expedite the process. Can you apply two steps in one, while your paint is wet? Will adding another person to job help or hurt the process? Can the final details be done in the space after load-in? Usually something comes up in this process that will save you – but let’s say you just really need those 4 days to complete the unit.
In that case, look at your budget for labor and see if you can schedule an evening call or extra shift without going into over time. Can you schedule a half day later in the week to offset hours? Can you call in half your crew in the evening? Would scheduling a couple extra hours help or hurt the process? Is it dry time that is taking the most time – if so, what can you do to have things dry overnight?
Hopefully by now, you can come up with a way to paint your scenery in time. This part of charging is honestly one of my favorite things – it keeps you on your toes and pushes you to come up with ways to execute treatments quickly or differently in order to meet a deadline. It’s not about compromising the final product, it’s just problem solving ways to make it work with your circumstance.
Overall, I think managing deadlines is what makes work interesting. Deadlines push you to grow and produce work, so don’t think of them in a negative way. Embrace them and appreciate having them, and you’ll be surprised at how little you end up dreading them. If you had an unlimited amount of time to produce a project, would it ever get done?