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Deciding When to Say "No"

Emily Anne Gibson talks about when it's NOT a good idea to work on an artistic project.

I often have a tough time saying ‘no’ to helping out, but sometimes you’ve got to do it.
(public domain clip art image)
"A disciplined person not only knows how to say ‘no' to themselves but ‘no' to other people when they need to." --Joyce Meyer

About two weeks ago, I hear about what seemed to be a cool opportunity to work on a theater project here in Oxford. I was pretty excited about the prospect, because I haven't had a chance to get on a production while I've been here. The play needed a director (or co-directors), and I thought I'd express some interest.

In the end, I had a meeting with two other people interested in directing to talk about how we might all be able to work on the show somehow, but as we talked, we became uneasy about the production. Ultimately, the three of us decided together that we couldn't accept the project. It was unfortunate, but I think it was the right decision.

I often have a tough time saying ‘no' to helping out, but sometimes you've got to do it. I'm not saying that you shouldn't help a friend out with a light hang or read through the latest draft of a classmate's script, but there are a few signs that maybe you shouldn't take on a project.

If you know that you don't have enough time, don't do it. This was the biggest obstacle of the project I had to decline. The timeline was four weeks to get a fully-produced production up, with no designers and no cast to begin with, and only a few hours of rehearsal per week. While it might be possible to throw something together in those weeks, it wasn't worth the time, effort, and tears to produce something mediocre. Even if you like a project—especially if you like a project—you shouldn't take it on unless you think you can do it justice in the allotted time.

If you aren't enthusiastic, it might not be the best use of your time. If you are choosing a project, make sure you get the script before you agree to anything. It's important, especially if you are going to be in an artistic position, to become passionate about your project—that's how great art is made. If you feel lukewarm about a script or the text doesn't set your imagination going, it might be a project for someone else. You also don't want to be committed to a production that's not going to make you happy and fulfilled.

If you're not 100% sure what the project is and what you are being asked to do, think twice before agreeing to it. This happened with the project I mentioned earlier. I (and the other two people interested in directing) was under the impression that the production was completely ready to go, only needing a replacement director. The actual situation was completely different: the project had a script and a theater space rented for tech through closing night, and that was it. In other words, if I'd accepted, I would have had way more work to do than I was expecting. After learning that, I'm going to be careful about understanding a project's goals and how much responsibility is on my shoulders.

If you feel uncomfortable about it, it's probably a bad sign. Productions can make us nervous. We can worry about not finding a good cast, or getting a theater space, or any other number of things. But when you start a project, you should feel optimistic about it. If at the very beginning of your artistic journey you're doubting the plausibility, forcing yourself to deal with the material, and simply not excited about getting started…well, you probably shouldn't be working on it in the first place.

There aren't any hard and fast rules about which projects to accept and which to decline, and saying 'no' can be really difficult, especially if you're being asked by a friend. And I know that we're students, and sometimes we get assigned to shows with which we aren't exactly thrilled. But when you have the opportunity to manage yourself, to choose your projects, don't just jump onto the first production you find. Make sure it's a show you can really do, and do well, and enjoy working on. That will make the process—and the product—infinitely better.