Dear Lillith: Personal vs. Professional
Lillith Grey has been lighting up the stage for over five years as a burlesque and fetish performer, musician, and emcee, and can frequently be found performing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. She holds a master’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education, and is currently completing her Ph.D. in psychology. She has worked as a psychotherapist, educator, and social justice advocate, and currently teaches at a local university while working on her research. She travels extensively, teaching classes and workshops on a variety of subjects including relationships, communication, trauma, body image, sexuality and gender, and diversity issues. Lillith is also active in the Leather community, serving on the NLA-International Writing Awards committee and as a co-chair for the Women’s International LeatherFest. Visit her at www.LillithGrey.com for more information.
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A close friend and I perform together at a lot of small burlesque and variety shows. We started burlesque together and have worked together ever since, but lately we are butting heads. I really love performing with her but I am worried that our friendship is suffering because we work together. What can I do to make sure both our friendship and performances are strong?
- Torn in Texas
Dear Torn in Texas:
The blending of personal and professional roles can be really difficult, but it seems like you are committed to working it out, which is a great start. This issue impacts a lot of performers and producers – since we are such a small community, we end up blurring the lines between friendship and business, which can lead to ruffled feathers, minor tiffs, or even major conflicts.
Since you two started your performance careers together, then it makes perfect sense that you’d be butting heads now. Burlesque is an art form crafted by time – when you first started performing; you probably approached your acts differently than you do now. As you’ve become more experienced, you have likely developed your own style and your own way of doing things, both on and off stage. You’ve probably also realized how much work is involved, and you may be developing a better sense of how dedicated you want to be. This kind of growth and development is a really important part of each performer’s journey. Allowing each other the space to develop independently, even if it means in different directions, is a marker of a strong friendship.
Think about these as two distinct relationships: a personal relationship and a professional relationship. They certainly blur together at times, and that’s part of what makes it fun, but don’t forget that they are unique roles that should be nurtured equally. If you come to a point where you are unable or unwilling to continue attending to those roles, it may be time to consider letting go of one or both of them. Since it seems clear to me from your question that you are hoping to maintain that strong friendship and continue perform together as well, here are some pointers to help you along the way…
One of the most important things that you bring to the table as a friend and as a performer is your own level of insight. The more you understand yourself, the better able you are to communicate your own style and find ways to support each other. If you know that you tend to procrastinate, you can ask her for support and friendly reminders. If you prefer having written choreography rather than memorized, you can say that up front and avoid annoyances down the road. Do you prefer to start rehearsals immediately, or do you like to chat a bit before beginning? Simply knowing how you work best and letting the other person know, leaves a lot of space for compromise and mutual understanding.
Small conflicts are usually indicators of underlying frustration or anger. If seemingly trivial things feel more important than they should, you may need to do some deeper reflection on how things are going. For example, if you are frustrated that she tends to be a few minutes late to rehearsals, a deeper reason might be that you are feeling like she doesn’t care about your work together. If she thinks you are too controlling about the choreography, it may be because she feels like her voice isn’t heard in the creative process. Similarly, things can carry over from other parts of your relationship. If there is something going on in the friendship, that will show up in your work together, just like these work conflicts are showing up in your friendship. Having well-developed personal insight can help create a safe space for open and honest dialogue.
Now that you’ve had experience as a performer, it’s probably time to renegotiate how you work together. Talk to each about what works and what doesn’t for you. How much time do you need to prepare for a show? How many rehearsals do you need? How frequently do you want to perform? Are you allowed to perform solo? With others? Do you consider this a hobby or a career? How do you want to brand yourself to your audience? Which shows will you be in? How much do you need to be paid? The list goes on and on…. Different performers have different preferences, but the problem comes when we don’t explicitly talk about these questions because we end up making assumptions about the other person’s wants and needs. Remember, if you’re going to work together, you’ll have to compromise, but it’s impossible to compromise if you don’t know what each person needs.
Having some level of personal insight will also allow you to negotiate your working relationship based on what your own needs and interests are. Talk about how you’re going to work together – if you are going to integrate social time with work time, decide how you will know when it’s time to work and when it’s time to play. I occasionally perform with a gal who has a “working notebook.” When the notebook’s out, it’s a signal that we’re talking business and we’re getting stuff done (usually while drinking wine and gabbing about whatever books we’re reading and our latest thrift store discoveries). When the notebook goes away, so does the business. It’s a nice way of integrating both while still being clear about boundaries and roles.
Effective communication happens in person. Most of the time email and text do nothing to reduce tension or clear up misunderstandings. Instead, they perpetuate misunderstanding and create unnecessary conflict. A healthy dialogue allows space for complexity, clarification, non-verbal cues, emotional expression, and nuance, and it has a sense of give and take in the moment. Email and text offer none of those things. Emoticons don’t count as sharing your feelings.
Also, keep your drama offline. Keep. Your.Drama.Offline. Facebook and Twitter lull us into believing that we are just venting to our friends when we post overly emotional or derogatory messages online. We also tend to not recognize when we are creating or perpetuating drama because it feels so personal and so relevant at the moment we post it. The truth is that it comes across as inappropriate and disrespectful. It’s not only unprofessional; it’s also hurtful to your friendship. At tempting as it is, when in conflict you must avoid technological communication!
Another major pitfall in communication is passive aggression. This is a big one that a lot of women in our culture struggle with. Think about how kids are socialized, generally speaking: boys tend to settle their differences physically or verbally, and are encouraged to be assertive and stand up for themselves. Girls, on the other hand, are typically expected to be nice and gentle, so the necessary assertion of boundaries and needs has to occur in passive ways.
When you write a post on Facebook about “someone” doing something to you, when you make snarky comments about something rather than just confronting it head on, or when you tell lots of other people about a private conflict, you are acting out your aggression in a passive manner. This is particularly hard to deal with when you’re on the receiving end of it because it leaves you feeling unable to protect yourself – you know you’ve been attacked, but the manner in which it was done makes it hard to defend yourself. Dismantling passive aggression takes special attention, since many of us have had it ingrained in us since birth. Learning to communicate assertively and directly (albeit gently and kindly!) will smooth things out considerably.
It’s not show friends, it’s show business
I think one of the most difficult things about this art form is the financial side – this is an expensive lifestyle, with very little tangible reward. Whether you’re performing or producing (or both!), you have undoubtedly invested money – perhaps even a lot of money – into your work. Money is so important in our lives – when we talk about money we’re also talking about our personal sense of security, which can be a scary thing to feel unsure about. Many of us get very protective over that part of our lives, and understandably so.
If your friend is producing a show or bearing any sort of financial responsibility for more than just herself, it’s important that you realize how intense that is. At face value, it may seem simple – just rent a venue, hire performers, and sell tickets, right!? WRONG! Not only is event production much more expensive and complex than it seems, there’s also a great deal of emotional cost as well. When a producer signs a contract accepting financial and legal responsibility for a show; that’s a lot of weight. Depending on how big that weight is, she might have to make some decisions that you don’t agree with. It is important for you to recognize that when her money is on the line, her role has to be a professional first.
Even if she’s not a producer, she’s still investing money, time, and energy – and these are valuable resources! You may have different ideas about how much of those things you are willing and able to invest in your work. You may have different plans about where you hope your path will take you. All of these “big picture” issues end up being manifested in small things, like how much time someone can spend rehearsing or how far they are willing to drive. If you can have a dialogue with her about where you see yourselves going and how you each intend to get there, you’ll have a better understanding about the physical, financial, and emotional cost of performance.
Power struggles are tough, but the good thing is that it means you both have strengths and are willing to be assertive about them. Many times when you end up in a power struggle, you miss the fact that the other person may have ideas that compensate for your weak points. If you put down your boxing gloves for a minute, you can turn the situation into something that benefits of both you. For instance, if you butt heads about the creative direction an act will take, you might take turns being the “artistic director” for your acts. If you have conflicts about how the business side is being handled, talk about it and decide who will handle what aspects of the management. Maybe when one of you is creative director, the other can take on the business side (i.e. handling communication with producers, taking care of music prep, handling payment, etc.).
If it turns out that you are on two different paths, or if you continue to have conflict that cannot be resolved, then you may need to mutually renegotiate your working relationship in order to save your friendship. That does not mean you have to stop working together, but it might mean that things have to change. As you consider making a big change like that, remember that the development, growth, redefinition, and sometimes even the ending of a relationship can be a very healthy and empowering process for everyone involved. When you find that you are able to speak your truth and hear your friend’s truth without judgment, you’ll be able to navigate the waters of the personal and the professional with ease.