From the Stage to Computer Science

What Technical Theatre Taught Me About Building Creative Technology Solutions

Photo by Felix Mooneeram on Unsplash

In undergrad, I was able to dual major in Computer Science and Theatre Arts. Before I even started school, I got pretty used to hearing the response: “Theatre and computer science? What an interesting combination!”

When I explained that I specialized in technical theatre that seemed to make more sense to people, but many still scratched their heads at the combination. Years after graduating, having worked in both technical theatre and now in software development, I still get wide-eyed looks when I tell people about my dual major. Despite the oh-so-common incredulity, I find myself using the lessons I’ve learned in the theatre world every day in my software development position. Here are just a few of the many examples.

Working with a Team

Theatre is a highly collaborative art form. A full production requires artists with a variety of backgrounds to work together. Take one look at the program of a “One Man Show” and you’ll find an army of stage managers, light/sound/costume designers, stagehands, and even a director to tell that “One Man” where to stand. With this collaboration comes a need for communication, flexibility, transparency, and openness. Every member of the team contributes something unique and will dramatically change the resulting product. I find the most effective theatrical teams are ones where the members all appreciate each other’s contributions and understands the role each member is playing and its importance to the final product.

Many of these lessons from theatre can be applied directly into the software world. Of course in software, there really are one-person software projects, but even those are built on decades of others work: programming languages, architectures, and libraries. There is normally a team of people from a variety of backgrounds working together to make a unified product. The moment the backend programmer starts thinking that they are more important than the UX tester or artistic director, a team becomes less effective. When people understand what each team member is bringing to the table and what considerations their discipline may have, it leads to good working relationships and great technology.

Communication

Now communication is a pretty obvious benefit in any business, but I can say I learned a great deal of my communication skills from theatre.

Of course, if a group of theatre people get together they can talk for hours. They’re plenty fine at traditional communication (except maybe lacking in brevity), but I’ll say that one of the most organized shared folders I’ve ever been a part of was for a theatrical production. Every designer had their own folder and subfolders. Lighting designer wanted to make sure their pallet would match the costumes? Why not check the costume designer’s sketches and fabric swatches in their Dropbox folder? After every rehearsal or performance, notes were sent to every member of the creative team to keep them updated with general process as well specific notes from them to address. Great productions cannot exist without great communication; artists cannot work in isolation.

In tech, we are constantly adding more software to streamline communication: Jira, Trello, Slack, Skype, GoTo Meeting, the list goes on and on. However, all of these are simply tools. The actual skills behind communication are much more important than the means. Give a good theatre stage manager a rotary phone and they will still coordinate the entire team. Communication is important in any industry, and I am glad that it is a skill that I stretched throughout my work.

Time Management and Being Prepared

I’m not a particularly organized person. I forget what I’m saying mid-sentence. I have trouble following multiple step instructions if I don’t write them down. But unlike many of my disorganized brethren, I am almost never late. Drilled into me early and often was the common theatre mantra: “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.” Though I couldn’t find a clear etymology for the saying, the phrase would pop up time and time again in whatever theatre I worked in. And people abide by it. In my personal life, I often find myself wandering around a location 15 minutes early when most of my friends are going to be 5 minutes late.

It is hard to overstate how a simple thing like being early to meetings can improve working relationships and your own general preparedness. No last minute trying to get your mic to work or find that document you’re going to present. Get there early and make sure you’re ready.

Always being early, you get pretty used to seeing this screen

In addition to time management within a given day, theatre helps with overall management on a project. In software, deadlines are often artificial. Created more by announcement or marketing, less by any sort of driving factor. (Other than simple speed to market.) We’ve all heard of software delayed, sometimes for years. Now when it comes to theatre, this almost never happens, especially in smaller theatres. Unless you’re the Spiderman musical, you can’t simply keep moving deadlines. When opening night comes along, you’re putting on what you have finished, no matter how many components are missing.

For me, being on time isn’t something I do to stand out, it is simply ingrained in my head from years of theatre. “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.”

This urgency can sometimes help, like in software you have to constantly evaluate what features of the show are the most important, what is the first to cut, and what is essential to the show. You get to tech week and you’re sure trying to find the leanest MVP that an audience will enjoy. This training has given me a greater awareness of time, as well as the ability to constantly be evaluating the most important parts of the project and making sure I get to everything that is the most important.

Creativity and Artistry

I’ve discussed plenty of important skills that you could find in most business success books, but creativity and artistry in problem-solving is something that must be learned through experience. One of my favorite things about technical theatre is that I am able to do something that is very technical and often physical; hanging lights, composing sound cues, or building a house, while still creating art. I can evoke emotions and responses in the audience by climbing a ladder and plugging in the spotlight.

It's easy to think of software design as entirely technical (I mean my degree says “Computer Science”). However, when you lose sight of the art behind a design, or the awareness of the relationship between your audience and your product, you risk ending up with a product that no one actually wants to use. It's important to think about form instead of just function. We’re seeing this as the software industry becomes more aware of user/customer experience and the benefit UX/CX research can have for a successful product.

Theatre has given me a better understanding of the relationship between a product and its audience. In theatre, you are constantly evaluating the full experience of the audience. Some of the best productions are thought through, from the moment the audience walks through the doors of the theater. Soundtrack, lighting, visuals, even the display in the lobby.


My theatre background has undoubtedly made me a better software developer. By entrenching me in values of collaboration, communication, time management, and creativity, theatre has helped me become a maker who works well with others, always comes prepared, and gives a damn about building something of value.

Do you have an uncommon background that’s led you down the path to software development? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Email me or share with me on Twitter at @life_and_times.