Ep. #36 The Assistant

Ep. #36 The Assistant

 
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Whether you ARE an assistant, HAVE an assistant, WANT an assistant, or want TO BE an assistant, this episode is for you. The (many) roles and responsibilities of assistants are often not discussed out in the open. Well, I’m here to start bringing this conversation to the forefront.  What makes a great assistant? When is an assistant NOT an assistant? Let’s talk collaboration, ownership, and all about assistants!

Show Notes

Quick Links:

Watching Smiling: https://www.instagram.com/p/CELBTJXFv27/

Transcript:

Intro: This is words that move me, the podcast where movers and shakers, like you get the information and inspiration. You need to navigate your creative career with clarity and confidence. I am your host master mover, Dana Wilson. And if you’re someone that loves to learn, laugh and is looking to rewrite the starving artist story, then sit tight, but don’t stop moving because you’re in the right place. 

Dana: Hello. Hello and hello. I am Dana and I am jazzed that you are here today. I’m stoked on this episode because it is dense. It carries a lot of value in a little bit of time. So whether you are an assistant or a person who has an assistant or a person who is looking to have an assistant, I think you will get a lot out of this episode, by the way. I think we all could use an assistant at some point.  

So this episode truly is for everyone. So much value so much goodness, but first let’s talk wins. This week, coincidentally, I am claiming a win. That is a video project I created in collaboration with my podcast assistant Malia Baker. She choreographed it, I directed and edited it. And it is a video homage to Louie Prima and Keely Smith called “Smiling.” It was influenced by the golden age of movie musicals and our cast and crew was golden to truly such an awesome time capsule of a project. I loved every part of making this video and, um, man, we, we shot it just days before the lockdown was enforced and I’m so proud to be sharing it with the world right now. I think it carries a very important message and a handful of very fun surprises as well. So check that out. It lives on my Instagram @DanaDaners and also on Malia’s personal page. She is @MaliaBaker. Get into it. Do your face a favor, give a smile. Okay. Now speaking of your face and your smile, what is your win this week? What’s going well in your world.  

Okay. Awesome. And congrats. Keep crushing it. If you are listening the podcast chronologically, you have just emerged from four back to back episodes about auditioning. This episode is coming at a very timely time because I want to acknowledge that auditioning for work is not the only way to get work. In fact, possibly the most fruitful way that I introduced myself to the industry was as an assistant, an assistant choreographer to be specific. Now I opened this episode by talking about my win with my assistant Malia Baker. That was unintentional, but coincidentally, very, very appropriate to this episode. Now there is a hot button conversation happening in the dance world right now. That’s probably happened in other industries forever. Um, sort of as language changes and our professional landscape changes. This conversation will continue to happen. Probably forevermore. The subject, broadly is the roles and responsibilities of assistants. Is the assistant the person that gets the coffee is the assistant. The person that remembers the steps or teaches the steps or cleans the steps or contributes steps? Question Mark.  When is an assistant, not an assistant, what makes a great assistant we’re digging in to all of it. So buckle up.  

Alright. So I have been an assistant and I occasionally still assist for about 15 years, world tours, movies, commercials, music, videos, award shows you name it I’ve assisted on it. I’ve also danced and assisted on the same project, which can be really, really challenging. I’ll explain why, as you’re about to find out the role of an assistant is very, very broad. And the role of a performer is very, very specific. Sometimes it can be challenging to have the bird’s eye view and the worm’s eye view at the same time. All right, let’s talk first about what an assistant does. Well, as I mentioned, it’s always a little bit different, not just from project to project, but from boss to boss, from person to person. So let’s consider what assistants might do. They might, depending on the project or the person, edit video, edit music, go pick up coffee, go pick up lunch, take lunch orders, book studio space, manage and coordinate schedules. That’s a start, but they always, they always facilitate a vision. They facilitate the creative vision of their boss or of the project that they’re assisting on. 

Now let’s talk about the different types of assistance. A personal assistant, for example, might organize travel, like actually book the flights, the cars, the hotel reservations, they might run personal errands or organize a personal schedule. I have known personal assistants to actually buy the Christmas gifts and birthday gifts for their bosses, families and friends. Um, I’ve even known of a boss who trusted their assistant to decide on their future home. Yes. Like the house they will live in the assistant went and saw it and said, yes. Very wide range of responsibilities there for a personal assistant. And of course it depends on the person. Let’s talk now about a choreography assistant, a choreographic assistant or a choreography assistant or a choreographer’s assistant might be a moving body in the room during the creation process and during the rehearsal process. Occasionally they’re responsible for retaining the counts in the choreography, teaching choreography, cleaning choreography, even giving feedback on the choreography itself, If asked. I have also used and served as a technical assistant, this is a person that might film, edit and upload tutorial, videos, rehearsal videos, so on and so forth. Those are just a few examples of titles and responsibilities of assistants. I could really go on for probably a day about the things that assistants do. So why don’t we actually shift our focus to this question? When is an assistant not an assistant. First of all, I want to state that I see assistants as collaborators and possibly the most important part of the team. My assistants know my every move. They know my schedule, they know my values, they know my vision, they know how I like to work. And it is their job to work, to facilitate my vision. In the choreography space on a choreography team, by my definition, an assistant is responsible for facilitating a creative vision. That may mean tactical tasks, physical things like setting up the studio, organizing the schedule, organizing video footage, tutorials, et cetera. It might even mean systematic work, streamlining a process, making sure that things go smoothly with that being said to me, the moment an assistant crosses into another realm of collaborator is when they’re asked or expected to contribute their own creative vision for the work. I know many choreographers are totally okay with feedback when it comes to their choreography or process, but this is not the same as bringing a creative idea to the table. I’ll give an example. I know that many choreographers are okay, and even encourage getting feedback from their assistants. Feedback, for example, on things like weight transfers, transitions, or even presenting a step like, Ooh, it might feel better to ball change right left instead of left, right, Because my weight is already on the left side or, Ooh, I love that step. It reminds me of this. Or to get into that turn, it might be better if I start from this position instead of that one, that way I can move quicker and give you what you want, which is covering a lot of distance in a little bit of time. To me, that’s very acceptable and expected feedback from an assistant. And to me, that is absolutely not the same as bringing a creative idea to the table. To me, when a person is asked or expected to bring their own idea or vision, they are an associate or possibly even a co choreographer, not an assistant. An example of bringing a creative idea to the table might look something like this. Is there a world where instead of our hero woman being in love with peanut butter, she is actually in love with a frog that turns into a can of peanut butter. Example of creative vision, opposed to facilitating the creative vision and wow frogs and peanut butter, Welcome to my mind. Welcome to my very creative mind. 

All right, now let’s talk about what makes a great assistant. I’ll give you a hint. What makes a great assistant is also what makes a great relationship. That’s really what we’re talking about here today. The relationship between boss and assistant. In my book, these are four qualities of a great assistant. Number one ESP, mind reading capabilities. In the event that you do not possess mind reading capabilities, which none of us do. Um, here is a great way to read somebody’s mind, ask them what they think and write it down. Great way to read somebody’s mind is to actually put it on paper, get a clear idea of expectations. And then you are so much better set up for success. 

Another quality of a great assistant to me is somebody that has a good memory and mindset for not only managing information, but mining it. This is a person who knows how to ask the right questions. This is a person that knows where to look for information and how to get it and how to organize it. Another quality of a fabulous assistant. It sounds weird to say this, but customer service. The assistant establishes the flow of the project, the flow of information. And oftentimes when people think back about how the project went, it will be the work of the assistant that they remember, that they walk away with, that they think of as being either remarkably positive or not so much. Oh, here’s my favorite. My favorite quality of a great assistant is somebody that over delivers, under time. I love looking for the habit of somebody who over-delivers, because that’s a quality that I seek in my own career. And I like to think of my assistants as an extension of myself. If I do, they do too. 

Moving right along, let’s talk about how to be a great assistant. There are notions that an assistant is akin to a servant role or a secretary role. If you are an assistant, what if, instead of believing those stories, you chose to believe the following. What if you chose to own your work and not do their work? What if you owned the value that you bring? What if you facilitate the zones for genius? What if you make the space and maintain the space for brilliance? What if that is your job? Instead of doing the jobs left undone by others, you make the space, you maintain the space, you make the zones for genius. What if instead of getting walked on, you wanted to grow. What if you wanted to be the best at what you do, not the second best to your boss, but the best you, this is abundance mentality.  This is ownership, and this is very attractive. 

Now I could not talk about how to be a great assistant without asking you to pay attention to the details, study, to learn the likes and dislikes of the person that you’re working for. And I don’t just mean what things do they like and dislike out there in the world, but what qualities do they like and dislike about themselves? Where can you supplement and help enhance the person that they already are with the person that you already are? For example, do they like knowing people’s names, but are terrible at remembering them? Do they have a preference for the way that tables and chairs are set up? Do they have a vibe that you can contribute to? Do they love the snacks that you brought? do they have any food allergies? Do they prefer their music loud or quiet? Do they like hearing your opinion? Do they work well with tech or do they get easily frustrated with tech? Are they an iPhone or an Android person? Do they prefer large or small groups of dancers? What are the tough parts and flow states of their process? In general, if they mentioned liking or disliking a thing, make sure that you note it, but don’t wait for them to say it. Most of this stuff can be very easily perceived if you are perceptive. 

Alright. I think it’s really, really important as an assistant that you manage your mind. It’s important to remember that, although yes, you may be working for someone else. You are also a leader. People are looking to you as number two, to establish the tone. They’re looking to you for cues about what is trickling down. So be responsible for the way that you lead as well as the way that you follow. Lastly, I kind of touched on this before, but represent your boss. Try to show up always as the best version, not only of yourself, but of them as well. This preserves your relationship with them, as well as the relationship you have with yourself, show up as the best version of you. 

Alright, now this might be sort of an unexpected spin on this episode, but I do want to talk about how to have assistants from the perspective of somebody who’s been one for 15 years, and now has a few of my very own. First don’t expect anyone to read your mind. You’re welcome assistants. For those people that seek to have the help of others. It is extremely beneficial to know what you want. It’s even more beneficial. If you write it down, say what it is that you want ask for exactly what you want. Now, to me, the first phase of a boss assistant relationship is establishing trust. I usually do this through a series of simple tactical assignments that an assistant can follow through on these are measurable they’re visible sometimes they’re actually physical. Make this order, pick it up, set up these chairs in this certain way, post this specific post at this specific time.  

It’s very simple to see if these markers have been met. As the trust is established, as those markers are met, then the relationship between assistant and boss turns into one, that’s less about simply doing things and more about ways of doing things. Now you can delegate the process of getting things done, not just ask people to get things done for you. This is where real true collaboration comes into play. This is where you build systems together based on what works and what doesn’t work. Creating a process together and tweaking it together. Keeping a tight feedback loop is a step in the agent boss relationship that sometimes is expected to fall only on the assistance lap, but I see this as being truly a collaboration and when done well, this is a make or break step that can truly multiply your results your output exponentially. And here is why when you delegate a task to somebody, especially somebody who wants to do the task well, it’s usually met with a hundred questions at that point, you might be telling yourself, by this point, I might as well have just done it myself. Well it’s possible, but it really, really pays to invest in these systems and in finding ways to answer these questions early on so that you don’t have to later. Here is the critical step. I asked my assistants to come back to me, not only with their questions, but with what they think I would answer to those questions that helps me not only get to know them and the way they think, but it helps me get to know the way they think I think, and somewhere within that, I might even be presented with an idea that’s better than my own ideas. I love this step. Here’s an example. If I ask somebody to book a rehearsal space for me, I tell them the dimensions of the studio that I need. I tell them the hours that I need the studio and the preferred location, but perhaps they come back to me wondering what my budget is, instead of just saying, what is your budget? They might say, I think you’d prefer this budget, but these are the price ranges available. I love this answer because it shows me that my assistant has an idea of what they think my values are. They think that I value money in a certain way. Now, perhaps they’re wrong. Perhaps I value being very, very frugal when I rent rehearsal space, but it’s possible that I don’t consider money at all. I will pay any dollar amount as long as the dimensions are correct. There is adequate parking for example, um, and it’s within five miles of my house. Like maybe those are my values, but by responding to me with the answer that they think is best, then I’m informed of, of perhaps a blind spot that my assistants and I have in our understanding of each other and our values. This is essential. This step, I really, really strongly recommend this. I really also recommend that you treat your assistant as the most important part of your team.  Take care of them, take care of them financially and otherwise. This is the person closest to you and your work. It’s essential that you hold them closely with care. 

Alright, now, speaking of care and holding things closely, I have decided to much debate that I would like to share with you. Some of my assistant fails. Yep. I’m telling you all about the times that I have fallen so that you don’t have to fall down to. My first story is when I was assisting the one, the only, Toni Basil, who is still a dear friend and mentor of mine and a dance legend. I might add if you’re not familiar with Toni Basil strongly encourage, you hit pause on this episode, go do a little research. And then come on back. I was assisting Toni on an award show. I believe it was the Soul Train Awards.  And I believe the year was like 1600 BC. It was a really long time ago. And I remember the director of the award show asked Toni a question. Toni paused and seemed like she was struggling to find the answer. So I answered for her because the answer to this particular question was right on the tip of my tongue. I did not exercise any restraint. I jumped in with all of my enthusiasm and willingness to answer and speak for my boss. Holy smokes. She was standing right there. A fully capable, fully responsible fully.. Did I say capable? Yeah. Toni Basil is one of the most capable human beings. I know she knows this industry and several industries I might add inside and out. She is, as I mentioned a legend and I thought it would be a good idea to speak for her. When for two seconds, she took pause to consider her answer. Oh yes, this was a fumble. And I knew it immediately. When Toni Basil’s daggers in her eyes shot back at me and almost physically zipped my mouth for me. I remember I wanted to just crawl into myself and die and never speak again. Instead I apologized and I’ve learned pretty well. Although my instinct to talk quickly has helped me in the past. It’s also hurt me time and time again. Take pause, consider, and always let number one, speak first. A piggyback lesson on that is that it’s also good practice to let number one, have the last word too. All right. Assistant fail number two. Oh, this one is cringy. I was assisting Marty Kudelka on a project for Justin Timberlake. We’re hiring dancers. I remember a table full of headshots. Some of them, my friends, none of them were me. Um, we’re discussing the people that would be the right fit and it fell on my lap to hire the dancers for the job. That means call the agents, make the official booking and make sure that the dancers have all the information they need to start work on the start date. Well, start date rolls around. We begin rehearsal and Marty looks at me and he says, we’re missing a girl. I look at my notes. I look at my outgoing email. I’m like, Nope, this is everybody. And then Marty said to me, yeah, but where is dancer X? My gut sank and hit the floor was I really that sloppy that out of like eight dancers. It wasn’t even like 56 dancers. It was like eight dancers. Out of eight I missed one. Oh my gosh. That’s definitely failing status right there. That is an assistant fail. Marty was extremely gracious. And let that one slide. I absolutely have not lived it down, but for that project, we made seven out of eight work.  

Holy smokes. Do I still feel awful about that? So awful about that. Compassion, Dana, compassion. It’s okay to mess up. Okay. This one’s subtle, but I think it’s very important while I was working with Christopher Scott on, In the Heights, he pointed out to me one day that my feedback even nonverbal is very, very visible. I’m the guy that likes to report the news. I speak quickly. I speak my every thought, usually, podcasts, very appropriate place for me to land. But even in the room, the thing that I learned from Chris is that yes, especially in an associate role, my opinion is valued, but Dana, come on. It does not need to be given 100% of the time. I remember Chris making a joke about the bill of my hat, being my tell, that he could see it from across the studio, either nodding vigorously up and down or holding very, very still. The nodding bill of the hat obviously would suggest that I am in favor of this idea, this take, this pass. The stillness means I’m not buying it. Now. Here’s the important thing there oftentimes as an associate, as an assistant or as anyone other than the director, your opinion is not the most important thing happening in the room. I am constantly learning the value of being neutral, the value of allowing people, the space visually and audibly and otherwise to have their own opinions. Before I attempt to change the temperature of the room with mine. Exercise, it is my exercise, neutrality. Look out neutrality. Here I come. Wow. What a goal? Huh?  

All right, everybody. I hope that this information is useful to you. Whether you are an assistant or someone who has an assistant or someone who is looking to have an assistant. And because there are so many different ways of working together because I’m an assistant and I have one, I would really love to hear your feedback on this episode. So head over to Words that move me Podcast on IG to leave a comment on this episode, and don’t forget to subscribe and download these episodes If you’re loving and finding value here, please share it. Let me know that you’re digging the goods and please don’t forget more than anything to keep it funky. I appreciate you go have a funky rest of your day. I’ll talk to you very soon. 

Thought you were done, No, I’m here to remind you that all of the important people, places and things mentioned in this episode can be found on my website though. theDanawilson.com/podcast Finally, and most importantly, now you have moved over to patreon.com/WTMMpodcast to learn more. All right, everybody now I’m really done. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk to you soon.