It’s Time to Stop the May Madness


It’s mid-May. In interpreters’ offices across the land, summer interps are madly producing this year’s crop of guided walks, amphitheatre shows, family programs and the like. Some of those interpreters have three, four, or five programs to get up and running in a few short weeks. There will be overtime, there will be stress, and there will be tears.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I went through years of the May Madness, both as a front-line interpreter and as a supervisor. There is an exhilarating intensity to it, to be sure. It’s a time when we bond with each other in the interpretive trenches, talking each other off the ledges of despair when a concept just isn’t working or when a manager sends a perfectly good program back to the drawing board, three days before its debut weekend.

And here’s the thing: when I look back at the programs I produced under those conditions, all I see are unfinished scripts that were forced to the stage before their time. Promising first drafts, at best. Programs that worked through sheer nervous energy and force of will. Were they any good? Sure. But they could have been better. And I could have come through it with my sanity and home life intact. And with far fewer hours of overtime.

Does this sound familiar?

  1. Interpreters arrive in the spring and are assigned a topic for, say, two guided walks, an amptheatheatre talk and a family program each.
  2. Interpreters research, write, find props and rehearse each program in three to six weeks. They barely escape with their sanity.
  3. The rest of the summer is spent running those programs and burning off overtime hours.
  4. At the end of the summer, all of those programs get placed in an archive and are largely forgotten.
  5. The following May, the entire cycle starts again. The overtime adds up, the stress builds up, and the strata of archived and forgotten programs on the shelf grow ever higher.

What if?

  1. Interpreters arrive in the spring and choose (or are assigned) a very good script—one that they wrote themselves last year, or was written by another interpreter.
  2. Props and costumes have been set aside for them.
  3. They rehearse and polish the program and debut that program with a minimum of stress and overtime.
  4. When the programs are up and running, they write next year’s programs. They get those programs to a second-draft stage, vetted and approved by their supervisors. They start to gather props and costumes.
  5. They do a photo shoot for those programs. Supervisors or promotions officers begin promoting next year’s offer.
  6. Over the winter, supervisors hire contract costumers, prop builders, artefact curators, and writers to finish the program preparation work. Some of these professionals are off-strength interpreters.
  7. See 1.

And what if?

Successful programs are revived every few years, to further lessen the creative load and further lessen overtime and stress on everyone’s part. (The interval will depend on each site’s rate of repeat visitation; if you have high annual repeat, you may have to reach back four or five years. Most sites could reach back two.)

To Get Started

Supervisors, reach back into your program archives. Find the good programs. Dust them off. Send them to a good writer for updating or polishing up. As early as possible, flag to your returning staff that you have a new way of working. Do some research on change management because there will be protest, particularly among individuals who enjoy a life of high drama. Do it. They will thank you in June.

And if you reach back in to your program archive and can’t find anything you like? You have a problem. You’ve been approving those programs each May for years. If they really don’t stand the test of time, you’ve probably been confusing quality with novelty. You need to slow your rate of production and invest in better programs. This method should help.

A Further Benefit

The tourism and arts sectors work on one, two, or three year promotional cycles. That is to say, to do a half-decent job of promoting programs, you need to start publicizing them one year out. For national and international travel, that cycle can be two or three years. That’s what product development and promotion look like nowadays. When you tell your promotions people that you have no idea what any of your programs look like until two weeks before they debut, those promotions people die a little bit inside. And your competition laughs and laughs and laughs.

Thoughts? Feel free to comment below.


One Comment

  1. Brian Forist

    What if?

    What if it were not about the interpreters but about the visitors? Asking for a friend.

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