The Power of Luck in Live Entertainment

May 9, 2024

Production manager, author, USITT director, and past SMMP mentor Jay Sheehan authored a piece on luck in the live entertainment industry, which can be read below. We thank Jay for providing this informative and reflective work.

Text Message Thread


Our short text messages to each other would end with that... “Luck is the residue of design”

That quote that Tina mentioned would have me thinking for the rest of the day about that very subject. “Luck.”

As I contemplated my own career, I wondered, “How much luck was involved with my success?” Being in the right place at the right time was always something that “happened” to me. Was that luck? Destiny? Universal Intervention? Why do some people have success or good luck, and some do not?

Is luck a real thing? Is being in the right place at the right time enough?

Later that night I would discover that the quote that Tina brought up came from Branch Rickey, an American baseball player and sports executive during the 1940’s. Mr. Rickey was instrumental in breaking the color barrier of major league baseball by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. This was getting interesting, so I decided that my research needed a little deeper dig.

You see, about 12 hours earlier, my friend and colleague Tina Shackleford, Associate Professor of Stage Management at Carnegie Mellon University, had reached out to congratulate me on my recent article in Stage Directions Magazine. Tina simply said, “Bravo on the article, nicely done.”

My response was short... “Thanks Tina, this one kinda happened suddenly.”

Those of you that know me understand that this happens to me regularly. An idea pops into my head and I sit down as soon as I can and get the idea scratched out with pen and paper. The idea for the article on adaptability was no it came to me suddenly.

Tina’s next text to me was simple and intriguing... “The best things do sometimes.”

That response made me think about how sometimes the best things in life do happen rather suddenly, but we must be ready to accept those “best things,”... those nuggets of luck, when they do I replied just that. “If you’re ready.”

Her final response was that quote from Branch Rickey. “Luck is the residue of design.”

As I sat that night and thought about our text exchange, my mind took me back about 30 years to when I was first starting out as a professional stage manager. My mentor. Douglas Pagliotti, (rest his soul) used to question me by always asking, “Are you ready?” The first time he asked me that, I stared at him with a blank look on my face as I didn’t know what he meant by that statement.

“Ready? Ready for what?” was my naïve reply.

“Ready for anything.” He would say. “You have to always be ready Jerome.” (He loved calling me by my real name back then!) ” Ready for rehearsal to start, ready to move on to another production, ready for your life to change at a moment's notice.” You see, it was Douglas who always reminded me that the success in my career would need more than luck. It would need more than being in the right place at the right time. It would take hard work, constant effort, and remembering the third “R.”

“Don’t ever forget” he would say... “It’s the third “R” that we don’t always work on or remember. The third R that stands for ready.” He would go on to tell me, “You have to always be ready to face and accept the challenges in life, or else you’re just going to be standing “in the right place” for a very long time, but not go anywhere.” He would go on to say, “be ready to accept risk, to take a chance, and to be ready and grateful to accept “luck” when it comes my way.” My mind raced back to Tina’s text... “Luck is the residue of design.”

In my search for the detailed meaning of Mr. Rickey’s words, I came across the entire quote and things started to clear up for me. Mr. Rickey said, “Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen. Luck is a fact but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Negligence or indifference are usually reviewed from the unlucky seat. The law of cause and effect and causality both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.” Looking back on my career I can now see how Douglas was setting me up for success. How he was testing me and telling me to always be ready for take a chance and to risk by putting myself outside the normal boundaries of decision making. Each time a new challenge was presented to me, I would think about Douglas’s advice. To this day I still can hear his guidance clearly.

All this time, I thought I was just lucky...getting a break in the industry or getting that promotion because I was in the right place at the right time. Looking back, I realized that I was also “ready” each time a new gig or promotion was presented to me.

The “Right Time, Right Place, Ready” idea would soon become my mantra in the classroom. These days I constantly challenge my students to be ready for anything...and to take risks and accept challenges that are before them. 

It would be Tina’s short six-word text that night that would help me fully realize that luck is real...and that luck is a fact and that I have been blessed to be able to live and thrive in this “residue of design.” Her text also reminded me to remain those that have helped me along the way. So, to my mentor and friend Douglas, and to my colleague Tina, I thank you and remain humbly indebted to you for lighting my path along the way.