5 Things I Learned As An Actor And Still Use Every Day
I worked in the theater for more than 20 years -- and I never forgot what acting required and taught me. Even after I transitioned from acting to directing and then became an artistic director. What I find surprising is that these skills continue to be invaluable as an entrepreneur, small-business owner and trainer.
1. The Sum Is Greater Than Any One Part
Actors are notorious for scene-stealing and comparing the size of their roles and monologues. And yet, the best actors are also incredibly generous and humble. Unless performing a one-person show, you need your co-workers-and even more, you need them to be excellent. Because in theater, as in so many other fields, the weakest link breaks the chain.
Sharing your best practices and encouraging greatness in your collaborators will never diminish your own contribution. What it will do is demand you rise to the occasion and bring your best game or you risk becoming that weak link.
If what you strive for is excellence, then help everyone else on your team get there. It'll call your best work out of you as well.
2. Yes, And ...
I learned this lesson from improvisation training, which is finally making its way into the mainstream. (See this piece in Inc. magazine.)
The first rule you learn is "never negate." When someone starts a scene, you have to find what you can add to that scene by using, "yes, and..." to expand and evolve the story. This technique requires courage and creativity on your part. It may feel more comfortable or easier to say "No," but that's not collaboration.
Collaboration is seeing a kernel of a good idea in something and building on it. It means being vulnerable enough to show yourself to your teammates and trust that they want the best ideas to succeed, too, more than they care whose initial idea it was.
The quarterback is just an arm, without a receiver to catch the ball and run. And everyone loves a touchdown, regardless of how the ball got there.
3. Bring a Full Lunch Box
At the first day of rehearsal on a new play, one of my favorite directors would instruct the entire cast to always bring a full lunch box to each practice. What he meant was: Do your homework and don't show up empty-handed.
How many times have you walked into a meeting without an agenda or been given the agenda at the start of the meeting and then been expected to produce meaningful results on the spot? How many times have you called a meeting and done the same thing?
When I train organizations, I insist that no one attend a meeting that doesn't have a written agenda and that anyone calling a meeting provide the agenda at least 24 and preferably 48 hours prior to the meeting.
Help your colleagues by allowing them to be prepared and bring their best work. You'll find that those meetings produce consistently better results.
4. Learn Your Lines
Unless you're in an improvisational play, you were given a script. That script was sweated over by a playwright, possibly nurtured by a dramaturge and further conceptualized by a director. Many hands and eyes went over it before it was given to you. Learn it as written.
Learn it backwards and forwards. Know your cue lines. That way you don't end up looking foolish when your colleague stops talking and everyone is staring at you because it's obviously your turn to speak.
Don't be arrogant enough to think your way is better until you've thoroughly studied what was already agreed upon before your involvement. That way, if your way is better, there's a context for your suggesting improvements. No one likes a know-it-all -- especially one who clearly doesn't know it all.
5. What's Most Personal Is Universal
Acting requires vulnerability. You may need to say things and behave in ways that are completely foreign to you in real life. Somewhere inside you, either in your personal experience or your imagination, you must discover something that allows you to accurately portray the character's words and deeds as believable.
I dislike being vulnerable. I have learned many ways to disclose personal information and participate in groups while keeping a part of myself reserved and off-limits. I do this thinking it keeps me safe but what it really does is isolate me from my friends and colleagues. I'm no safer as a result, just alone.
What always helps me get beyond this, besides watching Brené Brown's TED talk, is remembering that what's most personal is universal.
Many of us think that what we feel is unique and often that translates to "wrong" or "less than" or something that could potentially open us up to scorn and disapproval. When I remember that whatever I'm feeling is common to the human condition and experience, it allows me to let go of my fear of being judged.
I remember that even if I don't yet trust everyone in the room, I can trust that the thing I'm feeling most intensely is probably something that everyone else has or is feeling just as intensely. And that allows me to feel a part of rather than apart from.
How This Applies To My Work Today
It's been over 18 years since I've been on stage in a play, but I use the skills I learned as an actor every day as a trainer and speaker. As a result, I've learned my lines so well I am free to improvise and be spontaneous. By focusing on your development, I'm forced to bring my best self to every encounter just to keep up. And by remembering the value of vulnerability, I am able to share myself authentically with clients even when I feel uncomfortable or awkward.
Many people thought it was foolish not to have "something to fall back on" if I wasn't successful as an actor. I think the lack of a safety net pushed me to be successful as an actor and even more significantly, gave me a skill set that I fall back on every day.