a pile of books and a mask, depicting the concept of playwriting and performing arts

Lessons From The Stage That Apply In Real Life

photo-1458053688450-eef5d21d43b3Last week while in an Uber to the airport after a business summit in Chicago, I was musing on the similarities between high level performances on the stage, athletic arena or business world and had an epiphany. Though people tend to think that business and the arts are very different, surely upon further examination, a CEO and a lead actor in a television show go through very similar experiences right before either leading a big board meeting or shooting the emotional scene in a season finale.

Historically, I haven’t been on a path you’d describe as the ‘corporate type’. With years of dancing, acting and swimming, I was always trained that any big undertaking requires a significant amount of mental focus, emotional access and preparation. Now that my experience has unpredictably projected me into the world of marketing, coaching and performance consulting, I often look to my past for reference when working through new challenges. When faced with high stakes business scenarios, I frequently feel like I draw strength and ability from a number of key lessons I learned from the arts.

What makes you different gets you booked

The business world is full of monotony, procedures and the requirement to conform. When auditioning for roles in the arts, success is created from meeting the criteria and yet exceeding the expectation. So much in the business world seems the same – resumes created from the same template, every office cubical looking the same and even the office attire starts to blend within the 50 shades of gray.

Because your job, routine or industry has certain expected parameters, you find ways of playing within the lines, attempting to make yourself ‘acceptable’ for what’s being asked, because that’s what it seems like everyone is expecting of you. Fitting the criteria may get you the audition, but rarely does it get you the part. Maybe it’s time to push your thinking, use some imagination and personality, and make some impressions on people that no one expected from you. Be the one that they can’t help but remember, make the choice that no one else dared to make, or at least be so you that no one even considers anyone else – for the role you are born to fill.

Preparation is key

Have you ever noticed that some people just always seem to know the right thing to say or the right thing to do, like they have the gift of ‘winging it’ perfectly every single time? We have all seen the stars of ‘Whose Line is it Anyway’ deliver a magical sequence of words with the appearance of them coming straight off the cuff. The truth in the situation is probably that the person has done hours, months or years of preparation in order to ‘improvise’ so seamlessly. In order to have some fun and feel free when under pressure, doing your homework isn’t just good practice – it is actually a necessity.

Expect (and make the most of) the unexpected

In comedy improvisation, performers never know the next line in the scene until they say it, while still having to remember all the facts that have been said by actors previously. Sometimes during a scene, a performer makes a ‘mistake’ which is glaringly obvious to the audience. Instead of this mistake becoming a problem, a skilled performer would turn the mistake into a comedy ‘gift’, often resulting in the biggest laugh of the show. In life things rarely go to plan, and by expecting this to happen, when little things go wrong, the potential ‘bad news’ could be just what you’re looking for to create an opportunity for a better than expected outcome. Accept that whatever happens is exactly as it was supposed to happen, and you might just end up with the last laugh.

Everyone has (and is entitled to) their opinion

As a professional performer, there were times when I had hundreds of photos of my face printed out on glossy paper to hand in at auditions. The thing with these head shots, is they’re supposed to represent you at your best while being both edgy enough to stand out and safe enough to blend in. Once you pick your favorite, you’ll hear feedback about it varying from ‘love it’┬áto ‘hate it’, ‘too much emotion’ or you ‘look stiff’. Every single one of these pieces of feedback is true, because they belong to the person giving it. Those opinions don’t change the quality of your choice, they simply reflect the perspective and background of the person stating it. The truth is, everyone will have a judgement about you or your work, which they are entitled to. They are entitled to be wrong or right, or make mistakes or unusual choices of their own. Listening to the opinions of others is valuable to help form your decisions, but two things I have learned are that the decisions are yours to make and that there is a big difference between advice and opinion.

Play a character, don’t just be your everyday self in extraordinary circumstances

If you are auditioning for the part of a southern belle, you’ll want to learn to talk in a drawl, hold yourself naturally in a corset, and adopt certain mannerisms that have since gone out of style. The board room, your boss’s office and the lunch room are all very different ‘scenes’ than your apartment, your gym or your favorite coffee spot. This means that, you must behave and act under different circumstances and be a different character within yourself. Be the self that suits the situation, and fully commit to the set of rules that that character follows in that world.

When you’re on, you’re on

From the moment the curtain rises or the director calls action, the show must go on – no matter what – until the curtain falls or everyone hears ‘cut’. We all know that when you’re on a stage and there’s an audience in front of you, you remain in character regardless of circumstances. The same goes in life – you can’t be powerful in the team meeting but visibly crying when seated at your desk and still expect people to believe your performance is truthful. You’re constantly being judged whether by an audience, coworkers or potential clients, so leave your private thoughts and actions ‘back stage’ and experience them when you aren’t in the spot light or center stage.

Make strong choices and commit to them

When you’re first handed a script, it’s just words on a page. It isn’t until you read through to the end of the page, scene or performance that you can genuinely find the context for the individual lines you need to deliver. You must see the big picture, choose your actions and then deliver those actions with conviction if you want the audience to believe you. I am continually reminded that the same is true in the real world too. We need clarity of the overlying objective, must plan and prioritize our actions and only then can we commit to the tasks required. Think about your current ‘to-do’ list. It is only by understanding the big picture that you can confidently prioritize your tasks and deliver each component with the conviction it really needs to drive the results that you truly desire.

It’s a play, not a drag

When people go see a show, it’s because they want to be entertained, they want to be transported and feel things outside of their normal emotions. Even if your performance makes them feel profound grief, regret, or sadness, they still have to walk away having had fun seeing you perform! Regardless of the context, every performance is delivered with high energy, extreme focus, teamwork, enthusiasm and optimism that everyone’s efforts will reach the audience as intended. The same goes for your life, you will always have more chance winning people over to your way of thinking or empathizing with you if you can make them feel – above all else – that you gave it your all!