Posts Tagged ‘Courage’

Conflict in the Workplace? Follow Your Fear!

(Revised from a piece published September 30, 2009)

A Theatrical Intelligence blog reader posted a question a while ago about everyday conflict in the workplace, wondering if theatrical intelligence can help. Depending on the conflict of course, the answer is yes. As long as one is open to alternative ways of facing the challenge!

Conflicts at work are often reminiscent of family quarrels and hierarchies from our past: we feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, powerless, and usually that familiar 4-letter-word rears its ugly head: FEAR.

One of the great secrets in improvisation is to “follow your fear”, an expression coined 50 years ago at Second City by the late great Del Close.  Using this technique (even though it may seem counterintuitive) can yield surprising results.

Professional actors follow their fear in rehearsal and performance by looking for obstacles to overcome.  This creates dramatic tension, and requires them to step into unknown territory, which results in emotionally unpredictable, sometimes humorous behavior. When this behavior happens in places other than improvisation, we can laugh about it and learn from it – when it’s over!

The only way to really screw up in improvisation, is to deny “reality”. In this case “imaginary circumstances” = “reality”. This is another little jewel we can steal from improv.

For example, when two actors are on stage and one of them puts her jacket over her head to protect her from… no one knows what, yet… the reality of those imaginary circumstances are a GIFT to the other actor. (Is it raining? Are there pigeons above? Is there an enemy overhead?) One of the actors establishes what the jacket is protecting them from, the other actor accepts it as a gift, and that’s the reality upon which they build their story. 

In many workplaces a denial of reality is the norm: it’s “the elephant in the room” or “the dead moose on the table”, meaning no one dares mention the thing everyone knows is going on. Here’s the common wisdom: 

Denial of reality breaks down trust and builds up fear

Acceptance of reality opens up worlds of possibility

So, imagine this: the next time the current-conflict-at-hand happens yet again at work…  what if you follow your fear?  Accept the reality and have the courage to say “That dead moose on the table stinks – what are we going to do about it?” Or, to mimic a possible workplace scenario: “Is that another of your witty insults – again at my expense?”

Opportunities will leap out of nowhere for you and your colleagues. Why?  Because you’ve broken through the denial, acknowledged what is real, and cracked the conflict wide open. Can’t you just hear it? Try it! FOLLOW YOUR FEAR.

And please let us all know where your courage takes you – I suspect is worthy of acknowledegment. 


Occupational Hazard: REJECTION!

Rejection = A Fact of Life. Rejection in the Theatre = The Daily Reality.

Assuming a high level of talent and skill, the way a theatre professional handles rejection can determine the rate of success or failure in his or her career.

It took me too long to learn that I had a choice as to whether or not I responded personally to rejection. As a young actress in New York in the early 70’s, my fear of being rejected could be paralyzing; on occasion I would actually not show up for an audition. Knowing I didn’t want to sabotage my lifelong dream, and not wanting to piss of my agent any more than necessary, I gritted my teeth and “followed my fear” as if I was in an improv class.

“What do I gain from being terrified?” I asked myself.  It seemed that certain auditions didn’t scare me a bit and I wondered why they were different. After one such (rare) occurrence it struck me that I just didn’t care: the theatre was too far away, I couldn’t stand the director, and I got the offer. In contrast, when I coveted the role or adored the play or longed to work in a particular theatre, my fear of rejection kicked right in. I was afraid I might actually get the job. Bingo! Fear of success.

When I embraced my fear (one of the Six Principles of Theatrical Intelligence) I made friends with it as if we were partners venturing into unknown territory. More offers came my way, and I actually began to enjoy auditioning.

The fact is that there is no foolproof way to win a role in the theatre, or a production if you’re a playwright or a gig if you’re a director.  If my theatrical cohorts and I had known about my friend Mary Cantando’s “Five Approaches to Handling Rejection” back then it would’ve helped!  Of course she hadn’t written them yet – she was in North Carolina, accumulating the expertise to become the growth expert for women entrepreneurs she is today.

Here are Mary’s gems of wisdom:

Where Mary has written “sales call” or “sales meeting”, substitute the word(s) of your choice: interview, play submittal, backers’ audition, pitch, preview… the list goes on.

Just as Rejection = Reality, No Sales = No Career.

Thanks, Mary. Many of us could’ve used your handy tips way back when. Which is exactly why I’m passing them along today.


A Leap of Faith: Actor. Warrior. Hero.

Rich Topol: Actor. Warrior. Hero

Rich Topol: Actor. Warrior. Hero

I just completed directing a project in the 29th Annual Octoberfest at the Ensemble Studio Theatre* in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. I am writing this blogpost because an exceptional actor named Richard Topol has inspired me. Rich, as everyone calls him, is a perfect example that actors are as courageous as any warrior. Truly, they are heroes.

Rich probably has no idea how much his work meant to me in the few days we worked together.  I suspect he believes he was just doing what he does as an actor.

The project was David Perry’s Eulogy, a one-person play in which a man comes to an emotional reckoning with his abusive mother as he eulogizes her. The play could be described as the technical equivalent of singing four arias in forty minutes and performing Hamlet’s soliloquies in between. And this with one rehearsal.

I had seen Rich on Broadway in a hilarious and heart wrenching performance in Awake and Sing, but met him for the first time at our one rehearsal prior to the two readings. Within 5 minutes it was clear that he trusts himself to exist fully in the moment; if he gets lost along the way he has the courage to live in the unknown – essentially in free-fall – until he discovers something he can grab on to and move on. This, of course is one of the principles of Theatrical Intelligence: success comes with having the courage to step into the unknown.

Actors must find a comfort level with whatever they’re doing, and a staged reading of a demanding script in front of a savvy audience with virtually no rehearsal can be daunting. Many actors just won’t do it. Understandable. It is rather like being asked to jump off a cliff not knowing if your parachute is going to open. Other actors, and Rich is one, are willing to take that leap of faith, and jump.

In the talkback after the first of the two readings, when asked about his experience during the “performance”, Rich responded  “It was exhausting! Sometimes I didn’t remember what was coming next on the page, and when I got there it wasn’t what I expected. So I thought, OK, I’ll live here for a while and just see what happens.”

86 Plays. 38 Days.

86 Plays. 38 Days

What if we could all live this way every day? “Live here for a while…” not knowing where it might lead. If we can trust that it is OK not to know where we are emotionally or intellectually or spiritually, it leaves open the possibility of discovery. If we are open to discovery, just think what new things we can learn!

Billy Carden, the Artistic Director of EST, says: “…if you believe in discovery, if you want to be entertained by the unexpected, surprised by the spontaneous, if you want to hear a new voice for the first time, or a familiar voice in a new way, if you want to experience the spirit of work in progress: join us.”

Thank you, Rich, for your leap of faith. You are a hero.

*EST was founded in 1972 to nurture individual theatre artists in the development of new American plays, and has produced 6,000+ new works over the decades.  I have been a lucky member of this family of 500 theatre artists since 1977.

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