Photo credit: Wayne Hile
“Get comfortable being uncomfortable” is one of those pearls of wisdom that career coaches are fond of sharing to inspire others to succeed. The notion makes sense: only by stretching your comfort zone can you learn and grow, whether you are a student, a software designer, or a Navy Seal. But for people to get comfortable being uncomfortable, the right elements need to be present, including a supportive environment, a purpose, and preparation, as a recent experience of mine illustrates.
As I have mentioned on my blog, during summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, a festival in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. I portray a friendly but comically pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright. Playing Nicolas Wright means constantly learning new skills, including improvisational comedy, face-to-face patron interaction (he greets patrons on the street all day long), and even stage combat. Auditioning for the cast was an enormous leap of faith for me, and once I came onboard in 2014, I discovered that being part of the cast is a constant process of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. One recent Saturday, I pushed myself beyond the boundaries of comfort: I told a story.
Storytelling — the way it’s done at the Bristol Renaissance Faire — is new territory for me. I am at ease speaking in front of an audience, but storytelling is an art that requires the right pacing, body language, and voice control to create theater. The storyteller also needs to know how much detail to include to enrich the drama and how to involve an audience. For me, learning how to tell a story qualifies as becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, an experience heightened by my fear of forgetting a key plot point or character name. But with the encouragement of my daughter Marion Deal — who is also on the Faire cast — I faced my fears, took a deep breath, and took my first step toward storytelling by telling a brief parable onstage.
After stumbling through several awkward practices, I unfurled the tale of the of Taoist farmer one sunny Saturday afternoon on the Queen’s glade, a section of Bristol where patrons and cast mates alike entertain the Queen Elizabeth each day with songs, stories, and poems. I remember the moment vividly: Sir Edmund Tilney, master of the revels to the queen (portrayed by Dennis Carl), took me aside and indicated that there was room on the schedule if I cared to perform that day. I swallowed hard and said, “I would be delighted to tell a story.” Part of me hoped he would forget our conversation, but after a few minutes, Tilney nodded to me and presented Nicolas Wright to the queen. I approached the queen, portrayed by Jennifer Higgins. She nodded gently. In one of those moments where life and art intertwine, her reassuring nod filled me with a confidence that I channeled into Nicolas Wright as he told the parable of a farmer in China who accepts good and bad fortune with equal measures of calm acceptance.
Turning to the audience gathered on both sides of the court, I worked through the parable with a deliberate pace, making eye contact with patrons, pausing when I felt like I needed to accentuate a word, and remembering to smile. The stage at the queen’s glade consists of a simple but elegant set of overlapping rugs set before the court on the ground. You don’t have the benefit of an elevated platform when you entertain on the glade. So I made sure I walked about the rugs a bit (without looking like I was pacing) and projected as loudly as I could to reach as many people sitting on the benches to my left and right. The more I projected, the stronger I felt. The warmth of the sun was like a golden balm. The audience fed me energy with their smiles. I did not stumble although I can point to many ways I could have done better. Afterward, a woman who had been in the audience approached me. “Thank you for that moment,” she said. “I don’t often hear parables such as the one you told. Your story really made me think about accepting life with grace.” I smiled at the patron, thanked her, and did a little dance inside my head. I certainly had not raised the bar for storytelling, but I had made a mark.
My personal breakthrough was no lark. And the moment was not a result of my effort alone. Some elements needed to be in place for me to have the courage to embrace the uncomfortable:
A Supportive Environment
If you manage others, they won’t learn how to take personal risks unless they know you have their backs. The Bristol directors and cast always have my back.
All Bristol cast train under the direction of an open-hearted and encouraging team of directors, starting with head of entertainment Kristen Mansour, who is fond of reminding everyone during cast meetings, “Leap, and the net will appear.” We do not learn under the withering criticism of a genius tyrant such as Steve Jobs or in the punishing environment that apparently pervades Amazon. We learn through positive reinforcement.