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.
Directors not only welcome the cast to embrace new ideas, they encourage us to do so. Bristol is the kind of environment where I can suggest, “I’d like to portray a windbag of a barrister named Nicolas Wright,” and my director, Ansel Burch, will not only say, “Go for it!” but also ask, with a smile, “How about we put your character in a show where you can build your improv skills?”
You also need supportive colleagues in addition to strong leadership. Bristol is a crucible for creativity. Throughout the day, cast mates constantly challenge each other with new ideas, especially as they become more comfortable with each other’s characters during rehearsals. Just last week, my two colleagues Benjamin Cormalleth and Kurt Proepper, who portray guild masters Thomas Halfcake and Alistair Threadwell, excitedly proposed that the three of us build a brief improvisational scene with three comical witches in the streets. “And why don’t you lead the scene, David?” Benjamin asked. “You would be perfect for the role.” After the scene was over, I asked Benjamin how the scene went. He pointed out the parts that went well and then suggested some ways to “make a good scene even better,” in the spirit of giving constructive feedback.
My storytelling attempt resulted from my own daughter encouraging me. She showed me some books on storytelling that she had checked out of the library, and when I expressed an interest in learning, she helped me find some easier, shorter stories to ease me into the process. She gave me tips and critiqued my practicing. In the context of Bristol, she was collaborating not as my daughter but as a cast mate. With Marion gently nudging me, I felt emboldened to try.
In the work place, managers can sometimes bring about strong performances through harsh criticism, unfortunately. Throughout my career in the corporate world, I’ve seen managers use fear of failure as a motivational tool to bring out remarkable results — in the short run. But negative reinforcement is a poor way to bring about long-term success and sustained personal growth. You need a positive environment to set the stage for people to challenge themselves.
Having a purpose ensures that pushing your comfort zone meets a broader objective than your self edification. Having a purpose, instead of being a limiting factor, actually liberates you.
At the Bristol Renaissance Faire, our purpose is to uplift patrons. Everything we do absolutely needs to make our guests feel that they have traveled back in time to become honored guests in the town of Bristol. “Uplift our patrons” is a north star that guides and shapes our ideas and inspirational moments, including my own foray into storytelling.
Uplifting patrons means that for my moment on the glade, I needed to choose a story that would not frighten children or condescend to anyone. And uplifting patrons motivated me to make sure I made them feel included in my story, which meant dialing down the pompous side of Nicolas Wright’s character, and dialing up the friendly side by making eye contact and smiling. A seasoned storyteller such as Drew Mierzejwski, who portrays Walter Raleigh, includes patrons by literally involving their suggestions for plot details that he builds upon as he tells stories.
Having a purpose ensured that I contributed an idea that would work for everyone: not just for me, but also for the patrons and cast. After all, cast members are not a random group of people achieving our own selfish ends. We are a team contributing to something bigger than ourselves.
Preparation makes the difference between winging it and instead doing something you can be proud of, warts and all. In the context of preparing for my storytelling moment, I needed to take a number of steps, including:
- Learning the story.
- Practicing the delivery.
- Researching the story for historical authenticity. The tale comes from China. Would anyone in Bristol, England, have known about China in 1574? (The answer: yes — maybe not on a widescale basis, but enough to give me artistic license.)
- Choosing the right moment and place. The parable of the Taoist farmer has a solemn feel to it, making the tale feel more appropriate for a regal setting like the queen’s glade, as opposed to sections of Bristol where children like to hear adventure tales or revelers prefer humor. I needed to be ready to share the story where it would have the most impact.
Preparation also means applying all the practice that has gone into building the character I created — the way he walks, his gestures, and his personal history. During Bristol rehearsals, the cast does more than figure out how to work together and how to uplift patrons. We flesh out deep characters of our creation. Doing so helps us choose moments that make sense for our characters. For instance, my character is a wealthy guild master. So it makes total sense that Nicolas Wright would keep elite company from Bristol and beyond. He is also a more senior resident of Bristol, having experienced a lifetime of positive and negative experiences, and at a stage in his life when he becomes more reflective. When Nicolas Wright introduced the tale of the Taoist farmer on the queen’s glade, he mentioned that he learned the proverb from a wealthy and learned traveler from China who was passing through the port of Bristol. Understanding Nicolas Wright’s character prepared me for the appropriate way to introduce the story.
If you want those around you to get comfortable being uncomfortable, you need to provide the right tools. When you challenge others to, “Leap, and the net will appear,” make sure you help them learn how to leap or give them access to resources who can do so, which is what happens at Bristol — both during our first years of formal training and through the ongoing rehearsals and development we experience beyond our first years. (I describe that preparation a bit more in this blog post.) Then it’s up to them to take advantage of the tools and learn.
Into the Mystic
Since my experience on the royal glade, I have pushed myself even harder. Instead of telling stories created by someone else, I am making them up with the help of Marion. I am learning more about technique by watching Marion, Drew, and the master of storytelling, Julie McMillin. I am testing the new stories, learning from the reactions of others, and, I think, getting better. I’m in the right place to undertake my own journey, one that requires me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. How about you?