Photo credit: Steven Bourelle
This summer, I have been living two lives. During the week, I am CEO of David J. Deal Consulting, helping companies build their brands with content marketing. But during the weekends, I transform myself into Nicolas Wright, a vainglorious barrister who walks a fine line between good and evil as he campaigns to be lord mayor of Bristol, England, in the year 1574. As a member of the cast for the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I have been scolded by Queen Elizabeth, robbed by gypsies, and stabbed with a bread loaf by a swashbuckling baker. On hot, humid days, my family and I, along with 400 cast members, wear layers of historically accurate clothing more suitable for a Chicago winter as we re-create the day when Queen Elizabeth visited Bristol, England, 440 years ago.
Photo credit: Bristol Renaissance Faire
Why do I do it? Well, at age 51, I’m having a summer that children would envy. I am also learning lessons that are changing the way I do business and live my life — such as how to take a leap of faith, and the difference between elevating your customers instead of simply servicing them. Here is what I’ve learned so far.
1. Leap, and the Net Will Appear
I seldom make a decision without doing extensive homework. I don’t buy a bag of bagels without doing a cost/benefit analysis. But the Bristol Renaissance Faire has taught me the importance of making a decision based on faith in things unseen.
Bristol has been described as a cross between Williamsburg, Virginia, and environmental street theater. My family and I have attended for years because the make-believe Renaissance village north of Chicago hums with energy and good vibes as jugglers and fools mingle with courtiers, merchants, lute players, and all-around cool people. This year, we auditioned to join the cast in order to spread the joy that the faire has given us. We were excited when we all received the good news that we had become professional actors for 10 weekends this year. But when I told my friends and colleagues that our family had successfully auditioned for cast parts, I encountered plenty of skepticism — mostly in the form of polite but concerned questions such as, “Can you handle this kind of commitment?” “Won’t it get hot walking around all day in costumes?”
Photo credit: Steven Bourelle
Indeed, being a cast member is a commitment. My wife, daughter, and I leave our home at 6:30 a.m. each Saturday and Sunday for a 55-mile drive one way, 10 weekends total during the hottest weeks of the year (plus five weekends of training and rehearsal onsite before opening day). Once we arrive at Bristol, we spend the morning preparing for a 10-hour, high-energy day of interacting with patrons who pay good money for an authentic, fun experience, rain or shine. On Saturday nights, we arrive home after 9 p.m. for precious rest before hitting the road again Sunday morning. By Sunday night, I am exhausted after portraying a bombastic barrister who campaigns for mayor against a charismatic tailor named Alistair Threadwell and a lovable baker named Thomas Halfcake. And we are not alone. The entire cast spends hours on foot, singing, delivering performances for the Queen, jousting, and wandering the dusty streets of Bristol.
Photo credit: Steven Bourelle
Thank God I ignored the doubters who wondered whether we would grow tired of the driving and the hot weather. Had I focused on the costs of gasoline and the reality that I’ve never acted before (especially in such a challenging physical environment), I would have missed out on a thrilling experience that has sharpened my creativity and enriched me with new friends. What the doubters and the cold, hard facts don’t tell you is that when you discover an experience you love, you find reservoirs of energy you didn’t know you had. When you push yourself to do things that seem awkward and difficult, such as improvisational acting, good people around you rise to the occasion and help you learn. When you invent a character by yourself, you broaden your own intellectual and creative abilities. You find you can do the impossible, such as crank out some client work at 4:00 a.m. on a Sunday and then dress up like a 16th Century barrister and speak in upper-class English dialect for the next several hours.
Budgets risk assessments are all important parts of doing business. But they should not dictate your life or else you’ll miss out on amazing experiences like becoming a parent or learning a new skill outside your comfort zone. Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith.
2. Elevate People
Acting at Bristol has taught me the difference between customer service and elevation. Customer service means helping. But elevating customers means making them feel like they are the most important people in the world as you help them.
Patrons start lining up at 7:30 a.m. for the gates of Bristol to open at ten o’clock. But they are not coming to simply spend time with us. They come to be transported into another world. Many of them dress up to portray characters even though they are not members of the cast, which shows you how passionate they are about the Bristol experience. Paying $24 to spend a day in Bristol is more than a financial transaction, but rather a chance to form warm, personal relationships with 400 cast members even if only for fleeting moments.
Photo credit: John Karpinsky
During the training we receive at the Bristol Academy of Performing Arts, we are taught the principles of audience elevation and inclusion, which Bristol veteran AE Shapera espouses in her book, Easy Street. As Shapera teaches, elevation means building up patrons you meet and treating them like they have a higher social status than yourself (social status being an important component of Bristol life in 1574). Including patrons means sharing with them, whether some interesting tidbit about Bristol culture or your own favorite choices for entertainment. Including and elevating make the difference between acting with patrons instead of at them.
Photo credit: Linda Robinson
We are trained to approach patrons standing in food lines, offer a smile or a joke, and compliment them on their attire or great taste in food. When a patron asks you for directions to, say, a joust, Bristol directors train you to commend them on their excellent decision to attend a joust, ask them how their day is going, and help them find what they need. You kneel in the dirt to greet children instead of standing over them. You share with them your excitement over seeing Queen Elizabeth. When you elevate and include, you create a dynamic that is unique to each person you meet. As Shapera writes in Easy Street:
. . . by elevating and including the patron as the most important character in the critical, exciting present moment of your story, you’re going to synthesize something together. Your interaction will create change. And it will blow your mind.
She is spot on. I’ll never forget the beautiful family I chatted with a number of times over the course of a few weeks as they returned for repeat visits to Bristol, especially when the daughter surprised me with a hand-made campaign flyer to promote Nicolas Wright. Or the Gulf War veteran who told me that escaping to Bristol was the highlight of his summer. Or the elderly women whom I escorted arm in arm to a clothing shop. I know how I feel when someone at Disney World or our local Trader Joe’s smiles at me, shares with me, and elevates me. And now I know how it feels to be the one elevating and including a patron: it feels incredible.
God save the Queen. Photo credit: Steven Bourelle
It matters not whether you work at an environmental theater, retail store, or a theme park: you can find ways to elevate and include people in your daily job. Go the extra mile and really show an interest in the people you work with, whether they’re your customers or coworkers. Compliment them sincerely. Ask them how their days are going — and really mean it. Take a moment to tell a few customers how much you appreciate them — not just the money they pay you, but who they are and what they mean to you.
3. Embrace Real-Time Creativity
I am a planner by nature. I help clients plan schedules for publishing blog posts, and I plan my agenda every morning. Bristol has taught me to temper my planning mentality with improvisation, which results in real-time creativity. Most of my day is spent on the streets of Bristol with the characters of Alistair Threadwell — portrayed by Kurt Proepper — and Thomas Halfcake — portrayed by Benjamin Cormalleth. Threadwell, Halfcake, and Nicolas Wright are frenemies: campaigning for mayor but also cooperating as guild masters to ensure that the Queen’s visit to Bristol succeeds. I suppose if we wanted to do so, we could script our entire days, down to the level of the jokes we trade and the routines we develop. But instead, we create acting bits as we go along, drawing upon each day’s experiences and circumstances.
For instance, we have conducted sword fights using bread sticks for the Queen and delivered outlandish campaign speeches. One day, when Kurt sprained his ankle by accident, we worked his injury into our act by developing a ridiculous story about how Alistair Threadwell sprained his ankle while surviving an elaborate assassination attempt and then an attack from a dragon. On other days, we have selected patrons to sing or otherwise perform at the Queen’s daily feast, and then introduced them to the Queen.
Alistair Threadwell (left), Nicolas Wright (center), and Thomas Halfcake. Photo credit: Derek Johnson
By drawing upon the day’s circumstances, we make our acting bits fresh. But here’s the thing: improvising successfully also means using our training. During rehearsals, we’ve mastered our period accents, learned vocabulary of 16th-Century England, developed our characters, and figured out how we’ll interact together. All that preparation makes the difference between looking like amateurs who don’t know what we’re doing to building upon our characters to thrive as we improvise.
Real-time creativity means preparing to make the most of the moment — to read a situation and decide, “Let’s try a new idea here and see how it works.” Real-time creativity also means trusting others to contribute an idea for you to run with and then enrich your own improvisation. I’ve learned real-time creativity from my excellent acting partners Kurt Proepper and Benjamin Cormellath. (Being with them makes me feel like an amateur basketball player who is lucky enough to hang out with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant every weekend.) How often do you improvise on the job? Are you willing to have faith in others around you to do so?
Photo credit: Steven Bourelle
4. Create Your Personal Signature
Each weekend, I am surrounded by seasoned actors who portray colorful, larger-than-life characters ranging from William Shakespeare to the town fool. I have zero acting experience, and my character is a wet blanket. After opening weekend, I realized that I needed to create a personal signature in order to be memorable. So I made Nicolas Wright the wealthy Renaissance-era sugar daddy who shares his largesse with patrons. I bought a bag of toy jewelry and make-believe silver and started sharing with children “valuable treasures” to thank them for spending time at Bristol. For grown-ups, I began to hand out personal calling cards fashioned from replicas of painted cards created by German artist Peter Flotner in 1540. (I found the cards at a local Bristol merchant, East Wind Games.) I signed the back of each card and drew different runic symbols standing for wisdom, prosperity, and power. The cards give me a conversation piece with grown-ups, and the treasures help me elevate the children.
I have also developed Nicolas Wright’s personality to be a bit more devilish for grown-ups — not evil, but more playfully bad in a Disney sort of way. I wink at the grown-ups and joke about buying votes for my campaign. When I see patrons dressed up as Vikings or warlords, I suggest playfully that I have a few political enemies that “I should like them to visit.” As the season has developed, thanks to the coaching of my outstanding director, Ansel Burch, I have made Nicolas Wright more of a “conflicted villain” akin to Severus Snape from Harry Potter — capable of darkness but also of doing good. By creating my own signature, Nicolas Wright has become more interesting. Grown-ups respond to his devilish jokes. Children respond to his kinder side when they savor his little gifts.
A Bristol family portrait: my wife, Jan (who portrays serving wench Lettice Goodwin); yours truly; and my daughter, Marion (who plays gypsy Avis Nightjar). Photo credit: Cara Strong
Creating a personal signature means leaving a lasting impression. Great retailers leave strong personal signatures. For instance, the Shinola watch store in Detroit consists of a stunning yet simple space that is both industrial and beautiful, as are its products. Bristol has taught me the value of the personal touch.
My Challenge to You: Find Your Own Bristol
Bristol inspires me and my family because acting each weekend has made us step out of our daily routines, stretch our comfort zones, and experience another world. But you need not join a professional acting group to experience your own Bristol. There are so many ways you can gain a new perspective on your job and life by stepping outside the daily routine. If you have the means to do so, travel to a new place (and a new place need not be exotic or faraway — just different). Open your mind by immersing yourself in new music or literature that you might be ignoring. Take a cooking or creative writing class. You will most certainly be inspired and learn your own lessons. Leap, and the net will appear.
Note: I hope you’ll come see us at Bristol. The last day of Faire is Labor Day. Directions to Bristol are on the Faire website.