Own the Stage

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Photo credit: Elizabeth Singer.

At some point in your life, you will need to learn how to work a stage properly, whether you are a student presenting a paper to your classmates or an executive sharing company news with your employees. Make no mistake: you are on stage, however informal the setting or small the audience. The key to owning the stage is using your body wisely — including your eyes, voice, and gestures. How you communicate is as important as what you communicate, as I have learned while acting on summer weekends at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. On August 30, an opportunity to act in a scene with my daughter encapsulated the elements of owning a stage.

As I have discussed on my blog, the Bristol Renaissance Faire is 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 pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright — a self-important and crotchety character who is constantly having his nose tweaked by a mischievous young rogue named Avis Nightjar, portrayed by my daughter, Marion.

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The crotchety Nicolas Wright. Photo credit: Mary Goljenboom.

The Faire cast is given extensive preparation and then an incredible amount of leeway to construct dramatic (usually comic) scenes that we perform on the streets of Bristol to delight the patrons as they explore the city. On August 30, Marion and I acted a scene that required us to use a very small stage consisting of a few wooden steps leading to a square platform that accommodates one or two people at most. The riser, known as the “stump stage,” is so small it does not appear on the Bristol map. But its convenient location at a busy intersection made it the best place for our dramatic bit, which consisted of Nicolas Wright publicly charging Avis Nightjar with a list of ridiculous crimes ranging from poltroonery to hooliganism.

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Avis Nightjar, rogue extraordinaire. Photo credit: Brian Schultz.

We built the scene to involve Bristol patrons. Throughout the weekend, Nicolas Wright let it be known that Nightjar would be put on trial Sunday at 6:15 p.m. He canvassed patrons to ask their opinion of her guilt or innocence and invited them to be present at the stump stage to learn the outcome of her trial.

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Wanted. Photo credit: Brian Schultz.

When the time came to declare the verdict, Nicolas Wright, with the help of a fool named Jaclyn Faltrades (portrayed by Terri Williams), attracted a large crowd to gather around the stump stage. Wright, standing on the stage, formally read to Nightjar a list of her alleged crimes (a moment that I borrowed from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, when the character of Tuco is read an extensive list of crimes for which he has been convicted). He then asked the crowd to render their opinion.

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Day of reckoning. Photo credit: Brian Berg.

Wright played up the moment with over-the-top bluster, making himself look foolish, and Nightjar watched from one of the lower steps with an innocent expression on her face. Of course, the overwhelming majority voted for her innocence. Wright allowed a pregnant pause to linger in the air while he pondered the vote, making eye contact with as many patrons as possible while he thought through his decision. His smile suggested a softening of his heart. Then he pronounced the verdict: guilty.

The crowed booed and hissed, and Nightjar cowered while Wright raised his arms for order. Wright asked Nightjar if she had anything to say for herself before he sent her to the stockade. The trial then took an unexpected turn, just as Marion and I had planned it: Nightjar stepped up to the platform, stood alongside Wright, and turned the tables on the barrister by threatening to expose a number of shady business deals of his. As she talked, Nightjar became more animated, waving her arms and smiling while Wright grimaced and shrank back. The crowd started to laugh, clap, and cheer for Avis as Wright sputtered and demanded she cease talking.

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Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

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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.

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Fake It Until You Make It

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Photo Credit: Brian Schultz

How would you like to have a job that requires you to be always on? Where the cameras are always rolling, and someone is always watching you? Where you smile and laugh no matter what kind of day you’re having? Would you be energized? Mortified? Maybe a little of both? Every weekend from July 11 to Labor Day, I have that job from early morning to evening. As I have discussed on my blog, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, a highly acclaimed festival in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where visitors pay $24 to experience a re-creation of the port of Bristol, England, in the year 1574. I portray a garrulous windbag of a barrister named Nicolas Wright, whose personality mixes bluster with a vulnerable need for approval. In real life, I am a quiet, reflective person who prefers chilling out with music and a book in my spare time. You might argue that by becoming Nicolas Wright, I’m faking it. And yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being always on keeps you connected with people. And you need to be connected to be creative.

When you join the Bristol cast, you make a commitment to uplift others. All cast members, entertainers, and merchants adhere to a sacrosanct rule: make every patron who walks through the Bristol gates feel like an honored guest to be celebrated, revered, and welcomed. Bristol is also a dream for anyone who creates. As cast members, we create our own characters and skits, and hone our talents through acting lessons, improvisational training, and dialect coaching. The creativity and customer service complement each other: the characters we develop, ranging from Sir Walter Raleigh to Martin Frobisher, exist in order to offer an immersive experience to our guests — namely a sixteenth century town hosting the Queen of England.

And we are “on” for the patrons from 10:00 a.m. until the faire closes at 7:00 p.m. — without exception. We want patrons to forget their cares for a day, which means we must do so as well. It doesn’t matter whether I’ve had a long week at work, I woke up with a headache, or I’m stressing over an unexpected $1,200 bill from the auto repair shop. When it’s show time, I’m going to mingle with patrons, joking with them, praising them, handing out trinkets to kids, and performing scheduled skits, including the Queen’s Show that follows our daily parade. And there is only one way to do it: with a smile, a wink, and a laugh, for hours. There is no going halfway, nor should there be. That one moment when you let your guard down and act impatiently with a child at 6:45 p.m. after you’ve been enduring heat, humidity, and mosquitoes could tarnish a family’s first visit to Bristol. That instant when you grimace because your toe aches as you march in the Queen’s parade just might be the moment when a happy couple celebrating their wedding anniversary is taking your photo for their Facebook album. If necessary, you fake it until you make it. But here’s the thing — being always on is both exhilarating personally and essential to creativity. Here’s why:

  • Uplifting others is a selfless act. When your attention is focused on making other people happy, you stop thinking about your own problems and direct every fiber of your energy outward. You, in turn, are rewarded. Just last week, I handed one of my Nicolas Wright calling cards to a patron, who noticed that I had written a runic symbol on the back of the card. It turned out that he was an expert on runic symbols. He happily produced several runic stones he had hand-crafted and eagerly discussed his passion with me. A small gesture on my part was returned 100-fold. What if I’d blown him off? I would have lost.
  • Faking it until you make it really does make you happier. As the saying goes, love is a verb. Action creates emotion. At first you might truly feel like you are acting when you hit the streets of Bristol in the morning, but the energy from the patrons and my castmates uplifts me. It never fails: be friendly to one person after another, and no longer do you feel “on.” You naturally feel energized and positive.
  • Being always on spurs creativity. Our directors encourage us to deepen our character development through interactions with patrons. Each time I meet a patron, I have an opportunity to test a new joke or gauge a response to a revelation about my character. When I first developed the character of Nicolas Wright, I cast him as a nobler leader. But then I experimented by making him a bit more devilish, and I noticed patrons became more engaged and interested. They liked him more as a villain than as a saint. But I would not have achieved this kind of creative breakthrough unless I had constantly put myself out there, interacting with people and giving them my all. Sometimes my jokes bomb, but Bristol is the kind of place where trying and failing is not only expected but celebrated. You just cannot grow unless you’re pushing yourself to inhabit your character and learning from everyone around you.

Learning how to “fake it until you make it” has taught me how to take energy from other people, internalize it, and then build on it, whether I am acting at Bristol or living my everyday life. That energy not only uplifts others, but it strengthens you. And the dynamic of being with others leaves you with fresh ideas that won’t necessarily arrive when you are alone.

You don’t need to be an actor in a Renaissance Faire to apply this lesson. For instance, occasionally I attend business conferences as part of my job as a consultant and writer. The events usually include social functions as well as more formal learning sessions with presentations. Instead of blowing off the cocktail parties as I once did, I force myself to not only attend them but to mingle with other attendees, no matter how busy my day is or how many unanswered emails I need to address. I almost always walk away from the social functions learning as much or more than I did by sitting through a PowerPoint presentation because the real-time insights from other attendees build upon each other through conversation. What are some opportunities you might try?