It’s only a play? Lessons learned on the stage

The lights dim, the music rises from an orchestra pit hidden from view and a tiny light begins to fly across the curtain. It’s that magical moment of anticipation in a darkened theater on a spring night in New York. It could be any play, but for me, on Tuesday it was ‘Finding Neverland’, the new Broadway musical about the life of JM Barrie, the playwright and creator of Peter Pan.

Being cast in the lead of a Broadway play has about the same odds as being signed to an NFL contract. Only the lucky, talented few survive the uncompromising selection process beginning with high school and college productions, local theater companies, summer stages and hours of auditions to reach the pinnacle of success for a stage actor.

A Yahoo finance article in 2013 listed drama and theater arts among ‘The 10 Worst Majors for Finding a Good Job’. And yet, sitting in a theater, removed from electronic contact with the outside world, it’s easy to understand why so many aspire to a career on the stage.

The lead role of JM Barrie in ‘Finding Neverland’ is acted by Matthew Morrison. His journey to the Lunt Fontanne Theater in NY started at the Orange County School of the Arts in California and progressed to NYU, TV roles, supporting roles on Broadway, his first lead in ‘The Light on the Piazza’, and in 2009, ‘Glee’ where his audience came to know him as ‘Will Schuester’. Although not as popular with critics as theater goers, this musical based on a 2004 movie plays to a full house at every performance.

And every night, each member of the audience receives the gift of watching a cast of actors pursuing their dream. And the actors include children, dogs and actors playing dogs.

Lesson #1 – There they are, on stage, demonstrating in an incredibly competitive business, that you can achieve your dream.

Lesson #2  – Act Two – The former actors who have achieved success beyond the footlights.

Clarence Otis, Jr. who stepped down as Chairman and CEO of Darden Restaurants late last year, credited his success in team building to his experience in theater.

“The thing that prepared me the most — where the team was front and center — was theater, which I did a lot of growing up, in high school, during college, law school and even for a couple of years after law school. I would say that probably is the starkest lesson in how reliant you are on others, because you’re there in front of an audience. It’s all live, and everybody’s got to know their lines and know their cues and know their movement, and so you’re totally dependent on people doing that.”

Tom Vander Well, business consultant, writes on his Wayfarer blog ’10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success’.

“When I chose my major, I had no pipe dreams about becoming a professional actor. I did it because more than one wise adult had advised me that my actual major in college would have less impact on my eventual job search than having the actual degree. “Study what you love” I was told, “not what you think will get you a job.” I listened for once and chose theatre because I’d done it all through my secondary education, I had relative success doing it, and because I simply loved being a part of it. Fortunately, my parents gave me absolutely no grief about my choice (unlike most of my fellow majors. Thanks mom & dad!)”

The list of skills he acquired includes: “improvisation, project management, working with a limited budget, hard work, presentation skills and making difficult choices.”

I would add that you learn to accept feedback as an actor. And you eventually realize it’s about the performance, not personal. If you listen you will get better. Maybe that’s the most important lesson we can take from those who make a living on the stage – listen and you will get better.

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