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.

First I Want to Thank the Academy

Yesterday I was in the vortex of the entertainment industry: Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Only three days away from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards ceremony and the streets are clogged with catering trucks as party tents are being constructed in almost every available alley. The double decker tour buses were strained beyond capacity as visitors and probably a few long time residents take in the sights of Oscar week.

The entertainment industry and all that supports it are what work is for many in this Southern California region. And while the rest of the country is covered in ice and snow, on Sunday, a world-wide audience will tune in to the telecast and watch celebrities walk a red carpet in late February sunshine.

I’m not sure what percentage of aspiring actors will eventually carry a Screen Actors Guild card, but it’s probably a very small group that arrives at this pinnacle of their chosen career.

Judging from Oscar award acceptance speeches, it’s a rare achievement to be selected, in most cases after many years of hard work, failure and the support of teachers and family.

Last year, Lupita Nygong’o accepted her award for best supporting actress for her role in ’12 Years A Slave’.

“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.

When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child, that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

Spencer Kornhaber, writing in The Atlantic noted why this speech stood out from the others.

“Really look at that wording: It doesn’t escape her for one second that her current joy directly stems from someone else’s pain. She does make the standard industry thank-yous to cast, crew, and family members, but she chooses to preface all of that with a lengthy dedication to the person whose story she told on screen. Later in the speech, she said she could feel the presence of the dead. Lots of Oscar winners try to project humility, but usually that professed humility is in relation to others in the film industry—not in relation to all of American history.”

Sunday, when you are watching the ceremony, listen closely to the words of the winners. It may remind you that our dreams are valid. Our dreams are built on history of others. And we are at our best when we are humble in acknowledging our success.