‘Theatre’ & the Dynamics of Trusting Communication, Dealing with Pressure, and the Fear of Failure

I have read that among the most potent fears experienced by the human being are, 
the fear of falling, and 
the fear of public speaking.  
In one of my “CorporateTheatre” workshops, I met the expat head of a multinational corporation who was petrified by the fear of public speaking.  In his organization it was customary for the head of the team to give a Christmas speech, attended by all the employees in the Head Office.  From October onwards, this experienced professional was under stress thinking of the speech he had to deliver in December.
This is quite understandable.  Even after decades of experience, a theatre actorgoes through immense pressure, tension, and nervousness before going on stage.  I recently saw a post by a well known actor and stand up comedian, saying that there comes a point before every performance, where every actor wishes he or she didn’t have to go through with it.  After over 4 decades of performing on stage, a day or two before a show, I often catch myself hoping that something would happen to scrap the play.  The fear is immense.  Even so, once the performance starts, and as the audience begins responding, and you hear the applause, the magic and the intoxication of it is such that you are eagerly waiting for the next show and the next production.
Though I have not done any formal ‘research’ on the nature of this fear of performance, my gut feel is that arises from the vulnerability of exposure.  There you are on stage, with the curtains up, the lights on, the audience’s eyes on you, and this is the moment of truth.  There is no scope for pretence.  You can only deliver what you are and what you have.  And every moment you are being watched, analysed, assessed, and judged by hundreds of people.  The stakes are very high.
Sometimes in corporate workshops, an occasional participant has some difficulty in connecting the workshop experience with the corporate environment.
“But there are no stakes here”, they say.  “There are no incentives or appraisals or promotions involved.”
I often respond by saying that the fear of being judged and the need to be positively assessed is as critical and visceral a stake as anything else.  Probably even more . . . 
Recently, I experienced this practically during the process of a theatre production, and it offered me a powerful example how even under immense pressure, fear, and uncertainty, we can exhibit the ideal dynamics ofindividual and team effectiveness.
Some months ago, our theatre group decided that our next production should feature ‘objects’ which were significant to our lives some years ago but have since become obsolete – like the audio cassette, or the typewriter, or the gramophone.  We had to present our thoughts or write-ups over a series of meetings.  At one such meeting, I presented a story which received a healthy round of applause from the other group members.  After the meeting, our director – a maverick known for highly challenging and experimental work,and admired across the country, asked me if I would like to do my story as a ‘monologue’.
I was terrified.  Being on stage with a group of actors in a regular play is scary enough, and the prospect of being the only actor on stage with nothing and no one to fall back on, for about an hour, was mortally frightening.  
I had two options.  To decline and play it safe.  Or to take the risk and plungeheadlong into it.  I had complete trust in the director’s instinct and knew that if he directed a piece it had a good chance of becoming a worthwhile production. Moreover, I had just crossed sixty and realised that if I let this opportunity pass it might not come again and also that mustering the necessary courage would become that much more difficult later on.
I accepted the challenge.
After a couple of meetings during which we adapted a ‘reading’ script into a ‘performance’ script, the director decided that we needed to focus on this project exclusively for a few days.  We booked ourselves into a beautiful resorton the banks of the Kabini river, with nothing but virgin countryside and water bodies around, which offered total privacy, the scope for long walks along the river banks and through timeless villages, a spacious pool, and a cosy bar surrounded by a moat.  We booked ourselves for a 10 day stay.  And without even a play in hand we made a commitment to our hosts that we would rehearse for five days and from the sixth day onwards we would perform for the resort guests, in exchange for an affordable package that could cover our stay and food.  As this resort was frequented by guests from all over India and abroad, we had no idea what the audience would be like.  This made the prospect even scarier.  However, I had already made the commitment andwas now into free fall without any soft options.  Committing to performances from a particular date onwards was a way of putting pressure on ourselves to make it work.
The first few rehearsals and trial performances were disastrous.  
The director had asked me at the outset,
“Do you want me to be nasty or do you want me to be polite?”
“There is no point in being polite,” I had replied.  “Be ruthless and don’t try to make it gentle.  We are performing in 5 days and I know that you and I are working with the same goal in mind – to make this a good play, which an audience will enjoy and applaud.”
Thereafter he didn’t mince any words.  He was ruthless.  After the morning rehearsals on the 3rd day, followed by a brutal feedback session, we had lunch and then retired to our separate cottages for a short rest.  I decided that it was not going to work and that I would tell the director to forget about it, apologise to our hosts, and return home.  While committing to performances, we had also warned our hosts that this was an experiment and there were no guarantees.
As I lay down and began to doze off, it suddenly hit me.  We were trying to mix two styles – performance and story-telling.  We were beginning in a performance mode and switching suddenly into a story-telling mode.  This wasn’t working.  The challenge was to evolve adequate clarity about the flow and structure, the text and the movement, while making it look as if I had just met you at a bar and was sharing a simple story with you casually over a drink, while transferring the experience with the same intensity, humour, and variations that made the story interesting.  
I realised that right from the beginning we had to adopt and sustain a story-telling style.  This involved trashing the entire opening sequence which till then was considered to be a ‘master’ opening and a key element in the performance.
As we met up for the evening rehearsal I told the director that I wanted to try out something new.  
“Go ahead”, he said.
I went with the new format, discarding many things that we had worked with earlier.  At the end of it, for the first time, the director applauded.
“This will work!”, he said.
2 more days of rehearsals with the new format and from the 6th day, we invited audiences to come in.  The shows were well received by people from a variety of backgrounds, Indians and foreigners, 8-year-olds and people well past 60.
With a play in hand, we left the resort and returned home.  We have since done 4 more shows for general audiences and the response has been uniformly rewarding.  The play works!!
We are now planning to do at least 50 or more shows over the coming months.

7 thoughts on “‘Theatre’ & the Dynamics of Trusting Communication, Dealing with Pressure, and the Fear of Failure”

  1. Himanshu says:

    Excellent insights, both on being a leader and being a team member. Also some good take-aways of being a goal oriented, results focussed individual.
    Role of Feedback: No point being polite and brushing away developmental areas. That would not help anyone develop. Ruthless is the way to go if we really want extraordinary results. Pretty much all legendary leaders have followed this
    Having a common goal: The goal & the vision has to be shared between the leader and the team…as with the director and the actor
    The Leader needs to be open to different approaches: Once the goal/vision is shared, both the leader & the team member need to be as open to trying different approaches as the director is to the actor. No ego hassles etc.
    Thanks Paul.

  2. Paul Mathew says:

    That is brilliantly captured and summed up, Himanshu. Thank YOU !

  3. captain says:

    Great work Paul!My best wishes.Selva

  4. captain says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Paul Mathew says:

    Thanks Selva. Happy to see your comment !

  6. `Do you want me to be polite or do you want me to be nasty?` The question and its answer are the most captivating part of the script which manifest the intensity of commitment and application to goal.

  7. Paul Mathew says:

    Thank you for the comment. In fact, that statement requires a great deal of trust on both sides !!

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