Monday, October 18, 2010

Theatre of the Absurd

(or Everything I Ever Needed to Know, I Learned On Stage)    

       A few weeks ago my kids and I were invited to a birthday party for my neighbor’s six-year-old daughter. You know how sometimes you go to a kid’s birthday party and you know you’re going to be wishing it was over before you get there? Their parties aren’t like that. This family knows how to throw a party. Everyone always has a great time—the kids and the adults. My husband was quite disappointed that he couldn’t attend because he had rehearsal.
I was chatting with one of my neighbor’s friends from out of town about our involvement in community theatre. She asked me how skills learned on stage could be applied to the corporate world. It was a great question, but one I wasn’t able to answer that night. We were interrupted repeatedly to administer first aid, break up fights, and fetch bottles of water. And that was from the adults—kidding! As if the adults would be drinking water. Her question has been rattling around in my head since that night. A few weeks ago I wrote about how the corporate world prepared me for motherhood. This week I’m writing about how the skills I’ve learned from theatre prepared me for the corporate world.

1.)   Thinking on your feet (also known as improvising) When you’re on stage anything could go wrong at any time. A prop could be missing, a sound effect might never happen, a fellow actor might forget his lines, you might forget your own lines. As an actor you need to figure out a way to work around it—hopefully without the audience ever knowing. There is an old theatre legend—usually attributed to John Barrymore. He was in a scene in which he was supposed to shoot someone, but the gun didn’t make a sound when he fired. So he used the gun to bludgeon the other character to death. Coming up with a way to get yourself out of a sticky situation comes in handy regardless of your occupation.

Ever feel like you're dodging knives at work?
2.)   Being articulate It is astonishing to me how badly most people communicate. The ability to express yourself clearly is vital not only in the corporate world, but in day-to-day situations. I work in a retail setting. Many of my customers are well educated but can’t seem to ask a simple question. Rather than saying, “I’m interested in buying the Norsjo bed frame. Can you tell me if it’s in stock?” They will instead ask me to follow them to the product on the showroom floor, kick the product, and grunt. If only they had been under the direction of my high school drama teacher—my displays would be in far better repair.
3.)   Dressing for success We all know you need to dress a certain way to be taken seriously. Actors love to dress up. The men hardly ever complain about having to wear a tie and the women put up with uncomfortable shoes if they look good. Actors know that the right costume is essential to the character. When I was leaving my corporate job to take up the mantle of mommy hood, a candidate showed up for an interview in a lovely suit…and flip-flops. This was a very buttoned-down corporation—you have to know how to dress to make a good impression on clients. She didn’t get the part… I mean the job.
4.)   Faking it (also known as acting) Don’t pretend you don’t ever have to do any acting at your job. Ever had a client with an awful toupee or a giant hairy mole? You act like you don’t notice and try your damnedest to not stare at it. How about a boss whose politics are the polar opposite of your own. You don’t have to act like you agree—but you do have to control your nausea. Actors have the training to keep a straight face through the most giggle-inducing circumstances. 
5.)   Working on a deadline If your show opens in eight weeks—everything must be done in eight weeks. The audience doesn’t care if you had to cancel rehearsals for a snow storm, half your cast came down with strep throat, the set had to be rebuilt because part of it wouldn’t fit on the stage, the leading lady gained ten pounds and her costume won’t fit, and the stage manager isn’t speaking to the producer because he made a pass at the ingénue. All the audience knows is they have tickets for opening night and they expect to be entertained. This is probably the most tangible parallel between the corporate world and the artistic world. If you’re meeting with your client on a given day, you’re expected to be there with your presentation, prepared to answer questions. Your client doesn’t care that your son has a double ear infection, your car wouldn’t start this morning, your cat threw up on your shoes, and your laptop has a virus. The client is paying you to perform—you better perform.

So if you’re in the corporate world and you’re hiring, you may want to explore your local drama program for qualified candidates. Cause frankly, those kids could really use a paying job—and they usually work cheap.