Recently, my wife and I saw several wonderful high school theater productions, including Seussical, Hello Dolly, and The Pirates of Penzance. The last in particular was so delightful and kinetic that we thought we had witnessed a Broadway show. Their exuberant performance was that spectacular.
Since we had gone to the final performance, there were many speeches after the show, where the students thanked the various teachers and parents who had helped make the show a success, in one way or another, including make-up, costumes, sets, lighting, sound system and more.
Lastly, the Drama Club teacher came up to say a closing word. He had directed the show and conducted the orchestra. It was clear as he spoke that he had a passion for theater and that he loved his kids.
Wowed by how totally committed everyone was to this show, my wife and I reflected upon the factors that make an excellent theatrical performance. Clearly, the best ones always have a palpably high level of engagement by the actors. The other aspects of the production, like sets and costumes and lighting and music, might leave something to be desired, but if the cast is “giving all they’ve got,” you feel the excitement, the energy. It grabs you. And the experience works.
But what about leadership? Thinking about what goes into a highly successful theater production, some lessons about leadership emerge.
Though every high school drama production has a Director, an Artistic Director, a Music Director, a Choreographer, and a Managing Director, in the end, the performance is delivered by the cast. And in the case of Pirates of Penzance, you could see and feel the energy coming from them. Such exuberance does not come from an external source. No leader, no matter how good, can put that into another unless it’s already there, waiting to be called forth.
In essence, the leader creates the conditions for success. And the proof of this leadership is the excellence of the cast’s performance. So, let’s unpack what the effective leader does:
Sets the stage: In his closing comments, the director said that he loves The Pirates of Penzance as a show. When the leader loves his job, it’s contagious. With that love as a driving force, he was able to pass the torch and ignite the hearts of his cast.
Prepares the players: Whether the show is a contemporary one like Rent or a golden chestnut like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, the director helps the cast to find their way into the heart and soul of the show. The best directors help each player understand their role, their motivation, and how they fit into the story.
Energizes others: One of the most important, yet most intangible, aspects of an excellent theater performance is energy. When the show is energized, you feel the excitement. Where does this energy come from? I believe it comes, in large part, from the director helping the players through an alchemical transformation from self-consciousness to self-lessness where the performer “forgets” him- or herself and “becomes” the part they are playing. The director has to energize the cast if they hope to energize the audience.
Gets out of the way: Knowing that he will not be on stage when the curtain opens, the director must strengthen his players to carry the show. Building the confidence of the players, and getting them to bond as a cohesive team, is key.
Coaches from the side: As each performance unfolds, the leader is there, noting what’s going well, and noting what must be improved. And giving those notes to the cast and crew in as timely a way as possible to enhance their performance.
Keeps the fire burning: From opening night to final show, the director is both cheerleader and commander, relentlessly pushing his players to deliver the performances he knows they are capable of. The leader motivates and stokes the fire.
Yes, leadership played a key part in that performance of The Pirates of Penzance. The leader’s job, as I see it, is to fulfill what Warren Bennis said many years ago: “Leadership is the ability to turn Vision into Reality.” And somehow, the end result of effective leadership is, as the ancient sage Lao Tzu taught, “the people say ‘We did this ourselves.’”
Posted by Terrence Seamon on Good Friday April 22, 2011. For more ideas on leadership and performance, contact Terry and invite him to your organization.