Acting Lessons

My kids were so impressed when they found out that I had been a cheerleader three out of my four years in high school. It’s apparently a big deal when there are hundreds of kids in your class and thousands in the school but when you have less than 50 students in your graduating class and only 8 try out for 6 spots on the cheerleading squad… well, you just don’t have to be all that good.

Don’t get me wrong though… it was a lot of fun and formed some of my fondest memories in high school but not my most memorable one. That one had nothing to do with the essentially individual sport of cheerleading but rather occurred when I won a spot on a small competitive drama team in my senior year.

The newly formed drama team was to compete for the first time in a sanctioned one-act play competition with other high schools in our division. There were only 10 on the entire team plus a drama coach (who, as it goes in small schools, was also our band teacher): six actors and four support students helping with everything from costumes to curtains to set construction. The play was a touching short story called Goodbye to the Clown about a young girl whose father has died and who, in an effort to cope with her grief, has created an imaginary character, the clown.

I played the girl’s mother who, dealing with her own grief, becomes increasingly fed up with her daughter’s constant attention to the “clown” and her insistence that he be given the same things as a real human being with a place setting at the dinner table, food on his plate, and inclusion in all conversations. In the end, the little girl is guided by her uncle to say “goodbye to the clown” and accept the death of her father. The tender final scene left not one dry eye in the audience when she sits with the clown (who is seen by the audience the entire performance) on the front of the stage with their legs dangling over the edge and thanks him for his friendship, lets him go, and finally makes peace with her loss.

Maybe it was the deep emotion embedded in this story. Maybe it was the nature of theater performance and losing yourself in the lives of other characters. Maybe it was being in the last few months of our senior year and subconsciously knowing that we were about to say our own goodbyes to friends, teachers, and coaches for the last time. Or maybe it was the new experience of participating in something that was impossible to accomplish individually and could only happen if everyone on the team not only did their jobs well but created a safe space for all of us to be vulnerable, take risks, and give or receive support if a mistake was made. But whatever it was, my participation in this small group effort was life changing for me. Being a cheerleader, each of us were always in the spotlight. But with this tiny drama troop, I was a small but integral part of a much greater story and we absolutely depended on each other to lose ourselves in our characters and give 100% on stage to succeed in the competition. We bonded as a team in a way that I had not experienced before (and rarely since.) I now know that’s what happens we people band together, work hard at high level, fully trust each other, and enjoy the work of art they create together… and I didn’t want it to end.

We won our division but fell just short at the regional competition with a few of us taking home honorable mentions for our performances and making the All-Star Cast. But, the loss did nothing to taint the memory or the lessons learned about teamwork and trust.

In about a month, I’ll fly to Texas and attend my 40th (gasp!) high school reunion. We’ve not had one in 30 years. It will be wonderful to reunite with old friends and hopefully a teacher or two. I’ve got my fingers crossed that some of my drama troop teammates will be there. I’d love the opportunity to tell them now what I couldn’t know way back then about how that experience formed me and how I now spend my life doing much the same work of uniting teams and helping them raise the level of trust and excellence in their work.

This week, consider your contribution to your own team experience. Do you foster trust? Do you make it safe for others to try new things, make mistakes and learn from them? Do you quickly jump in to support when they “forget their lines?” Do you acknowledge backstage, after the day is over, a job well done. When you do, you not only create a great experience for them but, trust me when I say, you create a meaningful experience for yourself as well.

“What’s beautiful about the actual acting class environment is that you can use it to push through everything: push your voice, push your inhibitions, push your fears, push your confidence, push your vulnerability, push your silences. ” 
~~ Dawn Olivieri
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