Most of my adult life—certainly my professional life—has been spent in the creative world of theatre. I have been an actor, director, writer, composer, but mostly a teacher, spending 24 years in the theatre program at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. All these experiences have given me first-hand knowledge of what it takes to be a successful leader. And the most important lesson I have learned over the years is this: you lead by serving. Below are the six areas of service that I use in theatre. These same six lessons apply to any profession and, most certainly, to life itself.
#1: Serve the Play
Directing is not about you. It’s not about stroking your ego or gaining personal accolades. It is only about the play and its story. Your job is to honor the playwright’s intent by bringing out the truths of the situation. That doesn’t mean that you are a slave to doing Shakespeare in pumpkin pants, codpieces and ruffs. There are wonderful interpretations of classic plays brought into the present, but this time-shifting doesn’t alter the integrity of the play itself.
Rehearsals are a fun time to experiment and explore. Sometimes the spirit in the room will create moments that will have everyone rolling on the floor in laughter, yelling “keep it in, keep it in.” But your job is to ask yourself, does this moment serve the play? If not, as funny as it might be, leave it out.
#2: Serve the Company
If you look at the promotional materials released for a play, you’ll of course see the title and author printed boldly across the page. But right under that will be a line that reads: “directed by…” As director, you are the public face of that organization for that production. You are the one interviewed by the print media and the radio and television stations. You are the one who gets to speak at Rotary, Kiwanis, and Chamber of Commerce events. And as a valued employee of the company, you must always remember that you are there to serve.
#3: Serve the Team
No director creates a successful production on their own. They work hand-in-hand with a large group of uniquely talented individuals. Though the audience is focused on the actors on the stage, there are dozens of designers, crew, and box office personnel behind the scenes who help create that final product. A single person cannot do all the work required and expect to create any performance of quality. Theatre is the ultimate “team sport.” For example, in the film Cast Away, when Chuck (Tom Hank) is stranded on the island by himself (Wilson doesn’t count), behind the camera, there were over 120 people working hard to make sure he looks good.
#4: Serve your Audience
Whether you are presenting a French farce or a serious drama, your job is to serve that audience by telling them the story with all the excellence you can muster. Don’t pander: Entertain. Enthrall. Enlighten. Make sure they leave the theatre having had a memorable experience. Make them want to come back again and again for more of the same.
#5: Serve the Truth
As a director, your job is to present the most honest portrayal of the story and characters that you can. You should not (cannot) reinvent the story or recreate the characters to suit a personal agenda. You are obligated to dig and then dig some more until you uncover what you believe is the very essence of the play—the truth— and then present that. Your audience should walk away asking questions about the story and its themes. The great director Hal Prince said that his intent was always to “provoke conversation; for people to leave the theatre, but not the show.”
#6: Serve Yourself
Renowned director Elia Kazan once wrote, “I am a mediocre director except when a play or a film touches a part of my life’s experience.” You should take that advice to heart. Plays are personal. Your work is personal. Every directing challenge needs to mean something to you.
Know the kinds of plays that are you, and the ones that aren’t. There is no way of faking enthusiasm through six weeks of rehearsals when your heart isn’t in it. Direct what you believe in. Remember that we lead from the essence of who we are as a person. Don’t chase the money or the fame. Be authentic and honest with yourself before you get into a situation you might later regret.
At the same time, you must continually challenge yourself. Take risks. Don’t accept only the comfortable projects. Don’t become a one-trick pony, or soon you’ll find yourself out of the circus. Versatility and diversity are valuable skills to have in your belt.
Look at your own life, your profession, your position, and see how these skills of service can benefit you and the people around you.