Early in my career as an artist, I worked for other people performing their shows. This was really rewarding. It gave me a steady income base and most importantly, it gave me a steady stream of audiences to play with.
Clowning is the art of connection. The only way to become a good clown is to have lots of time playing with lots of different people. Now let’s rewind a bit. Before working for someone else doing shows for young audiences, I used to create my own work and try to sell tickets to my performances. This was difficult. I was a beginning clown. Like many beginners, I had some successful moments, but I was a long way away from mastery. Given this, my performances were completely mediocre. It’s hard to fill an audience for a mediocre show. Actually, filling houses was damn near impossible. I learned to be grateful that anyone would come at all. It was slow and painful work.
I needed audiences to get better. I needed to be better to have audiences
That was a hell of a problem to have. I needed a captive audience. That left me either prisons or schools. Although Johnny Cash Live at San Quentin was a favorite album while driving with my dad in his truck, the anarchic work of turning power dynamics on their heads that I did as a clown might have some terrible consequences if I performed in prisons. With that in mind, I started working in schools.
I started working for young audience companies. I was granted many opportunities to perform for hundreds of people at a time. It was great!
And. Those that I was working for? I learned a lot from them. And. They were limited. In one instance, the person I was working for was performing. Their audience that day was a bit rowdy. The teachers had tuned out and were marking papers. It was a bit of a dog’s breakfast. I could see the performer – someone who was teaching me – becoming visibly frustrated on stage.
After the show, they complained ad nauseum about the terrible audience – how the kids were acting out and the teachers weren’t interested. Funny thing? This performer did nothing to change how they did the show for this audience. They did the play as they rehearsed it. How they thought it ‘should’ go.
That’s a word I like to keep in both quotation marks and italics. ‘Should’. This performer had an expectation of how an audience ‘should’ behave, how a performance ‘should’ be delivered. ‘Should’ is a fairy tale. The world of ‘should’ does not exist. When we spend time attached to our ‘shoulds’, our expectations, we deny reality as it is. In doing so, we become powerless.
I learned to be grateful to have an audience at all as a clown. As a therapist? Grateful to trusted to be someone’s therapist. As a leader? Grateful that people follow. Given this, I don’t believe there are bad audiences, bad clients or bad staff. It’s my responsibility to deliver what I have in a way that people can connect with it.
For example – a performance on a Monday morning in a small rural school? I learned I could take lots of liberties and play to the edge of outrageousness. Friday afternoon at a school where the students all had cola and chocolate bars for lunch? I needed to hold back way more. The show was the same. The delivery? Very different. If I was unable to make that adjustment, it certainly wasn’t the fault of the children.
As a clown, a script is a set of rules to provide a jumping off point for connection – a starting point in a conversation. A way to ‘meet them where they’re at’. The connection is what’s important and meaningful. Scripts get ‘thrown away’ in favor of connection. For traditional actors, on the other hand, the script is a set of rules that create meaning. Scripts are adhered to like policies and procedures.
Leaders are clowns. Managers are actors
Leaders are clowns. Managers are actors. Managers perform as they ‘should’. They work with and manage expectations. They bend others to do the same. When things don’t go according to plan? Well, that’s the fault of someone else. Leaders? They connect. Leaders are comfortable with uncertainty. Leaders, clowns and therapists live with reality – the world of what is, rather than what should be. In doing so, we are able to be agile, to adjust and connect with people where they are. We can act with what is necessary in the moment rather than do what is prescribed.
Does it work? Did you connect?
This is how leaders, clowns, and therapists can assesses their impact. The answers here are very simple. Yes or no. How can I bring what I have to offer differently so people will engage with what I’m offering?
So, how do you change and adapt in order to connect and lead? How do you ‘meet them where they are at’?