The Impact of Leadership on The Theatre

The Servant of Two Masters    Brilliantly directed and staged, an example of extraordinary leadership

The Servant of Two Masters
Brilliantly directed and staged, an example of extraordinary leadership

I realized something powerful about leadership yesterday. It’s sort of one of those completely obvious insights that should have been there in my understanding about leadership from the beginning and yet it wasn’t. You can recognize the quality of a leader by the feeling generated by the people that are led by that leader. The leader sets the tone that the followers then create. How successful the followers are at creating the space and the tone is directly proportional to the ability of the leader to lead. I’ve always known that a leader is responsible for the space and the people in that space, but I haven’t quite gotten it completely before that the space and the people in it are a direct reflection or response to the leader.

I saw two plays yesterday. Many of the same actors were in both plays, this being a repertory company. The first play was a modern adaptation of a 16th century Comedia Del Arte play called “The Servant of Two Masters” and the second was Shakespeare’s wonderfully witty “Much Ado About Nothing”. (a caveat: Some of these realizations may be due to my expectations. I had low expectations for the comedia play and high one’s for the Shakespeare. And we all know that expectations inevitably lead to disappointments.) “The Servant of Two Masters” was a masterpiece of comedy. The cast was exuberant, the timing was impeccable, the bits worked out perfectly, and there was a wonderful generosity of spirit weaving through the whole production. There was a profound connection, intimacy even, with the audience. The final song was a heartfelt song of love being expressed by the actors to the audience. Every one of the actors were brilliant in their own right, had their own moment in the spot light and yet worked seamlessly with each other as well. I left the theatre on a kind of a high, my belly hurting from laughing, my heart opened up from the love so completely shared and with the feeling that this could go on and on and still be fresh.

That evening we went to see “Much Ado”, which I was now really looking forward to because as I said before many of the same actors were playing roles in this production and when I have seen this play before, both on the stage and in the film version with Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson, I have loved the wit and lively exuberance in the play. So I was ready, it was a glorious night and we were in the outdoor theatre, where I have seen so many wonderful plays. The play was flat. The actors felt like they were just a little off and not that connected with each other, even though they were many of the same actors I had seen that afternoon. There were missed cues and dropped lines and some of the things that I love about the play seemed to come up to half the scale of possibilities. The play which just opened two weeks ago already seemed tired. Yet here were the same incredibly talented performers, with brilliant timing, wonderful physical bits, and filled with life and love seeming to sleepwalk through one of my favorite Shakespeare comedies.

In my mind the difference is in the directors. The first director created a magical space with and for the actors (and all of the other artists involved, scenic, lights, music, sound, and script folks) to create in. She had a powerful leaders stake around generosity and gratitude, I think, and then worked completely collaboratively with all the artists. She trusted her people to not only carry her vision but to co-create it with her. She somehow had those people that she led create some ownership of the whole deal themselves and share that ownership with each other. The details were completely handled and yet when there were mistakes there was all sorts of ways to respond and include them, so that they looked like they were part of what was happening, maybe they were. These actors clearly loved what they were doing and who they were doing it with and for. The second director somehow created a space where those same actors seemed to be working and not having a whole lot of fun. The missed cues and dropped lines that happened occasionally were noticed and moved on from very well but not as inclusively and seamlessly as they were in the first show. These same actors didn’t seem to like each other as much and, with the exception of one of the actors, the audience didn’t seem to exist. There seemed to be no stake being held by the director at all, except maybe that the actors move around the stage in ways that create pretty pictures. In one of Shakespeare’s wittiest plays and surely one of the most fun plays to act in, the actors didn’t look like they were having much fun. Because I had seen so many of these same actors clearly having so much fun several hours before I can’t lay it on them, or even on their being tired from doing a matinee, because I know all about stamina and pulling up energy when you need it and I know these talented people have 1000 times more experience at that then I do.

No this is a difference in leadership. The first director was a leader with a clear stake, an ability to co-create and collaborate with her fellow artists and to source and hold a powerful space in which the people she was leading could show up fully. The second director was a leader that did not have a clear stake, seemed more committed to the outcome then to the space, fostered an environment of work and not love, and turned a brilliantly alive Shakespeare play into a mediocre one. I thank both of them for giving me this wonderful look at the impact of leadership on the space around them.

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