The Best Lesson?


As the title suggests, while there are many life lessons we learn from time spent in the performing arts, the following is the single best lesson I believe I gained from being a performer.

Over four and half years, between 2004 to 2009, I performed a lead role in a musical theatre show, the same show. 6 days a week, 8 shows a week. By the end of the run, I’d performed this role approximately 1,500 times, on three continents.

Yet, during those many performances, it remains two weeks during the West End, London run that resonate most, that I continue to learn from and that impacts my life in a profound way.


In the period leading up to the two weeks I was struggling; with physical and adrenal fatigue that left me feeling a deep sense of burn out. The passion I’d always had for being on stage was almost extinguished, as though there was no wood on the fire, and my gut had turned to a slow cooling grey ash. I no longer felt any joy and was pushing through based on duty and responsibility: to my family, my colleagues, the audience, and the production. And perhaps also due to ego and status of not wanting to be seen as weak, and not up to the job. Yet the truth was, I wasn’t coping well.

Desperate to find a way to keep going I made a conscious decision to switch to automatic pilot. To take a strong focus off the performance, and instead, try and glide through for a while in the hope that, in doing so, I’d find a way to cope better and perhaps even reenergise.

It sounds completely stupid as I hear it back, yet as I said, I was desperate. I should have talked with someone, got some advice, perhaps I should have taken a prolonged period off, but I was arrogant and didn’t want others knowing that I wasn’t coping. I wanted to be seen as strong and unbreakable, wanted to believe myself strong and unbreakable. I’d got to that point in my career – then about 15 years in – rarely going off due to injury or illness, able to push through via an act of sheer will and brute, blunt force (note: at the expense of my body’s longer-term health).

So, I flipped the switch to autopilot.

Yet over the next couple of weeks, I found that the performances were the hardest of my performing life. Fairly soon it was as though I was trudging through mud, as though I was Artax, Atreyu’s horse in The Never-Ending Story, stuck in the Swamps of Sadness. The shows became increasingly heavier and longer and I fell into an even deeper despair; stuck with seemingly no way forward and no way back.

And then one day, I fell headlong into a lesson I’d long forgotten, or maybe I’d never really known and had only stumbled upon by accident from time to time. I started to listen. Really listen.


During the first season of this production, when my passion for performing was still at a peak, and a few years before I hit the Swamps of Sadness, I used to take myself into a quiet and peaceful concrete stairwell before my first entrance to help me focus. Part of that process was finding something new in the starkly lit, rather bleak stairwell; something I’d never seen before: a mark on the wall, a chip of paint, a scuff mark on the stairs, some carelessly discarded chewing gum.

Finding something new set me up for the performance, reminding me that “today is now”, that, “today is new and fresh”, after which I’d go on stage and look, listen, and feel to find something I’d never seen or heard before: the movement of a character in the background, the curl of a lip, an inflection in the voice, the feel of my shirt against my skin, or a light spill. All as a key to unlock the now of that performance, reminding me that the performance is unique and will never be again.

Ichi-go Ichi-e

A Japanese four-character idiom (yojijukugo) that describes a cultural concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment.

‘Yet somewhere along the way, I slowly lost that. A different theatre formed a slightly different routine and process, I lost my bleak, grey stairwell, and I forgot the “now”.

And yet, this seems to happen in life too. At least it does in mine. Because many days can feel similar, as though I’m going through the same repetitive motions. The proverbial Ground Hog Day: wake, eat, work, eat, rinse, repeat. And so, it can sometimes be easy to switch to autopilot as I engage in some jobs, chunking the memory of the job with the present: making coffee, doing the washing, sweeping the deck. In fact, if I’m honest, this even happens with some social and family interactions, as I let my mind randomly focus elsewhere, float off to another time, place and thought.

I’m, there and not there.

And while sometimes, if done as a choice this might prove beneficial in some circumstances, when done by default it can leave me feeling disconnected and as though life itself has become a dull trudge or chore and is passing without me being really in it. As though I am instead, merely a ghost presence, a phantom barely able to touch the tangible and only occasionally interacting with the real.

When chopping wood, chop wood.

When carrying water, carry water.

I’ve always thought the above sentence was a quote from Taoism, but I can’t seem to source it – though there’s a similar Zen Buddhist one – and so perhaps it’s based on a quote that I read once, remembered incorrectly, and have since whispered to myself and edited over time to become my own. I’m not sure.

Whatever the origins of the quote, the words now remind me to be in the moment and do the thing I’m doing. If I’m making coffee, make coffee. If I’m cutting grass, cut grass.

I know this isn’t new information. This isn’t some incredibly profound revelation. The idea has been around for thousands of years, touted by many a wise sage as a key to life.

Yet the profundity for me, was making the connection between myself as a performer and life in general. That is, that I should try and live as though they were similar. That I should bring the kind of clear focus I brought to each moment as a performer to life more generally.

It was only by remembering to really listen, look and connect with the unique moment that I was able to drag myself out of what felt like performance doldrums and resuscitate the performances and myself back to life. And now, when I’m feeling something similar in life, I remind myself to simply focus on the job at hand, to really see it, listen, and feel it. And when I do, it changes everything.

That might be something as simple and mundane as making coffee. In that context I would slow down and become highly conscious of the glint of light on the cupboard handle as I approach. Be aware of the cool of its steel as I take it my hand. Hear the opening of the cupboard door, note it’s glide, and absorb the colour of the mug inside, feel it’s weight as I reach and lift it. Listen to the grind of the beans and take note of how the light reflects on the spoon as I turn it in my hand, the sparkle of sugar crystals, and how the water and milk mix and swirl together like a galaxy spinning.

It sounds a little like I’m on drugs and perhaps that’s the point. Maybe that’s why some people take some drugs; to help them feel a deeper connection to the now. And yet, all we really need to do is slow down and place our consciousness in each moment, just as we’d more instinctively do during a performance.

This helps me in another way too. In doing so, I’m becoming more aware of detail and intricacy. Like most people, I consider myself relatively time poor and so I often feel like I’m rushing from one job to the next to fit in as much as I can, to be as productive a cog in the economic machine as possible, to get as much done, to move faster, work faster, or to create more time for the things I think I’d prefer to spend time on. Yet this rush triggers my impatience, makes me want things done even faster, and so I often stop taking the time to appreciate detail, both in my work and in the work of others.

I could be wrong, yet I think many people suffer from a similar struggle of feeling rushed and impatient. And in not appreciating the details, we don’t value the details, and end up settling for “close enough is good enough”.

The devil is in the details.

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe

The “devil” in this context, is a positive. If you really want to understand something, know it, appreciate it, and value it then you need to invest that most precious of our resources, our time. And that means, slowing down and connecting to the now.

When we don’t; we’ll accept less from others, less for ourselves and less of ourselves. We won’t see the detail that separates one object from another, one piece of workmanship from another, one person from another. Mass produced Mall products will seem as good as local hand-made crafts from skilled masters of their craft, and one teacher might seem as good as any other.

I may never perform again and I’m OK with that. Because perhaps, this is the one fundamental lesson I needed to learn along the way to help guide my life.


by jb.

If you have one guiding lesson and story you’ve learned from performing and being in the arts, and that now informs your life more generally, please share it with me at:
Email Subject: This Stage of Life

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