“Dad, I want to be a live mannequin model in a department store. Would you take me to New Brunswick, so I can introduce myself to the store managers and see if they want to hire me to wear their clothes in the store window and pose like a mannequin?”
Although my Dad viewed this as naive and risky, with a high probability of rejection, he never showed it. As I walked into each store, with my resume and standard headshot in hand and asked to speak with the owners, no one took me up on my offer. I was 13. Risky – yes. But what did I really have to lose?
After high school, I landed an acting job at the Sight & Sound Theatre, the largest faith-based theater in the nation. With live animals, large casts and crews, spectacular pageantry, the New York Times called it “Bible Broadway”. In 1995, I was cast in a show called the Splendor of Easter, a spring production that featured dancing and singing woodland animals in Act One and the story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection in Act Two. As a female, supporting cast member, there was little for me to do in Act 2, as the story focused on the disciples and Jesus, so I would put back on my red polyester vest and bowtie and head to the back of the theater to help usher customer’s back to their seats after intermission. Then I would watch Act 2 on a folding chair in the back of the theatre. I made it my habit to analyze the characters and observe the audience’s reactions as the story unfolded.
One day, I heard a folding chair open quietly next to mine. I was startled to see Glenn Eshelman, founder and owner of the Sight & Sound enterprise, sit down next to me. I knew this man to be a visionary, a photographer, producer, artist, writer, and a man of strong opinions and mission. He built his legacy from the ground up. He nodded his head acknowledging me. In his hand, he had yellow tablet and pen. We watched the show in silence.
A few days later, he returned with the same folding chair with the same yellow notebook. As the first musical number of Act Two began, Glenn leaned over next to me and whispered: “Do you like this show?”.
My thoughts were jumbled. Did I like this show…? Did I really like this show? Well Mr. Producer, Owner and Signer of my paycheck, I certainly like working here. I really like getting a paycheck for performing. I like the clout that this place gives me.
But I did not like the show. In fact, I hated the show. The characters were clunky, the audiences did not respond well to it, and the woodland animals in Act One were painful to watch.
I was at a crossroads; there was a potential risk. Would I tell him the truth? I had been sitting in the back of the theater for a month making my own mental notes of things I would change if I were the boss.
I took a breath. “No, I do not like the show. I think we can do more with it.”
“What would you do differently?” he asked, pen in hand.
I was nervous. Here I was, I was in my very early 20s, and this was my first professional job. I was a contracted supporting cast member, with little acting schooling. I moved 100 miles from home to work here. I had friends, a budding romance, and the respect of folks back home.
But I wanted to be honest. So, I shared all the things I did not like and some things I did. I gave him alternatives to things that I did not like. He scribbled a few notes on his yellow tablet and at the end of the show thanked me for being observant and went back to his office.
About week later, our entire cast of 60 people, the live horses and various live animals were called in for a “special rehearsal”. As I stood on stage, as Woman #3, I watched as directors made many of the exact changes I suggested to the Owner a few days before.
The show became a bit more interesting. The actors seemed pleased with the recent changes, and audience numbers picked up. Shortly thereafter, the owner began tapping me asking my thoughts on various new productions in the works. One day, he asked me to join the Producing Group for a brainstorming meeting on a new show, The Miracle of Christmas. Risky, but I said yes. I walked into his corner office and there at the conference table was a group middle-aged male executives. I was 22 years old and beyond a few articles for local magazines, I had never written anything professionally before.
After the brainstorming meeting, the Glenn asked me if I would be willing to become a member of the producing group to help write the script for the Miracle of Christmas. He said they needed a young woman’s perspective and voice into the script. I was dumbfounded. I did not feel qualified. I was worried about what cast members and directors might think. If I said yes, this was going to change things. There was risk again. Staring me in the face.
But for some reason, Glenn believed in me and saw my potential. He was encouraging and empowered me. Over the months that followed, it was challenging and rewarding to work in collaboration with these men and to see my own voice and perspective on the page. Accepting that risk was without a doubt a building block for my professional career and personal confidence.
This week, over 20 years later, I find myself sitting in the 2,000-seat theatre, watching the Miracle of Christmas live on stage. It has been tweaked a bit over the years, but most of the show I can still quote word for word. Beside me sits my supportive husband, daughter, my awesome parents who always believed in me no matter what, and my 10-year-old son, who sits with wide-eyed with wonder as he watched a production that I played a small part in bringing to life on the stage from its earliest inception.
In hindsight, that cold Spring afternoon when I was asked “Do you like this the show?”, I could not have said my response would be a stepping stone in my varied career. Using emotional intelligence to assess risk in the moment and confidence in what I can potentially bring to the table has repeated itself time and again in my professional career. As business people, we cannot allow potential opportunities to pass us by because of our own neurosis, lack of experience, or insecurity. We only get one life and we must be determined to make the most of opportunities no matter where and when they present themselves.
Kristen Hertzog is a Performance Coach, award-winning Speaker and COO of Hertzog Homestead Bed & Breakfast, Event Venue and Spa Cottage in Lancaster County, PA. www.kristenhertzog.com