Walking a High Wire

Walking a High Wire

Tossing my hat into the ring – Cirque style!

By John Spaith, ACG, ALB

I joined Toastmasters to master the art of giving slightly less boring speeches at work. Who knew those same skills would come in handy at Cirque du Soleil, the world-famous circus-arts production?

In addition to its high-wire acts and contortionists, the Cirque troupe gets unsuspecting audience members into the act. Like me. I was recently dragged up on stage by Christian, a French magician/ pickpocket. It was just the two of us, with me serving as his sole assistant. And by sole assistant, I mean sole victim.

One word came to me during this episode:“Toastmasters.” Not “Toastmasters has prepared me for formidable public-speaking challenges like this.” No, it was more like, “I talk a lot about how I’m in Toastmasters and if I screw up, we’ll all look bad.”

Why did Christian choose me of all people? Possibly because I was wearing a tie, a comical prop that was used against me. Or perhaps my griping about the price of concessions demanded reprisal. The most obvious reason is that I’m such a handsome guy. This is more obvious to me than to others.

Joking aside, my performance, were it not for Toastmasters, would have been a nightmare. Here are some things that helped. 

Is this a Trap?
Once Christian had me on stage, he said in his thick French accent, “Please stand here on ze trapdoor.” Yes, there was a trapdoor. I dislike trapdoors – who doesn’t? Even worse is that I’m from Ohio. Ohio is flat and Ohioans tend to dislike hills, slopes and quick changes in altitude.

My head was spinning and I was close to panic. But I said firmly to myself, “Christian is a professional. He doesn’t want me to fail.” I realized (correctly) that Christian was not going to make the floor fall out from under me. Even though we had just met, I trusted that this weird French guy wanted me to be safe and have some fun, too.

I learned this ability to trust from my good-natured Toastmasters chums. We want to make each other look good and feel good. In our parlance, Christian was Toastmaster of the day and I was Speaker No. 1. I have yet to see the Toastmaster pull a trapdoor on Speaker No. 1. 

Audiences Want You to Succeed
The lights were burning bright on the Cirque du Soleil stage, but the audience – 30 rows deep and surrounding the stage on three sides – was covered in darkness. I could just barely see the front row and after that it was black. It was surreal and a little disturbing.

Before I joined Toastmasters I worried incessantly about how I was received. My reactions to this kind of scenario would have been: “Is my tie on straight? Are people laughing with Christian as he makes the yellow ball come from my ears – or at me?” Not being able to see faces would have put me into hysterics.

I’ve learned that audiences – both inside and outside Toastmasters – want you to succeed. Most people are basically good and are not entertained by watching someone fail. If they aren’t rooting for you, it’s only because they’re too busy worrying about their kids or about traffic in the parking lot.

Ironically, messing up in Toastmasters (I’m good at that) and seeing audiences be supportive or, at worst, apathetic, was a huge confidence builder for me. 

Go With The Flow
People ask if I was warned prior to being dragged on stage. No, Christian gave no meeting agenda. One minute I was comfortably in my seat, a minute later I was standing on a trapdoor, a minute later I had a yellow ball pulled from my ear, a minute later Christian stole my watch, tickets and wallet, and a minute later I was staggering off the stage.

An episode of the 1980s sitcom The Cosby Show provides guidance for these out-of-control situations. One day Bill Cosby’s TV wife and friends were speaking Spanish at hundreds of words per minute. Bill’s character did not speak the language and was obviously clueless as to what was happening. Finally, he smiled and said, “I just listen for my name.”

Sometimes things happen too quickly and you’re clueless. Relaxing, reacting as best as possible, and going with the flow may be all you can do. Like the Cosby character, smile and listen for your name. 

Hey, I’m Only Human
Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard University psychology professor, says we need to give ourselves “permission to be human.” We’re going to make mistakes. When we do, we need to move on. I got a chance to practice this at Cirque too.

Christian finally led me offstage, to steep steps out to the audience. Since it was pitch black, it felt as if I was stepping off a cliff. This setup was not designed by an Ohioan. I was disoriented. I thought I was hundreds of feet from where I really was.

One of the ushers grabbed me and tried to lead me to my seat. I refused to budge, whispering that I was in the wrong section. She insisted my seat was just up the aisle. A wave of dizziness hit. I worried that the audience was about to start laughing at me. The usher yanked on me and I yanked back.

To summarize my performance: I didn’t trust the pro, I didn’t trust the audience and I didn’t go with the flow. So much for following my own advice!

My natural inclination would be to beat myself up over this, especially since I knew better on all counts. But – permission to be human – I figure I had reached my stimulation and heights limit for the day and it was okay that I wasn’t perfect. I got back to my seat safely and started breathing again. 

What I Learned From Mentoring
I learned a lot as I earned my Competent Toastmaster designation (called a Competent Communicator award nowadays). I learned as much or more serving as a mentor to new members.

I got over most of my stage fright after just a few speeches; many Toastmasters are not so lucky. As I’ve worked with newer members on their fears, it forced me to think about this problem and talk a lot about solutions.

My Cirque du Soleil experience was far outside my comfort zone. I would not have naturally conquered my fear, even with seven years of Toastmasters experience. I had to consciously attack it. While I was onstage, I quite literally was thinking about the things I’ve written in this article, including watching a Cosby Show re-run. I could not have come up with these ideas on the fly. They came back to me quickly and under pressure because I had given others the same advice so many times.

To quote one of Christian’s countrymen, Joseph Joubert: “To teach is to learn twice.” 

Practice Pays Off
Toastmasters works. Only through practice and helping others could I go this far outside my comfort zone.

But if there’s one takeaway, it’s this: Don’t wear a tie, criticize the concessions prices or be overly handsome at Cirque de Soleil unless you want to be dragged into the show

John Spaith, ACG,ALB, is a member of the Redmond 2828 club in Redmond, Washington.