We place significant emphasis on “leadership” – on knowing how to lead and identifying the qualities that make a good leader. The American Shakespeare Center even has an entire Leadership program designed to teach such skills to all sorts of people: government executives, warehouse managers, high school administrators, homeschool students, and everyone in between, all learning how to use the tools of theatre to enhance their abilities to lead. Yes, leadership is definitely important. But what about the oft-maligned (or at least overlooked) flipside to leading? Where is the curriculum designed to teach us how to be better followers?
Now, I know what you may be thinking: why would anyone want to learn that? The word “follower” may evoke feelings of weakness (followers must lack the strength to lead) or conformity (followers are sheep, blindly heading wherever everybody else is already heading) or the noxious omnipresent voyeurism afforded by social media (as a millenial, I can’t hear the word “follower” without thinking about how many of those I do – or don’t – have on Instagram). Nobody wants to cultivate those feelings. But I’d like to invite you to think a bit differently about what it means to be a follower, and how integral followers are to the fabric of a healthy society. After all, you can’t have a leader without a following.
In a play, every character is not the focus of every scene. Most shows may have “leads”, characters who take up the bulk of the attention — the way nearly every scene in Romeo & Juliet revolves around Romeo and/or Juliet — balanced with other characters who move in and out of that central spotlight. The others accomplish many things: they do things to advance the plot (it would be a short and pointless play if Romeo and Juliet were the only two residents of Verona), they give the play texture by introducing variety (after enduring an entire act of Romeo moping, audiences are often relieved to finally meet the merrier Mercutio), and they direct our attention towards the “leads” by caring about what happens to them and inviting us to do the same. Without their direction, we wouldn’t know where to look. Their followship is what allows the leaders to lead.
When working with young actors in the ASC Drama Club or the ASC Theatre Camp, I am constantly reminding them of their number one job: to make their scene partner(s) look good. Your scene partner(s) will always be the most important part of every scene, and as an actor it is your job to make them look good. (And if you’re alone onstage, your scene partner is the audience.) If we all do our jobs, everyone looks good. But if we’re out there onstage only taking care of ourselves — looking for any opportunity to draw focus to our character or our moment regardless of the needs of the scene or the play — then we’ve got a mess. Nobody stands out in a sea of standers. For the standers to be seen, the rest of us need to sit.
Sitting may seem passive and powerless, and it certainly can be. But it doesn’t have to be. There’s power in sitting. Fellowship begins with followship: no leader gets anywhere alone, and humans have to work together to get anything done (we are remarkably useless animals by ourselves; our strength lies in our society). Yes, having a leader is critical. Leaders spearhead initiatives and create movements: we do need somebody to stand up eventually and say, “I’m going this way. Who’s with me?” If you’re going that way, too, but you’re not the one to stand up first, that doesn’t mean you’ve lost your chance to lead. It means you’ve gained the chance to lead by following. You get to add your support to the leader, and in doing so direct attention (and hopefully more support) towards that leader.
Theatre is a great way to teach followship. Staging a scene (especially one of Shakespeare’s, especially using Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions) opens up so many opportunities for some budding leaders to learn how to lead and when to follow. Theatre clarifies this attention-bartering by removing personal egos from the room — it’s not you or your ideas who are leading or following, but the character’s. I urge my young actors to remember their #1 job (make your scene partner(s) look good) and also to keep in mind their #2 job: know where the audience’s attention needs to be at any given moment and how your character can help support sending the attention in that direction. Each choice you make gives you the opportunity to reevaluate your decisions based on how well they help achieve those two goals (#1: make your scene partner look good; #2 direct the audience’s attention where it needs to go). I ask them to evaluate their different staging choices based on what they gain and what they lose in their progress towards each goal with each choice. With practice, participants in the scene can notice, objectively, where they need to give or take attention — when to sit or stand, lead or follow. They learn about the power of giving focus, and how to lead by supporting the leadership of others. They recognize their place in the larger play, and give their support to telling it clearly to an audience.
As this election year drags on, remember that good followers are the key to effective leadership. Without support to throw attention in the leader’s direction, their message and their movement will get lost in the tumult. If there’s nobody going your way, by all means stand up and lead others in blazing a new trail. But if others are already headed in that direction, consider lending your voice in support of theirs — follow their lead and make them look good, rather than stealing the scene for yourself.