I’ve never really bought into the whole idea of spirituality in terms of Â auras and orbs and such, but I have to admit that I had somewhat of an out-of-body experience today.
Bob Newell, who I’ve spoke and written about at length, has been on my mind all day as it was seven years ago today (1/22/2008) when I lost my dear friend and mentor. As I do every year on this sad but celebratory anniversary, I share a story about my connection to him and my hopeÂ that I’ve inherited some of his finer qualities.
This year isÂ no different in that herein I’m writing about that connectionÂ once againÂ â€“ except thatÂ today, this connection took a very unexpected twist and a new direction.
I recently joined the Buffalo-Niagara chapter of the Association of Talent Development, most recently the American Society of Training & Development, at theÂ recommendation of our county’s employee training coordinator Patti Brammer. Like my purposelyÂ reading Fast Company and other publicationsÂ that have virtually nothing to do with our business of fire and emergency services, I joined ATD as an extension of my practice of looking outside “my practice” for solutions to the challenges we face in our industry.
So today I attended their monthly association meeting at Templeton Landing, a popular restaurant and event center located prominentlyÂ onÂ Buffalo’s waterfront where they hosted an interesting lunch presentation performed by Playback Theatre. As described on their web site, Playback Theatre isÂ “based on the stories of audience members enacted on the spot, promotes the right for any voice to be heard, brings group concerns to the surface, and stimulates a dialogue by making different perspectivesÂ visible.”
While that sounds like a relatively benign method of both art and communications, I initially wondered how it might apply to the association’s mission of talent development â€“ unless of course, we’re looking to develop our musical and theatrical talents. I didn’t know what to expect.
These actors are adept at using this form of improv to help companies and employees address key concerns within an organization, to teach and inspire teamwork and creativity, and to act out behaviors that demonstrate the need and solution for conflict resolution.
Their web site goes on to describe what they’re about as “performances are carried out by a team of actors, emcee (called theÂ conductor), and musician. As the show begins, audience members respond to questions from the conductor, then watch as actors and musician create brief theatre pieces on the spot. Later, volunteers from the audience come to the stage to tell longer stories, choosing actors to play the main roles.”
That last sentence of their description is where today got real interesting.
After a woman named Gina bravely shared (and the actors portrayed) her story of how a failed business and unhealthyÂ relationship with her now-former lover and business partner transformed her into someone who now helps others transform their lives and businesses â€“ something triggered an involuntary reaction inside that caused me to raise my hand, step forward and volunteer the connection between two stories I’ve told here at TigerSchmittendorf.com.
I sat in a chair next to the “conductor” in front of the some 30 association members in attendance as she proceeded to ask questions that drew my story out. As Gina had mentioned mentoring and coaching a few times during her story,Â I started by sharing about today being the anniversary of Bob Newell‘s death and the lessons he taught me, before, during and after his passing. I spoke about Bob’s unique ability to quickly size someone up and determine if they were worth investing in. And, I talked about how Bob was very adept at making it clear as to which side of that line you stood on, but always left the door open for you to change his attitude about you.
That introduction lead into my story of how I stumbled upon a connection I’d recently made with the younger brother, Dylan, of a fire victim I rescued someÂ 16 years ago now. As I came to the criticalÂ point of that story whereÂ I realized the connection we’d unearthedÂ â€“ I could see that many in the audience and even the actors were gasping, bringing their palms upÂ to cover their faces; and in some instances, wiping tears from their eyes as they unknowingly practiced what Playback Theatre calls “deep listening.” Finishing myÂ story, the conductor elicited even furtherÂ details that would give the actors a full picture of the impact my story had on everyoneÂ who played a part in it, especially me.
Then, the three female actors, prompted by brief remarks interjected by the conductor and supported with responsive music played by a male fifth member of their group; Â proceeded to act out my encounter with Dylan as I discovered and revealed to him that I was the firefighter who pulled his older brother from that eventually fatal fire. The conductor briefly set the stage for myÂ story and their act she titled: “Destiny.”
Waving, twisting and turningÂ large bolts of different colored fabrics as their only props, they employedÂ often exaggerated body movements, very deliberate facial expressions and a limited number ofÂ spoken words to relate each ‘act’ of: the last-in-lineÂ introductionÂ between Dylan and I; the attention-getterÂ where Dylan revealed that he wanted to be a firefighter; my horrified reaction when he shared his response to my question of why he wanted to become a firefighter; followed by my anxious inner-monologueÂ as he described his brother’s fiery death and I verbalizedÂ the revelation that I served asÂ his brother’s last hope for survival.
Cloaked in black fabric, one actor played Dylan’s older brother while the youngest actor played the role of Dylan, interacting with a blonde haired actress who represented my experiences and reactionsÂ as the story unfolded. I found their gestures and movements disturbing, validating and freeing all at the same time. They used just motions and emotions to finish the story of how our unsolicited bond has now grown into a friendship, a job shadow and a promise by both parties to maintain the connection regardless of what direction it takes us.
Somewhat dazed by the experience and unsure if I should apologize to the audience for inadvertently taking the program in such a deep direction, I felt drained as I stepped back to my seat at the table I shared with three other folks from businesses far different than mine. It seemed like I was in a movie scene where I was the only one moving in the space, slowly turning and taking in the whole room while everyone else seemed frozen motionless in time, their eyes focused on me. The whole experience was very surreal.
Following a hearty round of applause for the acting troupeÂ and after a collective deep breath was drawn in and slowly exhaledÂ across the room, the conductor thanked me for sharing my story and then asked the participants if any of them would like to share theirs.
Unable to hold back herÂ tears or her need to share, a blond haired woman sitting at one of the front tables, Erica Swiatek*, wasn’t sure if she was even capable of sharing her personal contactÂ with fire. Setting all reservations aside, she added that her experienceÂ was on the other end of my story â€“ that aÂ firefighter pulled her from a fire when she was just 3-years old. Her brother, unfortunately, couldn’t make it out or be rescued in time.
As an adult, she’s tried repeatedly to identify who the firefighter was that rescued her but has had no success. Now with tears streaming down her face, she turned and looked at me as she related how, for years she has needed to say thank you to someoneÂ who could relateÂ to her situation, but hadn’t found the right connection.
Once again, the conductor asked a few probing questions to set the stage as the actors played out Erica’s “Gratitude” as the last solicited story of the day.
The chapter president shared that she had just invited Erica to be her guest at the meeting a few days earlier. As Erica and IÂ shared Â a conversation â€“ and a hug â€“ following the conclusion of the presentation and meeting, both of us admitted that we didn’t see that connection coming. Was it destiny that we would both be there to share our glaringly related stories? I don’t know, but I can tell you that I think the whole experience – certainly not your typical association meeting of any kind – took us all by surprise. And, I’d like to think that we’re all better off for reaching a new depth.
I can’t think of a better word than ‘gratitude’ to describe the tremendous opportunities I’ve been blessed with to share my stories, to make new connections and to transform myself into someone who searches forÂ strength, hope and survival in serving others who might rely on me to rescue them from the destiny they fear, or face.
- 15 Years of Fire Suppression
- Missing a Mentor: What about Bob!
- Playback Theatre-Buffalo on Facebook
- Playback Theatre
- Association of Talent Development
- Association of Talent Development-Buffalo Niagara Chapter
- Clean the Litterbox
*=Name shared with permission.