The Importance of Kindness in Entertainment
By Liam Klenk
There aren’t many communities like the entertainment industry, where individuals from multiple backgrounds, languages, and nationalities come together to collaborate intensely in order to deliver a product. Add to this the different mentality and beliefs of each person. And an intimacy backstage which far surpasses any work environment you will find, let’s say, in an office building. Plus, the fact that there is often little to no privacy before and after work, when housing is being organized for us by our company. People from all walks of life are being thrown together without much opportunity to get out of each other’s way.
Before working for large-scale international entertainment productions, I spent four years on a small Maldivian island as a diving instructor.
Little did I know that I was going through an experience which was much like a boot camp for the aspiring entertainment professional. Just like in a show family, people from all corners of the globe ended up working together. Imagine sharing a living space of roughly one kilometer in length and two hundred meters in width with one-thousand-seven-hundred people – nine hundred guests and seven hundred staff. You meet your customers as well as your work mates wherever you go. In the bathroom, at breakfast, at work, during your lunch break, and in the bar. They are everywhere. Even in front of your doorstep.
The only time you get a bit of a breather is during the few hours you spend in your room at night. Even then, your privacy is limited, since the walls of your staff accommodation are paper thin and you are surrounded by a chorus of noises from your colleagues. If I wanted to or not, I used to be able to hear the conversations of my next-door neighbors, even if they were whispering. Or, I remember the moment when one of my buddies who lived ten doors down asked me, “Can you please be so kind and turn your alarm clock off a bit faster?”
Needless to say, an environment like this was bound to lead to tension. And there were small conflicts, misunderstandings, flare ups… However, tension never mounted to as high as we would think.
Some of this balance was achieved thanks to the small group of veterans who had lived on the island for many years. The first day I arrived, one of them pulled me aside and said, “Liam, just remember, there are no secrets here. This place is way too small. The walls have ears. Whatever you do, whatever you say, make sure you can back it up one hundred percent.”
I took the hint and was cautious accordingly. Nevertheless, I got hurt, disappointed, lost my temper, and spent many an evening wondering if I just wasn’t cut out for this. But I also loved where I was. Loved how it challenged me and forced me to grow. I learned to be clear and to the point. I learned whom to trust and whom not to trust. I learned to avoid gossip and to be discrete when others entrusted me with personal information. Whatever was discussed with me stayed with me. And thus, trust was established on a daily basis.
Like many others who stayed longer, I realized the only way to survive our island life together was to be kind to one another.
To not assume, not hold grudges, not take things too personal, and to forgive each other. This wasn’t the kind of environment where you could let something fester. Otherwise, it would quickly poison the atmosphere for the entire team. Rather, you needed to learn to face conflicts head-on, by approaching the other person, saying “Hey, I think we’ve had a misunderstanding. Do you have time to grab a coffee together?” I went for many coffees during those one-thousand-four-hundred-and-forty days…
In 2009, when I left the island to begin work as a show diver for Dragone Entertainment, I was amazed to see that our show family bubble closely resembled the environment I was used to from my Maldivian island life. The only difference was that here was no ocean soothing us with mesmerizing shades of turquoise and waves gently rolling into the lagoon. This was a corporate environment. People had actual careers in mind and everything was far more acute due to the drive and ambition of all players involved.
Each backstage environment I have worked in since was just another island, harboring a myriad of mentalities, tempers, and egos.
And each time, with each separate encounter between colleagues, it all came down to kindness, to seeing each other and accepting each other for who we are.
The production stage manager on my last show said, “During the run of a show, all cast and crew will go through a lot in their personal lives. Some of them will get married, others will lose their partner. Maybe someone close to them will die. The people we work with will battle with depression, or they’ll reach a goal they’ve dreamed of for years. There’s no way we can check our private lives at the door seeing as we work together so closely and for such long hours every day. To be a functional show family, we need to support each other and realize we’re all bringing lots of baggage backstage with us.”
Especially during a creation, we are all stretched to our limits. We barely sleep, we function on pure adrenalin and the passion for our profession. Nerves grow thin. It is at these times that kindness paired with a sense of humor becomes most important. It is especially then that it becomes important not to lay blame. To not ask “Who did this?” when things go awry. To realize it could have happened to anyone under the circumstances, and rather ask, “OK, what went wrong? How can we do this better as a team? How can we make this work?”
One morning, just recently, something had gone very badly in my private life. Without even being aware, my nerves were stretched to the limit. As I went into line-up and scheduling meetings, I became ever more irritated with things, which on a regular day, would never have been an issue. As I hurried around the building, searching for everyone to get all the information I needed to send out the company schedule, I became ever pricklier and exasperated. Nevertheless, I managed to finish the schedule on time and sent it out. As I walked into the crew room, I found my General Stage Manager on his lunch break. “Liam, sit with me for a moment,” he said.
I sat down and braced myself for a lecture and something along the lines of, “What’s wrong with you? Get a grip. Man up. You need to learn how to handle stress better.”
Instead, he looked at me kindly, and said, “Liam, what is going on with you today? Has something happened? You are always managing everything so calmly. Stressing out like this is not like you at all.”
As he looked at me imploringly, I realized I had been strung tight ever since disaster had struck at home in the morning. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ve had a really rough morning and actually am only just now realizing how much it affected me.”
“That’s no problem at all, Liam,” he said. “We all have days like that. And we’re entitled to them. Our lives don’t always flow in a straight line. You know you can always talk to me, mate. In the future, just let me know. Then I’m aware why you are a bit testy, and it’s all good.”
He proceeded to give me a hug and I walked away feeling a million times better already. My boss’s approach made all the difference. What could have been a conflict, with tempers flaring up and both of us defending our positions, rather became a moment of trust and support. Be kind. Instead of making up your mind about someone too quickly, try to be patient, allow them their moments, look deeper, and understand that we are all constantly battling rough seas, doing our individual best on a daily basis to not drown while navigating the waves.
Backstage, as everywhere, what we need most is mutual respect, a good sense of humor, the ability to not take ourselves too seriously and, I can’t say it enough: kindness, kindness, and… you might guess already… kindness.
We are collaborating to present a product which is supposed to touch people’s lives. We aim to rock the stage and deliver a show which will make our audiences forget the burden of their existence for an hour or two. How sad would it be if we were to deliver something so magical without manifesting those same ideals in our working life together backstage?