Confessions from a Reluctant Leading Lady (part 3)

This is the last part of my series of confessions and the lessons I’ve learned (so far). If you missed Part 1, or Part 2, just click on the links. After getting cast in one of my dream roles, I went through a roller coaster of emotions about what it meant to lead a show. With curtain weeks away, I’ve summarized what I’m learning from this process into lessons that I hope you can use – whether you’re an actor, an entrepreneur with a business to run, or a leader running a team for a company.

Here, I want to talk about energy, teamwork and learning to embrace the spotlight, even when you don’t want to.

Lesson Four: Learning to Love My Voice

Photo Credit: Flickr, Marco Arment

Photo Credit: Flickr, Marco Arment

I’ve asked more from myself during this process than anything else I have ever done. In addition to rehearsing twice a week, I’m practicing with a singing coach and on my own. There are the character explorations I do with my cast mates, and later, at home.

And then there are the VO auditions and gigs. There are acting projects that require singing. Plus the regular conversations from everyday life. It feels like I am spending most of my waking hours vocalizing in some way, shape or form.

My relationship to music and words is deepening. Instead of taking for granted that I know the music, or the part, I find myself examining my songs note by note and word by word. I’m re-learning the relationships between the notes so they become almost automatic and as precise as possible. As a voice actor, words have always been important to me, but now, as I match note to word to story, I want to be able to communicate it on a different level.

As the weeks and months of rehearsal go by, I find myself practicing even more “radical” self-care than I would have in the past. Taking as much quiet time as possible. Avoiding alcohol and dairy. Using steam and a neti pot to keep my vocal and nasal passages healthy and clear. And not yelling (as much) during my running practices when we tend to yell things to encourage one another on my marathon team. I’m learning to say no to the conversations that don’t matter, and still have time for the people who do.


"And I didn't die!" Photo Credit: Ratana

“And I didn’t die!” Photo Credit: Ratana

I took up swimming – in part because it was a fear of mine, but also, to help build lung capacity for the amount of singing I’m doing. And I’m sticking as closely as possible to my workout schedule to keep my body healthy and flexible.

The Lesson for Leading Your Business: Manage Energy, not Time.

Something I learned years ago is that you can manage time or you can manage energy. The way you manage energy is through your health, and the choices you make with your time. As you’re growing a business, it’s so easy to pour yourself into it, 24/7. The downside is that you are always exhausted. Always playing catch up. Maybe always cranky (I was).

Sometimes the best thing to do is let the body rest. And to give yourself the energy you need to do the work: from the food you put into your body, to the exercise you do to stay healthy (and for me, sane), and the sleep you get (or make yourself get). And then put in place a process that allows you to generate the energy you need to lead your team and also let your body recover from that activity.

Lesson Five: Leading the Team is about the Team

Photo Credit: Vanessa A.A.

Photo Credit: Vanessa A.A.

I’ve spent a lot of time in and outside of rehearsal trying to cultivate relationships with my cast mates. One, because they are lovely and talented people I genuinely enjoy being around. Two, because it helps my character relate to their character on stage.

We’ve had many a post-rehearsal late night conversation at this point. Sometimes we talk about the show and our characters, sometimes we talk about life, other times we crack jokes and burst into song. As a result, when we play on stage, I feel that bond too.

Now, as I told one cast mate, if the director said: “You throw Ratana across the stage,” I would be fine with that – because I trust him to do so in a way that keeps me physically safe but serves the story well.

The Lesson for Leading your Business: Relationships = Trust

As a leader in your business, you need to know your team, too. Not just what they do – but who they are and why they do what they do. You forge connections and understanding this way. And you build trust.

When you know your team, you know their strengths and weaknesses, you know where they will shine and what they need to work on. And you can help cultivate those strengths and shore up the weaker points. You will trust your team to get the work done, and they will trust you to lead.

But hopefully you never have to do (another) one of these to form those bonds.


The classic b-school ropes course. Photo Credit: Flickr, Living-Learning Programs

The classic b-school ropes course. Photo Credit: Flickr, Living-Learning Programs

Lesson Six: Holding the Spotlight / Standing Still

As an improviser, I’m used to being on stage. Sometimes I’m the central character, sometimes I’m the bit player who moves the story along. As a businessperson, I’ve presented on hundreds of different stages in so many different ways. As an actor, I’m used to playing the role of side kick, best friend, supporting character on the margins.


And yet, I hadn’t played a lead. All of a sudden, I find myself front and center for different reasons – opening numbers, closing numbers. All alone on stage. On stage with various characters. And I was uncomfortable with it. With the spotlight. Because I had never been given it before, and I never thought to ask for it, or take it for myself. (Maybe it’s the Asian upbringing; sometimes I’m just too polite for my own good.)

Rehearsal for Once on this Island. Photo Credit: Allison Sundman

Rehearsal for Once on this Island. That’s me front & center in purple. Photo Credit: Allison Sundman

As a voice actor, I know how to hold space and be silent. Mostly because if I make noise while moving, it will get caught on mic. 🙂 I’m very patient in the booth, regardless of the type of direction I receive, or how I’m feeling in the moment. But I’m not worried if people are staring at me, because I’m just a disembodied voice in a closet.

In my business life, leading means doing much of the time. We also value the “team player.” “There is no I in TEAM” and all that. I spent hours and weeks and months orchestrating groups of people with different agendas: making sure that engineering and operations and design and legal all agree and get a product that makes sales and marketing happy.

Coaching executives and artists is largely about listening, but also ensuring that my clients do their homework to ensure their businesses and brands get built. It’s about running the back end of that business – the networking, the following up, the hustle. But there is no spotlight. A coach stands on the sidelines and cheers her team onto victory. She does not run on the field to play the game with them as the starting quarterback.

And yet here I am, on the field. With a giant light shining down on me. And I finally understood what the song “This Little Light of Mine” meant. Accepting the spotlight isn’t about ego. It’s not about “Me.” It’s about holding space.

By holding my place on stage, in the spotlight front and center, I’m also making space. There is space for my cast mates to play their parts, to do the work they need to do to advance the story. There is space for the music, the dancing, the props and the sets. And there is space for the audience to be invited into the story we’re creating together on stage. There is space for magic.

The show is about my character but it isn’t about me. It’s about what we are creating together, and weaving together a compelling story for our audience.

The Lesson for Leading your Business:

What does this mean for you? Sometimes the best way to lead is just to stand still. To listen. To hold focus and be present. In the light.
Have you ever been the “reluctant leader” in your life or work? I’d love to hear what the situation was, and what you learned from it. Share in the comments below.

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  1. Confessions from a Reluctant Leading Lady (part 2) | Ratana - September 25, 2016

    […] Coming up… Part 3: On energy, the “trust fall” and being uncomfortable […]

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