An Interview by Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine, June 13, 2021
People are creative, no matter what their job description says, and your main goal is to structure trainings and coaching sessions to elicit their creativity.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Raz.
Jeff Raz has performed nationally and internationally in circuses, including Cirque du Soleil, and in theaters from Berkeley Rep to Broadway. He has taught acting, acrobatics, and clowning around the world and was the founder and director of The Clown Conservatory at Circus Center San Francisco. His “first chapter” also included stage directing and playwriting; Jeff’s ‘second chapter features corporate communications consulting and writing three novels.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My mother went back to school to get her PhD when she was 40, flying across the country to join the demography department at UC Berkeley with my big brother and me in tow. It was 1968 and I was 10 years old.
Berkeley was nothing like Huntington, Long Island. The streets were full of protesters, national guard troops, Alameda County sheriffs and street performers. I joined the protests, avoided the police and watched the performers, from the political theater of the San Francisco Mime Troupe to the Pickle Family Jugglers, funk bands, crazy preachers and epic poets. My favorites were the long-forgotten East Bay Sharks who performed a full-length adaptation of Noah’s Ark in the middle of Sproul Plaza during a riot.
“And Noah contemplated the word of the Lord.” This was the cue for Darryl Henriques, playing the title role, to pull down his pants and sit on a mimed toilet with his bare ass facing us, the audience.
For a long time.
You can image how this inspired my twelve-year-old self.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be interested, not interesting.”
It took me many years to understand what these four words meant for someone who made a living by being interesting on stage. After all, my early example of great performing, Noah contemplating God’s word sans pants, was really interesting.
It turns out that staying interested in everything around you, especially audiences in theaters or executives in boardrooms, is a great way to be interesting. It is similar to the paradox of comedy — trying hard to be funny usually backfires while staying tuned in and connected with everyone and everything around you usually leads to good laughs.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Lifelong Learning: A guy at the Northern California Renaissance Faire taught me how to juggle three croquet balls when I was fourteen and I learned how to create routines by imitating the pros performing at the Faire. This informal start to my career gave me a love of lifelong learning and development. This was essential for starting my “second chapter” of consulting and writing novels. I was thrilled when the best-selling business author Chris Ertel said that my first book, The Secret Life of Clowns: A backstage tour of Cirque du Soleil and The Clown Conservatory, had an “emphasis on learning and development in a vivid and universal way.”
Body and Mind: I had the privilege of growing up in an academic family. Being a kinetic learner surrounded by brainiacs was not easy, but as an adult, I have used the habits of mind that I learned young in concert with the physical skills I learned from circus training. In addition, my mother, who was also a visual artist, supported my choice of a performing career and left me with a strong sense of myself as an artist.
Artistic Community: Living and working in an artistic community for over four decades has been a major factor in my success. The Bay Area has vibrant, interconnected circus, theater dance and music scenes. A life within an artistic community is very different from the “get discovered and make it” scenario that has rattled around in pop culture for generations. My community’s goal is almost always “get together and make great shows.” My latest book Love Death Circus is a novel about the San Francisco circus community creatively grappling with death.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
I celebrated my 50th birthday on tour with Cirque du Soleil, playing the lead character in the show Corteo. In the three years I worked with Corteo I did 500 performances for more than a million people in the U.S. and Japan. This gig was the cherry on top of a decades-long career in circus and theater that started with passing the hat on the streets of Berkeley and took me to Broadway, across most of the U.S. and to many countries in Europe and Asia. Between tours, I taught everyone from preschoolers to professors and ran a school for professional clowns.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
In 2009 I was in Tokyo doing my final stint with Cirque du Soleil while running The Clown Conservatory out of my laptop. Late one night I opened an email from a teacher in my school that unsparingly panned a student’s work. This was not an uncommon occurrence on our faculty listserv; unfortunately, this email was accidentally sent on the student listserv. Our budget was so tight that if this misdirected email caused even one student to quit, it would close the Conservatory.
A few hours later, I sent a carefully crafted note to the entire school. It worked. No one quit and the student who was panned even thanked the teacher for his “honest feedback.”
Another Conservatory teacher forwarded my email to a mutual friend who was running a small consulting business. My colleague suggested that anyone who could save a school with one email would make a good communications consultant. The timing was perfect since this mutual friend was starting to move his business into a second chapter, expanding from a mom-and-pop outfit to a global consulting firm. We started working together and my second chapter helped his firm move into its second chapter.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
My children, who were four and nine when I went on tour with Cirque du Soleil, were a main reason I made the transition from performer to communications consultant. They loved getting to visit my traveling, multilingual village of performers, technicians, concessionaires, teachers and tour staff but I was gone most of the time. To keep my family together, I needed to travel less and still make enough money to give my boys good lives and educations.
And I was restless after doing the same show 500 times. Later, when I got into my consulting career, I realized that the work challenged many of my assumptions about “suits” and the corporate world as a whole, giving me a chance for more lifelong learning.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
There was a new skillset that I needed to learn to be a consultant and…most of the value I bring to my current clients comes from skills I developed as a performing and teaching artist. The barriers I had to overcome were, first, realizing that my theater skills were not just welcome but strongly valued in a corporate setting and then figuring out how to adapt them to this new audience.
For example, I learned a game called “1,2,3” from Augusto Boal, a pioneer of theater for social change. I have taught “1,2,3” to actors, clowns, acrobats, dancers and school children. It starts with two people facing each other counting to three — person A says “one,” person B says “two,” person A says “three,” person B says “one” and they keep going. Easy. Except that almost every pair messes up — someone says the wrong number or says “four” or they just stall out.
The debrief of this first round usually focuses on staying connected with your partner and being present in the moment. This is relevant to most people, including (especially?) executives. As with many of Boal’s games, “1,2,3” reveals many layers as you teach and play it. With dancers, I have asked the pairs to move, to improvise a simple choreography while counting; with actors, the pairs create emotional scenes while still using only the words “one,” “two” and “three,” and I have asked clowns to turn the three words into three repeated actions. As a consultant, I’ve done all of the above with executives, depending on who they are, what their business goals are and what obstacles they need to overcome.
Very often, an activity or concept from the performing world becomes relevant and valuable in the corporate world by simply framing it to fit their needs at the beginning and then debriefing it in relationship to the participants’ day to day work.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
On March 16, 2020, as the world closed down in reaction to the COVID pandemic, all of my consulting work disappeared.
After sending a lot of emails to former clients, I got a note from the head of a business school in Switzerland saying that they had lost all their students but instead of stepping back to reassess, they were aggressively developing their on-line presence with classes, webinars, panel discussions, etc. Their goal was to come out of the pandemic with two strong lines of business, one live and one virtual. Would I be interested in helping them?
Within a few weeks, I was in my home office on Zoom calls in the morning with European business schools, in the middle of the day with U.S. clients and my evenings were spent in Manila having lunch with the faculty of a management school. The family bills were getting paid while I was working with brilliant people and learning a lot about teaching, coaching and consulting in the virtual world.
Those early months of the lockdown gave me the tools I’ve needed to help many other clients in virtual trainings and one-on-one coaching sessions. Now I’m working with folks around the world on creatively and effectively blending virtual and live communications.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I was first expanding my career to include theater as well as circus, Jael Weisman came over to my apartment three times a week to help me work on audition monologues. He would coach me on acting for 90 minutes and then we’d go over to Dolores Park so I could help him with his juggling. These informal sessions taught me a whole lot about acting; they also taught me about lifelong learning as I watched a well-established director happily taking tips from me, his student.
Since then, Jael has directed me in ten plays, two of which we co-wrote. I learned the fundamentals of playwriting and stage directing from working with Jael. One of his core concepts for directing has also served me well in my consulting work, “In rehearsal, be an audience of one.” This means watching and listening to your actors, or your clients, with the eyes and ears of the audience they are preparing to step in front of. This mindset allows a director or a consultant to give clear, actionable feedback without veering off into a cloud of theory and abstract concepts.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Early in my “second chapter” I flew to Richardson, Texas to lead a two-day session with a dozen computer engineers. Most of them were bigger than me (I am not a small man) and they sat in a semicircle wearing Texas-sized cowboy hats — an intimating sight for a newbie consultant. At the first break, a couple of them took me aside and said, “We’ve decided you can stay. The last consultant they brought in was gone in an hour. We told our boss to call the guy a cab and then we walked out.”
Luckily, my early years performing on the street taught me the value of winning over tough crowds. The Dirty Dozen and I had a great two days together.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
When I started leading training sessions, the new challenges that every client offered exhilarated me and it was exciting get to know my “audiences” in depth, to have time to find out about them as individuals. But I didn’t get really good at communications consulting until I used some of the techniques I was teaching on myself.
“I should be on stage, in costume and make-up, not in a boardroom wearing a suit and tie. I don’t really belong here.”
This was the belief I need to change if I wanted to do my job well. It took a while but eventually I flipped it to:
“Because I come from the stage, I can bring new skills, new ideas and new ways of communicating to boardrooms around the world. I belong right here.”
This new belief allowed me to get comfortable in my role and talk with clients about my performing work, translating what I learned from that career into valuable ideas for their careers.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
My first supporters were my colleagues, the other performers-turned-consultants whom I worked with to help leaders around the world become better communicators. We shared everything from client insights to jet-lag cures and wardrobe tips. After every consulting session, we sat down to tell each other what worked well and then give recommendations on how to get better. Since we did this with respect and kindness, our skills grew quickly.
After I started building my own book of business, my clients became a second support group. Getting to know them, their business goals and the specific communication needs of their teams was an intimate exploration. Over the years, many have become friends.
Early in the pandemic I realized that the participants in my virtual training sessions and the folks I was coaching one-to-one on Zoom were keeping me energized and sane. They were my link to the outside world during the long lockdown. Thinking back over the decade before COVID, I now see that the thousands of people I’ve worked with as a consultant were people with whom I shared intense, emotional and exciting times. They were my third support system, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
“Don’t get out of your comfort zone; make your comfort zone bigger.” This is a favorite quote from my friend and teacher Avner Eisenberg.
A few years ago, I realized that I needed to expand my comfort zone because I was thinking about my corporate clients differently than the performers I worked with. In my mind, performers were my people; they thought like me and were creative like me. They were in my comfort zone. On the other hand, my corporate clients lived and worked in a strange, uncreative world full of Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides, well out of my comfort zone.
In reality, most of my corporate clients are very creative and some even have arts backgrounds. And most professional artists spend a lot of time running their businesses.
Expanding my comfort zone to include everyone I work with, actively looking for the creativity and deep humanity in people no matter what they do, has made my life richer and all my work better.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I am a leader in my work, although I haven’t led a consulting organization, yet. Here are five things I wish someone had told me eleven years ago when I started my second chapter:
- “The thing you are trying to hide, that you’re a circus clown, is exactly the thing that makes you good at this job.”
- “People are creative, no matter what their job description says, and your main goal is to structure trainings and coaching sessions to elicit their creativity.”
- “You will need to teach executives many of the same things you used to teach grade school kids because art education has been severely cut for generations.”
- “Everyone is wearing costumes and you still need to wear one, too, only now you won’t have a costume department to make it for you.”
- “Fall in love with your clients, all of them, especially the ones who you don’t like.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
A movement that uses clowning, improv and leadership communication skills to…
…help people challenge their own assumptions and their own privilege.
…build people’s skills at talking with, and listening to, people who are different politically, religiously and culturally.
…give scientists the tools to share what they know with the rest of us clearly, accurately and with joy.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
I’d invite Stacey Abrams and her political partner Lauren Groh-Wargo. They have spent the last decade talking with people, particularly in Georgia, inspiring them to actively help shape the future. They have made major changes in America by being great organizers and communicators. I would love to hear them talk about the details, the day-to-day of what they did, and are still doing, to help this country be a better place for everyone.