There I stood, all 120 pounds of me, gangly arms draping out the sides of my wrestling singlet, staring down my opponent in a world championship wrestling match. 600 fellow college students sat in silence waiting for the referee to blow the whistle and for the match to begin. And there my opponent sat stoically and motionless. But of course, that’s all it could do, considering it was nothing more than a fold-out metal chair. Yes, I was about to go toe to toe against a prop found in the nearby closet, performing heavy duty wrestling moves on my inanimate enemy, such as the pile driver, helicopter, backbreaker, head butt, and highflying flying elbow crush (that one really hurt). The only question facing me at this point was: how on earth did I get here?
This wasn’t my first time on stage. I performed in an 8th grade play that was as unforgettable as the title: “The Seven Wives of Dracula”. I played a doctor, which would have come in handy later as I bruised my body wrestling a metal chair. But lack of confidence kept me off the stage for the next seven years, until facing that chair. Yet, I found myself drawn to the arts in various forms. I loved the sketch work assignments during Art Appreciation Class, tried my hand at a pottery class, experimented with the saxophone, and even won a bike as a young child for first prize in an art contest. But my shyness overruled my interest in the arts each time and I always backed away before going into the waters too deeply.
Thus, it was very strange I would say yes when asked to wrestle a chair as part of the variety show my social club put on called Cheap Thrills. I guess it was a weak moment and I decided to jump way out of my comfort zone and see how this whole “performing alone in front of a crowd” thing really worked. No safety net, no get of jail free if the skit were to flop, it was just me, a chair and a poor referee and announcer trying to keep from getting hit during the carnage.
Bottom line: I beat the chair. But more than that, I beat those fears that told me I couldn’t perform, that I wasn’t good enough, and that no one would find it entertaining if I ventured out too far on the ledge and went for broke. Strangely, people seemed to love it. Watching someone throw themselves that hard into a skit ended up with both applause, and likely a lot of head shakes at what on earth would make me do something so crazy.
This led to further skits and eventually being asked to head up the show during my senior year. I also continued to return for several years after graduation, to keep fulfilling my newfound love of live performance and comedy. I played everything from Spiderman (swinging from a rope suspended from the roof of the stage), Robin (wearing the 60’s outfit as I refused to wear the new “itchy” leather that Batman donned), Humpty Dumpty (in a giant egg suit made out of paper machete and chicken wire), and Mr. Spock (in several Star Trek parodies). But what I gained from all of this was so much more.
Performing in front of a live crowd, sometimes with skits I wrote myself, gave me many important skills that I use today in my role in public service on the city county council. It gave me confidence to stand in front of a group with no script or prompter in hand. It taught me to emote so that I could display my feelings in an engaging way with the crowd, whether the emotion was one of laugher, sadness, outrage, or just plain silliness. And it taught me empathy as I learned to read a crowd and react to how they perceived what I was doing. Live performance is not just about going through the motions that have been rehearsed in advance, it is also about reacting to how the performance is going, sometimes with ad libs or call backs to a gag that worked well earlier in the show.
All of this has made me a much better public servant. It lets me speak with confidence at a city council meeting or a town hall or in front of a news reporter with camera in hand. It has taught me to dig deep inside of me and bring out the emotions behind the legislation I feel compelled to pursue. When one is able to draw out the heart behind the words on the paper, it allows my constituents to relate better to what is being proposed. And it has taught me to be a better listener and to perceive how my words are being received. I’m far from perfect at it, but the arts have made me much more aware of how my audience is feeling, whether it is one person or a thousand.
I am happy to report that I won the wrestling match with the fold-out chair that day. And amazingly, I didn’t injure myself permanently with the flying elbow crush. But more importantly than winning the battle with the chair, I gained confidence in myself. And for that I will be forever in debt to the arts for making me who I am today.
Jeff Miller is a City-County Councilor in Indianapolis. He represents Council District 16.