#11: Hugh Jackman's after shave ritual and getting to a state of play
How structure takes away from the serendipity of an experience
👋 Hi friends, it's Hesam with issue #11 of 4 bits. 4 bits is a biweekly newsletter where I share thoughts and musings on how to build memorable experiences.
An update about this newsletter:
🪄 I haven't shared much about the journey of starting this newsletter, but it’s been rewarding in more ways than I imagined.
💌 Aside from starting a consistent writing practice, I've been able to reconnect with friends I haven't spoken with in years (issue #7 resonated with someone and they reached out to catch up), met with former students who were curious about writing online, and called a high school friend to recount a funny story he shared (more about this below).
🤝 All to say that, if you ever want to chat, hit reply and I'll get your message. I'd love to hear from you.
Hugh Jackman's after shave ritual
My high school friend Bernardo, an actor, writer, and director, was back home in Houston a couple of years ago to visit. We met for lunch at a local bakery we used to frequent. As I asked about his career updates, he shared a funny story from his acting circles. It started with him saying something like this:
So actors… every time they get up to perform, they have to pretend like it's the first time they're doing it. Even if they've done it 92 times, the audience is seeing it for the first time.
I nodded my head. As I ate a mortadella sandwich that brought back childhood memories, I tried to maintain eye contact while simultaneously admiring how delicious the baguette was. Then Bernardo added:
You know what Hugh Jackman does to make that happen?
My mind raced as I tried to remember who Hugh Jackman was. I couldn’t stop thinking about the mortadella in my sandwich. Hugh Jackman… he was in X-Men, right? Despite my first job in high school being at a video store, it was pre-Jackman era when I worked there. I tried my best to give a convincing "yes, I know who you're talking about" nod. Bernardo leaned closer and lowered his voice.
He [Hugh Jackman] puts after shave on. He only does that right before going on stage for a performance. That's how he knows it's a special moment, man. After shave, that's his secret.
I took note of this and set it aside. Bernardo and I’s conversation drifted to other topics including how teachers can learn from actors, why telling a story is like being on a road trip with your friend, and how Bernardo prepares for a new role by interviewing people to understand a day in their shoes. We wrapped up the meal with a quick coffee and headed our separate ways.
But recently, I've been reflecting on what it's like to design an experience and deliver it over and over again. How do performers get into the right mental state to perform and do their very best every time?
I had heard about athletes, actors, and others who had designed rituals to "get their head in the game". So naturally, I texted Bernardo this week and asked:
I had a quick question about Hugh Jackman and aftershave - is there a good time to talk for 10 mins today?
A few hours later, we were on the phone, and I recounted the story he shared with me two years ago. And while he couldn't recall the conversation or Hugh Jackman's after shave regimen, he shared his thoughts on where he thinks most performers go wrong when preparing to deliver an experience.
Do rituals and structure take away from the serendipity of an experience?
Bernardo shared his perspective:
My view on having rituals has changed. It's too much structure. The goal in all creative pursuits is to be in a flow state, a state of play. You can't be hyperaware of what you're doing or what the audience is experiencing: only then are you free enough to be in a state of play. It's hard to get there while also following the exact rules and plan that you've setup. This is why I don't outline when I write. You're giving yourself too many rules to follow. You lose out on the magical discoveries that you get when you're in a state of play.
The meticulous organizer in me cringed. I began to realize the tension creators of an experience face:
How do you create enough structure for an experience to run smoothly without sacrificing serendipity?
How do you mentally prepare yourself without overthinking it?
And what happens when something unexpected happens and all your plans go out the window?
One day, my friend and I had a performance in a black box theater (a simple square room with black walls and minimal staging) in New York. The place was a dump. We get onto the stage and realize that it's covered with ants. They're EVERYWHERE. Thousands of them.
My friend and I quickly glance at each other and immediately start cursing at the ants in Spanish. This continues for 10 minutes, us reacting to these random ants on the stage. Rather than get upset that we couldn't perform what we planned, we embraced it and incorporated the ants in what we did. The audience loved it.
If they were committed to sticking to the script they had practiced over and over before, would they have been able to get into that state of play?
We’ll never know.
But when you remove structure and embrace serendipity, you create space for discovery. For the unexpected. And sometimes that’s better than a perfect plan.
So next time you're designing an experience, don't think about getting it exactly right or doing it the same way each time. You never know when a thousand ants may foil your plans.