Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Tribal Boost

As a theatre maker, I think about group dynamics a lot. When making a show, I think about how to create a cohesive ensemble of actors and an inspiring team of designers who can all bring out the best in each other. When performing a piece, I think about how an audience behaves – what makes them decide to laugh together, to clap together or to stand together.

Humans are tribal people. We look to one another for cues about how to behave – sometimes to our detriment. I’m thinking of that experiment where the participant sees smoke but does nothing about it because the others in the room fail to acknowledge it. Tribes can be centuries old or as temporary as a room full of people and if the tribe decides there is no fire, everyone might just burn up.

Tribes of people – temporary or longstanding – have preferences, aspirations and group behaviors. They have personalities. Audiences are as individual as individuals – as any performer can tell you – and they have ways of welcoming or excluding others.

At a comedy club, for example, when a man like Louis CK turns up, the audience is usually eager to hear what he might have to say. Even now. Even after his fall. He got a standing ovation when he came out at some comedy club he turned up at recently. When a woman turns up to do some comedy, the tribe is a bit skeptical. They aren’t primed to hear her. They might even be actively hostile.

I started to think about this while reading Deborah Francis White’s book, The Guilty Feminist. She talked about how Louis CK thrives in an environment that was built for him and others like him. And she’s noticed that the tribal energy at tapings of her podcast is sometimes the opposite. Her audience is mostly female and feminist so when a man turns up onstage – the audience gets a little wary. The room gets an atmosphere of “All right…we’ll hear you out, white man.” And what is interesting is that some men respond to that skepticism – perhaps the first they have ever really encountered – by getting smaller, maybe even with some nervous sputtering. (Very like a woman on an all male panel, she says.)

There’s an exercise we theatre educators often use to illustrate status that involves the players holding a playing card to their forehead that they can’t see and then trying to work out where in the hierarchy they stand by how they are treated. Kings work out that they are Kings rather quickly.

In addition to teaching differences in behavior of a King and a Two, this exercise shows how the status of a person really comes from the behavior of the world looking at them. Treat a King like a King and he becomes a King. But a Two who tries to become like a King will always be put in their place by the tribe, no matter how hard they try.

The thing is, when it comes to leadership, the world has been saying to women, “It’s up to you! Lean in! Be more confident!” The world looks at women as Twos but yells at us to be like Kings. The change is in us, the world says. But really – the change needs to happen in the tribe. The group needs to treat women like Kings instead of Twos.

For so long, tribes have cleared the way for men, have treated so many as though they were potential kings. It feels as though when a man turns up to lead, the climate of a room tends to say, “Yes! He’s here! Let’s make sure he has a place to sit and a nice megaphone and good lighting. I can’t WAIT to hear what he has to say!”

When a woman turns up to lead, arms cross, eyes narrow and the climate of the room says, “Well, we’ll give her a chance, I suppose. We’ll see what she has to say. Maybe she’ll be able to find a place to sit. Maybe she’ll be able to be heard over this din.” And some women stride right in, make space for themselves and get themselves heard and seen without too much fuss.

As someone with an interest in leading, I have always had trouble with this. If I come into a room and feel that no one wants me there or wants to hear what I have to say, I’m much more inclined to turn around and find another room than to stay in that one to fight it out. I’m really only interested in leading when I have a room full of yes. I’ve never been too keen to try and convince a room that thinks I’m a Two that I am really a King, or even just, like, a Nine.

I’m seeing now what a fight it has always been to lead. To have to convince everyone of my right to be there before I even begin is more work than I am willing to do anymore. And what is making me furious now is to see how, for so many men, the mantle of authority is just given to them even if they don’t want it or deserve it.

It starts so young, too. In schools, I’ve seen groups of riled up children get instantly calm when a man walks into their classroom. Triple that effect if he’s wearing a tie. And that effect magnifies over time. And I think it is how we’ve ended up with this horrible political situation – and the slowly awakening realization of this bias is what’s slowly shifting it. As a tribe, we have to examine who we clear space for and who we challenge, who we defer to and who we are skeptical of. Sure – internalized misogyny has been a factor but it is also a lifetime of patterns that our tribes repeat and repeat.

In her book, Deborah Frances White shares an anecdote about driving. She’d heard that London drivers were aggressive but when she drove her employer’s SUV for the first time, she experienced everyone getting out of her way. She thought, from this experience, that London drivers were extremely polite.

Then she drove a small VW Golf. She discovered that, previously, her way had been cleared because of the large vehicle she’d been driving. People had been getting out of her way due to her barreling through the roads in a big car not because they wanted to. As she puts it: “I thought everyone else was polite. Turns out, I’m an arsehole.” She makes the analogy that this is how privilege works – the “arseholes” don’t know they’re being “arseholes” – they think that others are just polite and they think they’re being polite too.

This is the thing – the SUV’s way is always clear and the little VW is always trying to squeeze in where it can. To create a sense of balance, we probably need to treat VWs like SUVs an occasion. We need to treat Twos like Kings. We need to shift the group dynamics to open up and welcome the people who have had to fight for their place.

The group endows the leader with their power or their lack of power. The group sets the tone of welcome someone with an enthusiastic yes or a skeptical no – or even just a qualified skeptical yes. Western ideology always credits the leader with changing the group but I think it’s rather the reverse. The group changes the leader. The leader becomes who they are and leads how they lead because of the group. There are a lot of interesting examples of this in the American political landscape at the moment. Donny Twimp just repeats the lines his audience likes. He explained that’s how “drain the swamp” became a thing. The people in front of him liked it so it caught on.

No way was cleared for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before she started but she famously wore out her shoes clearing a way for herself. And now, she is challenged at every turn. But simultaneously, those who elected her and admire and support her, buoy her up with our enthusiastic yes. That helps her negotiate all the SUVS that Republicans keep trying to park in front of her.

But American politics aside, this is all happening on micro levels as well. There are rooms women are welcome in and those we are not and no one needs to say anything for us to feel the difference. In theatres, for example, women are welcome as ingénues and chorus girls but not as leaders. (Actual thing said by an Artistic Director to some writers I know: “Oh, we don’t hire women directors. They can’t hold the room.”)

If we want to make changes, we’re going to have to bring our enthusiastic welcomes to women, especially in rooms where they have previously been met with hostility. If you’re an airline – maybe roll out the red carpet for your lady pilots. Throw them parties. I don’t know. And actually more than special treatment, women (and other people who find themselves less welcome) just need the group to have faith and confidence in them, to uncross their arms and smile and expect to be dazzled.

Having my leadership questioned and challenged at every turn in my graduate program for directing made me question my skill and has made all subsequent leading fraught with self doubt. Having been, frankly, a little bit traumatized by the tribe, I have found it harder to feel any subsequent group’s welcome, harder to distinguish what is actually a challenge to my leadership and what is just the usual workings of a tribe trying to figure something out. This is still a factor in everything I do now and led to my, more or less, giving up directing. I’m guessing that we lose a lot of women (and trans and non-binary) leaders this way.

But the group could turn it around I think. The group is powerful. The group can say “yes” enthusiastically if it wants and carry its leaders ahead. The group can welcome new leaders together, new voices, new ideas. The group can lift up all the previously under supported, under appreciated, under heard people and make a more equitable world. And it can get everyone out of a burning building when someone smells smoke, too. If the people around you don’t believe you when you smell smoke, or they aren’t lifting each other up, maybe start looking for a new tribe or even just a new audience with which to watch a show. And help that tribe give a boost to someone who needs it. It could change everything.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.


Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of February for the second album, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here:

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