I had a really, really good high school drama teacher at one point. (I also had the world’s worst drama teacher at another point, and fellow alumni from my high school will definitely know who I’m talking about in both regards. Seriously. The latter only knew plays that were made out of movies – not the other way around – as in, where a movie had been made into a play. UGH, I could rant all day.)
Anyway – the really good teacher. He had his flaws, but he was an expert instructor. My favourite thing I ever learned from him was how to turn on and tap into what TV talent show judges now call the “it factor,” which is very closely related to what other reality TV hosts refer to as being “on.”
We were rehearsing the musical Godspell (in a public high school… how, I have no idea). Musical theatre nerds will know that it’s a quintessential ensemble show, meaning it’s basically the equivalent of TV shows like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99, where the whole point is to have this wonderful energy that comes from a group of different but equally entertaining characters (rather than a couple of “leads” and a bunch of supporting roles).
Ensemble shows are way harder than you might expect, because everyone has to be fucking ON all the time. The reason TV shows like Friends are so great (aside, obviously, from the exceptional writing) is that all the actors radiate character continuously. They’re on.
So what does that even mean – being on? The phrase gets a bad rap. People disdainfully say things like, “Oh that guy is always on,” meaning, he’s fake or disingenuous. Let’s put that meaning aside for a minute, and instead, let’s talk about being “on” meaning lit up, which is what it means for an actor. Let’s talk about the kind of being “on” that means you’re so vibrant that people are inevitably drawn to you. Let’s talk about the kind of being “on” that gives you the “it factor.”
When we were in rehearsals for this musical, our awesome teacher/director said “you’ve got to be on all the time or else you pull focus. (Meaning, the audience will look at you, not in a good way, but because you’re a downer.) You need to feel like you have a really brightly burning light in your chest, and the light is beaming out of your face, your ribcage, your back, and straight out your arms and legs through your hands and feet and out your fingertips and toes. And it doesn’t stop. If you could turn off all the lights and see it, it would go on for miles. Letting that light radiate in all directions, at all times, THAT’S being on.”
Stage presence is something that came naturally to me, so I had never really contemplated what it meant before that moment. I’d had people tell me from a young age, even though I was the queen of allll the nerds, that I had the IT FACTOR. Like, I wasn’t that girl who takes her glasses off, shakes out her hairclip, and is shockingly gorgeous. Nope, I was rocking – on the daily! – a centre part slicked into a folded-under ponytail, VERY bad glasses, and a rotating wardrobe of choir and band hoodies. But on stage, I had it. Every time. Even though I didn’t really know what “it” was.
Turns out, I was “on,” and people love “on.” When I stepped on stage to sing or act, or even when I went to the front of the class to give a presentation, I knew how to be “on.” I could feel my whole body light up and my attention zero in on the moment. I could ham it up or be quiet and moving. I could teach, persuade, or make people love me (even though, admittedly, I wasn’t always great at that offstage during my teen years). It is THE skill that helped me the most as an opera singer.
It’s also how, as it turns out, I could later in life rock any job interview, get influential people to help me without asking, and generally be surprisingly successful at just about anything I tried. People. Love. “On.”
Why? Because when you’re radiating energy, people want to lean into it. They can tell you’re in the moment and actually listening and engaging with what they’re saying. You’re fun to be around when you’re giving yourself out into the universe, because other people also want to do that. You don’t have to be the life of the party, you don’t have to be an extravert, you just have to have your little inner candle burning and let that energy of who you are light up your whole being, just like an actor does on stage.
That’s where your power comes from to have the “it factor.” When we watch a TV reality competition and the judges say someone has an “it factor,” what they really mean is that the person is letting their uniqueness shine in a way that is so compelling that we just want more of it. We want to lean in toward our TV screen and soak up everything about that person because we can fucking see it. It’s radiating out their face, their chest, their hands… We want to be in that light so we can learn more. And we love it because we also want to do the same with our own little candles.
So, practically, how do you do it? Well, first, know thy self. Stoke your inner fire every day by knowing that it is a good little fire, no matter what it looks like. Maybe you’re an adorably grumpy introvert. Girl – rock it! Look inward and say “thank you” to who you really are, deep down inside, and feel proud of the things people love about you. Then, when you’re out in the world – and, hell, even when you’re not – tap into your inner actor on stage, and light it up. See if you can think like an actor and turn the volume up on your inner self. Can you make your candle burn brighter so everyone can see it? Can you drop any curtains that you’ve put up to obscure it?
Let who you are shine out your face, out your chest, out your fingertips. Imagine it going on for miles. Make eye contact knowing people are looking for it. Listen and react earnestly, shining in your words. Show other people you.
Be on. You might be surprised where your own “it factor” takes you.