I wasn’t sure what I could learn about the Spartan mindset from someone who puts on Broadway plays. But when I spoke to four-time Tony award-winner Jerry Zaks, I was blown away.
Zaks is the director of hit plays including The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, and musicals including Guys and Dolls, Anything Goes and Little Shop of Horrors. To make it in the theater, Zaks needed a tremendous amount of commitment, dedication, motivation and perseverance. The lessons he’s learned transcend the theater, and he has advice that works for anyone trying to succeed in any field.
I firmly believe that part of my mission is to always find the way to overcome every obstacle. Before he directed, Jerry was an actor and, like all actors, came to realize that, if the part calls for a 6’2” actor, he can’t get around the fact that he’s 5’7”. This may be one of the few areas where there are obstacles you may not be able to overcome. But Jerry’s response was to seek out the roles he could fit and make each one of those opportunities a matter of life and death. Because – to him – they were.
Zaks told me about an audition he went on early in his career as an actor. “They said do one Shakespearean piece, and then do anything else you want,” he said. “So I did a speech from Twelfth Night, and then I dropped to my knees and I sang ‘Mammy.’ Now, they’re going to remember me, because I took a chance. I took a chance because my life depended on it. And I’m not exaggerating. That’s how much that job meant to me. I wanted it as badly as Bill Belichick wanted to win the Super Bowl, or as much as Bill Parcells wanted to put together a team.
“Why do you do what you do?” Zaks asked. “You either have the desire to go for it—and even the desire is no guarantee that you’re going to succeed—but it starts with how important it is to you.”
It’s not a bad thing to find someone who can help keep you motivated, Zaks said. “You need someone with the guts to tell you that when you think you’re doing enough, you’re not doing enough. You could be working harder. And remember that nobody owes you anything. If you can just remember that, then you’ll never take anything for granted, and you never stop working."
“And ultimately,” Zaks added, “you have to make being liked not as important as winning, as accomplishing the objective. You can’t worry about pissing people off. It’s been tough in my life, because I want to be liked, you know? I like people to like me. But I’m working on a bunch of new shows now. And what you have to do is protect the possibility of a happy ending for as long as possible. And my happy ending is the success of a production.”
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Zaks says one of the hottest stars on Broadway today is a great example of the kind of dedication a person needs to succeed. “Look at the guy who wrote the musical Hamilton, Lin-Manual Miranda,” Zaks said. “He wrote the book, he wrote the music, and he’s starring in it. But it took him years. It’s just commitment.”
Zaks is the son of Holocaust survivors; his mother was at Auschwitz. He said that his parents had a “ferocious will to live,” but, as a child, scared him to death that there was a Nazi around every corner. Holding on to their courageousness in the face of such fear and their attitude has worked well for Zaks both on and off the stage.
“I think a lot of people don’t appreciate how great it is just to be alive,” he said. “I was lucky enough to fall in love with something. I love it as much today as I did 30 years ago, and I’m still working just as hard on it.”
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