You Can Be Replaced

Before I found a home in Shakespeare, I did musicals for six or seven years.  By the time I was eleven, I was used to the long and late rehearsals leading up to tech week, and the longer and later rehearsals right before opening.  I knew how to behave backstage and onstage.  I knew to be prepared to deliver my part on demand at any moment, and to be hushed and still any other time.

When I and another kid began goofing off during one of those late rehearsals, we knew we were misbehaving.  We knew we shouldn’t be sliding those chairs around and giggling.  But we were bored and we were tired, and we’d stopped caring that our actions were making others miserable while they were trying to be their best.

After we ignored the director’s first two polite requests we stop, he didn’t bother being nice on the third one.  He didn’t even request we stop.  He pointed right at us and boomed out, “You can be replaced.”

We kids went dead silent.

That was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in childhood.  It didn’t matter that I’d been chosen because of talent, because I fit the role.  Even ten days from opening night, someone could be called to step into my shoes.  No one was too special, too talented, too well-liked to have bad behavior excused.  If I couldn’t conduct myself in a professional manner in a professional setting, someone else would.  I could be replaced.

It put my talents and skills in perspective–made it clear I had a responsibility to others that was just as powerful and important as any personal goal–and shaped how I approached every opportunity and leadership role I earned in the years that followed.

The practice has been used negatively against people who speak out against harmful behavior, particularly when the one speaking has less influence and/or power than the person spoken against.  I say it’s way past time it be used as intended to target the people who can’t imagine being anything but the Honored Special Thing.

Too many times, bad behavior of talented people is ignored, dismissed, or downplayed because of the mistaken belief that talent is irreplaceable.  That it’s better to indulge bad behavior than lose access to that so-precious talent.  But talent isn’t nearly as scarce as the opportunities to be recognized for it, and those indulgences end up condoning the bad behavior while tainting the talent.  It creates an environment that equates talent with bad behavior.  Add in a position of influence, and we get a set of folks who believe they are just too damned special to be held accountable.

No one is irreplaceable in a professional setting.  Talent shouldn’t be lauded while basic standards of behavior are ignored.  Longevity shouldn’t be a magical talisman to ward off criticism.  And contributions to any field shouldn’t be treated as a shield to deflect consequences.

Perhaps we’d see fewer abuses of power if my old director walked into the room, pointed to the badly behaving person, and spoke what was true.

You can be replaced.


Crossposted at These Certain Musings




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