The Mikado and Breaking Down the Zeroth Wall

You may have heard of the “four walls” that form the boundaries in theatre. Three walls form the backdrop of the set. The fourth wall is the invisible wall between the players and the audience, and a scene that violates this by having an actor speak to the audience is said to “break the fourth wall”.

I submit that before these four walls is the “zeroth* wall”, a virtual wall that stands between us and something we really want to do or accomplish, whether it is theatre, creating a new product –  or making a significant career transition. The wall is a mixture of inner and outer voices – critical voices from our childhood, fear, misconceptions – drawn from childhood, or from the experiences of last week.

The zeroth wall is like the Alice’s mirror. The wall is everything that *might* happen in every conceivable universe. Behind the wall, on this side, is our comfort zone. In front of the wall is everything that *will* happen, if only we have the insight and the courage to step through.

I mention insight because we cannot always see that we’re experiencing this kind of wall, because the experience is too personal, too internalized. That’s where friends, family and faith can be tremendous assets.

Running Into the Zeroth Wall
For the past eight months, I have been involved as an alto the chorus in the Ottawa Savoy Society’s production of The Mikado, my first real venture into theatre. I LOVE Gilbert and Sullivan, and especially The Mikado. Even before our start date in September, and right up to our very successful four-day run in April, I ran into that zeroth wall repeatedly.

The first argument generated by the zeroth wall was perfectly concrete. I couldn’t participate in The Mikado because I was waiting for neurosurgery and the date kept changing. But the director encouraged me to audition and said we could work around my surgery.

Then I worried to myself about my overall health (I have environmental allergies and have trouble standing for extended periods; I was recruited for auditions at the chiropractor’s office!). But with treatment my allergies and my back problems have become more manageable. And my husband kept *not agreeing* with me that I would be foolish to even try.

I Step Through the Zeroth Wall
So I auditioned for the chorus and was accepted.

Off I went to the first rehearsal, where I discovered that – at least in G&S terms – I was an alto. As you know, altos don’t get to sing the melody line very often. I don’t read music. But I do learn quite quickly by ear, and 40% of the chorus was in the same boat. The music director, play director, and our fellow singers were willing to work with us.

Then it was the dancing. While I had done contra danse and Near Eastern dance, I had never done this kind of dancing, and I had done no dancing at all for some time. But the choreographer worked with us and our levels of  ability, and again, fellow participants were willing to help. By the end, all of us were helping each other get it right.

Then it was the acting (even the chorus got characters, and lines to deliver). But the director was both patient and insistent: we were to learn our lines, learn our cues, and *keep playing*.

The last set of mental arguments included technical production worries (not my concern) and fear of letting the director and the rest of the cast down (my version of stage fright). But I had learned my lines and my cues, and all of us were watching out for each other.

Over the four days we presented Mikado to the public, my brain finally switched over into “play”, and I stepped right through the zeroth wall. The director saw it, the audience saw it, and I experienced it. It was so real, people I had never met before told me afterwards that they had understood and liked my character.

The Zeroth Wall and the Job Seeker 
What does all this have to do with career transition and looking for work? Everything! The longer we have been in one place in our lives, be our homes, our roles, or our work, the more deeply they form part of our comfort zone. (That applies even if we don’t like everything about our lives, our house, our roles, and our work.) I believe that adults are not natively any better at dealing with change than are children; we have just become much more clever at avoiding change and the discomfort change brings.

The trouble with this cleverness is that it can become a trap, getting tighter and tighter (lobsters boiling in a pot). We don’t notice how unadventurous we’ve become until we try to change our environment. Then we hit the wall, and we’re just as likely as any child to scream and yell and throw a tantrum.

We can overcome any instance of the zeroth wall, the in same way following direction in a play gets us through: we learn our lines, we learn our cues, and we keep playing. As well as seeking professional direction (coaching or training) as needed to support the process, job seekers can apply all three guidelines to their work search:

  • Learn your lines
    Fine tune, know, and maintain your collateral in good order (network, resumes, online presence, interview skills)
  • Learn your cues
    Learn and use all the opportunities to market yourself, and plan and practice how to present yourself  in an interview
  • Keep playing!

Don’t let yourself be discouraged by a missed opportunity, a blown interview, something you just learned but didn’t have in your resume before – or whatever slipup you think you made. Persevere – with focus, certainly – but also with as much joy as you can muster. This preparedness and joy will communicate to others, and contribute to moving you towards the place you most want to be.

*Zeroth (pronounced “zero-eth”) is the ordinal number before “first”.  I first encountered it in one of the Isaac Asimov ‘I Robot” stories.


This entry was posted in Advice for Independents, Career change, Life, Uncategorized, Work Search/Job Search and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Mikado and Breaking Down the Zeroth Wall

  1. Kate says:

    I think the Holy Spirit has been working on coaxing me through that wall for quite some time.

    • Jennifer says:

      Isn’t amazing and wonderful how God uses our very particular and individual circumstances to patiently and continuously call each of us into being, fully and fearlessly ourselves?

  2. The same thing happened to me the first time I started a business, and the second. I’ve said occasionally that I didn’t jump, I was pushed. By the third time I was getting used to breaking the zeroth wall. That trepidation still rises, though, every time I pitch a publication I really, really want to write for, or apply for a new grant.

    Nice breakdown of the steps involved. Breaking things down into manageable bits makes it so much easier to do them.
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    • Jennifer says:

      Yes, events or a person, or both, have pushed me through. The only way through seems to be to act normally, and go a step at a time, and it becomes more of a habit. I think this is genuinely part of being a “grown-up”, something not all of us achieve.

  3. Jan says:

    Great article, Jennifer! And I like the link you make to careers.
    Thank you for an amazing performance on Friday night too –


    • Jennifer says:

      Thanks Jan. We had a wonderful director in Meredith Matthews, and a tremendously supportive cast. Everything in this life is easier when you know you have someone-or several someones in the same boat, and on the same side.

  4. Henry Troup says:

    Some while after my first layoff, I realized that being laid off had been good for me, and I should have left that particular comfort zone some time before.

    The second layoff was also actually at a time when I should have already left. I’d pretty much peaked and had gotten a bit stale.

    I guess I got kicked through the zeroth wall those times.

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