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#106 The fourth wall
The fourth wall is a theatrical concept that refers to an imaginary barrier separating actors from the audience. It acts as an invisible window through which the audience observes the on-stage action. In plays that respect the fourth wall, there is no interaction between the audience and the stage.
Throughout most of theater history, the fourth wall didn't exist. Actors performing Shakespeare's plays in the Globe Theatre were surrounded by the audience on three sides, fostering a strong connection and interaction between players and spectators. In ancient Greece's semi-circular theaters, actors engaged in dialogue with the audience. The Italian commedia dell'arte took place in public squares and marketplaces, making the fourth wall impossible due to improvisation and direct engagement.
The fourth wall serves as a narrative device that allows the audience to observe a story while maintaining a sense of detachment. However, it can also be intentionally broken for great effect. Ibsen, for example, repeatedly breaks the fourth wall in plays such as "A Doll's House" and "Hedda Gabler," with characters like Nora and Hedda confiding their innermost thoughts to the audience, drawing them into the play's societal critiques.
While I'm neither an actor nor a playwright, I encounter the fourth wall when giving public lectures or presentations. Although I should attribute my inspiration for breaking it down to Ibsen, I must confess that another source inspired me to do so whenever possible.
Just the other week, after watching a two-hour documentary about this person, I recalled a TED talk I had seen around fifteen years ago by Tony Robbins. It took some endurance to tolerate the outdated fashion and rambling monologue of the early 2000s, but eventually, Tony reached a point that taught me a great deal about public speaking.
Tony starts his speech:
"But when you ask people why they didn't achieve something, whether it's someone working for you, a partner, or even yourself, what reasons do they give? Lack of knowledge, money, time, or technology. They might say, 'I didn't have the right manager...'"
Suddenly, Al Gore interjects: "the Supreme Court."
Laughter erupts. Tony leaps off the stage, gives Al Gore a high-five, and shatters the fourth wall. In that instant, the talk is transformed. Tony engages in banter with Al Gore, finds his footing, and delivers the kind of talk that made me attend TED conferences in the hopes of experiencing it live.
When I first watched this talk, I had two questions. First, how can one be so comfortable in interacting with an audience? Second, how can these spontaneous interactions add so much value to a presentation? Later, I realized that these questions were essentially the same: How can I collaborate with the audience to create a valuable, collective experience? It has become my guiding principle when giving a talk—no fourth wall, leveraging the wisdom of the audience.
I watched the Tony Robbins documentary titled "Tony Robbins: I'm Not Your Guru" to learn more about his approach. While I don't claim to have an expert perspective, three key ideas stand out to describe his success: thorough preparation, trust in the abilities of the audience, and extensive experience specific to the context.
After nearly a year in my new job, I recently delivered my first significant public lecture, along with several internal presentations (including one for 350 colleagues) and workshops. Overall, I wasn't entirely satisfied with my ability to break the fourth wall, yet. Perhaps it's due to my lack of extensive experience in the specific context. I ought to get better at this again, soon.
There's a larger narrative surrounding the fourth wall, one that I've touched upon in nearly all of my public performances. I subscribe to the belief that everything we do is a form of performance. Consequently, there exist numerous fourth walls—invisible divisions between different entities. They can be found between government and the private sector, or between companies A and B. While these walls serve their purpose, there are benefits to breaking them down, both as a narrative device and to make sense of the challenges we face collectively.
By adequately preparing ourselves, placing trust in others, and having confidence in our own abilities, we can put on quite a show when we dismantle the fourth wall.
Wishing you a fantastic week,