Destiny and Gratitude

This group of improvisational actors and musicians bring stories to life.

This group of improvisational actors and musicians bring stories to life.

I’ve never really bought into the whole idea of spirituality in terms of auras and orbs and such, but I have to admit that I had somewhat of an out-of-body experience today.

Bob Newell, who I’ve spoke and written about at length, has been on my mind all day as it was seven years ago today (1/22/2008) when I lost my dear friend and mentor. As I do every year on this sad but celebratory anniversary, I share a story about my connection to him and my hope that I’ve inherited some of his finer qualities.

This year is no different in that herein I’m writing about that connection once again – except that today, this connection took a very unexpected twist and a new direction.

I recently joined the Buffalo-Niagara chapter of the Association of Talent Development, most recently the American Society of Training & Development, at the recommendation of our county’s employee training coordinator Patti Brammer. Like my purposely reading Fast Company and other publications that have virtually nothing to do with our business of fire and emergency services, I joined ATD as an extension of my practice of looking outside “my practice” for solutions to the challenges we face in our industry.

So today I attended their monthly association meeting at Templeton Landing, a popular restaurant and event center located prominently on Buffalo’s waterfront where they hosted an interesting lunch presentation performed by Playback Theatre. As described on their web site, Playback Theatre is “based on the stories of audience members enacted on the spot, promotes the right for any voice to be heard, brings group concerns to the surface, and stimulates a dialogue by making different perspectives visible.

While that sounds like a relatively benign method of both art and communications, I initially wondered how it might apply to the association’s mission of talent development unless of course, we’re looking to develop our musical and theatrical talents. I didn’t know what to expect.

These actors are adept at using this form of improv to help companies and employees address key concerns within an organization, to teach and inspire teamwork and creativity, and to act out behaviors that demonstrate the need and solution for conflict resolution.

Their web site goes on to describe what they’re about as “performances are carried out by a team of actors, emcee (called the conductor), and musician. As the show begins, audience members respond to questions from the conductor, then watch as actors and musician create brief theatre pieces on the spot. Later, volunteers from the audience come to the stage to tell longer stories, choosing actors to play the main roles.

That last sentence of their description is where today got real interesting.

After a woman named Gina bravely shared (and the actors portrayed) her story of how a failed business and unhealthy relationship with her now-former lover and business partner transformed her into someone who now helps others transform their lives and businesses, something triggered an involuntary reaction inside that caused me to raise my hand, step forward and volunteer the connection between two stories I’ve told here at

My friend and mentor Bob Newell who started as my first instructor when I was just a new firefighter - and went on to be my employee as I came to oversee firefighter training in Erie County.

My friend and mentor Bob Newell who started as my first instructor when I was just a new firefighter – and went on to be my employee as I came to oversee firefighter training in Erie County.

I sat in a chair next to the “conductor” in front of the some 30 association members in attendance as she proceeded to ask questions that drew my story out. As Gina had mentioned mentoring and coaching a few times during her story, I started by sharing about today being the anniversary of Bob Newell‘s death and the lessons he taught me, before, during and after his passing. I spoke about Bob’s unique ability to quickly size someone up and determine if they were worth investing in. And, I talked about how Bob was very adept at making it clear as to which side of that line you stood on, but always left the door open for you to change his attitude about you.

That introduction lead into my story of how I stumbled upon a connection I’d recently made with the younger brother, Dylan, of a fire victim I rescued some 16 years ago now. As I came to the critical point of that story where I realized the connection we’d unearthed, I could see that many in the audience and even the actors were gasping, bringing their palms up to cover their faces; and in some instances, wiping tears from their eyes as they unknowingly practiced what Playback Theatre calls “deep listening.” Finishing my story, the conductor elicited even further details that would give the actors a full picture of the impact my story had on everyone who played a part in it, especially me.

Then, the three female actors, prompted by brief remarks interjected by the conductor and supported with responsive music played by a male fifth member of their group; proceeded to act out my encounter with Dylan as I discovered and revealed to him that I was the firefighter who pulled his older brother from that eventually fatal fire. The conductor briefly set the stage for my story and their act she titled: “Destiny.”

Waving, twisting and turning large bolts of different colored fabrics as their only props, they employed often exaggerated body movements, very deliberate facial expressions and a limited number of spoken words to relate each ‘act’ of: the last-in-line “introduction” between Dylan and I; the attention-getter where Dylan revealed that he wanted to be a firefighter; my horrified reaction when he shared his response to my question of why he wanted to become a firefighter; followed by my anxious inner-monologue as he described his brother’s fiery death and I verbalized the revelation that I served as his brother’s last hope for survival.

Cloaked in black fabric, one actor played Dylan’s older brother while the youngest actor played the role of Dylan, interacting with a blonde haired actress who represented my experiences and reactions as the story unfolded. I found their gestures and movements disturbing, validating and freeing all at the same time. They used just motions and emotions to finish the story of how our unsolicited bond has now grown into a friendship, a job shadow and a promise by both parties to maintain the connection regardless of what direction it takes us.

Somewhat dazed by the experience and unsure if I should apologize to the audience for inadvertently taking the program in such a deep direction, I felt drained as I stepped back to my seat at the table I shared with three other folks from businesses far different than mine. It seemed like I was in a movie scene where I was the only one moving in the space, slowly turning and taking in the whole room while everyone else seemed frozen motionless in time, their eyes focused on me. The whole experience was very surreal.

Following a hearty round of applause for the acting troupe and after a collective deep breath was drawn in and slowly exhaled across the room, the conductor thanked me for sharing my story and then asked the participants if any of them would like to share theirs.

Unable to hold back her tears or her need to share, a blond haired woman sitting at one of the front tables, Erica Swiatek*, wasn’t sure if she was even capable of sharing her personal contact with fire. Setting all reservations aside, she added that her experience was on the other end of my story – that a firefighter pulled her from a fire when she was just 3-years old. Her brother, unfortunately, couldn’t make it out or be rescued in time.

As an adult, she’s tried repeatedly to identify who the firefighter was that rescued her but has had no success. Now with tears streaming down her face, she turned and looked at me as she related how, for years she has needed to say thank you to someone who could relate to her situation, but hadn’t found the right connection.

Once again, the conductor asked a few probing questions to set the stage as the actors played out Erica’s “Gratitude” as the last solicited story of the day.

The chapter president shared that she had just invited Erica to be her guest at the meeting a few days earlier. As Erica and I shared a conversation and a hug following the conclusion of the presentation and meeting, both of us admitted that we didn’t see that connection coming. Was it destiny that we would both be there to share our glaringly related stories? I don’t know, but I can tell you that I think the whole experience – certainly not your typical association meeting of any kind – took us all by surprise. And, I’d like to think that we’re all better off for reaching a new depth.

I can’t think of a better word than ‘gratitude’ to describe the tremendous opportunities I’ve been blessed with to share my stories, to make new connections and to transform myself into someone who searches for strength, hope and survival in serving others who might rely on me to rescue them from the destiny they fear, or face.



*=Name shared with permission.

  • Tiger I just wanted to say thank you again, your write up of the event is beautiful. It was such an amazingly awesome day for me. I agree yesterday was just a wonderful day of destiny and gratitude. I hope you and everyone you work with knows how important they are to so many people. I reflected yesterday on how many bad days all of you must witness and how hard that must be. I hope your story and this experience also shows you and everyone you work with how meaningful your work is. I wouldn’t be here without you 🙂 

  • Patrice Hannotte

    Wow. What a great experience and a great re-telling of what took place. I’m happy to have had a small, supporting role.

  • Anna Kay France

    Thank you, Tiger and Erika, for your courage in sharing your astonishing stories. And our gratitude goes to Tiger and his colleagues for the courage and dedication they show every day as fire fighters. For the Playback company, this experience was powerful and deeply meaningful!

    • tiger

      Thank you Anna, Patrice and Erica –

      All of it made for one of the most memorable experiences of my career and life. In fact, as I’ve told this story to others since the Playback Theater I still find it difficult to wrap my head around all of it. Thanks for the opportunity to share.