Making music out of your mistakes

January 25, 2013, 5:28 PM UTC
John Angeles

FORTUNE — Imagine managing a room full of people with completely different backgrounds. Now give them trashcan lids to bang while you try to communicate. Now, also, dance.

This is a simplified version of John Angeles’ everyday challenge as part of the off-Broadway show Stomp. It is an extremely physical show — performers maneuver their bodies to create songs with mundane objects like mop handles, lighters, and plastic bags. At one point, they manage to make music with massive oil drums tied to their feet.

As nuts as that sounds, it works. But to make it work, one character called “Sarge” sets the rhythm of the entire performance. John Angeles, a 32-year-old performer with a background in drumming and music education, has been playing Sarge for one year and has been in the show for five.

It was a big transition, becoming the heartbeat of the cast. He talks to Fortune about how mistakes can make great music and how to communicate, without speaking, over cacophony.

What are your responsibilities when you play “Sarge?”

As Sarge, you set the tempos for the show and for each number. And that depends on the audience and lineup of the cast, because it’s different every night. In the 15 minutes before a show, you can feel the energy of the cast. And if it’s lethargic, I can either play to that and relax in the first number, and then we build it up through the show, or I can decide to give them a little kick in the butt and pick up the first number.

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But sometimes the audience needs to be cradled a little bit, so I’ll say, alright, we’re going to rock your minds, but we’re going to start off by introducing ourselves instead of just coming out and yelling in your face.

You were at Stomp for a while before you played Sarge. What was it like to switch into the lead?

When I first started this role, I’d say the first month, my head was pretty low. Because I couldn’t do it. Our scheduling manager made sure to put the other people who played Sarge in with me, which helped. But there were times when I was literally just playing my numbers and they were being more “Sarge.” Honestly, in the very beginning I felt pretty defeated. I felt almost more like I was just providing music, but I wasn’t necessarily connecting with the audience.

Why was connecting with the audience so difficult, at first?

In my past experience as a drummer, I was behind a band or behind an orchestra or in the marching band. But on stage, I would see people staring at me and it’s almost like you’re being judged. At first, I never looked people in the eyes. I was just looking at foreheads. And hair.

How did you overcome that?

It wasn’t until I put myself out there. I told the cast, “If I make a mistake, which I will, just come with me.” And that’s what makes it music. You need that point in the music where mistakes are probably happening, because then we have to communicate with each other and find a unified idea. It’s never going to be perfect, it’s not supposed to be. It’s just supposed to be together.

So you have to sell all your colleagues on your idea for the show?

That’s the challenge. But for me, it’s kind of a fun thing. When I run rehearsals, not only do you have to speak to people differently, to understand their knowledge of the music, but you also have to understand their personality.

These are professionals. These are talented musicians and actors and performers who don’t deserve to be talked down to in any way. Also, if you do, you’re not going to get a performance because we perform with whatever emotions we’re feeling.

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And I want to be an even better leader. The hard part about this show is projecting what I want the cast to do without saying a word.

That’s right. There’s no dialogue. Talk about non-verbal communication.

For sure. But sometimes it just takes the simple act of stepping a little bit in front of the line and playing the tempo that I want them to play, and they’ll realize they’re dirty. When I say, “dirty,” I mean not together. I always say, “establish what’s going on, adjust, and maintain.” That’s the math problem to this show. And the thing is, every single person is intelligent enough and talented enough to do that. It’s just, are they going to make the choice to do it?

Having led Stomp, would you ever take your seat behind the band again?

I definitely want to go back to playing a drum set because I don’t want drumming to be just a hobby. But having tasted what it’s like to be in front of an audience, it’s not about, “Look at me, I’m a star!” It’s about a unique experience. It’s an intimate moment that you can have all at once with that many people and it is just extremely special. It’s addicting. To feel that you can give that many people that much joy that they stand up and applaud every single night.