The GetFive Blog

Meet a Fellow Member: Peter Webb -- Distinguished Stage Director and Writer Teaches Presentation Skills

October 14, 2013

By John Karle, journalist

Peter Webb

If Peter Webb’s life has at times been a soap opera, it’s also been a musical comedy, a drama, and a traditional opera. Sometimes simultaneously. For more than three decades, Webb has been a successful writer and director for the stage and television—including as a writer for the long-running soap operas Another World and As The World Turns.

But these days, Webb is excited to be raising the curtain on a new phase of his career: as a public speaking coach and media trainer for non-performers—executives, lawyers, authors on book tours—professionals of all types who need guidance on how to present themselves to an audience.

“Many of the communication skills that I’ve been coaching actors on for three decades are the same, or similar, to those needed by non-actors in the business arena, whether they’re giving a presentation, or speaking at another sort of event,” says Webb.

For clients, working with Webb offers a rare opportunity to be coached by a distinguished stage director, script writer, and editor.

But what now seems a logical career shift initially surprised Webb, when the idea emerged from his experience at the Five O’Clock Club.

“The Five O’Clock Club helped me see how skills that seem very narrow have broader applications,” he says. “I saw a common thread running through my career, which was teaching performers, as individuals, how to effectively and authentically communicate to an audience. I discovered that the same skills would be of benefit to a another group, who need it just as much, just in a different context.”

For presentation skills clients, working with Webb offers a rare opportunity to be coached by a distinguished stage director, script writer, and editor.

Bringing divas to schools

Peter's Emmy nomination for "As The World Turns."

Webb’s career began in 1976, when he arrived in New York City, a Philadelphia native fresh from receiving an MFA in Stage Directing at Tulane University. His first job was with the New York City Opera, where he produced operas like The Barber of Saville and La Boheme for schools around the tri-state area, including in disadvantaged neighborhoods such as Harlem and East Harlem. Webb brought not only the sets and costumes, but also had to persuade New York City Opera divas to trek to sometimes distant or under-funded high schools and middle schools.

Presenting opera to kids was a daunting challenge but Webb describes them as an appreciative audience. “It was a wonderful experience,” he recalls. “I was in my late twenties, just out of grad school, and the kids really got into the performances, and we had a great time.”

Over the next three decades Webb directed and wrote musical theater on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and for regional and international productions, often juggling several projects at once. In 1990 he began a decade of writing for television soap operas, leading to an Emmy nomination for his work on As the World Turns. He also co-wrote “Splendora,” a musical based on a 1978 novel of the same name by Edward Swift, which takes place in a fictitious east Texas town of the novel’s title. The story, which revolves around a case of very mistaken identity, won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Production Award and earned two Drama Desk nominations for its score. The show, wrote The New York Times, “is a brave new musical…a most remarkable show.” The play was produced off-Broadway in 1995 and again five years later.

Throughout his career, Webb has directed over 30 operas and musicals. As a director and writer, he has coached, conceived, and directed solo performance pieces for noted film, television, and Tony-nominated stage personalities.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing people in a very personal way, and that’s been very satisfying to me,” Webb reflects.

 Throughout his career, Webb has directed over 30 operas and musicals. As a director and writer, he has coached, conceived, and directed solo performance pieces for noted film, television, and Tony-nominated stage personalities.

‘Another arrow in my quiver’

But in recent years, Webb found that plum directing opportunities were becoming scarcer, and soap operas were becoming a dying breed (Another World went off the air in 1999; As The World Turns was cancelled in 2010). Webb, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, came to the Five O’Clock Club in 2011 seeking new avenues for his skills.

He already knew of the Club and of its research-based methodology through his wife of 37 years, Pat Galloway, a Club member who has had a long career in human resources at major talent agencies. Still, Webb did approach the club with apprehension.

“It's never easy to adjust your life course, and it doesn't get easier as the years go by,” says Webb, who is 63. “My biggest fear was that it would be a program that would lead me away from my proven skills and the world I knew.  In fact, the club did just the opposite and gave me an entirely new way to appreciate my skills and how I might put them to use in a broader context.”

Webb began attending the Club’s group meetings and had sessions with his coach. He found the Club’s Seven Stories Exercise, which asks Club members to identify seven of their most important enjoyable accomplishments, particularly helpful in locating what linked his varied professional and personal successes.

“This notion of the seven stories is an excellent tool and was very helpful to me,” remarks Webb. “When I went back and read them, I found

Rodgers prize
An award from The National Academy of Arts and Letters

the common thread of my work was personal interaction, one-on-one, showing how people can communicate their message, their thoughts, most clearly and with the greatest authenticity.”

Asked what he considers among the most important lessons for public speaking, Webb replies with a surprisingly simple answer: correct breathing.

“I tell people that the most simple thing, but the core thing, is about breathing. If you take that moment before you begin and focus with your breath, your breath will help you focus your mind.”

Webb also advises that speakers prepare a script for themselves in whatever format is best for them, and rehearse it. He adds, “it’s not just for beginners, it’s for everyone.”

Peter applies stage skills to presentation skills: the basics are the same -- and very powerful.

These sorts of stage skills, Webb notes, are the powerful tools he brings to non-actors. Moreover, the line between performers and business professionals has been increasingly blurred as corporate leaders rely on video and on digital platforms to reach their audiences. As a result, Webb says, he doesn’t see his shift of focus as a completely new profession, but rather as an extension of his career into new fields. And he believes the experience will prove a valuable addition to his own skills in the marketplace: “It will be another arrow in my quiver.”

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