FOR COMEDIANS, there is a category of performance called “stand-up.” It requires the entertainer to stand on a bare stage, sometimes a pub or a small theater, in front of the audience barely a foot away from him. He delivers lines which he hopes the audience will reward with laughter and applause. It’s the starkest type of performance, as there aren’t even jugglers to help. There’s just the stand-up performer who knows he’s dying when people aren’t even paying attention and just sipping their latte.

Stand-up leadership too entails showing up and taking charge. Nowadays, this includes a virtual presence in a digital town hall meeting or a video post servicing the constituency, like meeting returning overseas workers at the airport or thanking businessmen for their patriotism.

Does a video recording of a speech, limited to one’s own inner circle, count as standing up, even when sitting down? Sure, the circle laughs at the right places and applauds at the relevant narrative pause, like trained seals. Everything looks staged.

“Standing up” for or against something requires showing up and being part of a physical (ok, now also virtual) crowd in front of some symbolic backdrop like a TV station or a statue at the university. Presence and visibility are a badge of courage, especially in a fraught atmosphere where dissent is attacked and trolled.

Those who cannot stand up send a stand-in. The latter allows the designated person in charge to dodge an event. The representative makes excuses for his absence — he is just working from home.

Big-name stars, when required to jump off a burning building for a movie shoot, employ doubles to do the stunts. The stand-ins (or stuntmen) protect the lead actors from possible injury so they can have the less physical job of delivering lines to seduce the ladies — I prefer to be stirred, not shaken.

Protecting an important personage from threats has also given employment to look-alikes of political figures. Ceremonial attendance of events may allow the revered one to send a stand-in, especially now that everybody wears a mask. (His forehead looks broader.)

In Kurosawa’s 1980 film, Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior), a petty thief, because of his identical physical appearance, serves as a samurai warlord’s double for staged events, like tea ceremonies. The double is eventually made to take the warlord’s place when the latter’s death in battle is at first kept secret. The thief is trained to stand in for the warlord imitating his patented moves in battle. Only when the warlord’s forces regroup and strengthen is the double “allowed to die.”

The use of a stand-in has become a necessity for the busy and in-demand VIP for conferences or weddings. Why does the exalted one need to show up when a lesser being can take his place, even as the originally billed star stays on the program?

Given the limited supply of celebrities, even counting has-beens and formerly powerful people as possible guests of honor, the odds of a special guest showing up are tilted against the event organizers. Invitations are extended months in advance. Thus, a commitment to attend is too quickly given with little thought of possible conflicts or last-minute alternatives offering better food.

The spokesperson is a different kind of stand-in. The opinions he expresses hew to the party line, if there is one. There is no pretense that he is giving a personal opinion on any topic, except what he had for lunch. When he is asked to comment on a burning issue he has not discussed with his principal, he is evasive. (Until all the facts are in, we cannot comment on this issue.)

Stand-ins are often viewed with contempt. Why isn’t the revered one here? (Is he sick?)

In theater, an announcement is sometimes made just before the show that the main role for tonight will be performed by the understudy. Now and then, the stand-in is so outstanding that she is showered with many curtain calls. What if the stand-in turns out to be a better performer than the absent one? Well, the audience will just have to vote on that one.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda