Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Art of Performance

About a year ago, Steve Mitchell said he'd like to create a different kind of writing workshop based on my voice teaching method. Crazy idea, I thought. How do we bring singing and writing together? 

Not so crazy, as it turned out. Because I knew a lot about how the body and central nervous system worked, and that was what Steve thought writers were missing. That they were stuck in their heads. 
So we've been leading some writing workshops and writing about "Writing from Experience." From that "experience," I've realized more deeply how all the arts are allied.

Consequently I'm reactivating this blog with an article that was originally posted in Community Arts Cafe.


Performance is not often recognized as a craft that, like any other art form, can be learned and practiced.  The theory, even in some of the most prestigious conservatories, seems to be that if we sing well, or act or dance or play an instrument well, those skills produce good performances.
After I began to teach voice, I found that that theory was dead wrong–in fact, the opposite was true.  If we perform well, our audiences don’t care how well we sing, or act or dance or play an instrument.  Leonard Cohen’s vocal technique is wretched, but when he puts out a new recording he gets the front page of Rolling Stone and the Sunday Arts Section of The New York Times.
Nor do we judge the value of the performance by the material being performed. A few months ago I saw an historical play in which a young actress had been given a series of sentences that began with “In 1864, . . .” “In 1892,. . .” and on and on, for nearly a dozen lines.  Boring?  No, her performance was so good that, when I spoke to her afterward, I used a version of that hackneyed phrase, “You could have recited the telephone book and I would have loved it.” 
So, if effective performance has little to do with either artistic technique or material, what is it?
Performance is communication.  We are performing in every interaction we have with another person or persons.  We assume a role appropriate for the “audience”–an employee role for our boss, a parental role for our children; we use a voice and language appropriate for the setting–loud and perhaps profane at a local bar, dignified whispers at a funeral; we convey factual and emotional information appropriate for the situation–perhaps more emotion than fact in a lover’s quarrel and more fact than emotion in a political speech.
Artistic performance uses all those components of communication, but in heightened form.  Our audiences have spent time and money to have an experience greater than their day-to-day existence. The role or persona that we create for the stage must, therefore, be larger than any other role we ordinarily play, larger than the audience.  The intensity of any emotion must be deeper, using the entire body.  We must own the room, fill it with our energy, even before we walk on stage.  We must believe that we are stars, and we must walk and act like a star every moment that we’re on stage.
  How artistic performance differs from other forms of communication is in the level of responsibility that the performer must accept.  In our daily interactions we expect that a boss or a lover will take responsibility for their side of the exchange, but when we are on stage we are in charge of what happens between us and the audience. 
When people collect into a group, or audience, they give up some of their individual armor.  In return for a sense of togetherness, they become more vulnerable.  They want and need a leader who will gather them up and take them into unexplored territory for an hour or two, someone whom they can trust to take care of them while they’re on that journey.
If we love and care for our audiences, they will follow us. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Memory Believes

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” I’ve been pondering this quotation from Light in August, by William Faulkner, for days. 
Our beliefs, more than our knowledge, are what we act on, what we speak from. Our beliefs are formed by our memories, even when we’ve repressed those memories. A soldier with posttraumatic stress disorder, for example, may respond physically and mentally to a car backfiring in civilian life as if he were still on the battlefield, even though he has not yet processed battle memories. He may “know” it’s a backfire but he “believes” it’s a mortar.
What does this have to do with public speaking?
My most frequent of a client's performance is, "I don't believe you." 
If you don’t believe in what you’re saying, not only will your audience not believe what you say, they won’t remember what you say. 
And your belief has to come from a memory, a story, not merely knowledge that you memorized. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Passionate Presentations

I saw a performance Friday night by “Authoring Action.” About 30 teenagers reciting, singing, dancing the words they had authored. 
I saw tears running down the cheeks of a teenage boy rapping a poem he’d written. And I was reminded, again, of the importance of passion in our presentations.   
I hope we’re in the post-post-modern era of the arts. I hated the post-modern period, probably because I didn’t fit into it well. I didn’t enjoy self-referential, cynical, let’s-have-a-laugh-at-the-past, emotionless performances. I wanted passionate performances.
Passion isn’t fully back in fashion yet, but it may be on its way. I’ve blogged about the clues I’ve been finding in, of all places, the business world. A CEO said in an interview that he’s fortunate that he loves the business he’s in, that he’s passionate about it. The author of an essay about business journalism advised writers to tell a story, rather than trying to explain the facts. She recognizes that readers will probably not remember or understand the facts, but they will remember the story that captures the meaning of the facts.  
We can’t tell a story in our presentations unless we go deeper than the words, unless we find the story we want to tell. We can’t tell a story well unless we are drawing upon our senses–our sight, our hearing, our senses of touch, smell, and taste. Our senses produce both emotion and action, not only in us, the storytellers, but in our audiences.
Here’s one of the definitions of passion in the Oxford Universal Dictionary: “In psychology or art, any mode in which the mind is affected or acted upon . . .” 
If we are presenting our ideas from our senses, our audiences can respond from, and their minds will be affected by their senses. 
 We don’t get good at giving presentations unless we are passionate about the story we’re telling. If we are passionate about our presentations, we will get good at giving them.            
Why present any idea if we are not intending to affect the minds of our audiences? Why present without passion?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Going Too Far is Almost Enough

“That was a great exercise. Why didn’t we start with that one?”

This was a comment at the end of a workshop on “Presenting Yourself.” Made after an exercise in which I’d asked the participants to exaggerate all the presentation techniques they’d learned in the last 6 weeks. “Go too far,” I’d said, knowing after 35 years of teaching that they wouldn’t.

At some point in the process of becoming members of a functioning society, each of us has been warned “to quiet down,” “to be seen and not heard,” “don’t draw attention to yourself,” and the like. Those are the demands of the schoolroom, sometimes the family dinner table, and enforced when we’re part of many audiences. But not when we’re on stage.

There the opposite is true. No audience will be comfortable unless their leader, the performer, is larger than the audience. Unless the performer’s energy is larger, gestures wider, voice more authoritative.

Fortunately, all the workshop participants understood, after the exercise, that “going too far” was only the beginning of a good performance.        

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On Being as Big as You Need to Be

I was multi-tasking yesterday–eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, and listening to my local NPR station–when I heard familiar words. Oh, that was me I was listening to, reading an essay I'd written last fall and recorded at the station a few months ago. Although I had an e-mail afterward from the station asking when I could record a couple more essays, and another e-mail complimenting me on the essay's content and my "clear, beautiful voice," it wasn't a great performance.

Which is always a learning experience. Why wasn't it a 10? After I heard the playback at the recording session, I realized that I hadn't connected fully with my imaginary audience on the other side of the microphone. I had confined my energy to the tiny recording studio. I thought I had learned that lesson 50 years ago.

I didn't remember, until I began this posting, that just prior to recording I had spent 4 hours answering phones for the station's spring fund drive. And using my energy to shield myself for 4 hours from the woman across the table from me, one of the most socially inept–or actively obnoxious, take your pick–women I've ever met.

Lesson learned. Again.      

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Hook

Public speakers are encouraged to begin with a "hook," a line that will engage their listeners. I heard a speaker last week that so engaged me that I noticed several times I was leaning toward her. I have no idea what her first line–her "hook"–was. It certainly wasn't a joke, which is so often recommended. I also found myself making small noises of approval, somewhat like an "amen, sister," at a church service. I hadn't interested in her subject; in fact, I had only attended the event out of a sense of duty. So how did she get me to respond as I did? First, she was passionate about her subject, and passion is a prime communicator. Second, she involved us directly in every step: She had found a research treasure trove at the Duke library. Were any of us Duke alumni? Her research subject had lived on such-and-such a street in Raleigh. Were any of us from Raleigh? Did we know that street? Third, when she couldn't remember a name, she asked us for the name, without any embarrassment over her lapse of memory. Most important, she treated the event, not as a lecture, but as a communal gathering of intelligent people with whom she was sharing her passion.  

Friday, May 27, 2011

Stage Presence

The manager of an events venue told me this week that he'd decided that the difference between a hobbyist and a professional was stage presence. That he liked to encourage performers who were just starting out, but had begun to realize that they were never going to move up to his main floor venue if they didn't know how to communicate with their audiences. And that he saw the same problem with fine artists when he staged an art show. "They don't know how to talk to potential buyers," he said. "It's all about presence."