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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It's All About The Audience

I recently joined my first Linked-In group. Speechwriters and Public Speaking Coaches (or something like that). The first post I read was from an Australian speechwriter who claimed that his people could speak at 125 words per minute, versus the usual 100 words per minute. Why? The larger our audiences, the more slowly we need to speak, and the fewer ideas we can expect them to absorb. But he didn't mention audience.

Nor has any other post, or comment, in the group mentioned audience. But what are we doing on stage if we're not communicating with our audience?

On Friday, inauguration day,  I participated in "Artists Unite! for Peace and Diversity." On stage, as part of Christina Soriano's IMPROVment participatory dance improvisation. An intergenerational, multi-ethnic group of us were to be models for the movement instructions Christina was giving the audience.

As could be expected, not everyone in the audience joined in with "Let your fingers be raindrops waking up your skin." But by the time she told us to "Let your right thumb dance with your left ankle," people throughout the theatre were laughing as they waved hands and feet. By the end of our allotted 15 minutes, every single one of us were shouting and stomping.

I had thought all my life that I couldn't dance. Reinforced in college when, after one rehearsal as a Flower Maiden in Parsifal, I was recast as a Page who was supposed to kneel (and NOT move) during Gurnemanz's long aria. And yet, there I was,  at 85, modeling dance improvisation before a couple of hundred people.

This dance project was obviously intended to involve the audience, but I've been dancing on stage for several months now. I've dared to do so is because I've learned that the intention of every performance—and every book, every painting, every play—has to be audience involvement.






Thursday, November 10, 2016

Patter

I've walked out in the middle of two musical events in the last month because of irritating patter by the performers, even though leaving one of them meant that I would miss more music by a favorite singer/songwriter.

I happened to attend both events with a friend who doesn't know a lot about music, other than what she likes, but knows a lot about theatre. (Her niece is a well-known playwright and her daughter was a theatre major.) In one case, I said, "I can't take any more of this." In the other case, my friend decided when she couldn't listen to more "babbling on and on."

Some patter is good. Your audience wants to feel they know you, so a personal line or two? Great.

Some patter is desirable, even useful. I coached a duo on a song for several weeks before I learned they'd written it in Colorado, not in the Northeast where they were performing. If they'd told me Colorado in the beginning, I would have heard (and coached) the song much differently. When Dan Dockery tells the story that inspired his "Streets of Gold," I hear much more in the song.

But why would I want to hear a singer/songwriter tell me, "I'm lazy?" (He really did say that.)  Unless I'm an idiot, when he finally stops talking and begins to sing, won't I be thinking that the song can't be that good because he was too lazy to spend time on it? Would he walk into a job interview and announce to the person behind the desk that he was lazy?

Why would I want another singer/songwriter to announce that she couldn't remember the lyrics, and then balance her smart phone on her knee so she could remember them? Am I likely to think her songs will be memorable to me? Actually, I do remember one line because she cribbed it from Joni Mitchell.

Then there was a guitar-playing singer/songwriter who announced up front that he was neither a guitarist nor a singer.

A lead singer who told insider jokes (I'm guessing they were jokes) to members of the audience he knew, leaving others in the audience feeling somehow deficient because they didn't get the joke anymore than I did. After we felt left out of the patter, how was the band going to bring us into the music?

Bottom line: Two members of the audience left musical events early, not because the music wasn't good, but because the patter didn't allow us to appreciate the music.




Creative Learning

I recently attended a series of  5 TEDx lectures with a friend. The next day, I realized that I remembered every point on of the lecturers had made in his allotted 20 minutes, even though I had not taken notes.  I checked with my friend, who is only peripherally interested in public speaking, and she, too, remembered what he'd said.

Strangely, I thought, neither of us had a strong visual memory of what the man looked like, what he wore, how he moved. We had the same response to another of the lecturers—we didn't remember him, we remembered his general message.

The purpose of most lectures is to provide information, information that we will remember and think about. Why was one of those 5 speakers so successful that I still can almost quote his speech?

Granted, he owns a business that requires presentations on a regular basis. But what principles had he learned in the process of creating a successful international company?

He began with a "hook," a $50 billion mistake that took 10 years of his life. He had our attention right away.

He next mentioned his state of despondency as he tried to find a new path. An emotion that everyone in his audience could relate to, a state that seems to be necessary before any creative breakthrough. Now we were with him, ready to follow his thinking.

Then a bit of history about his field—when and why the $50 billion mistake, which had seemed progressive at the time, had its origins. Although I was familiar with that history, he added a perspective that had never occurred to me.

His first slides gave us visual images of the "old way" of thinking about the problem, and then the "new way." Without printed labels, without any horrible power points. We were free to respond emotionally, and to agree with him that his new way was the right one.

His last point was about change—When we change one aspect of a problem, we create the necessity of change in every process connected to it. That point reminded my friend of a change she had made in the same system our lecturer was talking about.

I think that, if we were young enough, both of us would have applied this week for a job in his company.

I began writing this post with the question: Why wast the lecture memorable, while the speaker was not? I thought the answer was: Because he focused completely on his message and not himself.

Then I realized that every one of the arguments I'd been making to support that answer involved our responses as audience members. So perhaps the answer to my question was: The speaker thought of himself as the conduit between his message and his audience.

Then I looked, belatedly, at the title of the lecture—"Designing for Learning in the Creative Age"—and realized that the audience had been taken through the creative process itself in 20 minutes.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Ownership

I listened to an NPR link this morning that my son Chris sent me. 47 minutes of talk by police officers, sociologists, and the like. Both Chris and I had to leave the broadcast/podcast during the segment with Michael Dyson, but his words that stuck with me have been "We can't look at what's happening today without looking at history."

For some reason, I was reminded of a sweet man I had known a few decades ago. He was a retired lieutenant from the Newark,NJ, police department who had served there during the racial riots of the 60s. His solution to the problems that existed then was "ownership." If the disenfranchised owned their own homes, he thought, attitudes would change.

The lack of a sense of ownership holds all of us back. I fight this deficit, this barrier, every day in my teaching.

We must own our voices. Not only our singing voices, which we too often think of as "gifts" bestowed on a talented few, rather than an inherent ability that we all share. But also our speaking voices, which we learn to use by imitation and which, therefore,  seldom represent the unique persons we are. Add on all those years in classrooms in which we were told to be silent, the admonitions for being too loud, for speaking out of turn, and it's a wonder that any of us arrive at adulthood with any sense that we have a right to use our voices.

If we don't own our voices, how can we possibly own our ideas? Our thoughts? Our beliefs? Particularly, when our unique experiences don't conform with what we've been taught? I remember the shock and a feeling akin to terror the first time I read in a scholarly book a statement that I knew to be false. I no longer remember the name of the book, or the name of the Mozart expert who wrote it, or which aria he was writing about. I do remember that he claimed that Mozart had written an unusual (and supposedly difficult) interval in that aria because he hated his sister-in-law, who would be singing it. Nonsense. Mozart used that sort of wide interval in several arias—probably because he liked the effect.

What enormous freedom that discovery eventually gave me. The freedom, and the right, to question my own beliefs, as well as those of the experts. And to tell my students that they have the right to voice their own experiences, their own ideas.

And to claim the space in which they speak or sing. Here's one of the wonderful paradoxes of life. If we don't own the space in which we're performing, no one in the audience will believe us. We will merely be figures on a stage mouthing words. But when we claim the space, we allow everyone in the audience to own the stage, to claim for themselves, if they wish, what we're saying or singing. All of us are enriched by owning the same space.









 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Being sincere

 Over a week ago an op-ed piece appeared in The New York Times. I didn't clip and save it because it seemed so wrong-headed. But It bothered my son Tim, the adman, enough to bring it up in a phone call. It still bothers me.

The author was arguing against the advice to "be yourself," and against being "authentic." He ended with the advice to be "sincere." Neither Tim nor I could figure out the distinction being made. "Sincere" comes from the Latin, meaning pure, unadulterated, and has come to mean an expression of genuine feeling.

All well and good, if the author's intent was for us to go inside ourselves in search of our genuine feelings. But we seldom experience a pure feeling. By the time we're an adolescent, our response to any sensory experience is a blend of emotions based on our unique biography. My own internal response to Orlando and presidential politics is a mixture of fear, anger, and helplessness that brings back memories of a brutal childhood. No pure, unadulterated feelings there.

And it's horrible advice when applied to any external expression of our feelings. Not really much different from "be yourself." We are many selves. We are, hopefully, not the same self with a parent as with a lover, or the same self with our children as with our boss. We learn subconsciously which self goes to work, which self rides the subway to work, which self meets a friend for lunch.

Yes, when we're working or thinking creatively, we want to be as sincere to ourselves as possible. But when we present our work or our thoughts to any audience, whether one person or many, we can't do so effectively without considering that audience.

My children were 2, 5, and 7 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. We were living in Manhattan at the time; the older two were in public school on the fringes of Harlem. How to prepare them for school the next day? Certainly not with my own feelings—I can still hear the tolling of the Riverside Church carillon and the sirens screaming past up Broadway—but for what they might expect that their classmates were feeling.

Sincerely yours,

     

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

When Enough is Enough

Saturday I was playing a blind grandmother in a short film, "Sightseeing," being filmed by The Magic Group. Evan, the cinematographer argued, many times, against "exposition."

Writers are often told to "Show, not tell"—a related aphorism—but I'd never thought of it applying to film, which is all about showing.

Here's the plot: Grandson is going to Cannes. Grandmother is giving him advice, by telephone, about the places to see, how to spend his time, all sorts of grandmotherly advice.  Grandmother is only present in voice-over until the last scene, in which grandson returns from France with a gift—an album of 3-D photographs of the places she remembers, ending with one of the beach where she met his grandfather, a French painter now deceased.

The audience doesn't know until that last scene that the grandmother is blind. Here's where the exposition arguments began. They filmed the grandson outside my apartment, ringing the doorbell, me making my slow, blind way to the door. "That's exposition," Evan said. "Do we need that? How does that emotionally touch the audience?"

Okay, assuming that grandson is familiar with my home, they filmed a sequence in which grandson opens the door, calls out, I go to meet him, he guides me toward a chair and pulls up a chair beside me. "That's exposition," Evan said. "Do we need that? How does that emotionally touch the audience?"

All of the many tries at this scene involved, of course, lighting, sound, camera adjustments, and, if grandson was to be shown coming through the door, waiting for the right light outside. And we were improvising the dialogue.

We ended up with no doorbell, no meet-and-greet, but with grandson in a chair next to me,  saying, "I brought you something," and placing the photo album in my lap. Exactly when they show my face with what I call the "cataract sunglasses," the dark glasses I was given after cataract operations, will be a matter of editing. A "reveal" that should produce the desired emotional effect. And now the title has a double meaning.

What Evan was arguing for all along was editing. "Do we need that?" I'm a fan of both "Master Chef" and "Project Runway," and often hear the judges on both shows telling the chefs and designers to edit their work.

When I was writing my first book, "Clues to American Dance," I spent an enormous amount of time researching, trying to understand American Indian dance, and then trying to translate that understanding into words. I was explaining my troubles to a writing friend, who asked, "How many pages are you giving to Indian dance?" I began to laugh as I said, "Four pages with illustrations." He didn't need to say, bud did, "You need to learn when enough is enough."

 


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Go to Zero

Last week I went to Crafted: Stories over Coffee at Coffee Park Arts. What an amazing evening. Part way through, I thought, "I feel like I'm in church." Half an hour later Lynn Rhoades spoke those very words aloud.

Why? Because the performances were coming directly from the soul, and speaking directly to our souls.

Danny Dockery's song, "Kiss Me like You Don't Know Me," prompted Bob Moyer, the MC, to say, "You're talking about everyone's life in that song." The words can seem trite written here, but Danny was singing from a lost love. I had just lost a long-ago love, and was healed by the realization that I was not alone. Everyone in the room had lost a love, and Danny was singing his loss on our behalf.

Willie Holmes talked about the need to "go to zero" when he was learning to perform. That he had to give up all his preconceived notions about other performers that were successful and popular. He had to begin at zero, with who he was because of his singular experience of life.

Tommy Priest, who had organized the event, said he didn't want to use the word "perform" for what we'd just experienced. "You were engaging us, not performing for us."

I used to call what I teach "Performance," until performance became an academic discipline and went in an entirely different direction. For want of a better term, I now have "Stage Presence" on my business cards. "Presence" is the key word. Being fully present is the only way we can engage with others, whether on stage or off.