THE ART OF PERFORMANCE
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.