True Confessions: Performers Expose and Love Themselves

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Synopsis

Performers must reveal their inner selves, but they must simultaneously possess a special kind of self esteem or self love.

Some years ago, thinking it would help me overcome performance anxiety, I worked occasionally as a nude model for life drawing classes.  I thought that if I could stand naked and motionless in front of a room full of strangers, then surely I could get up, clothed, and play the piano.  The experience did help me with performance anxiety, but not in the way I expected.  I discovered, first, that modeling was not difficult.  I do not mean that it is easy to be a good model.  What I mean is that bringing myself to do it at all—stand up naked before a bunch of strangers—was not hard.  Once you persuade yourself that it’s OK and decide to go through with it, it’s no big deal.  Performing is not as easy as that.  Performing demands a revealing of oneself far more profound and intimate than merely disrobing; exposing one’s skin is trivial compared with exposing one’s feelings, one’s very self. 

The modeling experience made me understand the deeper kind of exposure that performing involves.  When I finally comprehended that and reconciled myself to it—which amounts, really, to understanding and accepting the conditions of performing—I could approach performing within that understanding, and nerves became less of an issue.  I believe every performer who is sensitive to the emotional content of the work he is performing and tries seriously to communicate that content to the audience knows the sense of self-exposure and the attendant feeling of vulnerability I am describing.  I believe that acknowledging this is a precondition for authenticity in performance. 

Not long ago, an actor friend of mine told a story about a director who refused to allow anyone to observe rehearsals.  Having people watch while he was creating apparently made him feel exposed and vulnerable.  It is easy to understand the director’s feelings, but performers will not be very sympathetic.  After all, they work in that space all the time.  Doing your job as a director, composer, or playwright and then, when you’ve finished, setting your work before the world, is different from performing.  Directors, composers, and playwrights may feel exposed, or doubt the quality of their work, or worry about its reception when it is performed, but they do not set the creative process itself before the audience, as a performer does.  Performing, too, is an activity of artistic creation, and precisely the kind of exposure and vulnerability that our director refused to allow is the daily bread of performers.  They are exposed and vulnerable that way at every moment of every performance 

But there is a further, quasi paradoxical requirement of performing.  In addition to being willing to expose themselves in the way I have described, performers must possess—or develop—a special sort of self-esteem, or as I say, self love.  That is because performers use their feelings to guide their performance.  A musician listens to the sounds he makes and evaluates their quality, an actor attends to the movements he executes and appraises their expressive effect, and modifies them as he perceives the need.  In doing this he relies on his perceptions, feelings, and emotions.  But that means that he must take his feelings seriously.  He must acknowledge them as having the authority to provide a guide or standard in performance.  That in turn means that he must take himself seriously.  He must accept himself.  He must think well enough of himself to trust his feelings.  I regard this self-acceptance as a kind of self-love.  It is supremely important, but it may not come easily.  Some performers never achieve it, some are unaware of its necessity, and some may feel diffident about setting themselves up as authorities.  They may justify their reluctance by such self-deprecating comments as, “Who am I to say how Beethoven should be played?”  But anyone who gets up and performs Beethoven is saying through his action, “This is how Beethoven should be played.”  If in his conscious mind he simultaneously doubts his authority, his performance will suffer because it will rest on a sort of contradiction.

Another way of putting the point is to say that as a practical matter, performers must think of themselves as artists.  A performer must take himself and his activity seriously; he must give himself permission to engage wholeheartedly in an enterprise that involves discovering, exposing, and communicating his feelings, and indeed, his very self.  That amounts, however, to saying that, as a practical necessity, he must assimilate, accept, and proclaim the self-image implied in “I am an artist.”  He must claim full stature as an artist and face the world from that position, while accepting artistic responsibility.  Doing those things is a precondition for fine performance.  Nevertheless, many performers doubt, at least at times, whether their work is truly creative and they wonder whether or in what sense they are artists in their own right.  But if a performer thinks of himself merely as an interpreter who conveys the work of someone else without making any artistic contribution of his own, or if he thinks of himself as being subservient to the composer or the playwright or the choreographer, he may easily come to think that the artistic content of the performance comes exclusively from the composer or the playwright or the choreographer.  That attitude toward his own activity will at the very least make it more difficult for him to achieve the self-confidence and self-acceptance required for expressive performance.  Worse still, it may provide an excuse for neglecting that aspect of his work, or blind him to its necessity.

The self provides the ground for the judgments and choices made in the course of performance; I test what I do, first and last, by appraising my feelings and putting them in the context of my autobiographical self, my accumulated first-person experience.  I cultivate awareness and examine my response to what I do; if I don’t like the response my action produces in me, I change what I do; if I do like it, I wonder whether I can improve it further.  There is a constant interaction between the self and the product and the movement that generates the product.  All this presumes a level of self-development in several directions, not only in the obvious sense of refining one’s discriminatory powers but also in the direction of self-confidence and self-acceptance.  I need to have the self-confidence to be willing to take my responses as a guide.  I need to accept who I am and acknowledge that the better my performance becomes, the more it will reveal of my feelings and my self.  Recognizing and accepting all this requires a special kind of courage.  Somewhere in myself I must find that courage.

Tags: artists, creative process, performance

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