Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On Performing

My junior year of high school, I had to memorize (and recite) a poem for English class.  The only parameter was that it be longer than a haiku or limerick.  While most of my classmates, unbeknownst to me, were choosing works by poets like e e cummings, Robert Frost, or Shell Silverstein, I spent my time memorizing Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.  That's right: when everyone else was memorizing poems of twelve to twenty-five lines, I painstakingly committed to memory one hundred and eight lines of rhyming iambic octameter.  I realized along the way what a thorough process memorization for performance is, and while I'd thought I understood the poem when I first chose it, it wasn't until I was in the thick of rehearsing my delivery that I saw how much depth there was yet for me to plumb.

Some people I know through Spirit and Truth have organized a few coffee houses in recent months, and have asked me to sing in them.  Now, after my third performance, I have finally begun to process just what is so different about performance.

It's not ministry.  In ministry, you may be singing, but your objective is for the listeners to forget about your song and encounter God.  Not only do you not have to look at the congregation, you need to fade into the background and refrain from anything that would distract.  (I've been in various church music ministries without more than an occasional few months off since I was ten, so this is second nature to me.)

It's not public speaking.  When you're giving a speech, both your delivery and your content are important, but the one drives the other.  It's nigh impossible to speak clearly and eloquently without that carrying over into your mannerisms and gestures, which are secondary anyway.  Especially if this sort of thing comes naturally to you, all you need to concern yourself with as far as preparation is the text of your speech.  You can even interact with your audience while speaking (this usually enriches the experience for all involved).

It's not acting.  Good acting requires a lot of preparation (for most people), but more importantly it requires an invisible curtain between the actor and the audience.  You must take your character seriously and remain in character, no matter what the audience's response (save perhaps if they're yelling "FIRE!" and the building's burning down.  But even then, you get bonus points if you can improvise in character and leave with all your theatrical dignity).

It's performing.  In a performance, you put yourself on stage for others' enrichment and entertainment, but also for a unique kind of conversation with them.  You are expected to appear as comfortable as if you were in your own living room after a loosening-up drink, yet all eyes are on you (few of which give you any indication as to their response), and people are more docile to how you ask them to behave or feel, whether you explicitly ask them or lead them subtly through your performance.  Performance requires the polished preparation of an actor with the conversational ease of a public speaker.  If your performance is a musical one, it requires many of the same technical skills as ministry does, but with an intensity like that of one who carefully recites poetry.

And often, if your raw talents are good enough, you can get by without much preparation, and the audience is none the wiser.  But you know that you're capable of shining so much more brightly with just a little bit of elbow grease.  But a merely-good performance is better than none at all, right?

And besides, maybe you'll eventually develop a comfort zone for being on stage as yourself.  And then this whole performance thing will really become fun.

* * *

I feel obliged to note that this is my 100th post.  Woot!  My new goal: 200.


  1. I had Miss Martin for English during my junior year (and freshman year as well) at Mother Seton, and we never had to memorize a poem. But then again, I wasn't in honors.

  2. I had Miss Martin for Freshman English! She was awesome! The teacher in question was Mrs Mangan, and I do believe the memorization was an Honors thing. Oh, MSR. :)


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