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Performance Alignment

#70 - 03/01/2005

"We create imaginary gardens with real toads in them."
- Miss Alvina Krause,
Acting Teacher,
Northwestern U.

Some books on public speaking cast aspersions at the idea of performing. "One must not perform," these writers say, "because that is phony, not an authentic way to behave." Actors perform. Speakers are not actors so performance is forbidden to them. They must be real. This line of thinking betrays a basic misunderstanding of speaking, acting and all of the audience arts.

A good performance will be, ipso facto, an authentic one, an expression of the true self. What is the human personality if it is not the 'performance' of the self? Why confine it to humans? My old dog Lulu had an exuberant, infectious personality. She regularly went into a marvelous song and dance of self-display at each happy reunion. Was she being inauthentic?

Perhaps these detractors of performing are being led astray by poor performing. Maybe they feel that the desire to perform at all is causing people to overdo the job and make a hash of it. True, it is sometimes preferable to see no performance rather than an ugly one. But to tell us to stop performing is as useless as to tell us to jump up in the air and not come down again.

Better advice is to learn to align your performance. What does that mean? A poor, unaligned performance is one that is diffuse and scattered. The speaker, actor, dancer, politician, whatever flavor of poor performer you choose, is trying to not perform. They are nevertheless in a constant state of self analysis and judgement, watching themselves with critical eyes and ears to make sure they are being authentic. Since this is a left brain activity, they are never living in the present, always in the immediate past, agonizing over the gesture, the utterance that just occurred.

This sort of untrusting, self conscious hoo-hah goes on all the time in every audience art. The problem is alignment. The performer cannot control the overwhelming number of disparate variables: inflection, timing, pitch, expression, meaning, action, vocal variety, eye contact, staging, visuals, interpretation, how's my hair? Can they see me sweat? And at the same time be true to the intention of the piece.

It's like trying to hold twenty ping pong balls with your bare hands. Can't be done. You need a net, or your hat or webbed fingers. You'd have no problem holding onto twenty paper cups though, would you? Why? Because they can be stacked, aligned. You could probably manage fifty or even a hundred. Alignment lets you multiply your power because you only have to pick up the bottom cup and the others will go right along. If a speaker is skilled and has developed good habits like excellent eye contact, crisp diction, a relaxed delivery and a well rehearsed speech - then the performance will be aligned and the only thing left to consider is the purpose of this particular performance. Then the focus goes where it belongs - onto the audience and the message being communicated.

For the speaker with alignment, the bottom cup is always the understanding and acceptance of the fact that this is a performance. Once you have a good grip on that concept, you can start to load the wagon. The advantage of alignment is that you need only concentrate on a single intention – the intention of the performance – rather than keeping track of all the little sub-intentions. Performing is a set of skills, authenticity is a state of being. The one does not preclude the other – to be skill-less is not to be more authentic. Rather the opposite: perform your skills well and you will be able to express more of your being, more authentically.

A Thought to Ponder

Readers may be divided into four classes:
1. Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it
in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied.
2. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get
through a book for the sake of getting through the time.
3. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read.
4. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable,
who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also.

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet, critic (1772-1834)
Taken from "A Word A Day"
(AWAD.Com) edited by Anu Garg