Kindly Leave The Stage
July 4, 2008 3:51 PM   Subscribe

What are the best strategies to help a performer roll with the punches?

Okay, so I've been doing a mix of performance poetry, stand-up, compering and music for over two years now, and I've reached the stage when I realise that this is something that I want to 'do', and want to do well. I love it, and find it a really satisfying challenge, but until recently I've always had the mental get-out that I'm just 'dabbling'. Now, my gigging schedule has increased to a level where I can't dig my toe in the carpet and hide behind new boy status anymore.

Basically, I'd like ways of remaining stoical whilst still learning from my mistakes in the face of bad gigs, po-faced audiences and general incompetence. What are good strategies for maintaining my self-confidence without closing off that all important negative feedback?

I understand intellectually that gigging can be a bit like being in an unhealthy relationship - sometimes the audience heap praise on you, sometimes they're cold and aloof, sometimes they're downright hostile. It'd be nice if there was a way to take it less personally while still maintaining a serious, professional focus on improving rapport. My schadenfreude wouldn't say no to a few 'the time I died on stage' anecdotes, either, if you think communal shame might help.
posted by RokkitNite to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
One time I was playing the Horny Toad in Sault Ste Marie Michigan and the singer was tripping way too hard to sing. There were three hours left to the gig and I was the only one who knew all the words.

My singing is disgraceful. It's an affront to everything, pretty much.

By the end of the second set, the only people left in the place were Xanthippe and her sister.

"You're not going to do two more sets, are you?" asked my sister-in-law, as she and the little lady gathered their coats and booked.

Well, I did. I sang for the TV, the bartender, and the rest of the band for two more sweaty, uncomfortable hours. It was hell.

That was my second-suckiest on-stage appearance.

Feel better now?
posted by stubby phillips at 4:15 PM on July 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

At the end of each gig (or the next day), ask yourself two questions:

1. What would I do differently next time?
2. What went really well?

Once in a while, skip question 1 - most people find it really easy to list things that went wrong, and if you've got a lot of critics inside your head, it's important to pay attention to the things that go right. (In addition, I think there's growing research that we learn better by focusing on what's good, what we want to repeat, rather than what we want to avoid.)

Also, remember that, just like in a relationship, the audience will sometimes be responding to you, and other times will be expressing their own inner whatever. Sometimes they'll be rude because you're having a bad night; other times they'll be rude because it's tax time and it's miserable and raining. By the same token, sometimes they'll go crazy with the applause because you're having a great night, and other times it'll be because it's Friday night and kicking off a gorgeous weekend. It's about you, but it's not ALL about you.

Might be a good idea to keep a journal, so you can remember the stuff that went well, and get perspective on the whole big long journey.

Good luck - and bravo for having the courage to pursue performing!
posted by kristi at 6:31 PM on July 4, 2008

Become a servant.

It's not about you, it's about the work. It's about the story you're telling, the song you're playing, the words you're saying, etc. Serve THEM.

If you get upset about what someone said about YOU, how does being upset about that serve the work?

If doesn't matter if your work is deeply autobiographical. It can be about you while you're writing it. It's not about you when you're performing it. It's about the work!

If I'm in your audience, I don't care about you. I don't know you. Only your mother comes to see your show for you. I care about your work. Your work is everything. You are nothing. You are a vessel. You perform to serve your work. Ego is the enemy.

Pre-show: "what am I trying to say? How am I going to say it? How can I best serve what I'm trying to say?"

Show: say it!

Post-show: "what was I trying to say? How well did I say it? How can I say it better next time?"

Critic: "Your show sucked because..." If the next thing he says has something to do with what you were trying to say and how you could say it better, listen. If not, cover your ears and say "lalalalalala."
posted by grumblebee at 7:08 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

1- Ignore your own mistakes.
2- Acknowledge thinks that happen, but do not let it deter you.
posted by gjc at 7:35 PM on July 4, 2008

It's impossible to focus on doing a good job on the work and simultaneously focus on being a good self-critic. When it's performance time, your job is to perform. If you want to learn from what you did, record the shows and watch them later with your critic hat on.

One of the best teachers I ever had pointed out to me that if you can answer the question "how did it go?", then you probably weren't paying enough attention to doing your thing -- the best shows tend to go hand in hand with being able to honestly answer "I have no idea" to that question.
posted by range at 8:38 PM on July 4, 2008

Best answer: A lot of good advice posted here.

I would second recording yourself. You do pick up on your annoying shticks which you can then learn to avoid. It also provides context. You can see whether the audience was really into it or not (well, this depends on the quality of the recording) and it forces you to rethink your experience and memories of being up there.

Ask others what they thought about your performance. Ask them to be specific and list stuff they liked, stuff they didn't like. It might be completely different from the voice inside your head.

Watch how others deal with hecklers... It's hard to go looking for them at real-life performances but searching on YouTube can be a little educational, if not hilarious. There are a lot of different strategies out there, some work better than others, some require more comedic wit than others, but you have to find something that works for you. Hecklers do suck, but they will always be there, and it just takes time and experimentation to figure out your own method.

Understand that bombing is inevitable. It happens to everyone -- including famous performers. But what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. It will hurt a lot in the beginning but over time it will turn into a still-embarrassing but equally hilarious story to tell all your friends.

Develop a stage presence. If you had one, you wouldn't be asking this question. I have only found drama/improv classes to help, but I don't know what your training or background is, so if you haven't already, consider taking one. One of the best comics I have ever seen will bomb on purpose and then start an uphill battle to make the audience laugh. In the end, it doesn't matter if he succeeded or not because he did the entire thing looking purposeful and stoic. The reason he can pull this off is thanks to several years of theatre training and experience in an improv troupe. A lot of the older comics don't even come close to exhibiting his level of stage comfort, and they have years of experience on him. Stage presence really does make a world of a difference.

If you're gigging in small towns, always try to find some relevant material for them. Make jokes about their town and observations you made on the way there. People eat this shit up.

Read this book. Sure, it doesn't feature the best comics of all time (I think Carlos Mencias is one of the writers.... ugh) but even my picky bf, who would love to put his hands around the neck of Larry the Cable Guy, learned a lot from reading about their experiences.

Stop taking everything so seriously, and don't ruminate about your performances. Even if you can't stop the voices in your head -- which you can learn how to stop through meditation, exercise, positive psychology methods, etc. -- don't say it aloud because your negative energy is contagious, and other performers don't appreciate being put in a bad mood. As soon as you've figured out what you did wrong, what you should try out next time, and all that logical stuff that is definitely worth thinking about, let it GO! Laugh. Performers, especially comedians, are quite possibly the most neurotic people I have ever met, and it may explain their addiction to pot. I hate to generalize but I have yet to meet a comedian who doesn't smoke at least occasionally. If pot is really the only way you can let things go then I guess, do it, but understand there are better and healthier ways to relax.
posted by Menomena at 5:41 AM on July 5, 2008

Record every performance.
Now here's the big secret:

Listen to the recording.

That's the hard part. Really hard. Because dammit, I know what I did. I know what I sound like. I know what worked.

Nope. Turns out that the audience often likes shows I think were weak, and when I was really rippin' it up --the audience wasn't nearly so impressed. Frustrating as hell, usually.

Seems like the only real mark of a good show is when I'm really in the moment, meaning what I'm doing. Which makes it hard to keep a part of myself reserved to watch what's happening objectively.

Grumblebee and range are also saying what I'm saying.

And learn to have your professional persona "on" from the moment you're on the way to the show until after you've left the venue and are safe. This means accepting compliments without letting your real feelings out ("You idiot! You thought that was good?"). Half the job is getting booked again and moving to better venues, and most of that comes from impressing the agents, owners, and bookers that you'll interact with offstage. (Your professional persona may not be your stage persona, btw.)

Have fun. If you're not doing it for fun, there's easier ways of making a living.
posted by lothar at 10:13 AM on July 5, 2008

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