The Art of Performance

Michael Jackson’s dramatic death last week has, quite rightly, induced people across the world to dig out the recordings and the video footage that he made when he was at the height of his popularity. When he was at the top of his game, he was spectacular, which makes it terribly sad to think of where he ended up: a frail 8 stone, a virtual recluse, a curiously childlike man, dislocated from reality and seeming so isolated and alone, despite that legendary status and the supposed loyalty of his fans. It was like the wave of adulation that crashed over him in the 80s really did leave him all washed up.

Funnily enough I’ve been reading up on Britney Spears over the weekend for my motherhood project and it’s the same plot, even if the details are different. Let’s leave aside the question of respective musical ability; both became famous in part, at least, for being outstanding performers. It’s been the strain of conforming so rigorously to the image the public fall in love with, and the tension created when they’ve tried to alter it, that’s caused them such devastating problems. The more famous you become, the more suffocating the restrictions on your personality. The usual run of mistakes people make – get drunk, yell at friends or partners, fall into ill-advised marriages, trust the wrong people, have a soul-destroying haircut, get seduced for a while by a cult philosophy, all these silly, foolish, usual things get blown out of proportion by a gossip-hungry media into the storylines of mental, physical and emotional breakdown. It’s not surprising that real breakdown follows hot on its heels. Think what it would be like never to be able to make a mistake without the critical, judgmental eyes of the whole world upon you, stories circulating that sell the worst speculation as truth, every tiny thing blown out of proportion and no benefit of the doubt given, ever.

And we just can’t imagine what it’s like to be followed by the paparazzi. In the Britney biography I’ve been reading, the author suggests that readers picture themselves on the tube train at rush hour, only everyone crowding into the carriage is holding a camera, pointed at you. And you have to walk through this, even to get a newspaper from the shop. If you’re in a car, there are thirty cars tailing you, racing you at the lights to get a photo, completely lawless because the cost of a ticket is so negligible compared to the value of a photo. You are a prisoner in your expensive home or on lock-down in a smart hotel, and who you are, not to mention what you have to do every minute of every day, is not a decision under your control. Fame has become a very ugly Faustian pact. I find it extraordinary that anyone would choose this or consider it an achievement.

So to become a performer, and particularly a famous one, you need tremendous emotional resources and, ideally, a remarkably rock-solid strength of character. And, alas, the very character that makes for a magical performer, is the same character that’s vulnerable to the worst side of show biz. I was reading a book entitled Secrets of Performing Confidence by Andrew Evans, an ex-professional musician and Director of an arts psychology consultants, who help performers of all kinds overcome their difficulties. Evans begins his book with a detailed profile of the performing type, drawing on the Myers-Briggs personality profile and the 16 personality traits identified by Raymond Cattell. What would you expect to find in the profile of an artistic person who’s attracted to performance? The trio of high sensitivity, high suspicion and high imagination is wholly typical, often lending a melodramatic quality to their interactions, and a hint of paranoia or hypochondria. But they are also forthright and lack shrewdness (being more interested in truth and self-expression). They are mostly spontaneous and impulsive (only classical musicians and dancers proving themselves exceptions, due to all that dogged practice), which means they hone into the feeling of the moment and react beautifully on stage, but are often disorganized and chaotic once outside the performing arena. They are weak at living in the present or following step-by-step routines, something that the majority of the population can do perfectly well, and so they are regularly criticized for being impractical, unrealistic and flaky. And, endowed with a certain internal distance from themselves, often more introverted than one might expect, they are often their own harshest critics. All in all, a highly performative personality is a sensitive, guileless, unworldly one, that is often prone to anxieties and highly vulnerable to both criticism and self-criticism.

Then there’s the urge to perform that often comes from having been witness to a moment of artistic magic in early youth. Touched by the powerful emotions that a performance can evoke – especially that harmonizing quality that moves a whole watching community, and the belief in the possibility of transcending the normal human condition of flawed, grounded ordinariness – the would-be performer is ready to give everything they have in the service of a transient dream. Anybody who’s ever had any artistic aspirations, or indeed anyone who’s ever had to perform on a more everyday stage, like an interview or a work presentation, or any kind of mediating role, knows the urge that grips you at the point where you have to step up and be better, brighter, sparklier than your usual self. It’s strong medicine, with unexpected side effects. I was particularly interested in the section on the different kinds of life scripts that can come and derail people and prevent them from performing their best. I think these have a relevance for anyone who has ever wondered what holds them back from doing their best:

a)    The ‘Unfulfilled Greatness’ model – if a child has been given too much indiscriminate praise a moment of reckoning with reality will inevitably come. It can cause a vacillation between the ‘grandiose’ and the ‘inadequate’ which may result in the performer blaming the audience for failing to be sufficiently appreciative. Evans suggests we deal with this by accepting that we all have superior and inferior feelings, and then attempting to separate out the fantasy content from reality. From that point on, we may be able to identify and work towards a realistic level of achievement.

b)    ‘If Only’ and ‘Yes But’ – describes the construction of plausible arguments that defer achievement – if only I could lose ten pounds, etc. It avoids the unpleasant anxiety of having to expose ourselves to reality and judgement. The antidote is to ‘make a start somewhere, and then judge one’s progress from there.’

c)    The ‘Rebel’ script – rebellious behaviour is often associated with creative, eccentric individuals who want to change the state of popular thinking. But rebellion also alienates people, often the parents and authorities whom the individual has secretly been wanting to please. Performers need to be loved by at least somebody, Evans says, but often the people their rebellious actions end up enchanting, are not actually the people they wanted to be loved and seen by, and so emptiness and frustration result. Seek some emotional maturity, this guide suggests, grow beyond the need for the approval of others less and be discerning with regard to irrelevant criticism.

d)    The ‘I’m a Fraud’ script – the province of late starters, who were scarred by childhood memories of others always being better, more able, or somehow magically more praised than they ever were. They find it hard to think of themselves as high achievers and are simply waiting to be unmasked. Sometimes this script is like a ‘fear of success’, but that’s a shame, as such people are often rather talented and able.

e)    The Guilt and Punishment script – memories of being criticized in childhood for showing off or having too much fun, or being insufficiently serious can result in the individual feeling the need in later life, in the absence of regulating parents, to punish themselves with stress and anxiety. Self-sabotage can creep in. The answer Evans proposes is to identify the voice of guilt, get it out into the open, own it and consciously, deliberately discard it.

f)    Approach-Avoidance – the closer you get to your goal, the more it holds you up, like footballers who shoot wide at the goal mouth, or actors who plan to do an audition weeks ahead but back out at the last minute. Evans seems to be suggesting that everyone comes a cropper on this at some point or another. His advice is to take some conscious decisions. Treat yourself like a parachutist, who feels worst in the moment before getting into the plane. After that tough decision has been made, the drill takes over. A positive commitment to action helps taut, anxious emotions to relax their stranglehold.

What all of this shows us, is that performing puts us in touch with some of our deepest fears and anxieties, and fears about really fundamental and important things – our sense of self-worth, our ability to act effectively, the nature of our deepest desires. I think that’s why it’s such an emotional experience to witness someone in performance who’s soaring, who’s managed the extraordinary trick of unclipping all the harnesses that keep us regularly earthbound. But it also means that performers who crash do so with profound consequences. It makes me think very sadly about the structure in our culture that artistic performers have to contend with – the brutal criticism they encounter, the big business dominating all artistic endeavour that would wring fragile creativity dry in order to reap rich rewards, the intrusive, unjust, unkind world of the media. Well, I guess we get the creativity and the entertainment we deserve. But just imagine for a moment how the careers of Michael Jackson and Britney Spears might have gone, had they had compassionate, sensitive handling. Had they been allowed to work and create in ideal environments, rested and free, and given the context they required. Why do we brutalise the people we are supposed to love and admire? What music might Jackson have made, properly supported and helped? How might Britney have grown into a mature performance artist, producing spectacular shows that developed her talents as a singer and dancer? And why would we be so interested in seeing them instead broken, dishonoured, debased? I don’t understand all the forces at work, but reading this book is an insight into why we should all preserve and nurture our inner performers, and treat them with the gentleness and spaciousness they require to flourish.

12 thoughts on “The Art of Performance

  1. I agree Litlove–a nurturing environment would have made so much difference. Your analysis is interesting and I’d just add that it isn’t only the mistakes that are under scrutiny. Even when a celebrity is in favour, every small aspect of their daily life gets blown out of proportion. It has to be hard to stay balanced and grounded when you’re idolized that way, when your simplest actions and choices are given such heady attention and importance.

  2. i wonder if this is a function of modern technology. i think not, given that great performers stereotypically are eccentric. i think the trio of traits you mention just set them up that way.

  3. That life sounds suffocating and hideous. What’s interesting is that some celebrities seem to dodge this intense interest and the really frightening round the clock paparazzi pursuit. Why is that?

  4. Very interesting. It always seems that the younger you are when fame comes knocking, the harder it is to cope even when adulthood is reached. It is very sad what we do to our celebrities. It’s like we want to be them, live vicariously through them while at the same time we can’t bear that someone has soaring talent that we will never have so we need to pull them down into the mud. As for my own personal everyday performances, I frequently turn to the “if only” script and should that one fail I keep a copy of the “approach-avoidance” script in my back pocket.🙂

  5. I kept thinking about bike racing as I read your post, and I don’t feel that any of the scripts quite captures how I respond to it, but I suppose it’s a little bit of the “if only” and the “approach-avoidance,” just like Stefanie. If only I were ten pounds lighter, then I could fly up the hills faster….I find myself backing off from the intensity of competition because it’s just too intense and so it feels too dangerous. That sounds like approach-avoidance to me!

  6. Can definitely identify with “if only” and “approach avoidance”. Very interesting post and I like the message of gentleness and spaciousness to our inner performers. Also think, after DoctorDi’s comment, that the more grounded performers are able to avoid some of the super-hype and then the crash-lows because they know the super-hype is all hot air.

  7. Your posts are constantly surprising, Litlove – quite frankly I am not sure I ever anticipated reading the name Britney Spears in one of your posts! But this is a compassionate, thought-provoking piece and makes me reconsider my infrequent habit of even flipping through the celebrity rags at the grocery store…

  8. I find it interesting that so many famous writers seem to have escaped most of these pitfalls – sure, there are dreadful alcoholics and narcissists and failures among famous writers – but nothing quite so spectacular as what happens to other performers. I wonder if its the nature of the art, that it can be mostly performed in solitude, that only a “finished” product and not an “in-progress” work is eventually available for public consumption. Or is it simply that fewer people care about literature (how sad, although viewed through this performance perpspective, perhaps this is a good thing!) and so its creators somehow get left alone?

  9. Lilian – you’re absolutely right. One quote in the biography of Britney spoke of the foolishness of believing in one’s fame, as if it were something they were the due recipient of, rather than a phenomenon in its own right. I can’t imagine what it would do to the head of a young person, although I say that when you only have to look at Britney and Michael Jackson to see the result.

    Emily – yes, I think the combination of traits is an unusual one and somehow destined to implode within the circumstances it seeks to create – an odd paradox.

    Jennifer – thank you very much!

    Doctordi – I think it’s like training a pack of dogs. You have to be really, really firm with them and don’t give them a hint of what they want. And Britney is the most-followed star of the modern age – she creates the most money for everyone in the industry. If we don’t have the same level of fascination with another star’s private life, then they have a better chance of retaining some privacy.

    Stefanie – I do agree. As wonderful as it is to see a very young person with great talent, it is far better for them to live a ‘normal’ life until adulthood. I laughed at your comment about personal preferences – I think I’ve done them all at one point or another!🙂

    Dorothy – I meant to add in ‘sporting performance’ and then never did. I’m sure there are all kinds of variations of the scripts, not to mention others that the author doesn’t include. I recognised them all, but then I have a very ambivalent attitude towards performance!🙂

    Pete – absolutely, and I should have said the same in response to Di’s comment too – being grounded must be one of the keys to not taking any of the glitter and glitz seriously. And I’m a big, big fan of spaciousness in all its forms.

    Courtney – lol! Well, I’ve just finished a biography on Britney and it was very, very interesting, so one of these days I’ll post on it. I read the celebrity mags in the supermarket and the dentist, too, and wonder about them. My feeling is that there’s no harm in a lot of it, but when the paparazzi gets involved and the attention becomes excessive and a bit ridiculous, then we really ought to think twice. I mean, there were thirty cars trailing Britney when she went to get petrol – what’s all that about?

    Verbivore – you’re right, most writers do manage to keep out of the spotlight. I think you’re assessment is very accurate – it’s a bit of all those reasons, the solitary lifestyle, the intermittent publicity appearances, and the generally low interest in authors, who are not generally known for being the ‘beautiful people’🙂.

  10. It is sad how people in the limelight are applauded one moment and if they fall, the public is only too happy to watch their ignominious descent. I think modern technology has only made it worse in this respect–as now it’s spread across the globe in vivid technicolor in only a matter of minutes. I think I fall into the ‘if only’ group or maybe the ‘fraud’ group–but I do all I can to stay out of those situations where I need to perform.

  11. Danielle – you’re quite right. There’s a lot of space to be filled in newspapers and magazines and websites now, and it doesn’t matter what goes in, so long as something does! I used to get a kick out of performing, but now I’m like you and I avoid it for all I’m worth. I also strongly identify with feeling a fraud, but really, I’ve done them all in my time, I’m sure!🙂

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