Performing is like trying to hold a half-wild animal, one that desperately wants to love and trust you, yet also fears you in some primitive way.
Last night I performed something in front of an audience for about the sixth time ever. I’ve lost count, which is probably a good sign. I returned to the Show and Tell open mic at Cabinet Magazine in Brooklyn, where I told a story last month. My March performance was very difficult for some reason. Maybe it’s because my object and story were so highly personal. I was very nervous at that one and forgot a key piece of the story (although that was remedied in the post-telling Q&A segment).
I did learn a lot from last month’s performance, aside from realizing that I felt particularly exposed. I thought I’d done a lot worse than I had. But those fears were alleviated upon hearing the show audio a few weeks later. I was also frustrated with myself because I had let my nerves get the best of me during the telling. I’d attempted to memorize the story. That didn’t work well for me. As I wrapped up, certain that I’d forgotten something and feeling deeply unnerved by that certainty, my performance anxiety really took off. But then, when I was given the chance to correct my omission during the Q&A segment, my guard came completely down. I blurted out things without intending to. This was also unnerving. I was totally out of control. Yet they were funny things — approachable, human things — and my saying them seemed to work.
Last night was equally educational. I took a different approach, one that didn’t rely on memorizing the story. I did have a few key lines I wanted to include, but otherwise I talked around bigger concepts. I didn’t over-rehearse beforehand. This did work better, since there was less mental effort involved in relating the information. Yet it was still a difficult experience because I had expected to get a response in certain places but didn’t. As I proceeded, hearing crickets where laughs should have been, I got more and more nervous. Because when this happens I judge myself. I’m also still unable to read signs that might tell me if people are actually engaged, so there’s no positive feedback data coming in that way either. But then, at some later point, people laughed at something that I had not at all expected them to find funny. This was totally bizarre. It was gratifying, yet also fundamentally disturbing. Gratifying because it tells me that something managed to get through. Disturbing because I don’t know what it was or why. Sometimes I think I’ll never crack the mystery of predicting and influencing audience reactions.
When I perform I have two crazy, squirming, sharp-fanged animals to deal with: a rat and a cat. The first is the rabid rodent I picture running around in my skull, gnawing at all the ideas and phrases I’ve carefully memorized in calmer moments. The rat is my self-consciousness. The second is the half-feral cat I’m standing there holding on stage. The cat is the performance itself. Sometimes it purrs, sometimes it claws. I think I can eventually banish the rat. I’ll always be holding that cat, however, and it’s this animal that I wonder if I’ll ever tame.