Lessons in Performance

I performed a longer story about two weeks ago. A bunch of my friends were there, like around 10 people. They brought friends. I’d practiced the story about 20 times. It was a 12+ minute story that I’d essentially memorized. I was the last performer on the roster. We were being recorded. I got up on stage, started my story…and three lines into it went totally blank. Then I began to panic. I mumbled. I castigated myself. I wanted to die. It was mortifying.

Someone yelled a prompt to get me back on track (“Tell us about the letter you wrote!”). That got me rolling again, but after my blunder I was totally rattled. My confidence was blown. My brain went on automatic pilot and I was telling the story by rote. I have a memory of saying the words to my story while a split off part of my brain was berating me: “You fucked up your story. Your friends are all here. You’re getting more and more nervous. Stop saying ‘Uh…'”

It was a mediocre performance. I didn’t feel good about it. Having people come up afterwards and say, “That was great!” just made it worse. I know that I am unusually hard on myself. But I also know when I’ve done well vs. badly.

It was mediocre because I’d checked out mentally. I wasn’t even there. I went someplace else. I do remember clutching the microphone in a death grip and willing the time to pass. I was in a spiral from which I could not recover.

Today I got the recording of this performance. I was not excited to listen to it. Instead, I was filled with dread. It was as flat and stilted as I’d suspected. I’m not even going to post it, although it may be published on a podcast eventually.

I contrast this experience with one I had a couple of nights ago, in the very same performance space. This was just an open mic. Last week I wrote up a couple of shorter stories and decided I’d tell one of them this week. I was so busy that I didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse it. I basically told it to myself once or twice, but it wasn’t “memorized.” Instead, I boiled it down to six or seven essential bullet points to talk around and confirmed with the host beforehand that it would be okay to refer to notes in this show.

I headed in to the city. I have felt like I’m coming down with something all week, and I’ve been sleep-deprived. So I felt crappy. On the drive in I developed a terrible headache. I got there — late — and was feeling very ambivalent about throwing my name in the bucket. But my storytelling class cohort said, “Go put your name in,” so I did. I was sitting there, digging around in my bag for Tylenol, and thinking, It’s fine if they don’t call my name. And it’s fine if they do. I don’t care about this.

My name got called. I went up, faced the same blinding stage lights, the same stupid microphone that had recorded indelibly my previous disaster, and I said, “I have a terrible headache and I haven’t prepared. I’m glad you called my name, as I’m sure you will be.” Right. I did two things: I decided to be honest about how I was feeling, and then I decided to wildly lower people’s expectations. Probably not the wisest way to introduce myself to an audience, but a couple people laughed and I felt like I had an explanation should I bomb again. Then I told the story, occasionally referring to my notes.

It went very well. I have never felt so relaxed on stage. I took my time. I had a few turns of phrases memorized, but nothing else. I didn’t care if people laughed in the “right” places. I looked at my bullet points once or twice, but otherwise winged it. I wish I had recorded myself on my iPhone because I think I would have liked what I heard.

There’s a bizarre lesson in here. I’m still trying to figure it out. Part of it has to do with the value of being unconcerned about outcome. There was no pressure on Wednesday, either from within or without. I also think that experiencing a lot of physical discomfort and being somewhat focused on that may have allowed me to not obsess about performing, and not whip myself up into an anxious frenzy in the process. There were moments on Wednesday evening when I was standing there, searching for the right words, along with the right way to combine them. There were moments of silence, as I considered and selected. They were liberating moments for me — not panicky and inadequate, but instead affirming. They gave me affirmation that if you memorize something, you risk two things: devastating failure should you lose your place, and a lifeless presentation that’s devoid of spontaneity. It’s bad to memorize. It’s also unnecessary. That was the essential lesson, I think.

I’m sorry that my friends and their friends (and strangers) paid to hear the crappy performance and missed the good (and free!) one on Wednesday. But I’m sure glad that I was there for it.


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