Okay, listen up, performers in all venues. Sing, Theater, public speaking. Anybody with an audience, really. This is a bit long but it communicates something I’ve always wanted to say. If you don’t have an “audience” then you can skip this. But in one way or another most of us do. I think this can help.
When I talk about the level of planning and execution that it takes to work at a really high level, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Take four minutes and watch this amazing performance (h/t Matt for the link). Pay attention to his execution, misdirection (watch what he wants you to watch, then rewind and watch what he _doesn’t_ want you to watch). Then keep reading.
This performance represents hours and hours and hours of patient, slow, methodical practice. Every movement is thought out and carefully crafted. What you’re seeing looks spontaneous and natural, but every twitch, gesture, and facial expression is being executed purely on muscle memory. He’s probably done this sequence of actions five thousand times. And no, that’s likely not an exaggeration.
THIS is the kind of thing I always have in mind while planning a show. You have to think on several levels. What levels? I’m glad you asked:
1. Emotional/Entertainment (highest level): what is your purpose? Not just moment-to-moment, but overall. What do you want to leave the audience with? A feeling of awe? Of sadness? Of quiet reflection? Of anger? Of joy? Each of these is a legitimate goal depending on your purpose. But you will never be able to communicate what you’re trying to say unless you _define_ what you’re trying to say. And saying “we want it to be good/awesome/amazing” isn’t enough. You have to define exactly where the target is or you’ll never know if you hit it. There’s a difference between the emotion you feel during the last scene of Schindler’s List (Liam Neeson standing by Schindler’s grave) and the final image of Monster’s Inc (“Kitty!”). But you can be sure that each of those moments was chosen as a goal. An end-state. And the emotion that you felt as an audience member was carefully crafted and manipulated within you so that when that moment came you were able to experience it clearly. “Manipulated” in this case isn’t a bad thing. There’s an implicit agreement among creators and audience members that this sort of manipulation is okay. I like getting emotional at movies. It’s okay if I’m in on it. Often it’s so easy to lose sight of your target because you get lost in the details. Keeping your goal in mind is always, always, always the #1 thing.
2. Structural: this is the second level of execution. What are the structural elements required to reach your emotional end-state goal? Why is doing that movement or gesture or motion better than that one? This kind of knowledge and understanding comes with experience. With seeing a lot of things that don’t work and then trying something else and something else and something else until you figure out what does and then putting that thing that does work in your bag of tools to use later. With enough time, your bag of tools gets big enough that you can start to see commonalities when presented with a problem to solve. Even better, you start to see connections between things that you never thought existed and can reach into your experience and solve a problem in a unique way. Your bag of tools will look different from mine and that’s okay. This is called personal style, and is a reflection of the particular experience we’ve each been through. However, the accumulation of these tools represents a common language that we all speak, even if we’re not aware of it. Being cognizant of the tools turns you from emotional consumer into experience creator. In our culture that’s a powerful place to be.
So the structural level supports the emotional/entertainment goals (everything supports the emotional/entertainment goals). Just doing the song/move/moment/whatever in a vacuum may be cool, but you have to attach it to an overall scaffolding of elements that builds to a goal in order for the moments to be meaningful. This, in my experience, is where most people lose sight of the bigger picture when putting together a project. They often think that just putting flashy stuff in will be enough. But you need the meatier elements to be present so that the entire thing has substance. In the case of my own work, placing the cool Sing move at a certain point can be neat and make the audience yell, but putting it in a specific spot for the right reason, with the right timing, can absolutely drive the moment home. Having an amazing opening stage image relate to a relevant and focussed closing stage image (even if it’s a “YEAH!” jazz-hands moment) shows craftsmanship and forethought. It looks polished and professional.
In whatever you do, always think about each structural element and how it contributes to the larger picture. Flying buttresses are an important innovation, but people travel to Notre Dame cathedral to see the gorgeous Rose window.
Yet the window could not exist without the supports.
3. Physical (lowest level): Finally there is the physical level. Also known as “ya gotta have the moves”. Once levels 1 and 2 are nailed down, level 3 thinking means doing like this guy in the video and practicing, practicing, practicing. Every movement and gesture. Polishing until they’re all perfect, lead naturally into each other, and contribute together to build a structure that supports the overall emotion. If you don’t execute this level then the whole thing can either look amateurish or come crashing down. So get this part right. Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong. And communicate this ethos to your participants. They need to know that the goal isn’t just good execution of the physical level, but good execution of the physical level in order to support the structural and emotional levels.
An audience’s time is one of the most precious things a performer can ask for. When 2000 people trust you with four hours of their time you become responsible for almost a year of irreplaceable human experience. Treat that sacrifice with planning, respect, humility, and (above all) practice and they’ll return your investment with attention and appreciation.
And somewhere, in all of that, everybody can be changed.