“Stage presence” doesn’t mean be someone else for 60 minutes….
Or does it?
If you are a touring musician, you will find no shortage of advice for how to perform. Out there on the road, there are people who will try to tell you how to be. Fans, presenters, your mom…
Some of the advice you receive you should listen to as openly as you can muster, and some you should hear but politely disregard. Sometimes, they’ll tell their priceless advice to your road manager or agent or manager, and that person will hopefully practice good judgment to determine if the information will be vital/helpful, or a distraction from what really matters in getting you on your way.
If you’re out there toughing it on your own, try to be open to what people have to say – but also remember that criticism is subjective. While everyone’s a critic, only you will be able to ascertain when criticism should be considered and acted upon. When something is worth internalizing as something to grow on, and when it is coming of that person’s own issues and concerns and may not be universal.
Remember the audience.
I tend to find one of the best guides to hold criticism up to is Joe The Audience member. (Joe The Plumber joke intended) But seriously, take what a person said to you and try to imagine three other audience members saying it to you or to one of their friends. If the advice still sounds realistic coming out of their mouths, in your imagination, then it is probably worth thinking about more. If the advice is so subjective that you can’t imagine it coming from another audience member in that or any other room, then take it with a grain of salt and stay your course.
Self-awareness, experience and confidence are a huge part of your development path…
As a performer, and as a person, you live somewhere on a Kinsey-like scale of your own confidence level in what you do on stage, not to mention your confidence level in who you are – on and off the stage. Over time, as you grow, the way you feel about this will change. It’s different for everybody, but above all, don’t feel like you have to have a fixed opinion and stick with it. Your relationship with yourself as a performer WILL inevitably change the more you learn.
Chances are, right now, you can either handle talking about your “show” directly, or to you thinking and talking about how you behave on stage intimidates you. You might feel it undermines “the magic” for you and discussing it only makes it harder for you to navigate. Because of your character, or because of where you happen to be in your own development of self-awareness as a performer and a person, just have patience with yourself.
All of these things take time, openness and practice.
It doesn’t matter what type of person you are, or where you are in this development process. But it does matter that you recognize and accept the way you are – at any given point in time. Where you are in development may greatly change the type of people you should look to work with, what communication styles will work best with you, and what you expect and what you need from them in way of support. How direct or nuanced they should be when they communicate with you about these topics. Whether they should push you or let you be.
Who are you on stage?
Or the real question first is… Who are you?
There’s an ongoing debate I’ve had with various musicians I have worked with over the years. And there may or may not be a right answer – but it is a fruitful debate and one you should consider for yourself. It is the debate over whether or not the person on the stage and at the merch table at shows is the same person who gets into bed at night back at home.
Is the person who performs and peddles the music the same person who lives the daily life of the musician? And if those people are separate, then who writes the music?
Some musicians claim they protect themselves a little when they perform, by placing an intangible layer of distance between the character they play at shows and the unedited person they are at home. They do develop a character that is based on who they really are – they just play up the elements of their personality they figure the fans most admire, the elements that make them feel best able to perform, and they keep some of the other, more vulnerable, complex, or even objectionable parts of who they are for home and personal use only. For people inclined to work this way, having that differentiation helps them plan and play their shows, helps them know how to “be” in interviews, helps them know what personality to channel and portray when fatigue and road wear make them really just want to be on a couch watching TV somewhere. Musicians in this school of thought claim doing it this way not only creates a buffer so they feel like they still have retained part of themselves that is private, but they also say it helps them maintain the energy level that is required for a life on the road.
Now on the other hand…
Other musicians find the creation of a “stage persona” to be exhausting – like keeping up a series of fibs and not being sure how to remember all the things they’ve said in order to keep up a lie. They prefer to be entirely themselves on stage – and contend that their fans really want that person anyway. Otherwise, why would they come out to shows? This approach to celebrity is certainly in part in response to the 24 hour news cycle and the way social media and other forms of instantly updates sources have created a new era in fandom – the papparazzi-like masses. In a world with instant media, it can be hard to keep up any sort of persona. And so, artists in this camp tend to believe the best thing they can do is be their authentic selves – and hope that is good enough to be adored. That in any flaws or misunderstood moments will be an element of truth that the fans will trust in a way that they can’t trust the constant performer.
On face value, if asked, most people would say truth is best. It is considered better to be honest than to lie. It is considered better to be the real thing than to be a fake.
We all want to think that who we really are is good enough for people to love. And in our private space, that is absolutely true. But what about when we turn our personality out to the public?
Welcome to the mixed message that is consumer response!
I once heard an agent say:
“The audience wants you to be real, but not TOO real.”
What the hell is THAT supposed to mean?
When you’re just being you, trying to do your thing, how do you know if you’re being real or too real? People don’t work that way… A musician can’t be constantly analyzing how they are being. Then nothing will be real. And everyone will get all caught up inside their heads, unable to create, perform or drive to the next gig.
A manager once pulled me aside at SXSW and asked my opinion of his artist’s showcase performance, “Do you think she’s being too cutesy? Like, not grown up enough?”
He seemed almost scared – as if cute was the kiss of death. Tho I’m not sure if he was scared she was not grown up or scared she was pretending to not be grown up or scared people wouldn’t like cute. I tried not to BARF at the sexist inclination of his observation and focus on the question he was asking for my comment on. To me, it just seemed like she was behaving as the creative, theatrical performer she is – which in my opinion is what is so special about her – to fans and industry folks alike. I told him so, but have no idea what he did or didn’t say to the artist. Ugh… What did he say to the artist? (Yet another future entry topic – how business people navigate communication with creative people.)
Every artist navigates the extent their public persona matches their “at home” persona in their own time, in their own way.
You will find your balance point of accessibility with the audience while still enjoying some level of personal comfort zone. If you are an indeed an artist who thrives in live performance, and keeps your show fresh and new for the audience over time, you will likely revisit your boundaries on this front many times over the years in different cities and environments.