Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On perfectionism and performance

So, you might have noticed if you've been paying attention that it's been really quite a long time since I last posted here.

Why is that?

It's because I've really liked the things I've written previously. I've been proud of them. I've felt like they've said what I needed to say; shared something important about why I perform the things I perform in the way I perform them.

And I've felt like anything I write next might not live up to that expectation.

Whose expectation is it?

Well, it's my expectation, isn't it. It's one of the oldest cliches in the book - you are your own worst critic.

Everyone who writes about performance writes about perfectionism eventually. About the ways in which it holds you back. Waiting for a perfect blog post to be writable, waiting until you are good enough to perform that aria, holding back when you sing because you are scared of the ugly sounds you might make if you go for it... all of these things stop art from happening. 

And we all know that. It's not a new thing to say.

When you are rehearsing or practising, you are seeking after a perfection that will never exist. You are always working to make things better. And you can always see the steps you would take to make things better than they are now; better, perhaps, than you are capable of.

If you don't have that drive, you never get to be good enough to do this stuff at all. You never learn to write well enough that you can actually express what you mean. You never learn to sing well enough that people actually want to listen. You don't improve. You stagnate.

And in the other direction? There's stagnating mire in that direction too, is the trouble. You get bogged down in the performance that might be, the platonic blog post, and you end up not saying or singing anything at all. 

Which is not a new thought. Other people have said it. Perhaps they've said it better.

But it's still a thought worth saying.

We've got just over a week to go until show week. Things are messy. It's not right yet. We haven't practiced enough. There are problems we haven't solved yet.

And that's ok. And you know what, telling you is ok too. We often pretend that what you get - a performance - sort of appears, fully formed, on show night. We don't talk about the week before, when nothing is working and there's too much to do to fit into the time left and you fear that this time, this time is going to be the time when it isn't all right on the night.

I sang in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the National Theatre when I was fourteen. I remember a bit of staging that didn't work until two nights after opening night. There was a picnic blanket that was supposed to get unfurled, to music, as part of a scene change. (While dancing some Ceighleigh steps, and singing an arrangement of a folk song that finished on a top C, just incidentally). And it didn't work, and it didn't work. We called that scene change 'the Crannock Roll', because the new scene was set in Crannock Bay, and we were supposed to unroll the picnic blanket. And I remember it getting referred to as 'the Crannock Flop' on press night. Because that was what the blanket did. It didn't unroll. It flopped. And everyone was very unhappy about this. It looked clumsy, and awkward, and everybody worried about it.

And then, two nights after opening night, someone figured out a way of doing it that just worked, and we ran with it, and nobody ever worried about the Crannock Flop again.

Except that's not true, is it? Because I still remember it to this day, more than ten years later, not being able to unroll that picnic blanket in a graceful enough fashion.

And! And of course the punchline is that when I finally saw the show, some number of months later with an alternative cast - that scene change was over in approximately five seconds, and there's no way,  no way, that that picnic blanket could have caused the show to flop. No way.

The details matter. Was it a better show with a graceful unfurling of the picnic blanket than with a saggy awkward flopping unroll? Surely. Yes.

The details don't matter at all. Will the unfurling of that picnic blanket be anyone's abiding memory of that show, except, perhaps, mine? Surely. No.

So - this is where we're up to, at the moment. The picnic blanket is flopping. There's stuff we haven't got together yet - and some of it is bigger than a five second scene change - and it's alright to tell you that. Because on show night, this is the things, either we'll have figured it out, or it won't matter.

Performance is about imperfection.

Everyone who performs knows that.

Everyone who performs finds it hard to believe that.

The moment when your voice cracks with emotion, and someone in the audience tears up at the rawness of it.

The moment when you gesture in anger, and the button flies off your costume in a way you could not have choreographed in a million years if you'd been trying.

The moment where you realise, gods damn it all, the picnic blanket doesn't matter. Surely, now, more than ten years down the line, we can all acknowledge that the picnic blanket doesn't matter, right?

You don't control a performance. You certainly don't control an audience reaction.

It's messy, and it's terrifying - and it's worthwhile.

So come and see the results! Less than a week to go. Buy your tickets here:

And by 'the results', I mean: come see the next step in the process. Come see the flaws, and the failures, and the magic that turns them into theatre.

We're not the National Theatre. We can be honest with you. It might be messy. The picnic blanket may flop. And that's ok.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! We've been considering similar issues around perfection and performance over at Lashings:
    It's definitely really helpful to see each performance as a step in the process, rather than a final endpoint to aim for. In some ways that's easier with the kind of sketch show we do - each act will be performed many more times, in the contexts of different setlists, and by different performers - so no one performance is the defining interpretation of that act. I find the idea that there are many many different interpretations possible very helpful for challenging the idea that there is one perfect way to get something "right".