Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Why Performers Perform

Loosely interpreting the pioneering work of Turner (1988) and later of Schechner (2002), performance in complex societies is a three-phase process consisting of a rehearsal period (proto-performance, from Schechner), a performance period, and a cooling-down or post-performance period (aftermath, from Schechner). These periods form the core of performers’ existences, and although they move occasionally outside the phases, they inhabit them most of the time if performing is their chosen profession. It is a lonely place to be, especially during the rehearsal period, a place where the only feedback may be a mirror, a director’s or choreographer’s comments, the playing back of a taped song, or a spouse’s friendly encouragement. Validation comes with group rehearsals and eventually from a real audience. Why, then, would anyone choose such an existence? There are several reasons.

·      To enter flow. Czikszentmihalyi (1974), and later Turner (1988) are credited with bringing the term flow into the lexicon of psychology. Flow refers to “an interior state which can be described as the merging of action and awareness, the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement, a state in which action follows action according to an internal logic, with no apparent need for conscious intervention on our part.” Most performers at some point in their careers will experience this. If they are highly trained, it will undoubtedly occur on a regular basis. For the performer, it is a very desirable mental state, somewhat metaphysical and even transcendental. For them, it is a feeling of wanting to remain “in the moment.” It happens particularly with group performances and only when members are completely “in synch” and performing together, each “sensing” what the others are doing as if they were a single, totally blended unit. It does not happen for every performance and it does not necessarily happen for an entire performance. When it does, however, it is magical for the performer.

·      To connect with the audience. Connecting with an audience is the ultimate validation for their existence that performers seek. It means that first, the audience has indeed “received the message,” and second, the art form and method of delivery are appreciated. Most of the time, this will be either sensed by or obvious to, the performers (e.g. through the audience’s rapt attention or applause/laughter at appropriate times). Of course, negative connection is also possible and if it is obvious to them, the performer must make immediate changes to try to re-establish a positive connection.

·      To receive recognition. What better job satisfaction can there be than the instantaneous gratification obtained by sustained applause or a standing ovation? For performers, this beats the endless pushing of paper in an office, the constant struggle to climb the corporate ladder, and the frustrations of company personality clashes. The occasional accolade letter or annual corporate personnel reviews do not come close to the ecstatic screams of an adoring audience. Why else would the Rolling Stones still be performing after 40 years? They certainly do not need the money!

·      To receive remuneration. Unfortunately, performers have to live and, unlike the Rolling Stones, most of those who work in special events are not highly paid, contrary to the opinion of some uninformed clients and the general public. While the psychology of performing may be their main reason for choosing this career path, they do need to be compensated for doing it.

  • Schechner, Richard. (2002). Performance Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
  • Turner, Victor. (1988). The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.