Finding Performance Quality (Part II) - Ezra Campbell

Oh hello there, I didn’t see you come in. Has it been a week already? I was lost at sea battling pirates and happened to have lost my pocket watch to a very pesky crocodile. Dreadful creatures, crocodiles. But back on course, I believe when we last parted ways I was left with some very large grown up questions regarding performance quality. Let’s dive right in.

What is performance quality?

Well, Webster was of no help and the Internet mostly speaks to the idea of assigning a numerical value to performance as a means to compare and contrast two separate performances. That’s all well & good, numbers and comparisons are an undeniable reality in not only in the pageantry arts but also in life. We cannot as human beings escape the comparisons we make of ourselves to others. This is an important idea to keep in mind when exploring the idea of performance quality. First, and most paramount:

Performance Quality is personal and is developed from within the performer to create an emotional, dynamic, and visually interesting performance. It is not something that is layered on after dance or equipment choreography is finished. It is the starting point for all performers. Performance quality should be the first thought, not an afterthought.

This is so important. I can attest to the transformation that young performers make when they understand and can begin to apply this. Your style of performance is never going to look like Wendy standing next to you, and hers will never look like John or Michael. And that is exactly how it should be. This is why I absolutely detest telling students to ‘just smile’. (Side Note: Smiling is not an emotion it’s a physical action that results from many different emotions. Therefore it cannot and will not evoke true emotion from your audience. We’ll get back to this in a future blog post about creating a character.) Simply smiling, no matter how big, does not create performance quality; it is a mask that hides the true performance quality of the individual. Using this technique of mask work dates back to Ancient Greece, where actors used large, single emotion face placed on a human being that has real emotions beyond “SMILE”. (Repeat after me: Smile is not an emotion. Good.) The primary goal of using masks was to be able to read a single emotion of a character from great distances in large coliseums. Sounds familiar to colorguard, right? If that is the level of performance that you desire from your students, then I suggest you buy into the trend of having them wear actual masks, the continuity of performance quality will be unparalleled. I would then point you into the direction of Commedia dell'arte, which dates back to the 16 th century and that will give you about 8 or so base characters to work with without any need for emotional development from your performers. Doing this you will escape the need to teach performance quality entirely.

I am being quite sardonic and for that I apologize. But I sadly have seen these fundamental 8 characters of Commedia perpetrated throughout the world of pageantry arts. You have too. And now, thanks to my analysis you will likely recognize it even more. You’ve likely used it as a way to describe shows to your friends that did not have any other memorable emotional aspect.

“-Hey, did you see that angry show? 

-Yea, the one where they were wearing black and white uniforms with the boxes on the floor and they all just kept growling at the audience?”

Shows should be more memorable than costumes and floor tarps but so often the set or props upstage the performers. We as human beings are far more complex than one singular facial expression or emotion. At least, I hope you do not walk around growling all day long. Asking this of your students will rob them of their ability to grow into multifaceted performers.

Performance quality is more than a single emoji. Your performance should reflect the uniquely colorful hues of human emotions. You are more than a mask. You is kind. You is smart. You is important. It is establishing early & reminding ourselves often of those positive internal beliefs and narratives that will allow you to really utilize all the aspects of your face, your energy, and of your body to convey the story you’re telling. Remember, smiling pile of poo is not a story.

Speaking of colorful hues, I’d now like to share with you a quote from an inspiring and affirming colorful Queen, RuPaul. She says, “If you don't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” YAASS QUEEN! And so, if you can’t perform as yourself, how the hell are you gonna perform as somebody else? If you cannot on some level quiet those thoughts of self-doubt and silence the harm of negative self talk then how are you going to create a character that emotes masterfully and evokes emotion from your audience. The first and most important character you will every play, is yourself.

Performance quality begins with the inner self and radiates outward allowing the internal to become external. This internal energy is then translated into physicality through multiple facets each performer utilizes to transpose their story to further develop the narrative of the show. Some examples of external transposition include posture, stylized individual movement choices, breath, energetic projection, and facial expressions. All of this can then be translated further onto equipment.

One of the first exercises that I do with new (or new to me) students is a basic across the floor. First, I ask them just walk to a beat. Usually this is to some happy, pop goddess music. Music choice is just as important as the walk itself during this exercise. It’s not meant to just be about learning how to walk in tempo, although that’s an important fundamental skill. I allow them five or six times across the floor to work on starting out with the proper foot and creating awareness of the tempo. Then we talk about what was easy and what was challenging for them. Often the performers themselves have wonderful solutions to help each other to overcome challenges. Then I ask the performers to think of when their favorite song is on and they’re all alone in their room with nobody watching. Ask them what these songs are and make note for future across the floor playlists. I then ask them to walk in tempo how they would walk across their rooms. This exercise is about having music become so consuming that it allows the young performers to begin the often-scary task of drowning out those inner demons of self-doubt. Music can always be found that fits this purpose, and can also be used as a vehicle to create emotional connection and fuel performance energy and quality. This is why you can spend hours agonizing over a new playlist. Performers are not immune to this inspiration at any level, if merely the right music is found. If you are a performer, try both versions of this on your own. Pick your favorite up-tempo song (around 110-120bpm). Make note of the differences between the first walk and the second. Some questions to ask yourself: How does your posture changes, how does your gait change, where is the placement of your head in relationship to the floor, what does your facial expression look like, are you tense or relaxed, where is your body holding tension? When you do the second walk is the voice in your head quieter or louder? Why do you think this is? In giving the performers a task and an expectation they are less likely to be ‘in their head’ trying to figure out what it is you want from them. The first time you may have had questions swirling about like, “How am I supposed to walk? Toes first? Heels first? Where should my head be? Am I supposed to point my toes? Are we working through coupé? What should I be feeling? Should I be smiling?!?” If you did, you’re not alone.

There is power in not only the music but also in the performer’s perception of themselves in regards to the judgments of those around you. This is why it is paramount that when working in an artistic space that there be no judgment. In your first walk, you probably weren’t a rock star and that is perfectly fine. (maybe you were, if so, that’s where you are starting from and you must build from there) The first time you picked up a flag you weren’t throwing 45’s and working into the floor rolling underneath. (maybe you were, now turn twice.) This exercise is definitely more accessible to extroverts (don’t worry, they’ll be easy to spot!) but don’t discount your introverts. Some of those most famous performers identify as introverts (Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Zayn Malik, RuPaul, Kelsey Grammer, Matthew Morrison, and Meryl Streep come to mind), this goes back to the place where performance quality originates. Typically extroverts will have greater difficulty creating emotional depth and quality, as they are used to projecting all emotions outwards, sometimes they must really work to find layers within their emotional performance. Challenge them to really examine the emotion internally and then to reside in stillness with it before trying to embody the emotion. Introverts tend to struggle with getting their emotion, any emotion, to be displayed physically. They have often spent their entire lives working to remove emotion from their physicality. Allowing them a safe space to have an emotional outlet and occasionally some one on one time tends to help break down those walls. But once those walls are scaled, broken, or plowed through—watch out! Introverts hold great power for emotional depth since their emotions tend to stay closer to their body. (The author admits to being an introvert, but one with extrovert skills that he learned through theater and colorguard.) These reasons reiterate to us further that performance quality and its development begin on a personal level. So in viewing this exercise or even in doing it yourself be aware of those little voices that creep into your head and assault your self-confidence or the confidence of your students.

My advice for most everybody, cliché as it may sound:

Fake it until you make it. Believing that you are a rock star creates a rock star. Believing that you are struggling creates a struggle. Your performance will tell whatever story you are telling yourself. Your audience is only able to see the outer story.

This advice is something that must be reiterated to students and to us as performers. Create a mantra that combats those negative voices. Use the voice of one of your favorite teachers if your own inner voice is not strong enough. We must overcome the innate fear that we are going to be discovered as not knowing what we are doing, or that we may fail at something. We are all born with the fears and our innate nature, our circumstances, and our access to education certainly have some control over how far we are able to take our own abilities. But how far you go, is determined not by talent by but the amount of work and dedication we are willing to put forth. Failure is one of our most powerful teachers, if we are willing to push past those fears.

I absolutely believe that performance quality can be taught and that everybody can achieve that magical ability. It comes from creating the space that allows the performer to tap into their greatest strengths while honoring their greatest fears. The magical moment may occur for the audience, as it did for me when watching the Servant in Finding Neverland. It was an honor as an audience member to share in that moment with that particular performer but it is not our goal. Our goal is for the performer to have that experience within themselves. Here’s an example: maybe you’ve struggled all season with that 16-count dance feature, you knew every count and every checkpoint but it just wasn’t clicking. You’d stayed over at practice to work through it, asked friends to help you, and even lay in bed at night imagining yourself doing it perfectly. (Awesome technique, using visualization!) Two weeks before finals and finally you nail it in rehearsal. You’ve had your “a-ha!” moment. You feel seen and validated for all of the hard work you put into the creation of that moment. Even if you’re the only one that knows just how powerfully proud you feel. You did it and you’ll be able to repeat that success. There is performance quality created in that very moment of finally feeling capable of what you saw yourself doing in your mind.

Performing transforms us into everything we imagine ourselves to be. It begins as an “A-HA” moment and grows through the confidence gained in that moment. Performance quality is consistent and repeatable.

I have on many occasions had conversations with fellow instructors about the frustration of watching a group on the verge of these discoveries. We as instructors often become out of touch with the intricacies of the process and we get impatient. “I wish I could just take it out of my brain and just hand them this neat little box of confidence/character/performance quality/technique.” It certainly seems easier to take this short cut but it is no different than applying masks to performers. So much of the journey to creating performance quality is a journey of self-discovery. This is why when these ideals are valued that the students will continue to push themselves. They will see their own potential through you, even if they are not yet able to realize their own. Or when you value your own journey as a performer, you then create a safety net underneath you as you challenge yourself to try new things. If you fail at these things, great! You are going to take what you’ve learned from that failure and apply it as you move forward. Repeat that positive mantra. Sit with those critiques. Apply the changes. Repeat your mantra again. Find music that inspires you, listen to it, embody it, & try again.

So can I hand you the magical box filled to the brim with performance quality? No. That would ruin the story, now wouldn’t it? I can only guide you to Neverland, you’ll have to find your way their all on your own. Remember your happy thoughts. The faerie dust & performance quality you’ve always had, you simply need to believe.

To perform will be an awfully big adventure.