Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

I didn’t like my performance tonight. It was the second of the day, the second time I told O. Henry stories to older adults. At 10 a.m., the stories sizzled. Even though I am emphatically not a morning person, I had those denizens of the local senior center in the proverbial palm of my hand. They laughed photoat the right places in “The Count and the Wedding Guest.” They understood (those who understood anything, admittedly) the twist at the end of “No Story.” They congratulated me afterward and told each other what a great time they had.

No such luck at 8:15 p.m. This was a more sophisticated crowd. But it doesn’t hurt to have a bit of sophistication when you’re listening to O. Henry’s gentle chiding about young love and deception in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York City. Nevertheless, they clapped listlessly after each story. Their faces barely changed from comic moments to their more tragic cousins.

Now there are several possible reasons for the difference, and I’ve told myself all of them:

1) Post-prandial malaise (Translation: Too many calories with dinner.)
2) Audience fatigue (Most of them are closer to ninety than seventy.)
3) My fatigue (I do have a cold, and I worked all day.)
4) Lack of professionalism (Mine, not theirs.)

Lack of professionalism? Whatever do I mean? I get paid, don’t I? I teach the stuff, don’t I? I have hundreds of gigs under my belt, don’t I? So what’s the problem?

I submit that a professional, a true professional, doesn’t have up and down days. S/he simply gets the job done. What kind of eye surgeon does a great corneal transplant one day, but the next just gets up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning and ruins a patient’s eyesight? How long would a trial lawyer last if s/he just wasn’t in the best of moods during a murder case and dropped the ball? And don’t get me started about soloists in a symphony orchestra.

True, I don’t get paid anywhere near what those folks do. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the reason we pay people the big bucks is that we expect them to be in the 99th percentile when it comes to doing their job, and rare, we’re talking man-bites-dog rare, is the concert at which Streisand (or Sinatra, or Pavarotti) misses a note.

All I know is, when I am just okay, but nothing to write home about, I can’t blame the audience, or the weather, or my lingering cold, or what was served for dinner. If I am the one onstage, I am expected to weather most of—let’s say 99% of—the kinds of storms that drag down an amateur. I’m supposed to be consistent, a known quantity.

Sure, professional writers are always supposed to turn out good copy. But apart from deadline journalists, professional writers can write and rewrite and edit and take a little time for the downturn to ease. A performer doesn’t have the luxury.

So, I have to consider, what is the cure to this unevenness? Practice, for one thing. I don’t mean rehearsal of a particular night’s show. I mean more and more work, until telling a story, any story, is so natural and delightful, or at least so instinctive and intuitive, that screwing up is like screwing up breathing. But rehearsal is in there, too. (The funny thing is, the less-rehearsed show was so much better than the second one.) It’s said that we don’t own a story until we’ve told it 25 times. I’ve gone on stage, in front of paid audiences, having never told that night’s repertoire in my life. Scary? Not really. I love the challenge. The point is, does my audience?

Finally, though, I do have to ask my audience members next time I see them, or better yet, ask the person who books the shows, what they really thought. I will never forget the story the magnificent Liz Lerman told about doing a week-long residency in a pediatric unit. The little patient she wanted to impress the most with the troupe’s final performance fell asleep soon after it began. She was distraught, till a nurse told her he hadn’t slept in weeks; that performance calmed and nourished him like nothing else could. That is to say, we never know what’s really going on with our audiences, or how much we are pleasing them.

I submit that it doesn’t really matter what I think about my performance. Did I communicate and engage? I’ve got to ask the professionals. My audience.

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  • Carrie Sue Ayvar  On July 25, 2013 at 10:24 am

    It is so often true… we don’t always really know what is in the audiences head or heart. Like the story of the silent, somber listeners who never smiled once throughout the entire show who later greeted the teller with “That was wonderful but took all I could to not laugh aloud!” They thought it would have been rude and have offended the teller!

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