What I learned about performing at the National Arts Festival

In July this year I performed at my very first National Arts festival. It was loads of work (you have to do all your own marketing) but all in all it was a wonderful experience that I hope to repeat many more times to come.
In June, with my trip approaching, I started feeling very anxious about my performance. I was nervous and it showed. I was scared I would forget my chords and lyrics. I was to-ing and fro-ing about playing originals or covers, about playing acoustic or with self made back-tracks and about learning the chords and lyrics off by heart or having my lyric sheets on hand. In short, I was feeling insecure and no matter how much I practiced the songs, it did not seem to help. 

I started firing off some emails to various performance coaches to see who could help me at short notice. I got hold of The Skills Clinic who responded very quickly. They reviewed my “script” and suggested that actor Michael Lewis come to my house for a two hour one-on-one session to help me sculpt my performance

Michael arrived and setup his video camera in my sitting room and took a 5 minute video of a portion of my performance. He then went through it with me in detail. He went through all the ways I was avoiding connecting with the audience.   His comment that stood out for me was that you want the audience to think “wow, I didn’t expect real to show up today”. This completely changed my outlook about delivering a show like this. I immediately started planning and rehearsing using all the techniques he had described.

I think I managed to accomplish what I set out to achieve at the arts festival. Plus, I had a lot of fun doing it. One lady even came up to me after the one show and said “That was just so real”. Well, I was smiling from ear-to-ear because that is exactly what I was trying to achieve. 

Here are some of the things I learned in that two hour session.

1. Use your heightened senses to tune into your audience. When you are performing your senses are intensified. You need to use that increased energy to your advantage. It is like when you change your camera to night vision. The light blurs and a torrent of energy pours into the lens. If you adjust your focus you can harness that energy. If, however, you let it overwhelm you and focus on what is going on inside of you and are busy thinking about how you are not good enough then the audience will think “wow, she is really nervous.

Instead, use the torrent to tune into the audience. Feel their breath and hear everything with heighted awareness. Deal with things that surprise you. Don’t pretend that it didn’t happen. Tune into them and deal with whatever that they throw at you.

A good way to get used to this at home is to perform for an ever-patient family member and get them to throw crumpled up balls of paper at you or even tennis balls. When that happens, just acknowledge it, deal with it and move on.  Get them to surprise you in any other ways they can think of, including walking out in the middle of your performance, dropping a drink or even talking to you.

Michael also mentioned that taking a “pill” to dull your heightened senses is not a good idea.  Some Rescue Remedy is okay but anything stronger is not advisable. After all, you have gone to all this effort to put together this production and you should enjoy it to maximum degree. 

2. Connect with the audience one person at a time. Make eye contact with one person in the audience and then slowly shift your gaze to the next person and then the next and then the next. I see so many performers, myself included, closing their eyes when they perform. This is most likely perceived as self-indulgent by the audience. 

I have often heard that you should imagine the audience naked. Personally I find the advice of connecting with one person at a time much more useful. I even asked for the lights in a rather dark venue to be turned up as much as possible so that I could see the people’s faces. The sound engineer just laughed. He said most performers don’t want to see, they just want to be seen! 

3. Tell them the story of why you wrote or chose this particular song. THAT is what is interesting. THAT is what the people have come to see at the National Arts Festival. They love stories. They love to hear what it is that makes people tick and this is your chance to tell your story.  If it is a cover song that you are performing, there is a reason why you chose that particular song for this particular show. If it is an original, tell them why you wrote the song and why you chose to perform it for them today. 

If you are just reading from a script so that you have something to say in between songs then the audience will only hear; “yak yak yak”, song “yak yak yak”, song. Unlike the songs, the “yak yak yak” has no internal rhythm. They will just stop listening to what you are saying between songs and wait for the next song. Use the three “P's” when telling the story; Pitch, Pace and Pause. 
4. Prepare a structure and then dissolve it for the audience. The “structure” of the show involves just about everything about the show including; what you are going to wear, how you are going to introduce yourself, what songs you are going to sing and in what order, what you are going to say in between each song, how you are going to walk on and off the stage, how you are going to move around during the show and what props you are going to use. Everything should be planned to the smallest detail and then performed for the audience as if it hadn’t been planned at all. 

 After hearing this particular piece of advice, I started planning and rehearsing my own production. I decided to wear a free flowing “folky” type dress with boots and a brown soft suede jacket. I wanted to sit on a low chair as close to the audience as I possibly could. I decided to play some songs acoustically and some with my own back-tracks.

I selected some covers and some originals, all specifically chosen for a specific reason that I planned to tell the audience about. I chose to have a music stand to hold my “crib notes” and also my cell phone that held my back-tracks. I also had my own guitar stand. 
Michael had also said to try and incorporate different levels onto the stage because different levels were interesting to the eye. I took a little side table, some flowers and a lamp with me with me to Grahamstown but in an effort to keep things simple, ended up not using them. He also thought that a headset microphone would give me move freedom to move around the stage but I settled for using the engineer’s microphones because I didn’t want any sound surprises on the day. 
It is hard to believe that my concerns were addressed so simply in one short afternoon session. I recognize that I will need to perform many more times, internalizing all that Michael had to say (luckily I recorded it on my cell phone). I also realize that my performance can never be “perfect” but only ever “improving”. Thank you so much Michael and The Skills Clinic for helping me at such short notice. You are incredible!