Saturday, August 10, 2013

Attempting to Define the Elusive Quality of Stage Presence

I've spent many years in theatre - in fact, it was my original career path when I started college, though I switched to psychology early on and haven't really looked back. I still try to perform when I get the chance, in my choir, at karaoke night, and by singing at church. Tonight, I cantored a mass at our local Catholic church, where I have been part of the music ministry for a while, and was complimented by the accompanist, not only on my singing, but on my stage presence. I've had many friends compliment me on my presence in recent years, which I find somewhat funny.

Why do I find it funny? In high school, when theatre was my life, my theatre teacher told me repeatedly that I needed to work on my stage presence. Not really having a clear picture of what that was and how to get it, I tried to exude some quality during my acting. I had no clue what I was doing. Seriously. No. Clue.

So she recommended I try taking dance classes. At 17 years old, I took my very first dance class. Tap. I loved it. It was rhythmic. It was fun. I didn't have to be graceful - that is a quality I seriously lack - and I caught on quickly. My teacher told me what I joy I was to teach because I just got it. With my hubris and belief in untapped dance ability, I decided to add jazz and ballet. Ballet, I was just okay. Jazz, I was horrible. Should have just stuck with tap.

But somewhere along the way, I got it. I got the stage presence. And I've had people telling me how wonderful my presence is ever since. I wish I could nail down what it is I'm doing now that I wasn't doing as a freshmen and sophomore theatre geek. I think that's why psychological research appealed to me - I don't do well with vague, undefined concepts. I like to be able to understand the nuts and bolts of a concept, so that I can explain it to others. In research, we call these "operational definitions" - and see a previous blog post about the concept.

So I started thinking about what stage presence is, in an effort to teach others how they can get it too. Here's what I've got so far. Feel free to add anything in the comments.

Of course, there are apparently many workshops that purport to teach you stage presence. I'm giving these tips away for free, mostly because I'm not sure if they're actually good tips. You've been warned! :)
1. Posture: It sounds silly to tell people to make sure they have good posture, but it's true. Standing up straight really does make a difference. It makes you seem taller, and, as a short person, I know I don't take up much space, so this by itself does a lot. You'd be surprised how many people have bad posture. I've watched many actors (even big-name actors) with their upper body leaned slightly forward, and it makes them look like they're uncomfortable and out of place.

2. Even when you're not doing something, do something: There's a singer (who shall remain nameless) who is really involved when she sings. But only when she sings. When the accompaniment continues between verses, she does nothing. She looks like she's waiting for a bus. I'm not saying you should flail your arms around, or do jumping jacks, or something. But don't look like you're just waiting for the music. Smile. Look like you're thinking about something wonderful (or terrible, if you're singing a sad song). If you're singing with another person, engage with them. Whatever you do, it should make sense with the song. But don't look like you're waiting for a bus - unless you're singing about waiting for a bus.

3. Engage someone, whoever makes sense: If you're performing at a recital or church, look at your audience. It's okay to look at your music, but don't just stare at it. If you're in a play, where it doesn't make sense to notice an audience of people sitting there (i.e., the fourth wall), engage with other people on the stage. If you're alone, take in your surroundings. Once again, do what makes sense with the song, but you're doing more than just singing. You're a character, even in a recital or a church. So figure out what your character would be thinking or doing or wanting to look at, and do that.

4. Pretend that whatever you're doing is right, even if it's wrong: I sing wrong words more than I'd like to admit. I mess up notes. I miss pick-ups. We all do it. Don't cringe when you notice your mistake. Just go with it. This is probably the biggest mistake made by good, but amateur, musicians. You're good enough to know when you've messed up (which sets you apart from the not-so-good amateur musicians), but not yet confident enough to hide it well. Of course, keep practicing. Work to minimize your mistakes. But also work to suppress reactions to those mistakes. If you can master that, most people won't even notice when you screw up.

5. Related to #4, always look like you know what you're doing, even when you don't: Once again, this takes practice. Walk with purpose, even if you think you're going the wrong way. Speak as if your words are gospel, even if you know in the back of your mind that they're the wrong words. Don't look lost - unless that's your character. But whatever you're doing, do it 100% and most people will think that's exactly what you should do.

6. If all else fails, try tap-dancing: I'm not sure if it actually worked, but hey, it was fun. And that's always something. :)

Presently yours,