Stage Manner & Presentation

Chapter 13 - Stage Manner and Presentation

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To a public performer, the value of an effective personality is abundantly evident. But, in practice, it is well to understand the extent to which personality alone is comprised in what commonly goes by that name. We believe that, to a great extent, what is called "personality" is by no means a natural possession, "bred in the bone." We regard it as being very frequently a composite manifestation of qualities native and acquired. Habit is second nature, as everybody knows. Therefore, much that passes as personality may be merely acquired habit; and should, correctly speaking, be described as the ability to hold the attention and excite the interest of an audience. That ability, of course, is a personal asset, and one of great value; but it cannot be regarded as one in which personal characteristics are exclusively involved. Such influence over an audience is often due to nothing more than a thorough knowledge of one's business, combined with the confidence due to long experience. It is mainly an acquired habit, and but slightly associated with real personality.

There may be--indeed, there are--instances in which a performer's sole claim to public appreciation has been derived from pleasing characteristics which nature bestowed upon him. But on the other hand, there have been performers who, although possessed of no such natural advantages, could exercise upon an audience all the magnetic influence that attractive personality could create. Further than that, some performers, so heavily handicapped by nature that one might think them possessed of every quality calculated to inspire aversion, have gained public applause and appreciation. Yes! have even achieved success in circumstances that would condemn many well-favored men to failure. The success attained by such men would no doubt be ascribed by their audiences to "personality." We, however, regard the matter in another light. When a man's natural qualities are in themselves detrimental to his powers of attracting appreciation, it cannot be personality that gains for him success in public. There must be other factors in the problem. There must be something of such value that it not only renders him successful without aid from "personality," but outweighs the detrimental characteristics operating against him, into the bargain.

Such facts as these must have come within the experience of everyone. In view of these facts, there seems but one conclusion that can be rationally accepted. We are bound to conclude that what is called "personality" very often consists in purely artificial methods acquired by the individual, and not natural to him. In others words, it consists in a knowledge of artistic requirements and of their harmonization with personal peculiarities. By such means, a performer's natural disadvantages may be not only disguised but actually made useful. The man who can achieve this is an artist, beyond all doubt; whereas the man who succeeds by virtue of personality alone, can claim no artistic merit whatever. We owe him no praise for being as nature made him. But to the man who impresses us favorably, in spite of nature's efforts to make him repellent, we owe all the praise that any artist can deserve.

At the root of this matter there is found the principle stated in Robert-Houdin's definition of a conjurer, to which we have so often alluded. The man is an actor, as every magician should be. He does not appear to the audience clothed in his own personality. He assumes, for the time, a personality not his own , but that of the magician he wishes to represent. It is that assumed personality which appeals to his spectators, and is by them regarded as his in fact. They are not allowed to see the man himself, but only the man he intends them to see. Therein we have the highest art, of acting and magic alike. We may call it personality if we will, but in truth it is only personal by acquisition. It is no more a natural endowment than a suit of clothes, bought and paid for. It has been bought by experience and paid for by labor and study.

If this is the true state of the case, as it seems to be, there should exist but few men who are incapable of acquiring a "stage manner" that will pass for effective personality. A satisfactory "stage presence," of course, must depend mainly upon the gifts the gods have given. But a satisfactory stage manner is a thing possible of acquirement, at the expense of thought and effort. There may be great difficulty in learning to play the part adopted. In most cases, perhaps, there is bound to be great difficulty. What of that? Almost everything worth doing at all is difficult to do. Hardly anything worth doing is easy to do. It is all in the day's work, anyhow. Inferior work, easy to do, can only succeed by accident. Even then, although it may bring in cash, it will never bring credit. It will be I easy come, easy go," and there an end. Art is cast in another and a very different mold. And an artist, worthy of the name, cannot expect to have an easy time. The primrose path is not for him. Hard days and short nights are his natural expectation.

It is not difficult to state the requirements of an effective stage manner in general terms. But it is impossible to define the infinitely varied needs of individual performers. What may be best. in one case, may be unthinkable in another. In this respect, every performer must be a law unto himself. He may gain much aid from competent criticism of his procedure, but much more depends upon his own judgment and practical experience. His own common sense, properly exercised, should be his best guide. Above all, he should never forget that the opinions of any Tom, Dick, or Harry he may happen to meet will probably be worthless, and that the opinions of paid assistants are sure to be misleading. The man whose bread and butter one provides will naturally say what one would like to hear, even at the expense of his personal convictions, if such he happens to possess. As a rule, his only convictions are derived from his employer. What the "guv'nor" likes must be right. What the "boss" believes, his employee will swear to--especially if he would get sworn at for doing otherwise. Still, when a performer finds that Tom, Dick, and Harry unanimously agree in a certain opinion, he will do well to consider that opinion dispassionately and seriously.

Confining ourselves to generalities, we may state the requirements of an effective stage manner as follows: First and foremost, we must emphasize the need for cultivating an earnest desire to please. That is absolutely essential to success. The audience can have no expectation other than that of being pleased by the performance paid for. People who pay to see what a performer has to show them, do so for their pleasure. Therefore, it is their pleasure that should have the chief consideration from the man who receives their money. He is not there to please himself.

Next in order of importance may be placed the need for understanding human nature, especially in relation to public gatherings. No man thinks or feels the same at all times. The thoughts and sentiments of all men vary in accordance with circumstances. Humanity in the aggregate differs very little from humanity in the individual. Every audience has its own particular characteristics, just as much as every person. The general character of either, for the time being, depends on the resultant influence of many causes acting together. At a public performance, some of these causes will act in favor of the performer, others will act against him. The resultant influence will vary, from time to time, according to the direction in which the causes preponderate. These are facts with which every performer should be acquainted, and the operation of which he should fully realize. Unless he can understand that audiences are subject to the same accidental influences as affect individuals, and can realize that individuals are merely creatures of circumstance, he is sure to be misled by appearances. He is sure to think that the apparent attitude of the audience toward his performance has a personal relation to himself, either for good or ill. He will think that if the spectators immediately respond to his efforts he is successful; if they do not, that it is hopeless to try to please them. Whereas, in actual fact, he should never pay the slightest attention to the attitude of his spectators. That is an accidental phenomenon, entirely beyond his control.

When a performer goes upon the stage, he should remember that he stands before people who have no personal interest in anything that he does. They may be in the mood to appreciate his work, or they may not. That has nothing to do with him. If the odds are in his favor, so much the better for him. If not, so much the worse. In either case his audience is subject to a variety of influences, to which must be added the influence he himself can create. So far as he is concerned, what he has to do is to make his personal influence operate in his favor, to the utmost. That is all he can do, in any case; and, whatever may be the odds against him, that is what he should do in every case.

Another essential is the maintenance of good humor. Since every audience is subject to the impressions received at the moment, and good humor in the audience is necessary to a performer's success, that is one of the most important impressions he must convey. No matter how ill-humored an audience may be, the man upon the stage must appear to be in good humor. In fact, the more out of humor he may find his audience, the greater the need for a countervailing influence upon his part. His efforts in this direction will never fail to meet with their due reward.

Diplomacy and expediency may be said to cover the entire ground in this connection. The performer must deal with his audience diplomatically, and act in accordance with the dictates which circumstances show to be expedient. Firmness of purpose, combined with the utmost courtesy, should govern every relation between a performer and his audience. Conscious ability exercised in the service of one's spectators is, perhaps, the most effective aid to success at any time--whatever else a performer may count to his advantage, or wherever he may otherwise fail.


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