Chapter 14 - Mental Attitude
Among the characteristics most objectionable in a performer, self-conceit probably takes first place. There is all the difference in the world between this and conscious ability. The latter belongs to the man who knows his own capabilities, which have been acquired by prolonged study and effort. Self-conceit usually denotes the man who knows nothing with certainty but vainly imagines his personal gifts to be superior to all knowledge. Believing himself a heaven-born genius, he constantly proves himself an unmitigated ass. Average audiences will size him up in a moment, and set up their backs accordingly. They could find no pleasure greater than that of taking him down a peg or two. That frame of mind is probably the worst an audience can adopt, so far as a performer's interests are concerned. The good-will of spectators is essential to his success, and their antagonism is to be avoided by every means.
However detrimental to a performer may be the fault of self-conceit, it is scarcely more so than the failing of self-consciousness. Of course, when a performer is naturally self-conscious, he must remain so to the end. He may in time gain great control over his self-consciousness, but he cannot expect to destroy it. Yet, however heavily he may be handicapped by this defect, he must prevent the public from knowing how much he is overweighted, or he will never gain the confidence of his audiences. Some people will pity him; others will ridicule his efforts to entertain them; but, in the whole crowd, there will be none who will believe in him. Therefore, the first aim of every self-conscious performer should be to conceal the nervous affection with which he is afflicted, and which diverts toward his own person some of the attention he should devote exclusively to his work. He must learn the knack of keeping his mind from dwelling upon what spectators think about him. In short, he must realize that nobody cares a straw whether or not his necktie is straight, or his trousers are properly creased down the leg.
The true remedy for this personal failing consists in cultivating the ability to assume a character more or less foreign to one's own. That ability is merely what is demanded of every actor in his daily work. And, as we have already had to admit, the man who cannot become a fairly good actor in one particular line, at least, cannot hope for any great success as a magician. Hence, the chief study of a self-conscious magician should be to assume the character of a self-possessed entertainer. Upon his ability to play that part primarily depends his success as an artist in magic.
A tendency to panic in the event of any hitch occurring, is another detrimental characteristic. Some people are naturally cool in the face of an emergency. They may be nervous In the ordinary course of events, but an emergency steadies their nerves and braces up their energies. Others, and very often those who possess the artistic temperament in a high degree, are liable to become agitated and distracted by any slight mischance. Thus, they suffer considerable disadvantage as compared with less sensitive men. Their real merits will often be overshadowed by this failing, while men of inferior ability but who are able to keep cool may gain repute far in excess of their deserts.
This defect also is capable of correction by means of mental training, as in the case of self-consciousness. The best remedy consists in acquiring a due sense of proportion, and bearing in mind Hamlet's words--"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
At all times, a performer should remember how greatly his own attitude may influence the thoughts of his spectators. His views and impressions may not always be shared by those who witness his performance. The audience may not be disposed either to accept his abilities at his own valuation, or to agree with the opinions he expresses. But it is practically certain that the relative importance of any detail in his performance will be estimated by his own attitude toward, it. Thus, any exhibition of panic or discomfiture at once invites the contempt and derision of his audience. Whereas, if he can only control his faculties sufficiently to make light of an accidental mischance, the audience will hardly give a second thought to the circumstance.
Those who perform in public must invariably be prepared to make the best of whatever may happen, even of the very worst that can possibly happen. This can only be done by discarding everything in the nature of agitation or worry, which are the surest means for making the worst of any conceivable situation. Distractions of that kind only waste energy which should be employed to better ends, in providing a remedy for whatever may be wrong. Even though the worst may happen, and there is no possibility of finding a way out of some difficulty or other, it is not a matter of life or death, and the performer therefore need suffer no great anxiety. Even though he must tacitly confess to complete failure in one of his feats, he has no cause for serious distress. There is always another day tomorrow, in which present defeat may be turned to victory. His immediate aim should be to minimize the importance of his mishap, so far as may be possible. In outward appearance, at any rate, he should make light of it. If he can do no better, he should simply laugh at his own ill-luck and pass on to his next item. A well chosen witticism concerning the malignity of matter, the total depravity of inanimate objects, or the natural uncertainty attending the "schemes of mice and men" will usually turn the laugh in his favor. When a mishap can be passed off in this way, ridicule is disarmed at once and no unfavorable impression remains in the minds of spectators. On the other hand, when a performer displays vexation and anxiety with regard to a mishap, he merely assists in turning the laugh against himself. To laugh at the discomfiture of others is a natural tendency of humanity at large and, in this respect, all audiences are very human indeed. If anything goes wrong--or, rather, we should say when anything goes wrong, the audience is almost sure to laugh. Therefore, it is for the performer to see that his spectators laugh with him--and not at him, as they are sure to do if he loses his head.
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