Keeping the performance fresh

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An actor told me an anecdote once, about how he managed to ruffle the feathers of a colleague who has a distinguished track record of being the leading man in major productions of classical plays. When a moment came for him to interact with the leading man, he played it differently to what he had done before, but in a way that was just as plausible or believable as what they were both used to. The leading man (who was probably performing on auto pilot on that occasion) was flummoxed by the change in his colleague’s performance and went blank for a moment. Needless to say, the person who told me was upbraided for “shifting the goal posts” by the company’s management.

Maybe there was some mischievous intent in the storyteller’s behaviour, but he managed to make a point which wouldn’t have been lost on all concerned. The highest standards of performance have their demands – the actor/singer/dancer/instrumentalist should be alive in the moment, not just relying on muscle memory to get through a show.

Of course we are human and sometimes, mental and physical energy are going to flag, especially when we’re performing the same material, night after night. Perhaps we need to find ways to keep things interesting for ourselves. One of the benefits of being a member of a repertory theatre company is the fact that there are several performance journeys to work through during a season.

I have heard stories about Bob Dylan, not letting his band know the list of songs they were going to perform in a show till they got onstage. I can understand the rationale behind this way of working. Nothing is more numbing than listening to bored performers going through the motions.

I attended a concert once that was played by one of Africa’s leading recording stars of the last fifty years. His band played every note of the music in the right place, but I had a feeling that they had a plane to catch, or some other pressing need to get the gig over and done with. I have great respect for the artist (who happens to be charming and gracious behind the scenes) but memories are made of moments like the ones I experienced that night.

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