Artists vs. Performers

A conversation with one of my classmates made me consider the distinction (if there truly is one – my personal belief is that it’s kind of a nonsense distinction, and an awfully judgmental way of trying to determine what’s going on inside someone else’s head) between being “an artist” or (merely, the implication was) “a performer.” I do honestly think it’s a judgment that I’m not interested in making about other people, though the implication was that I ought to want to be an artist rather than a performer, myself.The program I’m in takes the view that it trains actors who sing and dance rather than singers or dancers who act. I’m in favor of that training for myself because it describes me and what I want to be, but I can’t help but think that it’s a frustratingly limited way of looking at people

Personally, I think I’ve got the “artist” side of the approach working just fine; I can research a character, develop or delve deeper into background, try out a dozen different line readings before settling on one, have a true emotional experience onstage, bring my own personal experiences into play when connecting with a character… all of those approaches that people try to tell you make the better actor. I would like to think that the amount of thought and care that I put into my characters makes me a better actor than I would be if I didn’t invest that time; I’m just not sure any of it translates to my actual performance. In that respect, I would love to have a little more of the performer in me. Plenty of art never sees the light of day, and I want to give something to other people. Otherwise, what’s the point of pursuing this as hard as I have been?

This reminds me of the argument I had with a friend who tried to tell me that, as a writer, I must desire an audience. That I must, on some level, write for other people. She was insistent that I had that motivation, or that if I didn’t, I wasn’t truly a writer. 

Really? Writing down my stories and experiences since I could hold a pen didn’t make me a writer? Another friend tried to tell me that taking an extended break from writing fiction or things meant for others to consume meant I was no longer a writer, and took it as a personal insult that I still occasionally used the term to describe myself — never mind that I’ve had at least one online blog or journal continuously since 2000, and at least one of them had an audience and a very specific style that wasn’t my own natural voice. I wasn’t a writer because I wasn’t writing a very specific thing. I was writing for myself, and that didn’t count. I didn’t count. I didn’t and don’t believe that, but my writing isn’t something I’m terribly interested in sharing. I’m going to do it whether or not anyone wants me to. Acting isn’t like that for me.

I want my acting to count, and the problem with both it and my singing is that I’ve been doing it for me. I’ve found that in the course of testing out my audition repertoire that the things I’ve sung thus far have all been chosen because I liked to sing them, because I connected with them, or, in some cases, because they would help aspects of my technique. But they don’t work as audition repertoire because they don’t “sell” me. I’m starting to realize that my audition book has to serve a very specific purpose, regardless of what music I’d like to personally study and develop and perform for others. That very specific skill — auditioning –needs to be purely for others; I can figure out what kind of artist I’d like to be on my own time.

My heart rebels against this way of thinking because I’ve discovered my voice so very recently that I want to sing everything, type be damned. But I want a shot at this, so I have to learn how to be a performer. I spend so much time in my own head that what I lack, right now, is a sense of how to perform versus simply act. I can act all alone in my living room, but I don’t really yet know how to make it about others. 

One thing that always cuts very deeply is when someone accuses me of being… I believe the last person to say it kindly in relation to my performance phrased it as “too wrapped up in [my]self.” It hurts because it’s true; even in my  offstage life I live very deeply inside my own head much of the time. I come across as self-centered; I talk about myself too much because all I want is to give others something to connect to. Asking questions is prying, but offering something of myself? That’s easy, until it’s not. Until it’s for an audience and I’m playing a character who is nothing like me, or too much like me. Until I’m singing a song that resonates too deeply or that I fear people will believe of me. Then sharing myself is too hard, I close off, and it doesn’t work.

Those are the times I need to learn that it’s not about me at all, and tell the story. 

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