When I order coffee in an airport when I’m traveling to do a performance in a distant city I sometimes feel a little shudder. I can’t help wonder if simply saying the words “Cafe Americano” might dislodge something vital from the pages of script I’m carrying in my head. Where do words live once committed to memory? Words from the middle of my memorized script apparently manage to come to mind once I start running the show, but where are they when the barista gives me my change, or when I thank her and ask for a spoon?
On-camera performances present challenges, certainly, but live events set up entirely different hurdles. One of the strangest is the sense that somewhere intangible, in a person’s actual head, a long string of words and action and emotions wait, gathered into a protected confederacy. The closer to a performance date, the more a performer begins to wonder if reading a book or watching a movie or even speaking to another person might inadvertently knock some vital mnemonic brick out of place, send the whole edifice of memorized exactitude cascading into the abyss.
There’s no such thing as simply showing up and doing a show.
Getting ready for a live performance risks moments of presenting mental instability to other people. A person caught while rehearsing risks appearing delusional to unprepared interlopers. Often when a performer practices his or her lines there’s no one listening! No one responds. The emotive energy, the repetitions, the pacing, eyes closed even as words flow out, suggest something’s off in a person, something obsessive or unwell. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Audiences get different impressions when they experience a polished performance, but in the time it takes to get ready, rehearsals can feel a little…uncomfortable…to the uninitiated.
For the person doing the preparation, the journey is always uphill. No matter how much the script and staging makes sense, resonates or even matters personally for the performer, preparation fundamentally presents challenges. Prepping how to walk, how to talk, when to time out dramatic beats and emotionally resonant hooks demands an inherently unnatural process. Words on a page need to be ingested and internalized, a process that does not come naturally for most. In fact, even in our wired world filled with endless tools for data management and instantaneous information retrieval, the act of human memorization still demands something of a brute force approach. Repetition after repetition, over and over and over again, a performer reads a text out loud until it becomes its own kind of musical hook, it’s own rhythmic thing. It’s easier for some, but rarely easy. It takes honest, genuine work. It’s not glamorous, no matter how glamorous an ultimate performance may turn out to be, and there are few shortcuts.
Gradually things start to come together. For all but a few performers, something private switches in the accelerating approach of the oncoming show. A performer must transform from someone rehearsing into someone preparing, on the way to becoming someone performing. Performance, per se, is an unnatural state. It demands a kind of precision that defies the ways we typically live life, and as a performer gets ready he or she must figure out how to compartmentalize. Wherever that script may be locked in a performer’s head, it must be unpacked, unfolded, and unfurled.
Finally, it happens. The show begins. The words and actions and pacing and presence of the performer begin to unspool. No live event goes precisely as planned--ever--but the better a performer knows his or her part, the more those exigencies can be managed in real time. Ultimately the goal is for the audience to perceive something that appears as if it were inevitable, as if it were completely in charge of itself, natural to its contrived environment and effortless.
“Live” is where each of us live every day. We pump our own gas “live”; we make breakfast for the kids “live”; we retell jokes at the office water cooler “live”. But live performance raises the stakes, and when the stakes are higher, when what we’re planning to do will affect how other people think about what we really want to communicate or complete, there’s no replacement for rehearsal.