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April 22, 2021

Crafting a Performance Persona

Story time!

Just FYI—if you’d like to read the following section using the voice of Sophia Petrillo we certainly won’t discourage you.  Doing so may well add to the enjoyment, and will work surprisingly well with the theme of this month’s blog…

“Picture it.  London.  The early seventies.  Witness a young songwriter; talented but painfully shy.  He’s seeking a way to both kickstart his fledgling career and make it easier for himself to assume the intimidating duties of being a performer.  The eureka moment arrives when he conceives an outrageous stage persona—an avatar to do the messy work of being a rock star for him.  Behold:  Ziggy Stardust.”

And the gambit worked.

What does this have to do with Parthenia?  Much more than you might imagine.  The David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust example may be from an entirely different context and musical tradition, but the fact of the matter is, if they want to perform in public, all artists must at some point find a way to overcome their fears and command the stage.

“I desperately wanted to be a performer,” Lisa Terry recalls, “but I didn’t know how to do it well.”

Stage fright is one of the most common fears in the world.  Glossophobia—a fear of public speaking—is something experienced by roughly three-quarters of the population.  Speech, though, is at least something that most people can do under the right circumstances.  Now imagine having to go on stage and play complex passages of music; under pressure, indeed.

 “I’m not an extrovert,” Lisa adds, “but I wanted to be listened to.”

The answer, as Lisa would ultimately discover, was to develop a stage persona—a second self blessed with all of the exaggerated characteristics necessary for the job.  Sound familiar?

When he wasn’t distracted by the ongoing drama of being frenemies with Sigmund Freud, Swiss psychiatrist/psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote voluminously about what he called a “shadow self.”  The shadow represented a kind of grab-bag of all the personal characteristics that people typically keep under wraps:  avarice, libido, pride.  Developing a performance persona is, in a way, the art of tapping into elements of the shadow self and utilizing them for good.  

“I had to imagine myself as a big man who exuded confidence and nerves of steel,” Lisa states.

Lisa is candid about her inspiration for the character. “My teacher, Richard Taruskin,” Lisa explains.  “He was my mentor and he got met out of that frightened shell.  Being me was vulnerable.  Being him was not.”

Lisa with her mentor Richard Taruskin.

So far, so good.  But let’s pause for a brief public service announcement.

Confidence is a tricky thing.  We’ve all dealt with people who believe in themselves to an exaggerated and even harmful degree.  In psychology the term for this is the Dunning-Kruger effect—a phenomenon that arises when people think they’re much better at a specific task than they actually are.  The point of this blog is not to suggest that bravado is the solution.

“Richard set a task for me: I would have to learn a big program with lots of challenging pieces in it,” Lisa explains, “and then go perform it ten times within six months.  What Richard wanted me to learn from it was to develop stage presence.”

So a robust performance persona is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, making it possible for a performer to exude “confidence” while they go through the grueling work that it takes to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

It took time, but the hard work eventually paid off.  “I started to realize,” Lisa admits, “that if I looked like I was having fun then the audience had a really good time and I got a lot of compliments, which gave me a boost.”

The end result: confidence personified.

“There were certain performances in the late eighties and early nineties when I felt like I owned the universe,”  Lisa admits. “But almost more than performance I think it was when I began to teach and give myself to others that I was finally able to be at ease. Different people have different ways of pumping themselves up so that they can dare to do this scary thing.”

“I still go out on stage imagining that everybody’s watching me,” Lisa admits.  “I still absolutely desire their attention.  I think of it as a communication the whole night long.  As frightened as I can be, I’m also so into them watching and listening to me.”

What steps can young musicians take?  Lisa has some advice specifically tailored for the TikTok generation.

“Get some help figuring out ways to give performances in your own community,” Lisa says.  “And do some performances for real humans.  Don’t just make videos!  Perform for humans and find out if you like it.”

“It’s good to know that it’s an act,” Lisa adds, “It’s good to know that it never replaces discipline and preparation.”

And, of course, always leave room to unwind, reflect and return to earth.  “I don’t mind the concert me being different from how I am day to day,”  Lisa says.

So, if you’re reading this, there’s a slim chance that you’re one of those exceedingly rare individuals who feel as comfortable on stage as they are riding a bus or folding laundry (both of which are admittedly terrible examples – a true stage diva would never do either!)

On the other, more likely hand, if you’re someone who would like to pursue a career as a performer, but you find the idea unspeakably frightening, you have just been given a possibility.

Who is your inner performer?

About Kieran Walsh
Kieran Walsh is an author, musician and filmmaker residing in New York City.