The Psychology of Performing

Lessons from my performance.

Posted Mar 05, 2019

Marty Nemko
Source: Marty Nemko

Saturday, I performed my show Odd Man Out. Afterward, as I sat in the dressing room, I found myself thinking of all the psychologically oriented things I did before, during, and after the performance, and thought you might find lessons embedded that could be of value to you, whether you’ll be on stage, teaching a class, or giving a two-minute report at a staff meeting.

A week before

I reflected on my previous performances of this show: What worked, what didn’t, do I want to freshen it, and if so, is that because the audience will like it better or because I’m bored with myself but the audience would prefer my old stuff? What do I need to rehearse and not? I didn’t need to rehearse the entire show, just the parts I wanted to solidify or improve. Doing that reduced my rehearsal time without hurting my show.

I emailed or phoned the stakeholders—the person who booked me, the light/sound technician, the house manager. I did that not just to be in sync on what will happen on Saturday but to create the positive vibe that makes everything go smoother and all of us feel good about the event.

Two other performers have roles in my show. In reaching out to them, I let them know how much I valued their being part of the show. To that end, I asked them questions that conveyed that I care about them as people, not just as performers, mainly simple things like, “Hey, you want to drive to the theater yourself or with me?” and “You told me you were moving soon. How’s that going?”

Two hours before

I arrived early so my naturally hyper self didn't get exacerbated by having to rush. The first thing I did was check in again with the light/sound technician and the house manager, starting by letting them know how much I appreciate their efforts. When the box office person and janitor arrived, I made a point of thanking them for being unsung heroes without whom the show can’t go on. I do that, yes, to be kind but also to set up the aforementioned good vibe, and to distract myself from nervousness. For me at least, focusing on other people and their needs keeps me from worrying about myself and my performance.

As I’m setting up my keyboard and props, I deliberately go slowly, again calming me.

A half hour before

When I finished setting up the stage, I went to the dressing room and, again, slowly prepared: put on my makeup, Act I costume, etc. As the other actors came in, I made a point of stopping and connecting with them with a thank-you, a little joke, etc.

Right before we went on stage, I pointed to a banner I had hung up in the dressing room that said, “Have fun out there!” I accompanied that with, “Guys, at least as far as I’m concerned, life doesn’t get much better than this: using our best skills to have fun entertaining a crowd of people. Let’s savor it and yes, let’s have fun out there.”

During the performance

I suffer from intrusive fears, even when performing. That happened a half-dozen times during Saturday’s show. Obviously, I didn’t have time then to wait until the fearful thoughts passed so I forced myself to focus on the next chord or on my next words.

Throughout the show, I tried to connect with the audience. When telling a story, I use this technique: I take a couple steps toward the engaged audience member in one of the front rows who is sitting farthest to my left and look them fondly in the eye. After a second, I take a step or two to an engaged audience member to that person’s right and again try to really connect. I continue that until I reach the far right of the audience and then reverse direction. After the show, I came out to greet the audience and a couple of them said they felt I was especially connecting with them (even though I had focused on them for no more than a few seconds during the entire show.)

During the curtain call, again I tried to connect with people in the audience. I feel entitled to soak in the applause. I’m especially moved when I see happy teary-eyed faces. When the first audience member gives me a standing o, I extend my arms out to the person in appreciation and then put my hands on my heart. That lets them know that even though I’ve done hundreds of performances, I value a single person’s appreciating my work. That also encourages other people to stand. I learned that technique from Las Vegas star Wayne Newton, who said that even if early in the applause just a few people stand, by acknowledging them that way, others then are motivated to stand and he usually ends up with a full standing ovation!

After the performance

As mentioned, I make a point of going out to greet the audience as they’re leaving the theater. They enjoy it and I get to hear some nice words. (Of course, anyone who hated the show probably just scooted by.)

After the audience has left, I again tried to connect individually with each staff member and volunteer, from the ushers to the person who sold refreshments at intermission to the janitor as he’s about to vacuum the theater.

I returned to the dressing room, again focused on thanking my fellow performers. I consider myself still “on” until I’m back in my car. As I’m changing back into my street clothes, I allow myself to privately gloat about the parts of the show I did well, the applause, the kind words after. But given my personality, I allowed that for just a few seconds whereupon I moved to what I wish I had done better—It’s hard to change your personality! But I forced myself to think mainly positively, including how I’ll try to make my next performance the best yet.

The takeaway

I’m guessing that my psychology of performing is at least somewhat idiosyncratic to me, but is there at least one thing you want to take away from this self-report that you might want to use the next time you’re in front of an audience?