The thrill of performance

There’s a great advantage to writing for other people to read. When I read a story, I have a little movie running in my head, with the scenery and the characters, their responses, voices, actions, all tailored to what I see and expect. When I write a story, I hope the same thing will happen for my readers.

Reading your own work aloud to people is different. As any performer knows, how you stand, move (or don’t) and speak has a profound effect on how your audience perceives the work. Great delivery can make a so-so story riveting, and poor delivery bring a great one to a screeching halt. Intonation, breathing, timing all have to be considered in a performance. You also have to be aware of your audience.

Last night I had the wonderful opportunity to read from “Shepherd in Residence” to a lovely, attentive and appreciative audience. They laughed where I meant them to laugh, listened where I meant them to listen. I think in part this was because my writing is good, but mostly, I believe, because I’ve learned to perform as much as read. I’ve been reading my own work aloud for listeners for twenty years now, so I’ve had lots of practice.

Part of last night’s Robbie Burns Protest Night was an open mike, an opportunity for people to read protest prose or poetry. Some was original, some was the work of other writers. There was quite a variation in the quality of the presentations. Some of those who read looked up at the audience from time to time, engaged us and let us know that this was for us, simply by making that contact. Others kept their eyes strictly on the page and read without pause. Were we even there for them? It was hard to say from the way they read.

It was also hard to tell if they were enjoying themselves. That’s a pity, because the reader’s pleasure in the work, and excitement about being before an audience, feeds the audience’s reaction. If the stance and voice and facial expression of the reader say, “I’m so glad to be here with you! Listen to this – you’ll love it!”, then the audience is prepared to be engaged. When the audience is engaged, they’re listening eagerly, waiting to hear what’s next, reacting spontaneously to the work. That feeds the performer.

I used to wonder why so many rock musicians would yell, “I love you!” at the audience. Really? I’d think. Yes, really, I now know. There’s a connection between a performer and an audience, a psychic line tossed from floor to stage. When someone reads head-down in the page, without ever looking at the people they’re supposedly reading for, they completely miss that connection. The line falls at their feet and slithers away.

I came home from last night’s reading buzzed, and I’m still happy about it. I sucked up every bit of that wonderful audience energy. It’s why I do it – that wonderful thrill. I can’t think of a better reason.

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