What might a performing arts teacher tell you about presentation skills training?
We're not always aware of what our body is doing. Nervous tapping, hair twirling, finger cracking- there are a host of physical activities that can overtake us, seemingly without our knowledge. We might never think twice about them (maybe we should, though!). In our presenting and communicating life, it is of the utmost importance that we start to become aware of our physicality.
Much of vocal and acting training centers around this idea- breaking down bad habits so you can be more available to create a unique character. Teachers, coaches, and professors of all kinds have great advice on doing just that- and there are a few big ideas that have stuck with me over the years.
I started formal voice lessons when I was 14. I studied with a married couple, each of whom had long, impressive careers in both the musical theatre and opera. As we worked on repertoire over the years, talking not only about the musicality and vocal technique of the song, but of the interpretation of it, they introduced me to an incredibly useful tip about audience connection- on stage, keep your eyes open. "When you close your eyes on stage," they advised, "it's like pulling a curtain between you and your audience."
About 10 years later, I was working on song interpretation with another coach, who listed many Broadway shows on his resume. After I'd performed a song, he pointed out the multiple times during my performance where I'd closed my eyes for prolonged moments- I didn't even know that I was doing it! "Fight the urge to close your eyes- keep your eyes open in those moments and experience them!" In doing so, I got to share those moments with my audience, instead of keeping my audience from participating with me.
I've tried to continue these efforts throughout my professional life. It's not easy, but it's important. What's some useful advice on physicality a performing arts prof might have for you? Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
The voice teacher's advice: On stage, keep your eyes open. As the old adage goes, "the eyes are the windows to the soul"- so much of human connection comes through eye contact. Sometimes we close our eyes when we are really feeling something, or are lost in thought, or are avoiding eye contact with our audience or presenting partners. Keep the curtain open between you and your audience. (Bear in mind, that is not to say you can never close your eyes on stage- talk about "dry eye"! Just avoid prolonged or repeated eye closure.)
The acting teacher's advice: Stand up! The minute you lean into one hip or the other, you are telling your audience that you are bored or feeling a bit lackadaisical. In the theatre, unless you're character is supposed to be disinterested, acting teachers will call you out on your one-hip slumping. In our training, we refer to this particular body shape as "Eileen"- get it?
The movement teacher's advice: Open up your arms! Folding your arms in front of you reads as a protective gesture- you are placing a barrier between yourself and your audience, keeping them from connecting with you fully. Taking those gestures up and away form your body opens you to your audience, and gives them a way to connect more fully. A movement teacher would encourage a continual releasing of this barrier.