Confessions of a grounded performer

I am a performer. Under the right circumstances, i.e. a stage of any kind, some quirk in my chemistry transforms my fight-or-flight response into fuel for communicating to an audience of intimate strangers. If things go reasonably well, I will then feel the most alive I ever feel, my brain firing on all cylinders. I’ll be smarter, faster, and stronger, the best version of myself, doing what certainly feels like good work, because it makes people happy.

Since the Covid-19 Pandemic, this aspect of my life is on hold indefinitely. In part because I am not physically sick, while knowing quite a few who’ve fallen ill, I am reluctant to complain. So please know it’s not a gripe, but just truthful to note I’ve nevertheless been unwell in mind and heart, struggling with despair, anxiety, and depression. Not just due to exile from performing, but also from pandemic-induced existential fears, which I feel sure I need not enumerate. Can I get a witness?

These shadows, however, are not omnipresent, I am glad to say. I write this from a place of hope. Because that hope ebbs and flows, I seize this moment to chronicle. I am making hay while the sun shines, literally and figuratively. It’s a beautiful spring day in the Catskills. I am, at this moment, safe in my home, food secure, and my family is OK. I am reminded of one of my favorite Southern sayings: “Don’t bitch with your mouth full.” I.e., be reasonable.

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But performers are strange. We are, by definition, pretty unreasonable. Some of the best performers are, in fact, lavishly rewarded for being extremely unreasonable. Most “reasonable” humans, for instance, would rather endure oral surgery (or death) than be the focus of a crowd’s attention. If and when they’re in the spotlight, these reasonable folk experience the aforementioned fight-or-flight response as evolution intended: adrenaline goes haywire. With no predator to wrestle or run from, you get crippling self-consciousness, extravagant nervousness, and paralyzing fear. No fun. Under the same circumstances, however, we performers, by contrast, do crazy things like sing, dance, play instruments, and tell stories. We’re happy in the fray. It begs the question: why? What’s the goal of this aberrant behavior we all – performers and audiences – so deeply miss?

Deliverance, that’s what. We ache to deliver you, and thereby ourselves, into the moment.

Performing, when it goes well, is quite the win-win situation. By captivating, we free you and us from worries for the future, and remorse for the past. No matter the medium: dance, storytelling, theatre, live music, magic, comedy, et al – that’s the heart of what we do: we use our skills to warp time, to deliver everybody to now.

Performance, for my money, is as close as it gets to church. A crowd becomes one organism, something transpires onstage that defies logic, a broken individual rises above infirmity; some unquantifiable shift in the molecular structure of a room ushers in ghosts, who hover in the spaces between notes, between words, air charged with presence, spirit in the night, the veil between the unseen world and consensual reality pierced, and pierced well.

The scuttlebutt is that the Covid-19 Pandemic has effectively killed all of the above for the foreseeable future, at least until science develops a reliable vaccine. The exhilaration of which I speak, the primal pleasure of enjoyment among strangers, of deliverance – all is on hold. No one can authoritatively say for how long. Every performer I know grieves, worries, despairs. The anguish among my peers connects us largely through screens and, I could swear, the collective consciousness. The only things that might ease all of it are, of course, the sounds of applause in a room, the visceral joy of a noisy collective breathing the same air, unafraid; the simple pleasure of physical touch in the afterglow. None of those things are readily available, not at present.

But here’s the thing: I know I’ll tread the boards again, somehow, someday. In front of folks I know only as fellow humans who ache to be delivered as I do. I know the time exists when theaters and clubs and dive bars will once again fill with intimate strangers enjoying a shared experience. The covenant between performer and audience will never be permanently broken. It’s actually one of the only certainties I enjoy, even if it evades me when I am unwell. Because as a writer, musician, and especially performer, I am well acquainted with the space where nothing exists, and then it does. A room of expectant people, a blank page, a guitar with no hands yet upon it. That’s where we are.

All creative folk intimately know this space – the emptiness where all is darkness, just before the big bang, just before action. The pre-conception moment is part of the process. It’s a time of prep, of faith and hope, often unreasonable hope. But for me and mine, that very unreasonableness confers weight, the essence of something real.

The odds have always been against us, yet here we are, unreasonable as ever. And there we will be, on stages, in clubs, bars, roadhouses, cafetoriums, theaters. The pain and uncertainty of this moment will be the past from which we, the community of performers, will gladly and expertly deliver you – and ourselves – to whatever unknowable now awaits.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.