The real audience

A different perspective on stage fright.

Part III in a series on the connection between speaker/performer and audience. Read part I here, part II here.

As speakers, we rarely see the audience as a collection of potentially vulnerable someones. Often we think only of shielding ourselves against the audience, not of treading carefully. Our nerves, fear or even panic block us from seeing who is watching us.

image: Frank Sinatra with audience, collection Library of Congress
photographer Stanley Kubrick, 1949

I would venture that when we get on stage, many of us do not see the real audience, the actual people in front of us. Instead, we see a projected image of our fears and judgments about ourselves, our worst critics (I wrote about this in part I of this series).

And we do not live in a culture that encourages us to treat our fears and judgments gently. No, we must battle them, silence them, break them, overcome.

images: how Western culture views fear

fear as a wall

Artist Marina Abramović’s performances are highly relevant in this regard. After a severe, abusive upbringing, Abramović craves love. Exertion and pain were part of the abuse, and have featured prominently in her work. According to Abramović, pain and fear are things to move through, as there is freedom on the other side. A part of her that does not want to partake of the excruciating performances, that wants to stay at home and watch tv, she calls “Bullshit Marina”.

image: still from an interview with Marina Abramovic
For Abramovic, fears are walls that she has to move through. “If I see the wall I am not standing in the front, I’m walking through. And there is another wall, I have to walk through again.”
VPRO Wintergasten,  28 December 2021, 1:05:50

Abramović has often talked of her fear of pain, and how she tries to break free of it. I wonder if the pain isn’t also a trusted friend that helps her to stare down other, deeper fears. “Emotional pain is so much greater than physical. Much greater. I can handle physical pain because I know it’s physical but emotional, I can’t handle it.”

pain as a harness

This is visible in her most famous performance, The artist is present. For almost three months, eight to ten hours a day, she sat in a chair at the New York Museum of Modern Art. One by one, audience members sat down across from her, and looked into her eyes.

Sitting without moving, for so many hours, so many consecutive days, leads to excruciating pain. Watching footage from the performance, I get the feeling that the physical pain is something that helps her to control the experience. A harness that keeps her upright in the tide of her own emotions, and those emanated by the many, many people who sit down with her. Back home, alone again, Abramović needed months to process.

What was the point of this work, for her? She mentions several things in the many interviews she has given. To be a “mirror” to those in front of her, like a modern sage or saint, so they can truly see themselves. To move through her own pain, using the “energy” of the audience. To bring out the best in people, by giving them “unconditional love” – Abramović is nothing if not ambitious.

connect or control

To connect, you need to relinquish control over the channel: a connection is something you make together. When performer and audience truly connect, even briefly, magic happens.

Abramović has talked many times about giving love to the person sitting across from her and witnessing their pain. But did she allow the flow to reverse sometimes? Did she allow the audience to carry her, as she gave herself to them?

It must have happened in those long, long hours. But from the clips of the performance I cannot tell where Abramović’s control ends and the channel opens. Her face betrays little emotion: now it is tense, then it is intense, and then it is tired. Often the mouth is slack, the eyes far away. The people sitting across from her are much easier to read, great waves of feeling passing over their faces.

It is risky to say anything about a performance if you were not there. If you are watching edited footage, like a documentary, you are always watching someone else’s story. More importantly, if there is anything corona has taught us, it is that people’s energy is a tangible thing. And that screens only provide you with a bad copy of it, crucial details lost in high contrast or blurriness.

Those caveats in place, here is what I see in The artist is present, and what I hear in the stories she tells about it: a battle, or a compromise, between parts of Abramović that want to connect, and parts of her that want to control.

suffering is not necessary

Abramović’s layered works can be viewed from many perspectives: what they reveal about her, about her audiences, about the art world, and about the societies that these works are made in. As art, or for her personal life, the endurance and pain might carry great significance. To make a connection to the audience, however, suffering is not necessary.

image: “crate containing Harry Houdini, being lowered into water”, collection Library of Congress
photographer Carl Dietz, 1914

Here is something radical: what if we turned it around? What if we were kind to our fears?

To the parts that are ‘lazy’; to the parts that hurt; to the parts don’t want to; to the parts that say “stop, I am frightened”. To those critical, inner voices, no matter how harsh they are, or what ghoulish shapes they take. What if we did not consider those voices irrelevant, but learned to hear the message that they are trying so desperately to get across. What could happen then?

If we made friends with what lives inside, I wonder, would our image of the audience change, too? Would we be able to catch glimpses of the real audience, the actual individuals sitting in front of us? Might we even open the door a crack, let our shields down a bit…

The artist is present, the eponymous documentary of the performance, shows Abramović leading another audience into a simple group meditation. It is a big yet easy audience of fans, she is visibly relaxed under their adoration. They trust her enough to close their eyes, and give themselves to the experience. The communal feeling she creates in this setting, her earnestness and vulnerability are all quite moving. Even for the viewer on the other side of the screen.


To be continued…

main image: opening-night audience for the Federal Theatre Project production of an Macbeth at the New York Harlem Lafayette Theatre, 14 April 1936. The cast of black actors was directed by 20-year-old Orson Welles.
The couple depicted are singer Jimmie Daniels (far right) and filmmaker Kenneth Macpherson (to his left); next to them stands Lloyd Thomas, husband of actor Edna Thomas, who played Lady Macbeth.
Library of Congress and National Archives, USA, via Wikimedia Commons