Stage presence is one of the hardest things to define, but one of the easiest to recognise. We have all seen performers who not only own the performance space, but also seem to demand the audience’s attention, daring anyone to look away. Of course, the impact of such presence can be dangerous, and one only has to think of the way that politicians from Hitler to Trump (and many points in between) have used their abilities as performers to manipulate their audiences for political ends. And such political leaders are storytellers in their way – they take their audience’s story and tell a version of that story back to them, framing the people as victims of the ‘other’ and making that ‘other’ (be that minority groups, or nations with alternative economic or political models) into the enemy. But now, think of such a politician and mentally remove their energy so that they physically sag into themselves, their voices seem stuck in their heads or throats, and gestures seem like weak physical impulses that have no clear direction and end point. Now, ask yourself: could they rely on their presence to convince people of their argument. It is, I would suggest, unlikely.
This discussion might make us, as storytellers, uncomfortable about drawing parallels between our modes of performance and those of politicians, but performance is fundamentally manipulative whether we want to persuade our audience that the election system is rigged against them, or move them to empathy for the character of Snow White when her stepmother determines to dispose of her. According to Erving Goffman:
A 'performance' may be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants. (1959: 15-16)
I have found this definition particularly helpful as it makes performance part of our everyday being: we perform when we shape our language, our tone of voice and our gestures to persuade a friend to go to a party they’d prefer to avoid, influence a child that an outing will be fun, or convince others that we really have put enough effort into a shared task. Performance, then, as every other aspect of storytelling, is something that we do naturally, and that needs to be refined and used strategically.
So, what makes performance? When we want to influence people, we choose our vocabulary with care, avoiding redundancy and irrelevance. Every word is chosen for the effect that it will have on the hearer – which may mean the use of repetition, alliteration or other poetic devices to make our meaning carry weight. The tone of voice will probably be far less even than in regular conversation: imagine telling someone the recipe for a favourite meal, and the way in which information is conveyed at an even level. Then imagine describing the time that you first tried this meal while on holiday – not only do you try to influence your hearer sufficiently for them to imagine the context in which you tasted the food, but you also try to move them to have empathy with the pleasure that you took in the meal. Here your will almost certainly be more animated in your voice, changing facial expressions and gesturing for emphasis. In order to influence the hearer into experiencing your pleasure (in the here and now and at a distance in time and space from the events as they occurred) you have to embody that pleasure, that wonder at the flavour combinations, in your words, your actions and your being. In storytelling, we do this with everything that we say and everything that we do as we tell our stories.
Where, then, is the source of the performance energy that both underpins and reinforces all of these aspects of storytelling? I am going to suggest that we think in terms of breath and balance and physical tension:
At the end of this blog, I look at these three aspects of storytelling presence in a case study of Sef Townsend performing his set ‘The Pongo’s Dream’.
BREATH – it sounds so simple: to breathe in and out; but breathing is something that not only reflects our mental state and physical condition, but also reinforces them. When we are excited, we take short breaths; when we are in suspense, we hold the breath; when we are sedate, the breaths are long and deep. If we wish to convey the sense of suspense, or excitement or passion we need to be able to manipulate our breathing (its depth and frequency) so that it can convey those feelings as we speak, and affect the way that an audience perceives the stories that we tell.
When I was in voice training, my singing teacher spent as much time getting me to breathe properly as actually tackling the pieces that I was to perform. Just about every voice trainer will talk about the importance of supporting the voice with the diaphragm – this not only has the effect of being able to sustain the sound and produce volume, but it also lifts the body as the muscles tense and changes how the body is held.
Too relaxed a posture, and the voice struggles to resonate; too much tension, and the throat closes and the voice becomes strangled, and the breath cannot be released in a way that creates a consistent airflow. Of course, the storyteller can play with these tensions to create variety in the voice (and physical communication), but care needs to be taken so that the voice isn’t damaged through a lack of support and a tight throat. By training oneself to breathe from the diaphragm, the air-flow can be controlled so that there is not too much so that it is breathy, and not too little that it sounds strained.
The Guys and St Thomas Hospital Trust in London has produced some guidance on diaphragmatic breathing (because of its general health benefits rather than for performance) and this suggests a series of exercises - it can be accessed by clicking here.
BALANCE – the principle of balance is used in any performance to communicate how settled the performer is, or how ready s/he is to move. In the diagram below the weight is placed in different ways. I have used the solar plexus to indicate the centre of gravity of the body but this is a simplification for illustrative purposes, in reality the position of the centre of gravity is more complex and depends on body shape and position. It is worth pointing out that the shifts between these positions is very small, and the tiniest of shifts in weight can change how gestures are perceived and stories understood.
You will see that in the ‘balanced’ position, the weight is distributed across the foot. This could be considered a neutral position and is one which tells the audience nothing about the storyteller’s intentions. However, a slight lean back will result in the weight being carried by the heals. In order to move from this position, the weight has to be taken forward towards the balls of the feet. Consequently, this ‘settled’ position does exactly what it says – you appear settled, and the audience doesn’t need to worry about any unexpected movements. This can be useful when you reach a story section where you want the audience to feel safe, or reflective, or you wish to distance yourself from the content of the story, but it also takes the teller away from their audience, creating a distance between them – and for all these reasons it is very difficult to give an energised performance if you stay in this position for any length of time. In the position that I have described as ‘alert’, the weight is over the balls of the feet, a position which conveys urgency as the teller leans towards the audience, reducing the distance between them. From here the storyteller can suddenly drop forward, or take their weight backwards, creating performance tension in the unpredictability of what is to follow. Finally, ‘imbalanced’ shows the weight over the toes: a position that is not sustainable, but that conveys immediate involvement in the action and appeals to the audience to enter the story world with the teller.
I would suggest, then, that getting into the habit of checking where your weight is positioned as you move around during the day will help you become aware of whether you are ‘settled’, ‘alert’ or ‘balanced’. As a storyteller, I tend towards being in the ‘alert’ position as my default performance setting; this may be because, when I was storytelling in schools, I was working (on most occasions) with groups of 100-300 young people and so had to use my physical presence in such a way that they could not always predict where my movement and energy would be directed. Whether you err towards the ‘alert’, or more usually are ‘balanced’, being able to exploit each of these positions will help you to convey more clearly the meaning that intend in your storytelling.
TENSION – there is, of course, such as thing a too much tension in performance. Over-tensing the body affects the voice by constricting the throat, as well as meaning that movement lacks freedom. However, a lack of tension is also problematic: being too relaxed means that it is hard to support the voice through diaphragmatic breathing, and gestures lose their precision. To help with this discussion we could put physical tension on a scale, such as that devised by Jacques Lecoq in his training for physical theatre (and there are versions of this scale all over the internet).
The problem is that we all have our own natural points of everyday tension, which could be anywhere between relaxed and decisive. However, the idea of alertness, awareness of the world around you and a readiness to act in the world with intention, conveys the point from which, I would suggest, a storyteller will ideally start. The storyteller’s default position is outside the narrative, looking in, and while the idea of neutrality sounds appealing, the storyteller will always take a position on the story that they tell, and conveying alertness means that the storyteller is able to convey ‘discovery, interest, suspicion’ (Lecoq: 90) in the narrative as they share it. It also means that (as discussed above in relation to the alert balanced position above) they can move in any direction.
As tensions rise in the story as events unfold, the storyteller will want to reflect these variations in their physicality and energy (including breath and balance), and this can be from Level 1 Catatonic (in which every muscle is so relaxed that any movement seems as though it will require an impossible amount of effort, and the collapsed muscles will make it impossible to support the voice), to 7 Tragic (where every muscle is tensed so much that breathing is shallow and movement is difficult – inevitably constraining the voice). These extremes, however, can’t be maintained for any period – the audience knows that there is only one direction that you can go.
The order in which I have presented breath, balance and tension should not be read as in any sense prioritising one aspect of performance energy over another. Each of these aspects is fundamental to our embodied presence as storytellers with our audience. Everything that we say, and every gesture that we make, will be contextualised by the amount of energy that we bring to our telling. An overly relaxed telling may convey to the audience that we lack commitment both to the story and to them; on the other hand, they may read a tense telling, in which the breath is shallow and the weight is pitching towards them, as an aggressive forcing of our story upon them. The key is that we recognise the potential for our bodies to display these performance traits, and are able to employ them purposefully to convey meaning through our physical presence and energy.
Erving Goffman (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,
Lecoq., J. (2006) ‘Mime, the art of movement’. In Bradby, D. (ed.) Theatre of Movement and Gesture. Abingdon: Routledge, pp67-93
Sadolin, Catherine (2000) Complete Vocal Technique. Copenhagen: Shout
Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust (2013) Abdominal Breathing. Available at: https://www.guysandstthomas.nhs.uk/resources/patient-information/therapies/abdominal-breathing.pdf (accessed 25/5/18)
Shortly after writing the substantive content of this blog, I was lucky enough to see Sef Townsend’s set ‘The Pongo’s Dream’, which he performed with the accomplished classical accordionist, Iñigo Mikeleiz Berrade. At the same time as I was completely captivated by the music and the storytelling, I couldn’t help but allow part of my brain to consider how Sef Townsend was using his body throughout the performance.
The first thing that I noticed was the way in which he shifted his weight constantly between ‘balanced’ and ‘alert’, with brief moments of punctuation where he was either ‘settled’ (often achieved by stepping back, away from the audience) or ‘imbalanced’ (suddenly coming towards us to draw a conversational response, or to confront us). In the same way, as he told the stories of South American indigenous peoples, he used changes in his physical tension to underline the moods of the story - relaxed and fluid when referring to young lovers, taut and immobile when conveying anger. Moving from song to speech to animal and bird calls, Sef’s voice was clearly controlled on the breath as he could both extend sounds, and use his voice percussively, in short bursts.
Although I didn’t have a chance to talk about my observations with Sef on the night of his performance, he was kind enough to chat online and give me both feedback on my analysis and also some insights into how he perceives his own storytelling performance (I have removed my interjections from the conversation):
'I am indeed aware of much of what you observed last night. If I was too aware during performance it would probably get in the way, but there is a background checking, adjusting and proceeding within the flow of the telling.
For me the main awareness is absolutely where my breath is, how much breath is available - when to speak until there is no breath left. . . then what? How much breath do I need to get this done etc, which when i write it, all sounds a bit dry and mechanical
BUT I think the main drift is give the energy that is needed to deliver these ideas, emotions etc, and then to recover from the necessary exertion to enable the next 'stepping stone' and essential moment, emotion to have its life.
Balance, alertness, off balance and recovery are also there. But knowing that, it is usually in the background, until I find that I am 'spent' or 'out -breathed' and then, within the flow of narrative there is need for recovery . . .which of course the listener needs too.'
Sef Townsend 26/5/18
It is clear that Sef, as a master storyteller, is very aware of how performance energy is controlled and the importance of being aware of the body. For me, his introduction of ‘recovery’ is interesting and is an omission from the blog above (something for further discussion, perhaps). For me, this conversation confirmed that Sef is a storyteller perfectly in control of his physicality and able to maximise meaning through the playful manipulation of breath, tension and balance.