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what is performance?

March 22, 2013

More than a year ago, I felt mysteriously drawn to performing, but I didn’t know any more than that. Since the only activities I’d previously done that I thought of as performing were singing and acting, I signed up for classes in singing and acting at the community college. The acting class was canceled. The singing class was a disaster — I only attended the first session.

Functionally, I was stuck, waiting for who knows what.

Like a lot of other ideas from a year ago, I had to let go of my attachment to the idea of performing.


Three ideas I’ve been interested in lately were, I thought, completely unrelated to each other and had little or nothing to do with my earlier interest in performing: the circus, improv and storytelling.

It’s not as unlikely as it sounds.

I only saw a circus once when I was a child of 5, maybe 6. My best friend’s parents took their son and me, so there was also the novelty of being out all day in an unfamiliar setting (downtown Chicago) with non-relatives. That was the first time I ever tasted peanut brittle. (I liked it. I liked playing with it almost more than eating it.) All I really remember about the circus itself was that there was so much going on I didn’t know where to look.

It was around that age that I started wondering how my life would be different if my mother really did give me away to “the Gypsies”, a sometime threat that I think was supposed to cow me into obedience. Instead, I calculated, overall I might be better off. Supposedly “the Gypsies” would work me like a slave, doing chores all hours of day and night. We’d have no fixed address; my mother claimed they squatted in condemned buildings. And — her trump card — they couldn’t love me!

I was already doing chores for hours per week, and my mother kept adding more, now that I was old enough to be a responsible “big sister” who had to “set a good example” for my siblings. Nothing I did was ever good enough to please her, so I had to do those chores over and over and over. On the rare occasions that neighborhood children wanted to play with me, my mother usually forced me to take my younger siblings, which quickly made me even more unpopular. And I couldn’t really enjoy playing anyway, because I had to babysit them, in a way I didn’t remember anyone ever babysitting me (that is, paying attention).

Adults said that I talked too much, had too many questions; children said I was “bossy”, but I think it was more that I had a lot of ideas, and I was excited about exploring them — no one else ever was. I retreated into playing by myself with imaginary friends, often outside, or reading books.

And imagining I lived with . . . other people. People who didn’t yell at me all the time. People who let me do things. People who . . . liked me.

If I needed imagination to achieve being around people who enjoyed my company, and let me have the kind of kid’s life that neighborhood kids took for granted, how was I really any worse off living with the bogeyman? And, I’d get to travel! Maybe I’d learn how to do ‘tricks’ (stage magic, fortune telling). If I was useful enough, maybe the Gypsies would appreciate me as a hard worker. If they weren’t even supposed to (be able to) love me, well then, it wouldn’t hurt when they didn’t.

If I could have gone to find them, and ask them to take me with them, I would have.

Thus began my interest in running away to a better life, or, “the circus”. It had nothing really to do with acrobatics or audiences; it had everything to do with wanting something I couldn’t name, that no one I knew seemed to have ever thought about.

= = %

I started reading books on improv mostly because I thought they could help me add creativity and spontaneity to my life. Reading about The Improv Handbook on Amazon, one woman wrote that the techniques were very helpful to her son, who has autism, in developing better social skills. That piqued my interest in a different way.

Spouse and I have been talking about our own deficient social skills for a while now. I think he’s fine with where he is. He says he’s noticed as he gets older, he has even less patience, and less interest in engaging with anyone he doesn’t know. He’s not just an introvert, he’s a wannabe hermit.

I feel differently. Perhaps my social skills will never be very good, but they can certainly be better than they are now. For probably 10 years, I’ve been wondering where I could learn as an adult what I should’ve learned as a child. I’ve read books by the armful, but of course, the most important stuff you learn by doing. Where, how, can I do that, as an adult, without suffering adverse consequences? Such as, I practice on coworkers, but somehow everyone else is adept at things I don’t begin to know how to do. (Nor can I figure out why I might want to do them. Because if I could do them, I would be rewarded by more conversations that bore me to tears. Where’s the benefit for me?)

Last week, I spent a long weekend in an undisclosed location, and I resolved to try improv techniques. They couldn’t hurt; nothing I’ve ever tried with these particular people has ever worked well.

I did uncover new knowledge, and new connections to me, surprisingly enough, that will be useful in an ongoing project.

In the next few months, I’m going to be meeting a lot more new people. I’d like to at least hope for making a good impression. If improv techniques can help with that, excellent.

+ ^ =

Storytelling is more nebulous. I’m a writer, so it’s important. But I can’t get the hang of writing fiction. I create everyday miniature stories without hardly any effort. Somehow, before today, I never quite realized they are fiction. To pick an example from yesterday, the blueberry muffins we brought back from the undisclosed location are not in fact eyeing me piteously, and begging to know why I will no longer eat them. That is a story; it is fiction. I enjoyed telling it, and Spouse laughed, hearing it.

But somehow when I think of “storytelling”, it’s another Big Important Thing that I consider to be almost-hopelessly beyond my reach. I keep reading books about how to tell stories. I keep thinking about stories I want to tell, and drawing a blank. Or feeling like my perspective (as a storyteller) doesn’t add anything to the world’s canon.

^ % +

For at least two years, maybe more, I’ve felt drawn to working with kids. But I don’t know how. I don’t want to be a teacher, formally. I don’t want to be a leader. But if I’m an adult, how else can I relate to kids? (I don’t personally know any children; I don’t have any of my own.) So this impulse has also stayed on a back burner, waiting for some idea about how to move forward.


Last night I drew a mind map, as I do periodically, and there are more puzzle pieces, and more connections amongst them. Things are tantalizingly close to telling me, by feel, what my new life will be like.

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