In the Parable of Wise and Foolish Builders, Jesus waxes architectural about the merit of houses built on rock foundations. In his words, “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” This well-known Biblical passage offers sage advice pertinent to anyone who creates (which is all of us). Any structure, from a government to a little league team, is built on a defining set of principles adopted by vocal or tacit accord of all involved parties.
Structures built on solid principles will stand with stony resolve. Those that aren’t are swallowed by the sand. Usually, these qualities reside only in the abstract consciousness of mankind. However, there is one edifice whose philosophical foundation is borne of flesh, bone, and voice- a stage performance.
Since my star-studded debut in the third grade, my love for the stage has been a defining proclivity of my otherwise retiring nature. When I learned that I was too much of a ham to share the applause in school productions, I created my own impresario enterprise. Through junior high, high school, and into college, I made a fairly handsome livelihood singing jazz and standards at venues across the Midwest. A master teacher, the stage taught me how to read people, how to make individuals feel special, how to set a mood, how to improvise (see last month’s blog), and many other skills that have served me in my life and career. However, the most salient lesson was in community-building.
In a world where any concentration of human dwelling is branded a “community,” I feel it essential to share the dictionary definition: “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.”
When a performer steps onstage, whether to sing, speak, or belch the alphabet, he or she becomes the “common characteristic” that unites a group of disparate people to live together for a brief, but remarkable moment. Every member of the audience implicitly entrusts the performer to validate their emotional investment. It then becomes incumbent on performers to realize their true directive.
Audiences attend a show to see themselves onstage, not the marquee act. During the course of a performance, battles are won or lost, love is sparked or shattered, and dreams are born or dashed. An audience can will rise or fall to these emotional peregrinations, depending upon the characteristics embodied by the performer. To truly create a community requires the performer to provide a foundation of confidence.
Confidence is the primordial pool whence springs the life of a performance. Many novice entertainers misconstrue confidence for volume, thinking that good stagecraft consists of bravado and extroversion. My early schtick, like many young singers, was a simulacrum of my favorite artists. While my pubescent Sinatra impersonations were amusing, they did not achieve the masterful community-building of my musical idols.
It was only as I gained more experience that I was able to see where my heroes’ true magic lay. While clearly polished at gregarious patter, these gentlemen of song were every bit as self-possessing in the silent beat after an introspective ballad. Their confidence was not just in their artistic ability, but in their humanity. By being so vulnerably human themselves, they empowered the audience to embrace their own emotions and experiences.
When the confidence of the performer becomes the confidence of the audience, a community is born. It is not perfect, but it is uniquely fitted by its faults for moments of perfection. These fleeting shimmers of real utopia occur when the roles of “performer” and “audience” vanish through the collapse of the fourth wall. From the rubble arises a commune of confidence where the triumph and travail of humanity are fearlessly lived through the conduit of art. All of this, grown on the underlying “rock” of the performer’s self-conviction.
Today, I toil in the world of words, but not without the sensibilities afforded by my onstage experience. Like stage performers, writers must be self-assured in their humanity. They must also have the courage to withstand the censure of their own harsh critique. Unlike ephemeral live performance, where time can erase imperfection, writers face the fear of staring down their mistakes on paper for perpetuity – a very human struggle. But when the written word is confident in its humanity, it can create community across miles and millennia despite its errors.
Through confidence and artistry, performers of every kind can help their audiences transcend the categorizing nature of our species to remind them of the only substantial designation, that of “human being.” They inspire others to take pride in the sum total of themselves, warts and all. Thus, they plant the seeds for endless successions of communities built on the bedrock of confidence.