Recently, I’ve been watching videos by psychologist Brené Brown on the topic of vulnerability. She has done extensive research on the advantages and disadvantages of making yourself vulnerable and allowing yourself to be authentic as a person.
What I love that Dr. Brown says about vulnerability is that it is “the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, [and] of love.” And also thinking about how people “surrender and walk into it.”
Most of the times when we think about not being vulnerable in a performance, we think of being stiff and unexpressive. But there’s another way that’s even more egregious (in my opinion). And that is oversharing in performance.
I’ve been accused of oversharing – in my Facebook posts, in my personal interactions with people – and sometimes, my accusers are right. I have given out too much information (hereafter TMI). Perhaps it wasn’t necessary to tweet about how cold the gel was on my body while lying on a table, waiting for an ultrasound….
And sometimes, I’m just being honest and it’s their problem that they can’t handle my honesty. I hope.
So what’s the difference? When do you cross the line from opening up to others and being vulnerable into oversharing? I’ve been thinking about this as far as how it relates to performing. I strive to be an authentic performer, and to teach my students to find authenticity in their performances.
I think the difference is intent. Vulnerability is a real expression of your feelings, telling a story, telling the truth. It is an attempt to connect with your listener or your viewer and evoke a response that is also genuine. It is not an attempt to impress but to express. It is an attempt to resonate with your listener or viewer.
Oversharing is selfish. It is an attempt to evoke a response – of admiration, of pity, of concern, of outrage. You are putting something out there that is one-sided, not really looking for a dialogue or gaining an understanding, but just spewing it out to the world and damn the consequences. It may be truthful, but it’s not authentic. It is projecting rather than resonating.
[Which brings me to a vocal point:
Baritone Thomas Hampson was asked in a master class how he approached projection, and he said [paraphrasing somewhat]: “I don’t like to think of projection. It seems so one-directional. Bullets project. Missiles project. Small children thrown through plate glass windows project. But voices resonate.” And now back to psychobabble]
Perhaps oversharing is the other side of the coin of being afraid to be vulnerable. It’s a way of overcompensating.
Here’s an example of vulnerability that I witnessed recently. In a recent recital, one of my students sang “Empty chairs at empty tables” from Les Miserables. He sang it beautifully. He was expressive, authentic, emotional, and he made people cry. He said to me a few months later, “Did you notice that I was crying?” and I told him that I didn’t, because it didn’t interfere with his singing and with his story. Often, singers and actors are told, “If you make the audience cry, you’ve done your job. If you cry, you just make the audience uncomfortable.” I generally agree with that – however, in his case, his emotion was so organic and genuine that it did not become uncomfortable.
Then there’s the quintessential demonstration of oversharing that I came across a few years ago, when I judged lower college musical theater women at NATS. A young woman came in and sang her three pieces:
- “Someone to watch over me,” Gershwin, Oh Kay! She decided to sing this while maintaining seductive eye contact with each of us judges. It was really uncomfortable. And weird. She had two straight women and a gay man judging her and none of us were interested. The singing wasn’t particularly interesting – it was not as though she was coloring her voice or shaping the phrases to express a longing or a yearning – she was doing it all through contrived gestures and come-hither looks.
- “Honey bun,” Rodgers & Hammerstein, South Pacific. This involved a sailor hat. And interspersing her singing with shouting, “That’s mah little HONEY BUN!” Now, this song isn’t emotional – it’s a funny song. But the humor fell flat because it was inappropriate vocally and physically. And it depended on the use of a hat.
- And then the pièce de résistance, “Your daddy’s son,” Ahrens & Flaherty, Ragtime. For this one, she grabbed a blanket and bundled it up to look like a baby. She sang the entire song to the bundle, but as she got more and more agitated – it is a very dramatic song – the bundle started getting out of control and had there been a real baby in the blanket, it would have suffered from shaken baby syndrome. And vocally, she went out of control as well. She began to scream, “Only ANGER AND PAIN, the BLOOD AND THE PAIN, I BURIED MY HEART IN THE GROUND – IN THE GROUND! WHEN I BURIED YOU IN THE GROUND.” The response it evoked from us was not, “That poor young woman, she feels so much grief and guilt,” but rather, “Oh my God, she’s going to have a vocal fold hemorrhage right here in front of us. Blood is going to start spurting out of her mouth.” And then it became funny. Unintentionally funny. On the final chorus, she burst into tears and could barely get the words out between sobs and when she got to the line, “You had your daddy’s hands – forgive me,” which is traditionally nearly whispered, she just screamed, “FORGIVE ME!” and I had to put my hands over my mouth so that I wouldn’t openly laugh.
It was the worst performance I’d ever seen at NATS. Or pretty much anywhere, for that matter. Worse than someone standing and doing nothing. It was not an authentic performance. It reeked of, “Look what I can do! I can be sexy, I can be funny, I can break your heart – just watch me!” What she should have been saying was: “I’m lonely and need someone to love me,” “I’m in love with a real peach of a gal – let me tell you about her,” and finally, “I hate myself for what I did, and I have no excuses – except this.”
She did not resonate with her audience. She projected her emotions – more like projectile vomited her emotions all over us. And like projectile vomit, we couldn’t wait to wash it off. (Was that too much? Probably.)
Tell a story. Tell the truth. It’s not about you as a singer/actor, it’s about the story that you have to tell. What is the core truth of it? What can telling this story offer your audience? What can it offer you as the storyteller?
Don’t hold back. Give your audience as much as you can, but make it real. Tell the truth. Be real. Invest yourself fully and not on a superficial level of “watch ME!” or “listen to ME,” but “hear my story.”