The most common type of introduction in one of my high school speech and drama classes is not a story or a statistic. It’s an apology.
“I’m not really ready, but…”
“It’s not as good as hers, but…”
“This is just a first attempt, so…”
I warn students to avoid making themselves look small by prefacing their work with excuses or apologies. Marianne Williamson once wrote, “Your playing small does not serve the world…We are all meant to shine…” And yet, something about showing what they’ve accomplished as actors and speakers prompts many of my students to preface their often outstanding performances with disclaimers meant to prepare the audience for the worst.
Sometimes prefatory remarks are appropriate. As a coach and director, it helps to know if the performer wants honest feedback or just needs to hear something positive. However, when a performer sounds self-denigrating, or offers excuses about lack of preparation, or tries to blame what they perceive as a poor performance on some extenuating circumstance, no one benefits. After someone warns us that the performance we’re about to see will likely be bad, it’s difficult to appreciate what is good about it.
Disparaging comments before a performance are one way a performer might deal with nerves. Warning us that it’s going to be bad is a way of trying to lower expectations, and thus deal with the natural nervousness that performers feel. If we don’t expect much, then there’s no way for us to criticize an imperfect performance.
But as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” I want my students to set high expectations for themselves. When students perform in class, I am going to evaluate and critique them to help them improve. Students don’t get better if all they hear is how wonderful they are, and they can’t correct what they’re doing wrong if no one tells them. So yes, a student may have to deal with a coach or director telling them the performance could have been better. A student needs to be confident enough to perform without apology but humble enough to accept criticism that will help them grow. That’s difficult for students.
It’s difficult for adults.
This week I’ve asked my sister and one of my friends to be beta readers for my novel. I gave my sister a copy and made her promise not to read it until I’d left. As I write this, I am rehearsing how I will hand another copy to my friend without saying something like, “It’s not that good and there are a lot of typos.” Like my students, I am nervous about how my audience will react to my writing. Don’t get me wrong; I am excited about the idea of people reading what I write. You, there, reading this post at your computer, on a tablet, or from a phone, I’m happy you’re reading what I wrote.
But I don’t know you.
When I think about it, I realize that often my students confess that it’s easier for them to perform in front of strangers at a speech tournament than to practice in front of me. Some of them are more comfortable in a theatrical production, where they can’t see the audience, than they are competing in forensics. I know that they don’t make apologies before they compete, or break the fourth wall to warn the audience they’re going to be really bad in their role.
It takes a small sort of courage to offer our creative efforts to others. I think the fear that the people we know will respect us less when they see what we’ve worked so hard to create may keep us from doing the very thing that will help us grow: sharing our work and listening to the response.