Tuesday, 26 February 2013

On avoiding the diva trap...

When I called this blog "Diva on a Dare" I wasn't seriously calling myself a diva.  I intended for the title to be a bit tongue-in-cheek.  Because actually?  Nobody wants to be a diva.  I try pretty hard to avoid being a diva, and I'd like to think that most of the time I succeed.

What is a diva exactly?  Seen in a positive light, a diva is someone majorly talented.  The star of the show.  They're confident and assertive.  They know what they want and they're not afraid to ask.

They also tend to call themselves things like "fierce".
But most of the time when we use the word "diva" we don't think of that.  We think of someone difficult and demanding.  Someone who makes ridiculous requests, like asking a big bowl of blue M&Ms in their dressing room.  A diva is rude, confrontational, self-centred, and inconsiderate.  The very worst kind of person to work with.

Like I said, I try to avoid being a diva.  I'm pretty sure every singer out there tries as well.  But if we're being perfectly honest here, when things get tricky, we sometimes have our diva moments.

Why does this happen?  Why do we end up acting like a diva even when we're trying ever-so-hard to be polite, considerate, humble, friendly, and down-to-earth?

There are a lot of possible factors that can lead to a diva moment.  Maybe you're dealing with a difficult work situation.  Maybe there's been a breakdown in communication.  Maybe things aren't going the way you want, and you feel frustrated.

Or maybe you need to have a Snickers bar.
Whatever the deal is, you know that acting like a diva is not going to help.  If you're struggling to communicate with your colleagues, throwing a big hissy fit will only make matters worse.  It's important to think of the people around you.  To be patient and agreeable.  To be understanding.  To play well with others.  You know all of this.  But sometimes, when you're tired, fed up, stressed out, hungry, or all of the above - you forget.

I had a diva moment this week.  We were working very intensely in the studio, staging a one-act opera within seven days.  The days were long and tough.  And the director worked in a way that's very different from what I'm accustomed to.  Throughout the week I was becoming increasingly frustrated and stressed out by his staging process.  One particular evening, I was really fuming.  I didn't realise it, but I was quite obviously in a huff.

Like this monkey who didn't get his way.
Luckily, the director was perceptive enough to see that I was unhappy and asked what was wrong.  I told him what the problem was.  And the next day he worked things out and everything became much clearer.  But on reflection, I was rather embarrassed by my behaviour that evening.  I realised that I had overstepped the line.  I had crossed over from the land of the reasonable to the land of Diva-dom.

We've all been there.  Am I right?  And the worst part is, you never realise it's happening until it's too late.  So how do you prevent it?  How do you stop yourself from acting like a diva?  Well, I've thought about this a lot and I've come up with some key tools to help you stay out of the diva trap.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...

The Anti-Diva Kit

1. The first tool is Communication.  It's so SO important to keep a dialogue with your colleagues and your employer about what is happening at all times.  Most importantly, if you're unhappy or confused, SAY SOMETHING.  And don't wait until you're so frustrated that you can't be polite and diplomatic about it.  The more you communicate, ask questions, and explain your side of things, the more likely it is you'll avoid confusion and conflict down the line.  If I had been more communicative with this director from the beginning, I'm sure I could have avoided acting like a diva.

2.  Secondly, you need Understanding.  Put yourself in other people's shoes.  Perhaps you're not the only person struggling here.  What kinds of challenges are your colleagues dealing with?  How could you be more considerate, sensitive, and helpful towards them?  Try to treat others the way that you would like to be treated.  No man is an island, and we all need to help each other out now and then.

3.  Right, so we all need to vent sometimes.  This is why you need the third tool: your Sounding Board.  This is a person who is totally removed from the situation and who you can safely vent to.  Your Sounding Board could be your best friend, it could be your mom, it could be several different people.  The important thing is that they are NOT a colleague who's involved in the same project.  They are a third party, and they're basically impartial.  They love you enough to listen and nod sympathetically, but they won't chime in with your complaints, or disagree vehemently, or tell person X what you said about them.  My boyfriend is my Sounding Board.  When I need to vent, he hears all about it over skype (poor guy).

4. Finally, when all else fails, you need a Diva Alarm.  This is a friend who loves and respects you enough to be honest with you.  When you're being unreasonable, overly-negative, self-centred, insensitive, or whatever, others might pretend to agree with you, but you can trust this person to tell it like it is.  Do you think you might be acting a bit like a diva?  Ask your Diva Alarm.  They will keep you in check and say "STOP!  Diva alert!"

Here are some other reasons you might need to stop.
This is the Anti-Diva Kit I've assembled, and like everything, it's a work in progress.  I don't always remember all the tools, or use them in the right way.  I'm sure there are some other helpful tools that could be added to the Kit later down the line.  But I'm learning as I go, and so far these are the ones that work for me.  May they serve you well.

 Despite the best intentions, we all have moments when our emotions get the better of us.  Moments when we turn into a diva.  But with good communication, understanding, and the support of friends and family, you can keep your inner diva in check.  You can deal with stress, get along with others, and continue being the kind of colleague you would want to work with.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

On being an introvert...

When you picture an opera singer, what do you see?  Someone with a larger-than-life personality?  Loud, talkative, exuberant?  The life of the party?  Prone to using Italian hand gestures?

Which are apparently as complicated as baseball signals.

Well, I could see why you would think that.  It's certainly what you see from opera singers onstage!  But offstage is a different story.  Offstage, perhaps a lot of opera singers are the life of the party.  But there's also a lot of us who are rather quiet.  Mild-mannered.  Unassuming.  And yes, introverted.

It may seem like a contradiction in terms, but there are a lot of introverted opera singers.  And I am one of them.

What does it mean to be an introvert?  First of all, let me clarify one big misconception.  It's not the same thing as being shy.  Shyness means being afraid or anxious about social contact, whether you want that social contact or not.  You could be an extrovert who wants to talk to a lot of people but struggles with shyness.  Likewise, you could be an introvert who is confident in approaching people but prefers to be alone most of the time.

It's also not the same as being antisocial.  Introverts don't dislike socialising.  We just prefer to socialise with people one-on-one, or in small groups.  And while we may love socialising, we can find it tiring.  The same party that makes an extrovert feel energised can leave an introvert feeling drained. 

Like one of those Sailor Moon villains has sucked the life force out of you.
Yes.  I am that geeky.
Why is this?  Well, there are a few possible reasons.  First of all, us introverts tend to spend a lot of time in our head, and we like it that way.  We like to reflect on things, and consider our thoughts and feelings in detail.  Often it might seem like an introvert is being quiet, like their mind has gone blank, or their "head is in the clouds".  As a matter of fact they are probably thinking about a million different things at once.  Why did John say that in the meeting?  What will Mary do tomorrow?  Am I really happy with my life?

So when an introvert talks to someone, they aren't just carrying on the conversation on the surface.  Their mind is probably working a million miles a minute, reflecting on what this person is saying, comparing it with their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and wondering what point or topic might come up next.  It can be extremely overwhelming!  It's no wonder that an introvert might become quiet in a conversation.  They aren't disengaging, they're just taking time to soak it all in.

I may look like a mindless zombie right now, but I'm just an introvert.
Secondly - and this may seem strange, but bear with me - introverts react more to outer stimuli than extroverts.  In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (great read), Susan Cain describes a study in which a psychologist followed a generation of children from when they were infants.  He believed he could predict which babies would be introverts and which would be extroverts.  He presented the babies with a series of surprising sights and sounds (e.g. a balloon popping or a person in a clown mask).  He predicted that the babies who reacted the most - whether by smiling, crying, or waving their arms and legs - would become introverts when they grew older.  And for the most part, he was right.

How does that make any sense?  Wouldn't the extroverted babies be the ones waving their arms all over the place and making lots of noise?  Well, actually, it makes a lot of sense if you think of it in terms of balance.  You see, since introverted people are more reactive to outer stimuli, they're more likely to become overwhelmed and seek more calm and quiet.  On the other hand, since extroverts are less reactive, they might seek more outer stimuli to "feel alive".  Both types of people are just seeking a happy balance that feels right for them.

Not too loud, not too quiet... juuust right.

If you think about it, it's no wonder that after spending a while at a loud party, the classic introvert wants to go home and get some quiet.  We need this kind of quiet time to reflect, to rejuvenate, and to process everything that's happened.

Introverts and extroverts can get along well, as long as they understand and respect each other's differences.  My boyfriend is a complete extrovert - if you don't believe me, you should have seen us at this party last week.  While he tore up the dance floor and chatted with loads of different people, I sought out quiet corners and had in-depth conversations with a few people.  Sometimes I would come and join him on the dance floor, and sometimes he would join in on one of our conversations.  We know that we both enjoy parties differently, and neither of us would try to force the other to be someone they're not.  Our differences complement each other, and we both bring something special to the relationship.

We're both special.  Mr Rogers told me so.
But how does all of this work with being an opera singer?  You know, like a big, loud, drama-queen opera singer?  How can I be larger-than-life onstage, when I'm a quiet introvert offstage?

This is a question I've struggled with a lot, and I still find it difficult.  Of course, my natural temperament doesn't do me many favours when it comes to acting.  A director once told me I had a "natural reserve" that will always be a challenge for me as a singer.  And it's true - I do tend to be inhibited, understated, a bit slow-to-warm-up.

But then the stage gives me the perfect chance to be someone I'm not.  To unleash my inner extrovert.  I know some truly great introverted singers who do just this, and it's an amazing thing to witness.  See, the great thing about performing is that there's this neat little line you can draw between onstage and offstage.  Onstage, you can fully inhabit another personality without worrying about losing yourself.  Because when the performance is over, the performance is over.  And offstage, you can go back to being you.  It's an incredibly liberating experience!

But sometimes the show isn't quite over yet.  Now we come to one of my biggest nightmares as an introverted singer: the Post-Performance Reception.  I've just finished a show, it's late, I'm exhausted... all I want to do is go home and read my book and go to sleep.  The last thing I want is to schmooze and make small talk with a bunch of strangers, pretending to be all sparkly and outgoing.

Don't get me wrong.  I get the post-show buzz.  I like meeting the audience.  I want to celebrate with everyone.  But by the end of a show, I'm already feeling tired and drained, and talking to a lot of people is just going to drain me even more.  It's not that I don't like the reception.  It's just that I want to hang out there for maybe half an hour, and then go home.  I need quiet and calm to recover.  A glass of wine, yes - but by myself, with my book.

Ah, bliss.
The Post-Performance Reception is a difficult thing to navigate, and there's no avoiding it.  Nobody is going to appreciate me leaving early or staying in a quiet corner.  That will seem rude.  The only thing to do is grin and bear it, and keep on my extrovert mask a little while longer.  I've grown to think of it almost as part of the performance.

But there are definite advantages to being an introverted singer.  Reflective thinking and self-awareness are great attributes for any artist to have.  They're great tools for developing a character, or reaching a deeper understanding of a poem.  An introvert might perhaps have more trouble communicating their thoughts and feelings to the audience, but trust me, they have a lot of thoughts and feelings going on there.  Still waters run deep.

And introverts tend to find it easier, even preferable, to do quiet work on their own.  So skipping that party and staying in to study a score by yourself?  Not a problem for the introverted singer!

As for travelling, which comes part and parcel with this career, I love it.  While many people might dread the "boredom" of spending hours on a train or a bus, I savour this quiet time to myself, when I can read my book, write in my journal, or just think things through.

So is it a disadvantage to be an introverted opera singer?  Only as much as it's a disadvantage to be an extroverted one.  There's no better or worse - they're just different.  And it would be a very boring world if we were all the same!  So whether you're a quiet and reflective introvert, or a loud and kooky extrovert, embrace it.  We all have something unique to offer.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

On clowning around...

This is it.  The week I've been looking forward to the most this year.  Yes, call me silly, but I am really excited about clown training!

I've always had a fondness for clowns and physical comedy.  For as long as I can remember I've had an ongoing love affair with the great slapstick masters like Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers.

Sheer genius.
Although I may show a serious exterior, deep down inside there's a part of me that longs to be ridiculous.  To be silly.  To be a clown!  So it was to my great delight when I discovered that, as part of the opera studio, I would be doing an intensive workshop of clown training.

We started with some warm-up games, and in true clown fashion the games were very physical and very silly.  We ran, wrestled, pushed, pulled, and giggled our way through the first morning.  And what did I learn from all this?  That whether I'm sitting on my bum pushing someone with my feet or leaning down and pushing them with my shoulders, I'm still a total weakling.

Now it was time to get into the real substance of being a clown: storytelling.  First we tried out a series of tableaux to create a narrative.  Then came the real challenge: using our bodies, at the director's whim we had to build a series of objects, such as rowboats that rowed and gates that opened.

And thrones that throned!
When a clown tells a story, he loves to exaggerate.  So we tried taking everyday actions, such as ironing and folding clothes, and making them first ridiculously humongous, then ridiculously tiny. 

Once we had sufficient practice acting alone, we were able to work with balloons as props, first trying to lift them as if they weighed a million pounds, then trying to catch them when they keep hopping away, then trying to push them away as they tried to kiss us.  Finally, we were able to put together scenes with music, using balloons and coloured cloths as props.  I won't say much of my scene, except that there was a desert and a camel, and I got to do a clown faint.

But of course you can't tell stories like a clown if you don't learn to really use your body to express yourself.  So in the immortal words of Olivia Newton-John...

Let's get physical!
As we found, the best way to learn to be expressive with your body is to take away your biggest acting crutch: your face.  So we covered our faces with expressionless white masks, got in front of the mirror, and practised showing emotions with our bodies.  At first it was pretty difficult.  You never realise how much you use your face until it's taken away from you!  But after a while we began to discover the unique and powerful body language we could use to communicate each emotion.

Now it was time to find our clown walk.  We walked around the room for ages, experimenting with different angles, positions and speeds - feet pointing outwards or inwards, chest and shoulders open and proud or closed and shy, knees angled in or out, chin jutting forward or buried into the neck... There were millions of possible combinations to experiment with!  Finally we each found a clown walk that we liked, and an emotion that seemed to go with it.  Personally, I favoured a variation on the cheerful Charlie Chaplin walk.

He is the master, after all.
Now it was time for us to discover which kind of clown we are.  There are three different types of clown.  First there's the White Clown.  He's the boss of everyone and he thinks he's very clever.  But, through some comic twist or other, he usually loses in the end.  Next there's the August.  He's the young and naive one, and like a child he expresses every emotion in the extreme.  While people think the August is a fool, he's often the one who makes things happen, and he usually wins the day.

Homer Simpson would probably be an August.
Finally there's the Go-Between.  He's like the mother of the group, always taking care of the others.  He tends to be melancholy and he's always in love.

I had no idea which clown I would be.  At first I thought I would be the White Clown, since I'm always trying to be clever and stay in control of things.  Then I thought about it more and considered that I might be an August.  People are always remarking that I have a youthful face (must be the chubby cheeks and the freckles).  And I do have a tendency to be naive...

As it turns out, I'm neither.  In an exercise to find "our" clown, we were each asked to put on a red nose and act out emotions as they were called to us.  Afterwards everyone would say which clown they thought you were, and we would try to reach some kind of consensus.  When my turn came, I acted out a few emotions, until someone said "miserable".  At the director's urging I became more and more intensely miserable, curling into myself and sobbing crocodile tears.  Everyone went quiet.  The vote was unanimous: I am a Go-Between.

Apparently I'm good at looking sad!
I don't think I was the only one surprised by my clown personality.  Many people changed as they put on the red nose.  Someone I might have pegged as a definite Go-Between - always maternal and caring - transformed into a child-like August before my eyes.  What was going on?  Was the red nose changing us, or was it revealing our true selves?  In fact, as the director explained, we each have all three clowns within us.  At different points in our lives, or even different times of the year, one of the clowns might just come out stronger.

After discovering our clown identities, it was time to choose a clown face and put on our clown makeup.  We had a selection of books to browse for pictures, and after much deliberation I chose my face and got to work.  I was pretty happy with the results...


Finally it was time to put together a show.  With little over 24 hours before the first performance, I was a little nervous as to whether we could get everything ready in time.  But we did it in the end!  We created a show of lieder, arias, pop songs and showtunes, all performed as clowns.

As we got ready for our third and final performance, the director gave us a little pep talk.  He reminded us to keep our clown personalities and "not let the singers take over".  Why would he say this?  What's wrong with letting the singer take over when you're singing?  Well, the singers in us might want to make everything controlled and pretty.  But the clowns wouldn't worry about that - they would just want to go for it and put on a show!

So what can an opera singer learn from a clown?  A helluva lot, as it turns out.  Clowns may seem like they're silly, but there's a lot more to them than that.  Clowns wear their hearts on their sleeves.  They make everything larger than life.  They don't just smile - they double over with laughter.  They don't just cry - they weep with their whole body.  They throw their entire self into every story they tell.  If I can learn to harness that kind of energy into my singing, my performances will surely pack a powerful punch.

Sometimes we feel like a White Clown, like we need to be in control of everything.  And just when we think things are going well and we're oh-so-clever, everything topples over in a messy heap.  Other times we may feel young and naive like the August, and every emotion we feel is magnified tenfold.  Or maybe we're a melancholy Go-Between, worrying about our friends or sighing with love.  We all have these clowns within us, and we all have things to learn from them. 

So although the shows have ended, and I've put away the costume and taken off the makeup, I'm still listening to my inner White Clown, my inner August, my inner Go-Between.  And I hope that from now on, whether in life or onstage, I will always feel - at least a little bit - like a clown.

All photos of the clown project courtesy of Emilie Lauwers