Jul 21, 2013

Comportment Counts

Mr. Samuel Beckett was a gentleman
A while back I posted about a spirited conversation I had with a friend of mine. We were discussing our differing views on how to handle the press and how critics and journalists can be used to grow audiences.

There were many other aspects to developing audiences that the conversation made me think about that I did not touch on in that post. As corollary to that post, I wanted to say a few words about behaving nicely and how this can affect audience development.

I believe audiences are affected, especially in regards to growth and retention, by the deportment of the artist. How one behaves in daily life to others, including prospective audience members, really does affect how the work is perceived on stage. 

It is similar to the Girl-On-Stage theory. The Girl-On-Stage is a pet theory I have developed to describe the sensation of being seriously drawn, beguiled or attracted to a character one sees onstage only to later find out, in the harsh light of real life, that the actor that portrayed her is absolutely nothing like that.

Irrationally, perhaps, it is often a let-down...

I know several actors who are very skilled and, in some instances, absolutely amazing to watch onstage. But in daily life they are rather deplorable. Sometimes it is insecurity (hard to believe, but insecurity is a big driving force behind many dramatic artists getting into the theatre to begin with) or maybe social awkwardness. But most of the time, the actor is just plain rude. A total jerk...

I wonder if they would have quite the same reputation in the press and amongst their fan base if audiences and critics observed them behaving so indiscreetly and inconsiderately in real life.

Over the years I have had the privilege on several occassions to personally meet artists whose work I first discovered and then admired from afar. What has struck me most often is how they came off when not on the stage. Sometimes they turned out to be quite gentlemanly. They conducted themselves in public–as in meeting strangers like myself–with consideration, amiability, and open-mindedness. 

Of course, I have also had the opposite experience. Meeting  artists whose work I’ve admired, then discovering them to be personally arrogant, crude, and discourteous. This is sometimes a surprising turn, especially since their work on stage is often sensitive and graceful. I remember meeting one rather well-known monologuist, powerful and artful on stage, in person and he turned out to be quite dismissive and stand-offish.

Sometimes, when I return to their work later after these personal interactions, I’ve found it to be more flawed, more uneven than before–testimony, perhaps, to the presence of the artist, or the person, in the art. Maybe I'm just subconsciously on the look-out for things to bring the work of unpleasant people down a few pegs.

And I think this urge is at the root of how personal behavior affects an artist's relationship with his or her audiences. Patrons, I believe, like to relate with the artist just as much, if not more so, than to the art itself. We are social creatures. I always feel closer to the art if I feel I know something about the artists. And if I like the artist involved, I root for the art. I am more receptive. If I do not like the artist, I usually don't even bother with the art. In these instances, the artist has become his or her own gate-keeper and has barred the way for me as a potential patron.

One of the playwrights of history I admire a great deal is Irishman Samuel Beckett. There is an infamous anecdote about the writer of Waiting for Godot while he was living in Paris in early 1938. While refusing the solicitations of a notorious pimp, who ironically went by the name of Prudent, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and nearly died. James Joyce arranged a private room for the injured Beckett at the hospital. The publicity surrounding the stabbing attracted the attention of Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, who knew Beckett slightly from his first stay in Paris; this time, however, the two would begin a lifelong companionship culminating in marriage. At a preliminary hearing, Beckett asked his attacker for the motive behind the stabbing. Prudent casually replied, “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur. Je m’excuse” (“I do not know, sir. I’m sorry”). Beckett occasionally recounted the incident in jest, and eventually dropped the charges against his attacker—partially to avoid further formalities, but also, and this is the part I find so wonderful, because he found Prudent to be personally likeable and well-mannered.

When he became more and more famous, Beckett rarely granted interviews. He did not chase the press and, really, to a large extent ignored it. He was at the center of his work and did not look outward for critical approval or affirmation from the press. While Beckett did not devote much time to press and interviews, he would still sometimes personally meet the artists, scholars, and admirers who sought him out in the anonymous lobby of the Hotel PLM St. Jacques in Paris near his Montparnasse home. 

I am reminded of a recent biography I read of playwright Samuel Beckett. Often looked upon as a recluse, or a cranky, withdrawn, curmudgeonly perfectionist, the biography allows us access to Beckett’s more personable, everyday self. His reputation as an unpleasant grouch is mostly rumor. The single most obvious quality of the man that emerges is the Beckett’s gentlemanliness. The same considerate and compassionate attitudes that Beckett demonstrated to both friends and strangers, I believe, are mirrored in the consideration and compassion that Beckett shows for the characters in his plays and books–indeed, for his attitude towards the world itself and its inhabitants of all backgrounds. 

It goes without saying that the work itself must engage and be of good quality, but an artist can seriously hamstring his or herself by being a jerk-face in the real world. 
Gentlemanly attitude and comportment go a long way.

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