Years ago I was watching the video from my first ever solo theatre show and I was surprised by what I saw; mostly the top of my head.
Eyes down, focused on the props, disconnected from my audience. This image was plucked from a more recent show.
It's hard to watch myself on video because it reveals all the bad habits. Like many "artistes" I am very self-critical, focused on the things that need to be improved. One hard lesson from my early shows was the shocking amount of time I spent with my head down.
It's because I'm looking at my hands while they are doing something, a perfectly natural thing to do. In most trades, it's critical, or else you lose a finger. In magic, when you keep your eyes on your props, you lose something else.
Every time you drop your eyes you cut the connection with your audience.
When they don't feel that connection, they lose interest in your performance.
It's best to think of your audience connection as a physical thing, like a Care Bear Stare beam of energy that comes from your body, especially your face, and shoots out towards your audience.
When you look down, all that energy is falling at your feet. When you turn away, it's hitting the back curtain. The best presenters develop a posture that delivers all their energy up and out to blast the entire audience as much as possible.
The Care Bear Stare: Chin up, hands out... feel the love!
How to create the habit of connecting:
Step 1: Become aware of your bad habits. Watch your video and notice when, and how often, you are disconnecting and dropping your gaze. I've also used a camera set to take a photo every 10 seconds... and you can see all the photos that must be thrown out because you're not looking up.
Step 2: Be practiced enough that you don't need to watch your hands. This is what people mean when they say "know your tricks cold so you can focus on your performance."
Step 3: Find a way to remind yourself to purposefully "Care Bear Stare" at your audience. If you use a set list (list of routines) for your show, add a big yellow smiley face sticker. It's meaningless to everyone but you... but serves as an effective reminder to face your audience and smile!
Step 4: Keep forcing it until it becomes natural. It will feel awkward at first, but will become a natural part of your performance in time. Keep the smiley face sticker in place so the habit doesn't fade away.
Maintaining the connection by sharing the love
At the 2007 PCAM convention in Calgary we invited Shawn Kinley, a physical theatre performer, to present a workshop from a perspective outside of magic. It was amazing!
One of his exercizes was about maintaining the lines of connection with your audience. He asked every individual in their seats to behave as their own personal connect-o-meter.
Raise your hand high in the air, and when you feel the performer on stage is not connecting with you personally, you slowly lower your hand. When their attention turns to you again, and you feel the connection re-filling, your hand raises back up.
The purpose of this is to give a performer feedback on how they are "working the room". When you turn to one side, the hands on the other side start dropping. As you talk to somebody in the front, the people at the back begin feeling neglected.
The exercize turns nasty when Shawn asks everyone to add a warning alarm. When your hands drops to critical levels, you start buzzing like an alarm clock.
Inevitably the performer on stage begins panicking as they try to share their love and energy across a large room. The more frantic and fleeting their connection becomes, the more the room turns into a disaster of neglect.
Aggressive, but enlightening.
Shawn Kinley, most likely being a gorilla.
Mark Kalin and Jinger were stars of the show from the night before, and Jinger made it down for this early morning lecture. 10 minutes into Shawn's talk, Mark received a text from Jinger; "You need to get down here, now!" Shawn was sharing the real secrets of strengthening your performance.
When we are in performance mode, much of our analytical thinking gets paused. Under the lights, and feeling the eyeballs upon us, we rely on instinct and habits. For this reason growing as a performer, pushing yourself beyond your natural ways, can be slow, challenging work.
This is why I think of myself as a Magician in Progress. There's always more to learn.