HomeBlogsJonathanMinkoff's blogWhy do we perform?

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One person may seek applause, that intoxicating (though fleeting) sense of loving attention –even if by way of relative strangers. Another may seek notoriety, the recognition factor itself. And this fame, whether accompanied by admiration or dislike translates to the feeling that they have become “somebody”. Here, any attention, loving or not, will do.

Still another may seek the satisfaction of pure artistic expression, the creation of beauty in the eye of the creator, regardless of any other beholder’s reactions. They answer to the muse alone, and their works are immune to criticism from any other source.

In it for the money? However unlikely it may seem, those with a gamblers heart, a fantastic self-image, or a poor ability to predict odds may actually perform as a way to seek their fortune. After all, television is ripe with images that seem to spell out the formula for success as “Believe in Yourself + Look Attractive + Get Lucky = Success” Some people have that message planted firmly within them. The necessity of adding hard work and hard knocks to the formula can be deeply disappointing and unsettling for those raised on the inherent parables of MTV.

Some use the audience as a proxy, a stand-in for someone else. These people seek the approval of someone very particular, a parent or early teacher –even if that person is no longer present or even alive to provide approval or disapproval.

Some perform because they fear that choosing another path is admitting failure as a performer. Some fear that though they might prefer another activity, they will never achieve in another field what they can accomplish in the arts; they perform for fear of failure in another pursuit.

Some perform for increased access to members of the opposite sex, whether that results in attention, affection, a genuine connection, or more physically intimate rewards. It might sound funny, but when asked why they perform, many male singers at least, reply happily and succinctly, “Babes!” It might not be the whole story, but lest we forget, that was a prime motivation (performer or not) for every person you were ever descended from. If it hadn’t been, you wouldn’t be here to read these words.

Some perform to transform. They want to become another person, to take on the persona of another, whether a newly defined character or simply an exaggerated, heroic self-reflection. They leave the ordinary, colorless world behind and become something more pure, or more outrageous on stage. The stage is an arena in which society encourages such bold choices. Less so in, say, the supermarket.

Some perform to join a community, to be one of the gang, the clique of cool kids. They wouldn’t much care whether the group ever performed so long as they all hung out together. And to choose this path isn’t folly. The rewards of longer and healthier life by virtue of singing in groups have been well documented. (Though I imagine few when asked why they perform would answer “increased longevity”.)

Perhaps ironically, some perform to overcome their fear of performance. Indeed, no victory could be more decisive or more satisfying. And for many this is a very real fear. As Jerry Seinfeld says, to perform in front of others is the single top rated fear, above even dying. These people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.

On any given day, most of us balance a number of motivations. We could, if pressed, probably make a pie chart showing something like 20% being part of a community; 10% transforming into another persona; 40% meeting hotties; 30% making great art.

And for those of us who perform often, these numbers and categories can change a great deal. They are malleable, influenced by the rehearsal and performance experience itself. On a day when your fellow singers are, in your humble opinion, lame, artistic satisfaction can take on greater importance than the (temporarily lacking) feeling of community. When the audience is octogenarian, meeting hotties just might take a back seat, leaving greater energies available for other motivations to take on new prominence. These shifts are simultaneously the reflection of, and causal force of our growth.

All of this points to a performance inertia: those performing have a tendency to continue performing. The more of our lives and our energies that we invest in our art, the more our motivations seem to adapt to the very rewards we receive. It’s difficult to know in a given moment, which is the egg and which the chicken. If you love performing, even on the day when no one applauds, does that mean you were truly motivated by something else? Or have you changed your motivations to support the rewards you receive? Perhaps on this day, a combination of the two?

And what if you achieve the goals you strove for? What if you get the standing ovations you thought you were seeking, only to find that this leaves you unexpectedly luke-warm. Perhaps your motivations change not only by what you fail to achieve, but by what you do in fact achieve. But of course, this is only so when illuminated by our awareness. Without watchfulness, we’re doomed to endlessly repeat our lessons.

Our personal evolution is revealed to us in those moments when we face and recognize the goals we most prize. And over time, as we grow, we may slowly awaken to the understanding that old motivations have dissipated, hopefully to be replaced by ones of nobler character and greater virtue.

Our love of performing is rarely static. Each experience, each setback, each reward tells us that we must examine, not once, but with unwavering diligence.