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What We Can Learn From Performance Art

January 5, 2017

Any performance art fans out there?

I think we’ve all seen a mime or two along the way. Perhaps Yoko Ono comes to mind.

Some performance art seems close to exhibitionism. It is, however, a very diverse field.BlankVertSpace.8pixelsBlankVertSpace.8pixels

My own favorite performance artist is Claire Porter.

Categories overlap in performance art. Claire is also a dancer, choreographer, and comedian. You can watch some video clips on her website.

I got to see Claire perform at Keene State College some years ago. We chatted after the show, and we’ve been friends ever since.BlankVertSpace.8pixelsBlankVertSpace.8pixels

Recently she was asked to contribute a chapter to The Laban Workbook For Actors. She asked me to illustrate it.

She notes that while there are no hard and fast rules for crafting performance art, it pays to think about certain things.

She mentions 5 steps, and it’s interesting: they apply to illustration and marketing as well as performance art. Not surprising, really, since they’re all art forms.
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1.  Zero in

Simply put: decide what you want to explore. Consider all the possibilities, than narrow it down.

If you’re an illustrator: what point are you trying to make? Where’s your main focus?

If you’re a marketer: what’s the “why?” behind your content? What are you trying to achieve?blank vertical space, 32 pixels high

guy with cane tipping hat leaping toward big target trying to hit bull's-eye with cane as if shooting arrow

blank vertical space, 32 pixels high2. Play with words

Maybe your performance piece will have dialogue. Maybe signs, or writing of some kind. Maybe no words at all. Doesn’t matter.

Jot down possible titles, keywords, ideas. See what resonates. A phrase may suggest certain movements, take you in an unexpected direction. Wordplay sparks ideas.BlankVertSpace.8pixels

If you’re an illustrator, jot down keywords and phrases used by the client, see what they suggest, what images come to mind.BlankVertSpace.8pixels

If you’re a marketer, you’re trying to make an emotional connection. Write down words that describe the feelings you’re trying to inspire. See where they take you.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high
woman pilot like Amelia Earhart flying pencil spelling out words soar, freedom, dare, mayday

blank vertical space, 32 pixels high3. Expand (= Experiment)

You’re trying to get a feel for what works. String different bits and pieces together. Go a little crazy. Experiment. Speed things up, slow things down. Be abrupt, draw things out. Try different costumes, props. Change the rhythm, the pacing, your physical space. Incorporate any happy accidents.

The most important thing: don’t judge or edit yourself. There’s no right or wrong at this point, so let ‘er rip!BlankVertSpace.8pixels

Every illustrator recognizes this stage: here’s where you make all your rough thumbnail sketches. Anything goes, nothing’s too crazy or absurd. Make it as messy as you want. You never know what might pop out. A lot of it will get thrown out, but who cares? You’re trying to generate ideas.BlankVertSpace.8pixels

If you’re a marketer, here’s where you try different approaches, take some risks, think funny, explore ideas that are “out there.” Why not? You’re not judging or editing yourself at this point, because that would restrict your creativity.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high
woman blowing soap bubbles with words representing variations on theme larger smaller forceful repeat space effort action rhythm soft exaggerate

blank vertical space, 32 pixels high4. Organize (= Refine)

Start putting things together. You’re not at the truly ruthless editing stage yet. Stay loose, remain open to inspiration. Ask yourself what seems to be working, and what isn’t. If it feels right, keep it. If not, put it in the “reconsider” pile. Refine your ideas. Start pulling
the best bits together.BlankVertSpace.8pixels

If you’re an illustrator, you’ve made a number of sketches. Ask yourself which ones you like best, and why. Are there elements in two or more sketches that you could somehow combine?

If you’re a marketer, you’ve tested different scenarios, tried variations. What engaged, what fell flat? What needs tweaking? What’s generating the most enthusiasm? Time to narrow the field and start rounding up your best ideas.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high
Pied Piper character playing music being followed by different kinds of light bulbs representing different ideas

blank vertical space, 32 pixels high5. Try something, test and retest

Put a performance together. Make some decisions re text/dialogue, movements, the physical space. Work out the sequence. Ask yourself what you find most intriguing, what holds your interest.

Perform the piece before a test audience. Collect feedback. Are they “getting it”? If not, what are they getting? What’s not needed? What needs to be reworked? Were there any surprises? Can you use them to advantage?BlankVertSpace.8pixels

If you’re an illustrator, it’s time to finalize your rough sketches, and send them to the client for feedback. Revise as necessary, and stay alert for last minute inspiration.BlankVertSpace.8pixels

If you’re a marketer, it’s time to present your concept(s) to the client, and get feedback.
If you do your own marketing, ask trusted colleagues for feedback (if you belong to a local business group, for example). Be open to feedback and criticism, and resist any urge to defend your concept as complete and correct.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high

woman performance artist dressed like mime manipulating her own strings as if she were human puppet

blank vertical space, 32 pixels highOne of Claire’s best lines in the book comes towards the end, and I’ll quote it here in full:BlankVertSpace.8pixels

Do let your material have a life of its own. Follow it. This can free you from having to tell an audience what to think or believe. Let them discover.BlankVertSpace.8pixels

There’s a lot of wisdom there whether you’re a performance artist, an illustrator, a marketer, or anyone who’s trying to communicate.

Resist the urge to be preachy or dictate terms. Telling people what to think breeds resentment (usually, invisible resentment).

Be creative. Craft your message in a way that allows people to discover it for themselves. There’s no better route to credibility.

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Communication touches every aspect of our lives. Even if we choose not to communicate. It’s the key to success, both in business and in life. Any thoughts about that? Please leave a comment.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to recommend it, please click the Like button below. To share it, click Tweet, Facebook, or one of the other Share buttons.

You might also enjoy this marketing infographic. It contains 6 tips for marketing success.

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About Mark: I’m an illustrator specializing in humor, branding, social media, and content marketing. I create images that get content seen and shared.

You can view my portfolio, and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Questions? Send me an email.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2017 7:19 PM

    I like the performance artists that comprised early MTV– such as Devo. Yes, Devo became a band, but they started as performance artists. Their earliest music videos are pretty interesting, in my opinion.

    That said– I think many of these lessons you cite were known by all the old vaudevillian performers, and those that started on the streets. I’m sure you know very, very well that they had to refine their acts constantly, and had to be ready to adjust them on the fly for individual audiences across numerous locations. It seems to me that some of that ethic lives on in certain modern venues, like the Apollo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 13, 2017 9:00 AM

      Hi, Jak! Devo— now there’s a name I haven’t heard in awhile! I always thought those were flowerpots on their heads, now I’ve learned they were “red terraced energy domes.” A flowerpot by any other name, etc. I’d certainly wear one if I thought it would channel some energy to my dome… : )

      Agreed: you can see a lot of parallels between performance art and those old vaudeville acts. And you’re certainly right about vaudevillians ad-libbing and adjusting their act on the fly. The Marx Brothers were actually a singing act before discovering their gift for comedy during a gig. And I’ve read that some of the Smothers Brothers’ most famous bits were the result of ad-libs during a performance. You can’t beat a happy accident, but of course you’ve gotta be slogging away in order for them to occur. Yup, there’s always a catch! Cheers, amigo!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. January 6, 2017 11:55 PM

    Great article, great illustrations. Those little pilots flying the pencils. . .too fun. If asked, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there is something about your humor, and your sketches that remind me of Terry Pratchett.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 13, 2017 9:20 AM

      Many thanks! Yes, I’d like to get a flying pencil myself. I’ve looked around, but had no luck, either on Amazon or eBay… : )

      I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of Terry Pratchett. I was astounded to learn he’s one of the U.K.’s most successful writers. I shall definitely be searching out his books, and I thank you very much for bringing him to my attention! : )

      Liked by 1 person

  3. EarthGround permalink
    January 16, 2017 11:33 PM

    Contrary clowns. Ribbon fools. Chaplin. Ben Turpin.

    Someday, some kid will invent the capacity to reconstitute the past, before history, humanity as we were, based 8n the curious nature of time – not time travel, mind you!

    Holographic remote sensing.

    Imagine all the clowns, as they were without circus. Freedom.
    Or, will we focus on the epic battles with this new tech?
    Will the responsibility to help Oliver Stone fix Alexander, finall6, come to bear?

    I had a sync with trifles. Claire in NYT, my Wife, Musashi (Japanese swordmaster) offered this word today. Too much.

    Don’t sweat the small stuff…there is no small stuff?
    There is metal work. Desserts. Comment-clowning.
    Great blog. Noce post. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 24, 2017 11:07 AM

      Holographic remote sensing… yes, they had that on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Called it the holodeck. You could pop in a program and have an adventure in any time period. It could even recreate fictional characters and settings in their respective eras. Virtual reality without the weird gloves and monstrous headsets. I want one!

      I had a sink with truffles once. It involved chocolate and an unusual plumbing problem. I won’t get into specifics… : )

      Many thanks for your kind words and wordplay! : )



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