On Working a Piece until it’s Worn Through

Performing intensely personal pieces, be they poems, dances, songs, theatre, etc., can take a toll on the body and psyche. To share that much emotional energy with an audience can be exhausting. But aside from the personal toll (which does come with rewards as well, lest we forget that there’s a reason why we do this), there’s also the question of when you simply cannot bring the energy to perform a certain piece anymore because you cannot do it justice any longer. How do we recognize when a piece’s time is past, either because the subject matter is not relevant to us anymore or because the words have been eroded into sounds, devoid of meaning due to repetition?

In Maddalena’s study of the positive therapeutic effects of performing slam poetry, one of the respondents claimed that by repeating a personal poem again and again “they feel divorced from the original emotion of the poem and that their performance can become rote . . . [some performers] felt a pull to keep performing poems which felt rote and dead or which they were not internally pulled to perform at any given time, in order to win or score well poetry slams” (Maddalena 227). The incredible American slam poet Andrea Gibson notes in the introduction to her moving poem ‘Prism’ that there are six years worth of love poems to her ex-girlfriend that she can’t perform anymore because their time has passed (link here).

Being fairly new to the slam poetry circuit, I’ve only experienced this effect a couple of times. There is one poem about an ex that I don’t perform anymore, but that’s more due to the fact that the writing isn’t tight than a feeling that I can’t perform it. But I have noticed that performing some intimate pieces doesn’t feel like a personal act anymore. I think in terms of “I’m going to perform ‘Dear’ in my set tonight” rather than “I want to share my personal idealizations of my biological father with this crowd of tipsy strangers tonight.” To some extent this is a distancing technique, but I also wonder how much it is because I have said those words so many times that they are losing their meaning. Like repeating a word over and over until it is babble, sometimes these poems become language that increasingly fails to evoke the original emotion from which they were written.

I’ve also experienced the effect of emotionally exhausting a piece with my choreography, and have taken steps to counteract that. Performing the bookending solos in my thesis work, “Homing” (link in Dance page), was an intensely personal experience, particularly given the stark lighting, the simple costuming, and the fact that I was the only moving thing in the theatre, all eyes focused on my body and the poem sounded over the speakers. It was semi-structured, meaning that I improvised elements, leading to a different performance each night. This allowed me the freedom to adapt my performance as I learned more about my piece each night. I always worked in a consistent style and with the same concepts; it was the manifestation and arrangement of these concepts that was fluid. I appreciated how using an improvisational score forced me to continue thinking about the core concepts of the piece: I was never able to simply consider the phrasework abstract movements, since I was constantly considering how the movement reflected the ideas. I had to actively return to the source material for each performance. However, I doubt I could have kept up the emotional intensity in that piece for much longer than the weekend run.

Artists: How do you deal with performing emotionally intense work over and over again? Do you feel as though the performance becomes separated from the emotional impetus for making the work? How do you recognize when you can no longer perform a work with the emotional intensity it requires?


Gibson, Andrea. “Prism.” Performance at the Highline Ballroom, March 24, 2013. YouTube Video. poster: Awake in Albany. “Prism by Andrea Gibson+ she talks about her ex.” Pub. March 25, 2013. Viewed Oct. 16, 2014. http://youtu.be/ysVlscQtUXE

Maddalena, Cheryl J. “The resolution of internal conflict through performing poetry.” The Arts in Psychotherapy, 36 (2009): 222-230. EBSCO.

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