Stage Presence


When I was a junior in high school, I was cast in the role of Valère in our school’s production of Molière’s The Flying Doctor. As we were getting the play into shape, our director invited his mentor, a minor legend in the Rhode Island high school theater scene, to stop by and offer his thoughts. We were all to be on our best behavior for this man. His only comments on my performance: You have good stage presence.

I didn’t much enjoy the role. The play’s a farce, and I’m not really a farcical guy. Still, I did my best, and would later think about what my director’s mentor had said about my stage presence. I thought he was probably right. When I was on stage, whether in a play or to give talk at our commencement, I felt something come into focus in me. I couldn’t really name it, but I liked it. In fact, I wished I was always aware of it. Mostly, my focus drifted as I drifted, never sure if what I was doing mattered or was leading me anywhere.

I still love being onstage. I only perform as myself these days, a role I’m still refining. I’ve found that speaking to an audience helps in this refinement. Performance demands you be in the present moment. If your mind travels at all into the past or future, or if you lift out of yourself and observe what’s happening, notice how well or poorly it’s going, you’re lost. The stage is the last place I want to be lost. I’d rather be lost in a strange city than in a spotlight on the naked stage. To feel lost then is to know what comedians mean when they talk about “dying.”

Fortunately, when I’m on stage, I don’t want to be anywhere else. What’s happening in that moment asks for and receives my complete attention. The presence an audience feels, however, is not mine. It’s like writing in public. When you write, you’re communicating with something, in collaboration with something, and without that collaborative force, I’m lost. When I’m performing, it’s as if whatever it is that talks to us when we write is there with me, a presence there on stage nearly clear enough that I can see it, a presence strong enough that others think they see it too.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.