Presence: the fact or condition of being present
I’ve been thinking about presence quite a lot lately, for two purposes that are interconnected but from quite different perspectives; one psychological and philosophical and one in regards to performance. So I thought I would attempt to nut that out a little in words…
I have been seeing a psychologist about issues I have with anxiety, something that comes and goes in my life and which is occurring often at the moment. Anxiety is generally triggered for me by uncertainty, and much to my dismay I have learnt that I’m calmer when my life has a routine, so being a freelance puppeteer and sometimes not knowing where the money for my next rent payment is going to come from isn’t ideal… My psychologist has introduced me to the psychological theory of mindfulness, which uses techniques with roots in Buddhist meditation. There are many aspects to it, but a focus on ‘the present’ and ‘being present’ has piqued my interest in a way that connects elements of my art practice with my mental health.
A good definition I found is from Jon Kabat-Zinn who is an authority on how to use mindfulness techniques to address clinical psychological issues. He says that mindfulness is: “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. For my own purposes mindfulness has been about trying to pay more attention and engage more fully with the present rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. It is about observing what is going on in my mind and body, noting my thoughts and feelings as they happen but not trying to change them. I have been meditating as a one way to learn how to be mindful. At this stage I’m simply sitting for 10 minutes in the mornings and observing my breath going in and out, noting how it feels and what happens in my body as I breathe. Also noticing when my mind wanders and then bringing my focus back on to my breath. It is so simple, and sometimes so difficult! It is hard to be truly present because it is something we don’t do often in life. We spend so much time multi-tasking and letting our minds run away on us, it seems like the moments when we are fully aware of ourselves are few and far between.
And this is where the connection to presence in performance comes in. It is extraordinary how engaging it is to watch someone who is truly present on stage. A big part of being a performing artist training to achieve this state, and the history of this training is something that theatre theorist and director Eugenio Barba has spent much of his career researching. He wrote a book called the Paper Canoe, which talks a lot about the similarities in training between dance and theatre in many different cultures. He coined a term called the ‘pre-expressive state’, which I would call in more simple terms: stage presence. He observed that performers the world over train to be able to be present on stage, and this training always includes a focus on “certain physiological factors – weight, balance, the position of the spinal column, the direction of the eyes in space – produce physical, pre-expressive tensions. These new tensions generate a different quality of energy, they render the body theatrically “decided”, “alive”, “believable” and manifest the performer’s “presence”, or scenic bios, attracting the spectator’s attention “before” any form of message is transmitted. (Odin Teatret)
In his book he gave an example of Japanese Noh theatre performers who learn how to perform with their weight shifted unnaturally to the balls of their feet. The effect of this is that the body is always full of energy and ready to (re)act at any moment, and it makes a performer interesting to watch because as an audience we feel like something is about to happen. You don’t want to take your eyes away in case you miss something. You could say the same about the position a sprinter might take before the gun goes, or a fencer’s light-footed dance before they strike.
For me the close relationship between the training I do as a performer, all those strange and obscure exercises that sometimes seem a little-self indulgent, and the mindfulness techniques I have recently been introduced to has been a revelation. I have gained a stronger understanding of why performing and rehearsing make me feel so good and calm, performance training is often time spent being mindful, being aware of my body and focusing carefully on very specific actions. Just like I do when I’m meditating. Mindfulness and performance both demand that I am truly present, and one of the best things about that is that there isn’t much room for being anxious when I’m focusing on my experience of the present. And the more I think about it the more I see sport in the same light. The best sports players have learnt to put themselves into ‘the zone’, which, just like stage presence, allows them to perform at very high levels. I’m sure that anyone who has played a team sport has experienced those sweet plays where it seems like everyone shares one mind and you barely have to communicate to pass the ball and get it in the goal. I have a hunch now that the euphoria afterwards comes in part from the exercise and in part from spending that time being present and aware.