When I was in grad school, I detested metaphors.
I was told “Breathe into your butt.”
I replied “Do YOU have lungs in your butt? Because I don’t.”
I’d already had massive amounts of vocal training, so I had some expectations, and my bullshit detector was on maximum, 24/7.
“Sing into your teeth and — ”
“The inhale is like drawing the bowstring back –“
No it’s not.
“The sound arises from a pool at the center of your pelvis –”
No, it doesn’t.
This was way before grumpy cat, but I sure was grumpy. Eventually I wound up in the Head’s office, deciding whether or not I was going to play ball.
Today, I work in technical language as often as I work in metaphorical language. It depends on what the issue is, what the student needs to learn in that moment, and how they CAN hear it. I sometimes even breathe into my butt.
Ironically, one metaphor that I use often is this one: You have a ball. You want to give it to the audience. This is a central metaphor for all performance and communication.
What’s your message? You need to know its size, shape, weight, and how it feels in your hands.
Do you remember the first time you tried throw a football? Yeah, that was hilarious. Know your ball.
Who’s your audience? How far away are they, how well do they catch? Can you even SEE them?
Too often we throw just to throw, without knowing where they are, whether they’re open or even looking in our direction.
…Or pitch, or lob, or pass, or serve, or hand off, or roll, or bowl, or shot, or drop. You need to know how movement works in your context, if there are obstacles to avoid, rules to follow, a track to use, time limits or other conventions that have to be considered.
Ever seen a baseball player play tennis for the first time? Again, hilarious.
How is this metaphor useful?
A student actor is auditioning for a play with a monologue. At first, he thinks his target is the auditor, and his ball is the fact that he’s talented and worth casting. But neither of these things is true. (Wait! I mean – yes, he’s talented and worth casting – of course! But no, that’s not the ball and his target isn’t the auditors.)
His target and ball are within the play’s text.
For this one specifically, he’s doing a piece from Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, a Trofimov monologue to Anya. So, his target is Anya, and the ball he’s trying to get to Anya is – well the student has to DECIDE what it is, because Chekhov is a sneaky bastard, but one possibility is – his “revolutionary brilliance”. He wants her to see it, catch it and be awed by it. Or my student could decide that Trofimov’s ball is actually the revolutionary ideology itself, and that he wants her to catch that and become another mouthpiece.
A Board member has to present a facility renovation plan at an annual meeting. Two Board factions disputed the plan, and his side eventually won. At the meeting, he needs to know if his presentation target is that other Board faction, or the full meeting membership. If he’s not sure, he could sow trouble where there isn’t any.
A singer snags a gig, opening for a band that is fairly well-known. She’d love to go on tour with them as their consistent opening act. She also wants to sell as much merch as she can at this gig. Does she sing her signature favorites from a previous album or a piece of new material? Ballads, or rockers? Covers or originals? Answers will vary depending on who the target is – this audience tonight, or the band’s manager, who hires opening acts for their specific ability to raise energy for the headliner?
You can plug in your own examples from almost any real life communication, and the ball metaphor can work: parent/child conversations; customer service situations; negotiations with a spouse. Even training your pet (don’t look at my hand, dammit, look at the ball!)
But especially for presenters and performers, when we’re not fully aware of the target, the ball, and the rules of motion, we sometimes start to play our own subconscious games. Social anxiety, knee-jerk desires and habit take over. Do I want you to like me, laugh and applaud, or do I want you to truly get my message?