Obstacle Exercises

Alright, nuts and bolts time.  I’m sharing a category of exercises that I use (and plenty of folks use, I didn’t invent them) to increase a performer’s sense of urgency, creativity, and audience connection.  It requires a teacher, or at least a skilled partner, to provide role play.

This is the performance equivalent of sparring, and similarly requires the partner to adjust the level of difficulty so that it surprises, and builds muscle, but doesn’t injure.  I always allow the student to “win” eventually, and then if they seem shaken up, I remind them that they are noble, righteous flag-bearers of virtue and they ride unicorns in my mind.  (Cuz they are and they do.)

My obstacle exercises come in three flavors:  verbal, non-verbal, and literal:

I pepper in phrases of disbelief, argument, or confusion in between their sentences or sung phrases.  Depending on the content type, the student might repeat what he just said, or might be able to improvise a specific response.
I say things like:
“Are you talking to me?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s bull.”
“You don’t seem convinced, yourself.”
“Why do I need to know this?”
Then eventually,  I open to his ideas a bit:
“I dunno, I need to know more …”
“Maybe you’re on to something.”
“And you’re sure about this, because…?”

I can also use very fine-focus pepper questions, to work the student through a variety of contrasting readings or emphasis choices.  For example:
Actor: “The quality of mercy is not strained…”
Me:  “The quality of mercy is not WHAT?”
Then the student then repeats the line, with a new emphasis.

This is related to an acting exercise called “The Moment Before” which teaches us to focus on our lines as RESPONSES, rather than as simply pre-determined output.

Another example of specificity in the peppering:
Speaker:  “I’ve faced mountains in my life…”
Me:  “Oh, come on, you’re a gorgeous middle class white woman, what mountains have you faced?”
The student replies that she’s a survivor of a double mastectomy.  Then she repeats the line, but she says it differently, her eye contact with me is different, her pacing and body-centering are different, and she even chooses to alter it slightly:  “I’ve faced mountains in my life.  Oh yes.  I have.”

I ask the student to take long pauses after every 3 or 4 phrases.   At each pause I ask:  “What do you see?” and the student replies describing what he sees me doing.   Note, the student chooses where the pauses are, in this one, and in this way, develops a habit of conscious audience in-take.

I do tough-audience things including:
Look down, or furrow my brow.
Glaze-stare, and then slow blink.
Shake head or purse lips.
Then more open cues:
Raise brows.
Nod and smile.
Lean forward, face becoming slack but eyes widening slightly.

When I ask “what do you see?” the student needs to respond out loud, verbally and specifically.  So, rather than saying “you’re not listening,” she says “you’re looking at your phone.”   This stalls the emotional judgment around her observation, and sometimes opens the possibility of the behavior having a neutral cause.
After each time she replies, describing what she sees, I ask “So what should you do?”   The answer may be to shift tone, tactic, or tempo, or to interact, or use more concrete imagery, or more emotionally accessible touchpoints.   Or the answer might be ‘don’t worry about it, because it’s part of being a Robust Performer.’    I’ll post more elsewhere about that.

For this exercise, I can progressively back out of the driver’s seat, meaning I change “What should you do” to just “so…” and eventually to just a nod. I talk less and she drives more.

I’ll also shift her responses from verbal to non-verbal.   I say, “okay now I’ll ask what you see, but only answer in your head, and then move on.”

Then I say “now I’ll stop asking what you see, but still take those 3 second pauses and do your adjustments.”

This exercise also works well for speakers who habitually rush or singers who habitually over-sing, to teach them to tolerate (and then use) these golden moments of silence.  After all, rests are music as much as the notes are music.

I stand behind the performer, holding his arms behind him, pulling him off balance, or attempting to cover his mouth or to turn him away from the audience.  His task is to get his imaginary target audience to hear him and understand his message, but without him actually physically wrestling with me, or acknowledging me at all.

Or I may send the performer to the spot furthest away from the audience, forcing him to deal with communicating across increased distance.   I may ask the person to sing his song from another room entirely, or even from the other side of a window.  I may introduce distractions, or deliberately (okay, sometimes deliberately) play the wrong notes for a singer’s accompaniment.  I might have him perform for my two teenage sons, who often have glazed expressions even when they love a performance.


Why Obstacles

Isn’t a performer’s job hard enough without making it even harder with all these obstacles?  And doesn’t it foster an adversarial view of the audience, or of the presentation situation itself?

Certainly, there are some students who need purely positive support, to begin with.  Communication is about getting the message to the target. Some students need to experience a successful ‘ping’, to see the arrow vibrating in the bullseye, in order to have the courage to try it again.

However, all performance and presentation implies intentionality, and that means at some level, you gotta want it.  Obstacles show you how much you want it.