A thing you hear a lot in comedy (and in life) is “just be yourself”. But what if people aren’t that interested when you are being yourself? What if you could do more of the things you wanted to do if you actually behaved in a different way than perhaps is natural for you to do?
I read an interview today with Dale Steyn the magnificent South African fast bowler who will be leading their attack against England in the Test series which starts on Thursday. It was pointed out that he was shy and relentlessly polite and humble off the field, but aggressive, cocky and outgoing on it. He was asked why. He said “Once I step over that white line I become The Bowler”. He is pointing out that he in fact has two independent selves, two characters that he employs at different times. He is himself (shy, self-effacing, quiet) when he is off the field, but he turns on a special persona that helps him get results when he is performing on the field of play. He knows that by being The Bowler he will intimidate batsmen, fire up his team and himself, and take more wickets. He is not religiously wed to the mantra: be yourself. Here’s the new mantra: be yourself, unless you would get better results being someone else.
Why are people wedded to their “selves”? There is nothing about their current self that is intrinsic to them: our self is a blank slate when we are born, an empty vase, that is filled by factors we have no control over throughout our life: our family, friends, teachers, life experiences. We are everyone, but no one. So why not change it? Get control over your “self”, rather than leave it to the random forces of fate.
Showmanship is one of the most crucial components of a world class entertainer, yet it is one of the hardest qualities to foster in yourself because it rarely comes naturally. And showmanship is not necessarily a character trait you want to have at all times: socially, for example, it is over-bearing and irritating. So we programme ourselves to be modest, quiet, to not rock the boat, to shun attention or pass it on quickly if we receive it. We try not to lead people socially either, because we don’t want to be bossy and people don’t want to get told what to do. But showmanship is about leading a crowd, and crowds want a leader. Showmanship is about uber-confidence, showing off, energy, charisma, exaggeration, outrageousness. It’s about revelling in the attention and putting on a show that makes people excited. It’s about not being you.
It’s up to you to create this unforgettable persona. Russell Brand quotes the Simpson’s creator Matt Groening who said that cartoon characters should be recognisable in silhouette. He said that having read that “At that point I made the decision to be distinctive looking”. He created an artifice. It was an artistic and career based choice, it didn’t come from his own “self”. The performance persona of the person doesn’t really exist, it is a carefully created and presented fictional package (although the performance persona and real person may eventually over-lap in time: for example, Brand says he feels more comfortable in his performance persona because the rules and expectations are much simpler). Having a separate performer self is freeing: criticism is no longer personal, and you are without the constraints of your previous identity so you can express yourself in a different ways. The performance self is simply an entertainer, a concept, a separate thing.
On this subject, I read an interview with Lady Gaga once who said that “to be famous, you have to act famous”. She went on:
“I was interested in the idea that if you carry yourself in a certain way people will wonder who you are. The way I dressed and talked about music, art and fashion, people said, I don’t know who she is, but I want to know who she is.”
Being “you” may not be enough to be famous: to attract and lead a following, in any walk of life. You may not want to be famous, fair enough. But surely you want to have impact in some way?
No one is saying you have to have this big persona, this stand-out showman front, all the time. If you have created it then it can be something you can turn on and off. Marilyn Munroe could turn herself on and off: she could walk down the street as Norma Jeane Mortenson and nobody would recognise her. But if she walked down the street as Marilyn she would be mobbed. She knew the rules of that persona, and she could inhabit it in a heartbeat when she needed to have impact. Both personas manifested themselves totally differently, and had different aims and domains.
It’s time that you became schizophrenic. Leave you in the dressing room: when you walk on that stage you are someone else. All the rules are out of the window. You are Batman now, not Bruce Wayne.