A Case for Vulnerability (or: why showmanship is overrated)

Updated: Mar 25, 2019

I am currently leading a company of actors at Washington, DC’s Imagination Stage. Every morning, dressed in dazzling and vivid costumes, I dance and sing on a revolving turntable beneath a ceiling of twinkling lanterns and HD projections. This is spectacle at its best, and it’s all for students of inner city schools, many of whom are setting foot in the theatre for the very first time.

In the musical’s climax, a princess is forced to confront the demons of her past in a mystical jungle. She prays and cries to the beat of a tribal drum as a brilliant serpent dances in the looming projections above her. I and several other actors provide voices through a reverb microphone offstage in the wings. From here, although we’re meant to remain invisible to the audience, I can see a seat or two on the very end of the front row. So I was surprised during one performance when, despite the special effects and drama presented onstage, I saw a little figure in the audience whose attention was rapt on me, offstage.

This incident led me to a much larger discovery— What is perfected, packaged and presented will never be as interesting as something meant to remain unseen.

I remember being this child. The very first time I saw Les Misérables, when I was ten, I had spent years worshiping the album and fantasizing about what the production would look like. And yet during the performance, I couldn’t pull my gaze away from the musicians in the pit who, believing themselves to be unseen, passed the time lip-syncing to “On My Own.”

We do not grow out of our fascination with revelations of the private. How else to explain the popularity and profitability of reality television— a genre that commodifies and dramatizes the mundane aspects of life that all undergo but none publicize? Or why, after eight years in the public eye, President Obama’s most remembered public appearance was one where he wiped away tears addressing the Sandy Hook Shootings? While professional polish is necessary, it does not stand a chance when compared to personal vulnerability.

As artists, we possess and pursue the curiosity of that child peering around the stage and into the wings. That child is also within the casting director, agent, producer, or anyone with the power to give you a job. So don’t cower from the scrutiny of the adult behind the table. Pull back the curtain and fascinate the child.

In your next audition, I challenge you to take one spontaneous risk. Vulnerability does not replace preparation or skill. Continue to research, prepare and drill your material before performing. But allow room for your true feelings to incite unrehearsed and unscripted truth in the moment. Allow room for grace. Because grace makes art.

Stay messy, hustlers.

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