Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Stage Presence" by Jane Goodall

Illustration Copyright © 2008 Routledge. All Rights Acknowledged.

An academic study describing the titled phenomenon, "Stage Presence" largely documents and analyses the efforts of others who have sought to describe it, rather than pointing in directions as to how it might be developed. Consequently, it is a step further removed from the vital attribute - listening to and critiquing the thoughts of others, leaving the reader to deduce its contextual significance.

Stage Presence's discursive quality is that of movement in an ever-tightening spiral; of trying to identify something ephemeral by describing everything around that's subject to its influence - like astronomers witnessing the effect of a strong gravitational field through the distortion of light from surrounding stars.

What lends cohesion to the work is the thread of a timeline, from the ancient to the recent, where the expressions of stage presence were drawn from the scientific understandings of that epoch: mesmerising, magnetic, electric, radiant, dazzling. Indeed, Goodall sets out her stall in the introduction by describing the work as "an enquiry that breaks down the cultural dualisms of rationality and superstition, science and art."

The book is, at its very superstructure, a Chronicle of Rhetoric. Within that framework is located some very succinct definitions, such as the meaning of 'Star Quality'; analytical dissections, for example in the 'Definition of Parody'; and practical applications, like 'the management of energy in performance'.

Whilst there are numerous useful insights and ideas, and the author comes across best when talking about musicals, the effort becomes less convincing when Goodall strays from the aesthetic domain into the scientific; where her words are beguiling but lacking in rigour - "nature abhors a vacuum" neglects the largest known phenomenon in nature: Outer space.

At times, the author seems to grasp at straws:


"Why do ghosts, which the French call 'revenants' - those who return - come back to the places from which they are supposed to have departed, and how do they achieve the presence effect? This is a question with which scientists would have no patience but, with a little poetic licence, it helps to raise some other questions that are of the essence in an enquiry into stage presence." (Page 170)


Yes, skepticism is an inherent part of a scientific philosophy which West inherited from the Greeks. But I contend that scientists would indeed entertain her question above, if there was preceding reproducible evidence that:
  • ghosts did exist;
  • the returners were one and the same as the departed, only transcendental;
  • there was a quantifiable presence effect; and
  • such presence effect was caused by ghosts.
In the next line, she asks the reader for an act of faith (in the form of poetic licence) in order to bridge a gap in logical argument in an enquiry.

I found the pseudoscience hard to swallow.

With any advanced material, it is encumbent on the reader to maintain a critical mindset to recognise personal truths. "Stage Presence" is no different. Indeed, I found the discourse on Dramatic Interpretation: the "use of repetition - verbal and melodic - to create variation, so that their unfolding is improvised line by line with a fresh interpretive attack" particularly relevant to the performance of salsa.

But it is in the analysis of John Cage's 'now moment' as "the vanishing point in time and space" that I found my personal nirvana. Coming as it did in the closing stages of the book, it vindicated my doggedness in seeing the book through to its end in the face of a scientist's umbrage.

It articulated clearly that which I'd experienced as, "a shift in consciousness resulting in break-through to some normally excluded dimension of experience" but had never been able to express personally in words. Understanding the distance Science has yet to cover, I would not attempt a logical explanation.

Stage Presence is a valuable endeavour whose riches require considerable effort by the reader to unlock. Those of a more scientific bent would have to exert themselves a little more in the suspension of their disbelief.

Loo Yeo