Letting it all hang out…

Letting it all hang out…

… or not.

A blog about introversion, extroversion, and performance.

1867. Eliza Blasina wearing horse-head headdress, short costume with attached horsetail, rows of round beads or bells around ankles, wrists, neck and upper arm.
1867. Eliza Blasina wearing horse-head headdress, short costume with attached horsetail, rows of round beads or bells around ankles, wrists, neck and upper arm.

As a mentor, consultant and trainer I am constantly challenged with finding ways in which to make participants in my sessions feel comfortable. Different personality types respond to different approaches; matching appropriate approaches to the right personality type requires a sensitive approach.

I am also interested in how different personality types contribute to or experience workplace culture. Issues such as employee engagement, maintaining a healthy workplace culture and contributing to innovation are a fascination (and even challenge) to many organisations right now. Any workplace will be comprised of a community made up of a diverse array of personality types. Finding the right balance of management approaches is complex.

I first started learning about managing teams, and eliciting ideas and applied efforts from those teams, when I started working as a performer, choreographer and dance teacher in my early twenties (a very long time ago now!). These early experiences were important: lessons learnt in handling people who were involving themselves in creative activity, something that requires experimentation and its attendant vulnerability, have turned out to be transferrable into situations which are not about making theatre.

Some observations about introverts and extroverts.

Speaking (perhaps very) generally and crudely, I think that people assume that extroverts have it all over introverts when it comes to performative activities such as acting in a play, taking part in a role play, MCing an event, giving a speech or even just getting involved in a group activity or game. And, indeed, where the activity in question is slanted towards a group activity that calls for spontaneous action within that group, perhaps they do. It is well documented that extroverts enjoy and feel stimulated by group activity, that such things can give them energy, stimulation, and a sense of meaningful connection, whereas the poor old introverts feel drained, burdened or constrained by it. And I guess that, leading on from this, people might assume that introverts have a natural handicap when it comes to any kind of public display or performance.

But here they would be wrong.

A trip down memory lane (bear with me here…)

I am an introvert myself, but was involved in the performing arts professionally for about 20 years. I started off as a dancer and choreographer, with a little dance teaching on the side, and then moved into working in arts management while still doing a little acting and choreography to ‘keep my hand in’. During this time I had plenty of opportunity to track my own evolution as a performer as well as teaching, directing, creating on and producing for other performers. I believe that no personality type is, by default, advantaged when it comes to performative activities. I have seen, in turn, brilliant, good, average, and plain bloody awful performers belonging to both introvert and extrovert personality types.

Where the differences really kick in is in the way different personality types approach developing their capacity for, or participating in, performance or display. And again I will have to generalise here as the creative process of developing performative material varies so much and is such a personal individual thing. Extroverts may favour workshopping in groups, or participating in group exercises to experiment with different dynamics or techniques within the rehearsal room. I get the sense that the frequent interaction with fellow performers helps them get the right level of energy or ‘pitch’ for their performance; lots of dialogue with others helps them to arrive at insights and refine their approach.

Vintage Photos of Cabaret Dancers from 1900–1930 (1)
A Can Can dancer from 1895

As an introverted performer I simply loathed those noisy games and exercises; when I had to do them I would feel my brain shut down, my feelings shrivel up and my imagination be swamped by feelings of anxiety and tiredness. I loved a damned good natter about my process but only after I had had time to sit with my feelings and reflect about what I was doing. A quieter, more reflective rehearsal or workshop process worked for me and other introverts, one which gave time for being alone to absorb thoughts and reactions and to let creative insight well up from inside.

Tellingly, to prepare for curtain up, I would see extroverted performers use various activities or interaction to get their energy ‘up’ while I and other introverts would use any excuse to sneak off to a quiet place to gather energy in. In front of an audience I have seen extroverted performers push their energy out over the footlights, chasing down the audience reactions they wanted like hunting dogs going after prey. Introverted performers, when anchored by carefully nurtured inner energy, could quietly but powerfully hold the stage and allow the audience’s attention and reactions to come to them. Both these different performative energies can be equally charismatic, engaging, and brilliant in the hands of good performers. And they can fail miserably when manifested by untalented or unskilled performers: extroverts can be noisy and bombastic (sound and fury signifying nothing); introverts can be tepid and dull.

Again, I will confess to generalising horribly. I have seen performers who I knew were introverts gleefully perform extroverted characters or material with razzle dazzle and high energy. I have seen raving extroverts turn in performances that were understated, unembroidered by any kind of showing off. But the paths and the processes those performers took to interpret their roles often drew on rehearsal and creative techniques that favoured their personality types. As an example, I have lost count of the number of introverted performers who used to agree with me that it was not necessarily a problem performing crazy onstage roles because the roles were not us, they were the character that we could put up between us and our audience.

Sarah Bernhardt as Pierrot
Sarah Bernhardt as Pierrot

So… why have I been rabbiting on about this in a business blog?

It’s because I want to ponder, for a moment, the activities and exercises we use when we ask people to attend workshops or other types of training. In the past, when I have myself participated in workshops (ranging from dance and theatre workshops through to workshops developing professional skills) I feel that I have seen a pattern whereby any kind of audience engagement or group activity seems to pander to the extroverted side of the spectrum.

Every time some presenter or trainer instructs us in the audience to “stand up and…” I mentally groan and shudder. I know that the intent is to loosen us up, make things fun, or take us out of ourselves but it doesn’t work this way for us introverts. It makes us tense, uncomfortable and inhibited. Breaking up the tedium of a workshop is fine, flipping the training experience and challenging workshop attendees to actively participate is something I love to do. But please don’t conflate audience participation with loud or crazy; mix up the chatter with moments of quietness or self-reflection.

And just because someone in your meeting or workshop is quiet, please don’t assume that they lack creativity, or that they are unconfident, or that they need taking out of themselves, or loosening up, or ‘corrected’ in attitude or behaviour in any way shape or form. Any attempts to do so will come across as patronising, overbearing, or even just well-intentioned but misguided.

If you want to make any human being feel inhibited and uncomfortable in a group, make a special effort to influence their behaviour and / or draw attention to what you consider to be their deficits.

Somewhere along the line extroversion has come to equal craziness has come to equal enhanced or elevated creativity. But this is just not true. Everyone has some innate creativity; as a species human beings are actually extremely creative. But different individuals access their creativity in different ways and feel comfortable sharing their insights under different conditions. For me, the challenge of being a trainer is to develop sessions that have a good balance of types of activity that allow different personality types to come to themselves, feel comfortable, and to be able to focus on the task at hand rather than being distracted by feeling uncomfortable or confronted.

My blog next week will be about one of my favourite ways of drawing both introverted and extroverted people into participating comfortably in a workshop: storytelling.