Monday, April 12, 2010

Thoughts on Being Present

This past Saturday I was taking a workshop led by Connie Goodbread. She had laid out the room with a bunch of chairs in a circle, and placed a toy on each chair. I went immediately to the chair with the stuffed lemur on it, and started playing. The lemur waived at everyone who entered the room, and at times wagged his tail at folk.

There was a variety of reactions. Some settled right into play with me. Some smiled, but refrained from interacting. Others were made uncomfortable. I discussed the experience later at dinner with others who were at different workshops at District Assembly, and first knocked it off to my being internally five scaring people. I was gently reprimanded and told that it wasn’t that I was being childish, but that I was present. I came into the room and I was emotionally vulnerable and ready to work.

One of the things I’ve noticed in both my faith life and my professional life is that people have a serious ambivalence towards presence. We want people to be with us, but not too with us. We want presence in our actors and our ministers, but not in our audience and our fellow worshippers. Presence is something for others, professionals, leaders. In situations of worship or in a darkened audience, I find that we want to think, but not too much, feel, but not too much, experience, but not too much. Those that do experience the theatre more fully often get berated as bad audience members. Those that come to worship fully present often get strange looks.

If we are to create sacred spaces, it requires participation from everyone in the room. I’m tired of passive church and theatre experiences. I want to be in the room. I want to play with stuffed animals, sing loudly, clap loudly, laugh loudly, cry loudly, and be fully present. I want to gasp when the sword is unsheathed and sing when the spirit moves me.

One of my spiritual practices is to exist in a space that is uncomfortable for me so that others may be comfortable. I understand that some people need quiet in order to be present. I respect that, but I don’t want to mistake quiet for polite or either for present.

In what ways do you find yourself present? What helps you listen or engage more fully?


  1. This is beautiful. I think there is a lot of fear about being fully present. And I think it's also made challenging by the fact that there is a balance of being both present and aware--while one should feel called to act as they are moved, there is also an element of recognizing the energy of the group and not trying to turn the whole thing in a direction that nobody else is going, or acting in a way that disrupts the ability of others to be fully present.

    If you ever have a chance to visit San Francisco, I'd love to have you come to one of the rituals we put on with Come As You Are Coven--I think you'd enjoy the experience.

    And that totally veered off and didn't totally answer your question but I think that may take a blog post of my own.

  2. This is a very interesting post, Andie. Degrees of "being present" are something I think about often, because though when I'm running Blue Planet I'm perfectly comfortable meeting with strangers, teaching workshops, and speaking in public, when I attend a play or a cultural event, I'm absolutely UNcomfortable with any sort of audience participation. I want to blend into the shrubbery and observe. And then AFTERWARDS, when I'm out of that public arena and alone with friends, that's when I want to discuss it, debate it, argue about it. That's the experience that is most gratifying for me.

    I think the reason for this dichotomy may be that I am perfectly fine being in the limelight when I am in control of the limelight - when my role is to be the teacher, the speaker, the host. But when I am called out of my role as audience member and expected to contribute to the experience of entertainment, I want no part of it. It absolutely ruins the experience for me.

    I know, though, that many people really like that sort of interactive experience, and would, as you say, love to be more present, to react more fully in a forum which has traditionally frowned upon over-reaction from its patrons. Different strokes, I suppose... :)

  3. Andie, thank you for blogging on this. I guess I'm not answering your questions directly, but you've described my ambivalence about theatrical presence and presentations: If I'm familiar with or otherwise inspired by the work, I want to join with, comment on, respond to (or maybe just think about) it and perhaps push it in certains directions (kind of like life). But formal theatre usually is presented as an artifact and the norm is that I and the audience show our respect to the playwrite and the company by trusting them to lead us to places, things, or ideas that we might not discover otherwise (or if we already are familiar with the work, to politely allow newbies to be led as we once were).

    I think there are many kinds of theatre, though, that successfully break down the fourth wall to invite us (the audience) to be present: Concerts, comedy acts, some street theatre, etc. The more complex the worlds/ideas being presented, however, the more difficult it seems to be to do that. With complex works, I think we audiences need a sense of comfort - through familiarity, or as part of our own specific knowledge, or within the context of ritual - to become present in the ways you mention. For the most part, I think we just aren't adept enough to allow for "real-time" presence within the work without feeling stressed.

    But even in formal theatre, the company can successfully encourage the audience's presence - though usually by resorting to obvious stereotypes or familiar tropes to clue the audience in (mustache-twirling, black-caped evil villians, for example), or by providing in-jokes (like jibes at current politicians or celebrities) - or, in the best instances, by so well knowing the audience (and vice versa) that the interaction becomes natural.