“Rehearse at 100% to perform at 80%” is a piece of performance advice that’s been rattling around my head lately. It has a logical appeal, giving mathematical definition and logical reasoning to the inevitable disappointment inherent to the performing arts. You practice and practice and practice for the big big show, but when it comes time for the big big show you will get anxious. You will get sweaty under the lights. You will get cranky and snippy with the performers who are standing a little too close to you, and when the stifling curtain parts you will buckle under the pressure of a sea of faces staring at you, expecting you to do something cool.
Like an electron in a physics lab, the very condition of being observed will change the way you behave. And the performance you give when you’re being watched will inevitably be less perfect and less great than it would be if you weren’t being accosted by the prying eyes of an audience. With the same futility of effort of all human creative endeavor, the big moment you worked so hard for will never fully or accurately reflect the sum total of your full talent and capabilities.
“Rehearse at 100% to perform at 80%” takes this principle into account. What you present in performance will only be 80% of what you are truly capable of. Which requires you to rehearse at your maximum capacity, knowing that only 80% of that will filter through at the critical moment, when it matters most.
And truly, in any situation where someone has eyes on me, only 80% of all I am capable of is passing through a filter of self-restraint and self-editing, a filter that is equal parts fear, shame, and just trying to be polite. I go hard on a napkin when I’m eating with someone, blotting my face to the point of chapping because god forbid anyone ever sees me with an atom of sauce on my chin. I stop singing at the stoplight when another car pulls alongside me, because god forbid anyone should ever see me in a private moment of joy belting out Joe Jackson’s “Slow Song” alone in my car. I have elaborate, squirrel-like methods of hiding my journals and writing in shared living situations, because god forbid anyone should ever find out what I really think about them.
On the flip side, the eyes on me also have their own filter, dimming the 80% of me by their own gradient setting. What those eyes see is relative to what they are looking to take in.
I was once in a relationship with a man who repeatedly referred to me by his ex-wife’s name. It happened in all manner of mundane situations—“Hilda, what do you want for breakfast?” “Hilda, am I parked close enough to the curb?” “Hilda, look—I was at a gift shop that had a display of those little fake street signs personalized with different first names and I found one with your name, see? Hilda!”
I tried to chalk this up to a simple slip of the tongue that happened repeatedly over and over again. Maybe he had just got so used to saying this name that it just continued to come out of his mouth by sheer habit. I felt fortunate that at least he never called me by his ex-wife’s name in bed.
In bed, he would whisper to me in German. I do not speak German, and have never claimed to speak German. I would in fact pointedly interrupt his overtures with, “Hey. I don’t speak German.”
Hilda spoke German. Hilda was German. When he was married to Hilda, they had lived together in Germany, a place where people speak all sorts of German to each other, both in and out of bed.
80% of me was never going to stand up to a man whose filter was set to “German ex-wife.” And in a case like this, there’s no way to overcompensate for someone who, even when looking directly at you, even when focusing all their attention on you, is not able to see any of you.
But even in the best of circumstances, the most you can expect, the best you can hope for, is that someone looking at you is taking in just enough to get the gist of you. So what can you do but rehearse the big big show of yourself until you’re expressing as much of yourself as you can. Rehearse yourself at 100% so that the feathery shadow of a cloudy afterimage of you that people can see is the clearest, brightest, most explicit feathery shadow of a cloudy afterimage of you it can be.
The rehearsal of you is who you truly are. Who you are singing in your car before another car pulls up alongside is the most you you can ever be, and no one will ever be able to see it.
Unless, in a moment of suspended self-consciousness, you don’t notice the vehicle that pulls up alongside you at the stoplight. And if you are the driver of the vehicle that pulls up alongside a 41 year old woman in a Toyota Corolla belting out Joe Jackson’s “Slow Song,” please be aware of what you are truly witnessing, and honor what you are truly seeing.