The Performing Introvert
Comments about introverts and being an introvert in what seems to largely be an extroverted world come around every now and again. They ring true for me because, despite how things might otherwise appear, I actually am very much an introvert.
As it turns out there are actually genuine physiological differences between the brains of introverts and the brains of extroverts. These differences are basically which parts of the brain are activated more during different activities. The studies show that for introverts the areas of the brain which become more active during testing are areas which involve memory, problem solving and planning while the brains of extroverts that become more active tend towards the areas involved in interpretation of sensory data.
The difference is that given the opportunity to sit and think, the introvert focuses inward and the extrovert focuses outward. This may seem obvious but I share this up front to show that it isn’t just a personality thing like most people believe but is a genuine physical phenomenon.
What is also interesting to note is that according to a variety of studies as much as 75% of the population consists of extroverted individuals while the rest are introverts.
I tell you these things up front because I want to establish two basic things:
- Introversion is not a personality disorder or other psychological issue. It is a normal result of simple physiological differences in the brain
- Introverts are a smaller part of the population than extroverts
So keep those things in mind as I wander off into the actual point of this article; being a performing introvert.
What is a performing introvert? Simply put it’s someone who is both an introvert and engages in some activity that puts them “on stage” in front of crowds in order to entertain them.
This might seem like some kind of contradiction. After all aren’t the people who are “on stage” used to being in front of people? Don’t they crave the attention? Isn’t being an extrovert what makes them so good at entertaining?
Those things might be true, but they are definitely not the only answer.
Giving a speech in front of large crowds of people is actually a greater fear than death to most Americans so one can argue that being used to being on stage is not as common as we might expect. Sure there are lots of ways to train like Toastmasters or other speech training programs but statistically speaking at least one would think that even extroverts, who outnumber introverts by as much as 3 to 1, aren’t exactly craving that stage time in front of large crowds.
And introverts do crave attention as much as extroverts do. After all, we’re all human and we like to interact with each other. The difference is that introverts crave a different kind of interaction. This is the whole “life of the party” concept. Extroverts are often tagged as the “life of the party,” often justifiably so. Introverts, not so much. Introverts are usually the ones who, if they are at the party at all, are sitting in a corner having a quiet and pleasant conversation with one or two other people only.
Finally while being an extrovert might help create a level of energy for an entertainer, I don’t think it’s necessarily what makes them good at entertaining. One can simply do a quick Google search for famous introverts and find lists of some extremely talented performers both live and TV/Film stars. If being extroverted were a requirement we wouldn’t have those performances.
So what makes an introvert decide that being an entertainer is a good idea? What makes them think that being in front of crowds of people is what they want to do? What are the problems an introvert has to face and overcome?
Well, I can only speak to my own experiences and observations, so I will. Perhaps you will find this helpful if you too are an introvert with a desire to entertain.
I was drawn to the stage very early on. I mean very early. Like Kindergarten early. The first production I can remember doing was all the kids in class acting out a story from a story book and I played the villain (a very cartoonish Dick Dastardly type villain). That might not seem like much until you get the full context which is that the project was supposed to be all the kids switching out roles every so often so everyone got to play on stage. Except me. The teacher liked what I was doing so much that I played the villain through the entire thing.
Now sure, kids are more outgoing and less likely to be embarrassed when what they are doing is pure play, but this stuck with me, obviously, and it has always been the earliest foundation of what I consider my performance trajectory.
Ever since then I was constantly in “school plays” and then moved to community theater and eventually into being a founding member of an acting troupe that has lasted for 21 years so far as of this writing. Somewhere in there I also became a magician. And not only that I became a professional one, making my living as a magician for four years.
So how does introverted me do all that? Because it’s fun. Not for the limelight, which is nice, but because I have a talent and I like to practice it. I like creating. I like the art. Not just the magic but the acting as well. I think about my characters. I think about my delivery. I think about what the audience sees and expects and I think about how to manipulate them to give them an even bigger surprise.
Everyone who knows me knows I’m a magician. If they don’t know beforehand they will find out soon enough. But I don’t crave doing card tricks for people. My interactions are always first and foremost about creating an artistic or emotional moment for them. And I am always more satisfied by the close up magic I do than the stage magic I do because it creates those connections to other people that introverts like me seem to crave.
This makes sense. As an introvert my “quiet conversation in one corner of the room with a couple of friends at the party” very likely might include some interesting bit of magic or psychological trickery. The entertainment of it, the connection that I make with people when I do that feeds that introvert connection. It makes me interact with, and hopefully be more interesting to, the people at the party and thus makes me liked and validated, something we all want.
While I have done larger shows I have long come to understand that my best large audience size is about 20 people. I can still manage a group that size and provide the connection to them that I want to provide. I can still make significant enough connections with this size group of people that it is worth it to me to extend that amount of “energy.”
One of the ideas that is often presented as a difference between introverts and extroverts is where they get their “energy” from. Now before you go off wandering into “new age woo-woo land” let me just say that all I mean by “energy” in this context is the level of connection and excitement one normally experiences when interacting with other people in a positive fashion.
The general thinking is that extroverts get their energy from interacting with groups of other people while introverts get their energy from quiet solitude. As a result extroverts spend time with other people and introverts spend time alone both for the sake of “recharging their batteries.”
This too makes sense in light of what I mentioned at the beginning of this article with regards to the physiological differences between the two. If extroverts brains are wired up to enjoy spending time processing external stimuli then spending time with others provides that stimuli. If introverts brains are wired up to enjoy spending time processing internal information then seeking out quiet time to do that provides them that opportunity.
How does that play out for the introverted performer?
In my case at least it seems that the time I spend being quiet is also massively creative time. I get to process all kinds of information that I have gathered and figure out what it means. I get to decide how I might use that information and the conclusions that I come to in order to create better performances. This quiet creative time is where new routines are born, where new magic is created, where new stories are dreamed up. And I know this time well as the kind of time I want after I have had the time I need to just sit and process. My desires for this quiet creative time are always as the last part of a cycle which starts with simply sitting, relaxing and just processing all that I have recently encountered.
In the heat of the moment I am “on stage.” I know that I have a specific performing persona and a script that I am following (yes, magicians follow scripts, not just actors). I am putting my energy into that and I can absolutely tell you that if the moment presents itself I will be right there ready to take advantage of a good improvisational opportunity. I feel energized when I have a good audience. I feel drained when I don’t.
Through that performance I will be gathering tons of information. But when the performance is over, when I get out and back home I can sit and be quiet. I can process all that I got from the audience and I can recharge my batteries from all that I am inspired by. That’s the energy that I, as an introvert, need. That is what fuels the quiet creative time that follows the quiet relaxation time.
I have considered frequently what seems to be the inherent contradiction that when I finish a good show I feel hugely energized and the fact that as an introvert my first craving when I feel worn out is to seek silence and solitude. But it’s not really that surprising in retrospect since that huge charge is really coming from a job well done. Much like exercise a show well done is very revitalizing. The adrenaline does work its way through the system and a vigorous performance can definitely be like a vigorous workout.
This bodily energy is not the same thing as the mental energy I crave as an introvert. In that case the bodily energy carries me on further through the rest of whatever I have to deal with such as striking a set or packing up my magic props (a task only I will do). Even at this point I am still expending mental energy maintaining a persona or at the very least keeping myself engaged with my audience. This means I’m still draining my reserves.
It occurs to me too that there is a very definite expenditure of energy leading up to the show. I have long had a reputation for being somewhat disagreeable when I am backstage waiting for the show to begin. When I am back stage I am often very withdrawn and very quiet. I am nervous and generally rather flushed with adrenalin. I can be snappy. I try very hard not to inflict that on my fellow performers but it can still be difficult to be around. Remember that fear of public speaking I mentioned earlier? Yeah, this is it.
Some really do have very good coping mechanisms for this. Others, such as myself, do not. What I do know is that the moment I am on stage all of that nervous energy turns into performance energy. As soon as I hit the stage it’s on. The performance itself becomes the catalyst for the nervous energy of being in front of people and turns it from a chore to a challenge.
I have noticed however a certain lethargy I must overcome as well lately. I commented about this in my article about “flight time,” that I haven’t gotten enough of it lately and that I need more. One of the things I have come to realize is that being an introvert does become one more hurdle I need to overcome. It is far too easy to blow off performance opportunities simply because I’m not feeling up to it.
Is that really lethargy or is that reticence because I’m feeling my introverted nature a bit too much? Is it because I haven’t had enough time to myself to either recharge my introvert batteries or am I really just under the weather? These are questions that I seriously need to find the answer to, but my gut tells me that my introvert nature is a bigger part of the problem than I might have originally realized.
After all, the thing that introverts don’t want to do is expend energy on something which is not worthwhile or worth their time. That certainly includes unappreciative audiences. We don’t come with vast renewable energy reserves and it’s really pretty hard to sneak off in the middle of a party or a performance to sit quietly for a few hours to recharge. We’ve got to be ready when the time comes and that means planning ahead and knowing the situation we are headed into.
One could easily mistake this for fear of the performance, or fear of the audience, but looking at this from the current perspective it seems like those are just ways of saying “fear of running out of energy.”
I will not suggest that extroverts are capable of an unlimited amount of energy simply because as long as there are people around they can recharge all they want. Sounds rather vampiric in nature actually. Rather I will suggest that given the fact that there are other people around and they can renew from these people they are less likely to be concerned about failing in the first place. Their natural tendency to laugh and joke makes them capable of easily picking up and moving on if something didn’t work in the midst of their performance.
But as an introvert I know that when something doesn’t work right I am personally horrified by that and I have trouble recovering. And the presence of others isn’t what I need at that point. What I need is time to analyze why this thing failed.
There it is again; outward focus and inward focus.
Now that’s a lot to take in but I really am leading up to something and here it is –
The natural advantages of being an introvert may make them extremely good entertainers.
This is, at best, a premise only. But one that I base on my own experiences as well as my observations about a long list of highly skilled and talented introverted entertainers.
What is that list of “advantages?” Well, it is subject open to argument but there is a book entitled “The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World” and in this book a list of the top ten “advantages” enjoyed by introverts is presented.
10) Work Well With Others, Especially In One-to-One Relationships
9) Maintain Long-Term Friendships
6) Strong Ability To Concentrate
3) Creative, Out-of-the-Box thinking
2) Analytical Skills That Integrate Complexity
1) Studious and Smart
I’m not going to run down this whole list, but it does provide some interesting food for thought. I will target some specific characteristics this book is attaching to introverts.
“Strong Ability to Concentrate” seems like something a working entertainer would want. Certainly the level of concentration I expend when performing magic or juggling is high and the ability to stay focused is extremely valuable.
“Self-Reflective” might not make sense at first until you tie it to the idea of both self critique and taking the criticism of others such as your directors, stage managers, and yes, critics. A performer who doesn’t pay attention to these things is going to put themselves into a dead end with their creativity and their presentations.
Can we just say that “responsible” and “professionalism” simply go hand in hand and leave it there? Good.
“Creative, Out-of-the-Box thinking” is probably a total no-brainer here. After all, we’re talking about entertainers. Being creative, being able to create something new and original is exactly what we are expected to do. But if being an introvert makes you more likely to be able to do these things than certainly it is an advantage.
“Analytical Skills That Integrate Complexity” is also something which seems a no-brainer to me as it goes hand in hand with the whole “creative” thing. Introverts take it all in. We look at everything around us and we catalog and categorize it within our minds. We take notes. We make observations and we are, if I may be so bold to speak for my people at this point, obsessive about the things that interest us. We want, we need, to know everything we can about them. Because once we do all of those things churn around in our skulls and when we have that time to sit and be quiet and let our creativity flow all of it comes in to play.
I’m sure I could make arguments for everything that is on this proposed list of introvert advantages but I trust that by now I have made my point. Despite what might seem the obvious conclusions, introverts can and do make fabulous entertainers. We come top full with a tool kit of skills that are inherently a part of our very nature.
Do we have it all over the extroverts? No clue. I’m not one so I can’t judge from the inside.
But I would like to hear from you. I would like to know what you think, especially if like me, you consider yourself to be an introvert performer. Leave your comments below.