Sunday, June 29, 2014

Public Speaking

        Not many Americans enjoy public speaking, my family included, probably because it is such a difficult, unnatural task to do well and the contrast between outstanding and horrendous performance is so obvious to see: A capable speaker casts a spell over the audience that awaits with baited breath each captivating utterance; an incapable speaker mumbles uneasy and indecipherably, fails to establish meaningful audience rapport, and is viewed and remembered unfavorably. And no one wants to perform on the lower end of that spectrum.
     Several months ago, my daughter read the scripture verse of several sentences at church service which was held for a change in our church's fellowship hall. She had a microphone but it being her first time, she mumbled through at near record speed so it sounded a bit as though she were gargling salt water for a sore throat. I could barely hear her utterances, much less comprehend what she was saying despite my familiarity with the bible. But she hadn't stressed at all, which was the main thing, so overall, for her first time, she did fine.
     (The first time I read scripture at church—a different one—I was a wreck, getting virtually no sleep the night before. An attempt to get out of it failed when the guy I called refused to substitute. The reading went fine without a hitch but I'd been so apprehensive that taking communion on stage prior to reading didn't happen: I palmed the tiny cracker, held the tiny cup to my lips, and hid the undrunk vessel beneath my seat. Thank God that was the last time I ever got asked to read.)
     A few days following her recitation Penelope shared that she'd be participating with four fellow students in an upcoming district speech festival. They devised their own excellent script for the The Empty Pot story in which Ping is unable to grow a flower from the Emperor's (secretly) cooked seed, whereas all the other kids display fantastic flowers despite also having received identical (cooked) seeds. So the Emperor appoints honest Ping—the only child with an empty pot—his successor.
     Penelope's role was the pivotal Emperor, made all the challenging because lines were to be memorized, costumes weren't allowed, they were required to look at a single point above the audience throughout, and there could be no direct contact between actors because it was a group interpretation, not a play. Since she was group leader and it was a G.T. class, and since I knew it would be challenging for them to do well, I decided to coach Penelope at home.
     (Note: G.T. = Gifted and Talented, an inaccurate moniker, since all kids are gifted and talented. We had declined invitations for her to join the program in prior years due to it offering much added homework and little added benefits and at her age and academic standing such optional classes ought to be fun! fun! fun!  This past year, we let her decide if she wanted to enter and she said yes, which worked alright, I guess.)
     To help her then, we did a practice read-through of the script with Braden and I playing the roles assigned to her teammates. Right away, problems with Penelope's performance surfaced: mumbled, rushed lines delivered without voice modulation, pause, or drama as if she were hurrying to finish; a slouched and twisted posture; and fidgeting hands, legs, and shoulders suggesting gross unease. After stopping repeatedly while going over the first few lines to redo them (I gave her rundowns on background, setting, cultural significance, and an Emperor's mindset, and acting pointers such as head positioning, hand gestures, voice control and technique, and how to get into her role—lots to cover but important to help her develop stage command and to keep her mind on-task while performing), her frustration began to show, her attitude became petulant, her lips began to quiver, and eventually she quit trying altogether. I asked, “Do you want my help or not?” She didn't answer, looking down with tears now spilling over. When I asked again, she shook her head no, so I got up to go, then said, “You're the one that wanted to go to G.T. I'm very disappointed, those other schools are going to have it together and if you rush through like this, it's going to show that you don't care. As group leader, it's your responsibility to make it happen. I expect best effort and you want to settle for this shoddy I-don't-care stuff.” Turning to leave I said, “I'll be in my room if you change your mind.”
     She later came by and asked for help and we made good progress, but left off at bedtime with a long way to go.
     The next night I said shall we try again? and she said no thank you. I shook my head, snickered at the thought that she thought she was mature enough to assert her independence, and walked away.
     But she came by later and asked for help and we had a productive practice session, leaving off at about mid-way through the script but with still lots to cover. In the coming two weeks, we worked it, honed it, and even modified gestures: extended fists held straight out front coming apart suggested the unrolling of a large imaginary scroll; up and down and left to right head movements suggested the reading of the scroll; a raised arm signified Ping's appointment; and fists on hips and an angry frown showed that all the children who dared attempt deceive the Emperor were in for it.
           I missed the performance because I had to sign Jaren and Penelope up for Summer Fun that morning, but Deanne said she did fine—lines spoken loud and clear, though rushed in parts due to understandable stage jitters. And their group did well overall, too—the story line intelligible if not moving. Another group from their school performed even better. “Of course they did better,” I told her, “because they practiced three times as much as your group.” (Her group members were neither as available nor as committed.) “Yours would have done just as well had it practiced as much.”
     More recently, she was asked to recite scripture at church again. This time I asked her to do it for me just the way she intended to. A mumbled jangle of gibberish spilled forth and I asked do you understand what you just read? She said yes, but when I asked her to explain it in her own words she looked at it and said, “I don't really understand it.” So we went through word by word, learned and relearned definitions, and eventually comprehended what Apostle Paul was saying in each clause of the long, complicated sentences. Through tears aplenty she re-recited many times, things improving markedly after I underlined key words for her to emphasize and told her where to insert pauses to give listeners the chance to absorb what they just heard.
           The night before the recitation, for the first time, the poetic proclamation of God's immeasurable love came through. And the following morning at service, they came again—beautiful promises spoken perky and alive. “You did superb,” I told her afterward with an arm about her shoulders—tall praise coming from me. She smiled and thanked me.

No comments:

Post a Comment