Drama: : Keeping it on the stage

We all know what makes the difference between a two-hour performance that keeps you on the edge of your seat, surprised by how quickly the time passes, and a one-hour recital during which you can barely keep your eyes open. We’ve honed our dramatic skills as part of our artistic “package,” so we can have the strongest possible impact on our audiences, whether on the opera stage, or in a recital or oratorio. Often, great drama is what compels the audience beyond a mere appreciation of talent to a wonderfully powerful experience, and as audience members ourselves, we know it when we see it.

As performers in a highly dramatic medium, we need to be aware of the shadowy area between the drama of fantasy and real life. Unlike the skills of musicianship and technique, drama is easily transferable into our daily lives—and unlike its highly desirable attributes on the stage, high drama in our personal lives can wreak havoc, creating problems that are often difficult to identify and even more difficult to solve.
Negative drama enters our lives in two primary ways: from the outside (most commonly, from other people), and from within, from ourselves. Let’s examine several ways these two sources produce negative drama and the impact it can have on us.

Other people

We’ve all seen movies or TV shows about the stereotypical mother-in-law who always picks on the person her child married, causing tension in the marriage. Or the needy mother who can’t get along without her “baby.” These caricatures exist because they include a grain of truth. Some parents bring drama to the lives of their children daily. Problems, complaints, whining, needling, you name it—this is a way for them to get your attention and distract you from whatever it was you were doing before the phone call or visit.

And they aren’t the only ones who bring us their share of negative drama. Friends who always have a problem or a complaint, siblings who always need you to do them a favor, bosses who always need you to work late, roommates who are constantly in crisis or can’t hold up their end of the living arrangements—these are but a few examples of people who thrive on drama, and they especially thrive on bringing it to you.

In her wonderful book, The Artist’s Way (The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992), Julia Cameron dubs these people “the Crazymakers,” and she has a lot to say about them and their destructive force on artists.

One of the greatest dangers a Crazymaker brings to our lives: we want to respond in a helpful way. We want to fix things for them, bail them out, give them advice, work late for them, solve their problems—and this requires attention and energy.

Artists (yes, singers are artists) require a great deal of energy to focus inward on themselves and their art. Singers need to care for their bodies, their instruments. Our emotional state has an immeasurably strong impact on our physical state, and our ability to maintain a calm and peaceful level of energy is supremely important if we are to tap into the very best of our capabilities, which are deep inside us. Unnecessary outside distractions, particularly those of the sort brought to us by Crazymakers, drain us of a great deal of priceless emotional, mental and physical energy. Crazymakers need all the attention to be on them. But we can’t afford to focus all of our attention outward, and we need to find a way to say “no.”

This is about being selfish, in the very best sense of the word. We are learning to keep the best part of ourselves for ourselves, so that we have something to share with others: our art. If we allow others to steal parts of us, little by little we have less and less to give to others through our art.

I was once in a relationship with a man who was inwardly jealous of my choice to pursue my degree in vocal performance. Every single time I had a recital to perform, he would pick a fight with me. I never thought about this pattern until years later, long after the relationship had ended—but I often wonder now: How much better might I have performed those recitals if I had not been crying for hours the night before? Crazymaker!

I know a woman who is studying voice, not to become a professional singer, but because she loves singing. She would like to put together a recital and present it at her church. This is a big deal to her, requiring courage and planning, and she is nervous about her ability to pull it off successfully. What she needs most right now is unequivocal support and positive energy coming her way. On a recent shopping trip with a friend to look for concert dresses, she found a dress that made her feel like a queen. Her friend told her that a woman her age looked silly wearing such a frilly gown, and added that besides, it was just a church recital, so she didn’t need anything so fancy. Dream killer. Crazymaker!

If you have a Crazymaker in your life, you need to assess honestly the value of continuing that relationship. In some cases—if the Crazymaker is a family member, for example—terminating the relationship is not possible, but limiting it is, so stick up for yourself! If someone is calling you too late at night, turn off the phone after a certain hour. Refuse to participate in gossip. Learn how to say “no” to all those little requests for help, gently but firmly. The Crazymakers will find someone else to bother, or maybe they will finally learn to help themselves.

Ourselves

We are all familiar with the celebrities who have worked their way right out of their field because of their high-drama in the real world. The tricky thing about high drama is that it can be addictive. Most of the time, it is a cover up for something far less glamorous than drama. Don Miguel Ruiz discusses human drama throughout his book, The Mastery of Love (Amber-Allen Publishing, Inc., 1999). His basic premise is that humans create dramas to cover for their fears. We create all kinds of distractions so that other people won’t look at us too closely. We hope they will only see the drama.

This is a big mistake.

A better path lies in self-awareness. Self-awareness begins with identifying the source of our fear. Most of the time the fear is nothing but fiction—it’s all in our minds. But the results can be so real—and unpleasant. So most people choose to stuff all that unpleasantness down deep where other people—and they themselves—will never see or feel it. This “if I ignore it, it will go away” approach is a lie we all tell ourselves. The fear we are avoiding will express itself in another form on another day, and it will not be pretty.

Face your fear head-on. Name it, draw it, write about it, talk about it with someone you trust—and experience it when it comes up. In this way, we avoid high drama as a cover. Doing anything else requires far more energy and attention than, as artists, we can afford to spend.

High drama in our lives ruins healthy relationships, both personal and professional. It creates impressions that are difficult to undo later on. We begin to earn a reputation for being difficult that may not be true inside, but no one else will be willing to spend enough time to figure that out. You just don’t get that many chances in this field, so don’t allow high drama to spoil any of them.

Sometimes, things beyond our control bring drama into our lives. Last year, I was diagnosed with manic-depression (I prefer this term to “bipolar,” because it actually describes what happens with the disease). It took almost a year to reach the correct medication cocktail to stabilize me, but during this year I have revisited a number of early professional experiences in my mind, and a few that are more recent. Looking back, I can see that my disease aided me in creating high drama around a number of engagements—and I would do anything to be able to go back and explain what was happening, but those people have already moved on. I won’t get that opportunity.
If you are suffering from depression or a mood disorder, or suspect you may be suffering, seek medical advice and get that drama under control. Your relationships and your career will thank you.

In my work with singers as a life coach, I have coined a little term for high drama in one of its most common forms: “aria sickness.” Singers afflicted with aria sickness dwell too long on one emotional state or topic, well past the point where an otherwise reasonable person would let go and move on—and all without coming to a reasonable resolution. It is much like a typical Bel Canto aria: You just keep on singing about the same old thing, over and over, until you hit the big cadenza at the end—then you either go mad or die. (This is great, even “grand,” in opera, but it really doesn’t work so well in real life.)

It is so easy to come down with a case of aria sickness! And it is just as easy to be cured. Start listening to yourself. What are you saying these days? Do you find yourself repeating a theme or mantra that is nothing but whining and moaning? Then make the decision to get off the stage when you aren’t on it.

If you are addicted to drama and are not suffering from any psychiatric illness, examine your underlying fears. Get them out in the open and try to become aware of the ways in which you use drama to hide. Make one small scary change every day to move away from drama and toward calm. Try meditating, yoga, or talking less. Don’t pick up that phone to call that friend or family member to complain, as you have been doing every day. Don’t get online and chat and gossip, as you have been doing every night. Try one new thing instead. Write. Go for a walk. Read something inspirational. Buy yourself some flowers.

Our craft requires a lot from us. In addition to the demands of regular human life, we must find the time and energy to practice, study, rehearse, and network. Any drama we or others bring to the regular part of our lives will rob us of some of the energy we need for the craft part of our lives. Our drama needs to stay on the stage, so we can work to greater levels of self-awareness and awareness of our surroundings. Then we can have calm and peace in which to steep our talents and clarify our visions and goals.

Michelle Kunz

Michelle Kunz is a professional certified life coach, helping individuals reduce conflict, gain clarity, and get more from their lives and careers. She has sung with the Washington National Opera Chorus on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage for over 15 seasons, where she also serves as Children’s Chorus Master. She serves on AGMA’s Board of Governors, representing the Washington/Baltimore Area, and on the Board of Andover Educators. Contact her at www.PELcoaching.com.