Performance Anxiety

August 8, 2018

A client called me warily after having a bad experience with another consultant. She has a cottage two doors down from her house that she uses for guests. It is filled with her husband’s vintage French posters. The ones in the bedroom  were in  lurid greens and blues and hung on  a sort of presentation grey, which made the prints appear stolid and stiff. We wanted to create an environment, rather than a display, so I chose a milky but vibrant aquamarine; a color not quite present in the pictures but  a blend, as if you threw the pigments into a vat. Finally, she satisfied my curiosity and recounted her experience. The designer came with a small booklet, a la Farrow and Ball, and gave her a single option: “This is your color,” she declared. “That is too dark for me,” my client replied. “Do you have another suggestion?” “That is your color,” said the designer with nothing more to say. (Drop mic.)

Almost all professions involve some level of performance. I am not talking about Plato’s Maya (the shadow on the cave wall) or various philosophers’ citation of the supposed masks we all wear. I am talking about shtick.  We are selling something. A doctor must exude enough compassion and expertise that you will submit to her counsel; this might not be her natural state outside the office and you have no way of knowing.  When you hire me  what you get is Nan, but, Work-Nan. I am at once real and on stage. In a previous post I discussed how I am called as an authority. I would say this is true insofar as I know a lot about color,  have decades of experience with it, and  know what I am doing and talking about however, you have never met me. I have to convince you to execute my decisions. How do I do that?

I was a professional actor. I sang in musicals and did both improv and straight theater. This comes in handy. In one of my previous incarnations, as a teacher, I taught drawing at the county jail. I had to command a “pod” of sixty men at one time. They could easily discern that I understood my craft but  I used a combination of charisma, knowledge, and fibbing to maintain control. I might tell them I was performing that night-something everyone there could respect-and  could not risk shouting and tiring my voice. (I was not performing.) I would code switch. This is a linguistic phenomenon where one changes lexicon or accent, for example, to assimilate into a group; it is a natural survival mechanism but can also be  deliberate. I never changed my vocabulary because people who hustle can recognize fraud but I let my my Okie twang surface to seem more down home. That was all part of Teaching-at-the-Jail Nan.

When I consult I have a patter: a quiver of stock phrases I pull out to be charming and to fill empty air. “I am remiss on my filing…” “I taught art for twenty years and my favorite thing to teach was color.” “Colors have synesthetic properties.”  There are other things I say and do.  They are all true and demonstrate both capacity and approachability (i.e. personality) but are superfluous really. When conducting a performance you are simultaneously present and detached: completely aware of what you are saying or doing, its effect on the audience, yet at the same time,  unequivocally consumed by the creation, whether a play or a musical number or whatever. I could be quiet. I am not for a few reasons. First, my energy is gregarious and people can sense that; if I were too taciturn people would perceive me as fake. Second, my excitement about design is palpable but I decide to think aloud. I reveal my thinking in this way so people are confident in my recommendations. They trust me.

I heard the author Philip Roth being interviewed. He described the difference between art and craft in a way I had never heard but strikes me as utterly accurate, having done both. I am paraphrasing: “A contractor knows what the house is going to look like; when I write, every sentence is a revelation. ” I am completely authentic in the artistic process. My designs are spontaneous and unique.  I do not know what will come next. No matter how much artifice I might employ, these are the truths running through my work that everyone can perceive.


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