Performance and Addiction

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Magenta engaging in addictive behaviourMagenta engaging in addictive behaviourAs I have mentioned before, taking an evening class in stand-up comedy has given me some interesting new perspectives on the act of performance. Some of what we’ve been learning is specific to the art-form*, but I am also getting reasonably frequent penny-drop moments when something suddenly sheds a new and illuminating light into my regular life of music and musicians, often bringing some half-understood dynamic into startling focus.

One such moment was during a discussion between course tutor James Cook and visiting comedian, Andy Robinson on what provides the impetus to keep going, especially if you’ve had a bad gig.

James suggested that actually, it’s how you feel after the bad gigs that distinguishes between those who persevere and those who drop out – wanting to repeat the experience of a good gig, after all, is both a normal and an easy response. (This reminded me of Chris Davidson’s cute definition of success: the capacity to go from one failure to the next with the same degree of enthusiasm.) Andy, meanwhile, talked about how there is an ‘addictive’ quality to doing stand-up.

And it suddenly occurred to me that these two points are more closely related than you might think. As I mentioned in a previous post, stand-up is a genre in which the audience responds very immediately and audibly (and indeed visibly) to the performance stimulus. A stand-up comic knows very vividly at every punchline whether what they’re offering is doing it for their audience. You are the seal with a ball on its nose, and if you get it right, the audience throws you a fish. It’s a very clear and direct form of operant conditioning.

Now, one of the useful discoveries of behavioural psychology is that, whilst constant reinforcement (that is, receiving a reward every time you engage in a particular behaviour) does encourage repetition of that behaviour, you get a much stronger compulsion to repeat through intermittent reinforcement – that is, if you are only rewarded some of the time. This is the dynamic behind gambling addictions, co-dependent abusive relationships, and the need to keep checking your email.

So if a joke that works in Birmingham and Leicester bombs in Nottingham, you can see how a comedian is going to have an immensely strong compulsion to see how it plays in Redditch.

This in turn resonates with reflections on the learning process and development of expertise I’ve been having over the years. On one hand, real-time feedback on how you’re doing (as well as a clearly-defined sense of when it’s right and when it’s not right) is one of the primary preconditions for achieving a state of flow. On the other, making mistakes and correcting them is an integral part of the brain’s process of laying down myelin to increase the efficiency of the neural pathways involved in a skill.

The big difference that stand-up comedy has from music is the social nature of the feedback loop. When you’re practising a musical instrument, or arranging a song, you can do that by yourself, because you get immediate feedback from the material you’re working – chiefly, by whether it sounds any good. (As an aside: the effectiveness of musical practice relies on our musical judgement being more developed than our current technical skill.)

But practising stand-up comedy by yourself, while certainly part of the process, just can’t give you the feedback you need to know how it’s going. By the time you’ve practised the delivery enough to get the rhythm and pacing of the material, the jokes that made you snort out loud when they first popped into your head sound very tired and dull. Semantic depletion is much bigger problem for comics than musicians, and the need to perform commensurately stronger.

Still, the musical performer does get reinforcement from audiences that they can’t get from either their ensemble colleagues or the music itself. It comes as applause (though usually only in culturally-agreed moments), and also as delighted faces or tapping feet or occasional tears. It comes (distractingly, but flatteringly) as drunk young men posing to have their photos taken with you as you sing. It also fails to come, when you get treated as muzak and are drowned out by conversation, or when ticket sales have been too lacklustre to build a self-sustaining buzz in the room. It may not have quite the addictive pull of the intermittent reinforcement that laughter has on comedians, but you can develop a taste for it pretty quickly.

*Although apparently, stand-up comedy isn’t an ‘art’. The Arts Council says so; it must be true.

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