I had the “pleasure” of watching The Stanford Prison Experiment. It’s a gruesome film about a grisly six days spent by two groups of students who had volunteered to take part in an experiment. While the movie presents a very disturbing series of events, its ultimate lesson is very useful for performers and creatives.
In 1971 psychology Phillip Zimbardo set up a pretend prison in the basement of Jordan Hall, Stanford’s psychology building. Half of the students became guards of the other half. Very quickly the two groups began falling into the worst versions of their roles.
The experiment wasn’t designed as a proper experiment, and its outcomes were severely tainted by the designers. However, the experience that the kids had remains, and there are lessons to be taken from it. In brief, the kids had roles and, despite the fact that half of the roles became sadistic and the other half humiliating, the kids stuck to them.
The kids had entered into the agreement willingly. They decided to take on the roles they were offered and, once the game got going, they found it very difficult to escape those roles. The guards were enjoying it, and the prisoners were afraid.
The prisoners could have resisted their treatment by attempting to quit the experiment, or at the very least, by reminding the guards and wardens that they were not actually guards and wardens and framing the violations of their contract as an illegal event. But they did not resist as student volunteers. They resisted as prisoners.
They did what prisoners would do to resist: barricade, escape attempts, civil disobedience. They stuck to their roles even though it meant physical and mental duress. I believe the roles exerted a great deal of power over them.
I think I would have done the same, though I’d like to think I could have done better. It’s very difficult to think outside the box when you’re in it, and especially when you’ve volunteered (and are being paid) to maintain a role. So what’s the good news?
Imagine you are preparing for a performance (as I am). You want the audience to like it, to treat you with respect, to see you as something special. How can you maximize that possibility?
Once I played at a coffeehouse and I was nervous, so I gave the audience verbal permission to ignore me. They did…they talked through my entire performance, which infuriated me! And I was even madder when the next guy came up, and they were quiet for his whole set.
That’s because the next guy played his part as “the musician” and he insisted through his behavior that the audience play their part as well. If you have your act together, if you’re in a real venue, lit up, with a decent skill set and a sense of dignity, you can maximize your chances of keeping the audience in their role. As long as you’re good enough not to break the spell (and do not have a drunk heckler) your audience will play their part too.
This is how really good performers (and writers) win over an audience in a few seconds. They know what people need to see and hear and they make it appealing for them to “sign up.” If you can do that, you can eliminate a lot of unknown elements in your own performance so that the stage (or the page) won’t feel like a prison.
News From a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books
I completed my newest album, Bitter Green, which I created for the RPM Challenge! To hear it, go to http://rpmchallenge.com/index.php/component/comprofiler/userprofile/adamcole?Itemid=108
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Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books. Fantasy author, music educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life. To take a quiz on what kind of music warrior you are, please visit www.mymusicfriend.net