Stage presence and stage persona are both terms used, sometimes interchangeably, in the performing arts. They don’t mean the same thing, however, and refer to different skills. Still, both are great assets for any performing artist, and indeed, having a strong stage presence is something that could be make or break for performers. While some people do have a more innate presence onstage, I believe it’s something that can be learned as well. In this article I’ll explain my interpretation of each term and share some tips and exercises for working on them.
What does it mean to have a good stage presence?
Have you ever been to a performance and there was that one person that was just magnetic, who took over the scene every time they were onstage, even if they were standing in the back?
That’s it. That’s stage presence. It’s the fact of being onstage and noticeable. The person that people want to keep watching, the person they’re eyes keep catching on.
I’ve noticed this particularly in ballet. Because ballet is a technical form, you can be a great technician and have no stage presence and still get a job in a ballet company. That’s why the people who have it are even more noticeable. Still, you can’t rely on that alone. Recently I saw a musical theater production of Aladdin where I thought that the guy playing Jafar was going to be a lot better than he was because of the first impression onstage. In a cast of mostly limp, lifeless actors, he looked like he belonged onstage – but that was it. He never got past that, and stumped his way through a simple, flat, and one dimensional performance.
So, it’s not the be all and end all. It does make a difference, though. Some of the best performers in history – Baryshnikov, Liza Minnelli, Michael Jackson – were much more than good technicians. They exploded into life onstage.
How do you make your stage presence better?
In my opinion, it’s a combination of three things: literal presence (mental), immersion into the performance, and a joy of the act of performance itself. I’m sure smarter people than me have studied this and have more to say, but this is my blog so I get to say what I think.
First and foremost, I believe it has to do with literally being present. Some performances I am right there as it is happening, present in the movement. And sometimes I’m in and out, wondering what it looks like, if so-and-so is in the crowd, what the lighting guy is doing, etc. Sometimes I see people onstage and it just doesn’t seem like they are there. They are doing the movements, they are saying the words, but it’s just repetition. They are not there, inside their head, living through the moment.
How can you work on being present? Practicing metacognition in daily tasks and becoming aware when your mind wanders is one way. Another route that I think can be even better is practicing improvisation and responding instantaneously to a variety of prompts. This requires continuously thinking and exploring the movements, rather than ‘just moving.’ Sometimes you might find you are outside looking in – judging the movements, choreographing as you go – and sometimes you get into the flow of where those movements are taking you. Cultivating this latter is something that can help.
This is similar to what I mean by immersion into the performance. Good actors and dancers seem like they are saying things or doing a movement for the very first time, even if it’s the hundredth time. For me, that happens when I immerse myself into the doing (often described as the flow state), into the performing. It’s not that I lose myself in the story and if it’s very emotional I get very emotional. It’s just that I become a channel through which that emotion just flows through, out through me into the audience. In that state, things happen like the first time. Improvisation is again a great way to train this, and part of it is also performing a lot and spending the time before and after evaluating your mental performance as well as physical.
And finally, I think stage presence is the manifestation of a genuine joy of performance. A celebration of the special space that is the stage, the internal delight that you can cross this invisible barrier of offstage to on and you are in a different world. I don’t know if that can be learned, but if it can, I think it has to do with the awareness of yourself, as performer, and how you are interacting with the thing that is the stage.
In other words, I believe stage presence is something that is much more mental than anything else. Like any kind of mindfulness, you can train it. Additionally, if it doesn’t come naturally to you, I advise trying to perform as often as you absolutely can, and focusing as much as possible on the mental aspect of it. Maybe you do the same routine again and again so you can pay more attention to what your mind is doing!
Okay, but what about stage persona?
This is again what it sounds like – it’s a persona you take on when you’re onstage. You can think of some comedians who are very different in normal interviews. This is not often used for actors as they are literally playing some other person, so their own stage persona doesn’t really come out.
Unlike stage presence, having a different onstage persona is not necessary. However, if you are a naturally shy person, it might be useful to develop. It’s also an interesting artistic exercise. I’ve thought a lot about this recently of course with my artistic alter egos. But apart from these intentionally crafted personalities, I also know that I’m a different person when I perform.
It’s not something I’ve done on purpose. It’s just that when I’m onstage, it’s like someone else steps out from inside me and takes over. So, I differentiate this kind of unconscious stage persona with an intentionally crafted one.
The wonderful thing about the stage is that it permits us to do this. It allows us to lie, to become someone else, even encourages it. There’s something strange about it, how being onstage is so vulnerable but also so empowering.
So, I would say, it’s up to you if you want to try a stage persona! Or, you might find, over the course of performing, that one naturally develops. It will be easier to see this if you are working on your presence as well!
I don’t know if I have the best stage presence – but I do know that I can keep an audience engaged for an hour while onstage by myself. I’ve learned this through a lot of practice on the art of performance itself (practicing performing and not just moves), by watching videos, thinking through what I was thinking while onstage, and actively thinking through the act of performance while performing.
Yes, that’s a LOT of thinking! But if we consider that stage presence is just being present while onstage, it makes sense!