If you need confirmation of how much the world has changed, consider this. Finally I have a thing or two to teach Matthew McConaughey about performance.
McConaughey may have acted in more than 50 movies. He may have, among his accolades, two Golden Globes and an Oscar for best actor. He may be a professor of practice in television and film at the University of Texas.
But he’s just as much a newbie when it comes to Zoom, House Party and the like as the rest of us. It’s a performance reality many of us are not really ready for, despite video chat being nearly two decades old.
Whether it’s a games night, a wine with the gang, your new virtual classroom or boardroom, video conferencing is how many of us are maintaining a semblance of our old connections to loved ones, colleagues and community.
“I’m learning about this, a little bit,” McConaughey told late-night TV chat host Stephen Colbert after he hosted bingo over Zoom for Texan seniors.
“I was on a Zoom conference the other day and one of my friends in particular looked just sensational. He was uplit, he looked just like a czar! And I texted him: "What’s your Zoom game, bud?”
His friend’s game was to have considered video-conferencing as a stage, and then setting that stage using the elements used on any television or film set: lighting, sound and scenery.
What I want to talk about, though, is not the stage but what happens on it: performance.
Staging and performance
Performance is what I study in its broadest social sense as a researcher in persona studies. My speciality is celebrity persona. How celebrities strategically create and maintain public personas is the subject of my new book featuring famous Canadian women (including Margaret Trudeau, mother of Canada’s prime minister, and pop singer Shania Twain).
Persona comes from the Greek word for the mask worn by an actor to depict a character. It involves performance, though not acting in the usual sense. It is instead, in the words of leading persona scholars P. David Marshall, Christopher Moore and Kim Barbour:
A strategic public identity that is neither the true individual nor a false individual. It is an identity that is used to navigate the social world and only exists to manage collective connections. It is a performance of the self for strategies to be used in some public setting.
Who are you when you’re in public or interacting with others? How did you create that impression? Persona researchers investigate questions like these in a broad range of contexts – from relationships with family or colleagues to interacting through online video games and social media.
Just think of McConaughey, the good ol’ Texan boy and his development of his signature catchphrase – “alight alright alright”. It’s not false, but nor could it said to be true. It is persona.
Though it is often amplified in celebrities, everyone has a public persona. More than one, in fact.
How we present in a formal meeting is likely to differ to how we interact one-on-one with a close colleague. How we are with friends, and even different groups of friends, might be different again. So too with different family members.
We develop and cultivate these personas over a long period. We become so acclimatised to performing them that they feel “natural”.
Hide Self View
Video conferencing radically changes the conditions under which we interact with others.
As McConaughey’s Zoom mate recognised, it is a shiny new stage on which we’ve been thrust. What makes it different is that it enables (and requires) us to watch ourselves as we perform. This hyper-awareness of how we look and behave can be exhausting, and stressful. It’s not something even most actors ever need to do.
Which is why the “Hide Self View” option is so important.
When you enable this option, you are still performing your persona. You just don’t see it. It’s a little bit more like real life and the other “stages” we’re used to performing on.
Like audio-only phone calls. Here is a “stage” that is deeply familiar and provides some reprieve from the self-surveillance of video-conferencing.
So give yourself, and others, a break from video-conferencing if and when necessary. If you find it exhausting, there’s a good reason. The only real fix is to “switch off”.
That’s a hot tip even for Matthew McConaughey.