Don’t Hide Behind a Smile

Don’t Hide Behind a Smile
by Brad Weston

Hiding behind a smile I just got back from teaching a three day intensive workshop for the Boulder Juggling Festival. We covered so much ground that it’s a challenge to wrap my brain around all of the material that we talked about. The topic of the workshop was stage-craft and marketing and the students came into the class with a significant amount of talent, experience and natural ability, so we really got to take the basic concepts and push them pretty far.

The most basic thing that we covered turned out to be the most profound as well. I can put it very simply: It is possible to hide behind a smile. I know it seems to go against logic. The first performance advice most of us ever heard was to keep smiling. People say that if you don’t know what to do on stage you should just smile, smile, smile. But the truth is, if you are smiling but are not really feeling joy inside, the audience can sense your real emotional state anyway. The face alone is not all that we use to communicate. Whether we like it or not, we are communicating with our entire bodies all the time.

Almost every human being has the ability to sense what other people’s emotional states are. We have done it constantly since we were babies. A new born reads only the facial features of the parent to look for meaning. However, after a few months the child can understand mood and emotions from such things as the tone of voice, angle of spine, rate of breath, and amount of eye contact.

If a performer is smiling yet their mood is clearly not filled with joy, then there is a disconnect between them and the audience. If the entertainer is lying to them, then the audience will remain skeptical. They will not connect emotionally with the performer. In the variety arts, the main task is to connect with the audience. It is through this connection that laughs are possible and through this connection that drama can be created.

The reason that many Americans claim to be afraid of clowns is because they have seen inexperienced, depressed clowns who had a smile painted on their faces. These clowns often use stock lines and old jokes that are inorganic to the moment. If the clowns had been truer to themselves and to their audience, they would reveal and amplify any negative emotions they experience.

The nature of clown and of the other variety arts in general, juggling included, is to reveal the performer. Because of that, the performer can be feel very vulnerable on stage. When a show does not go well, it can be a horrible feeling, because we put so much of ourselves out there. We put our egos on the line, right out there for everyone to see. This fear of vulnerability can make it pretty tempting to hide behind technique. It seems safer to rely on stock lines and to not be present and in the moment on stage.

Ironically, it is through revealing one’s true feelings to the audience that a more powerful stage presence can be achieved. Sure, it is great to seem happy and up-beat on stage. But if you fake it, you will be found out, and then the whole house of cards will come crashing down around you.

A moment to be particularly on the lookout for is when you drop a prop, or when something goes wrong. This is a real great opportunity to connect with the audience and let them know that you are aware and in control. Ignore this chance to relate to the audience at your own peril. If you are smiling when you enter the stage and begin to juggle, and remain smiling when you drop, pick the ball up, and start to juggle again, you have shut the audience out.

Any emotion kept on the face or held in the body for more than 30 seconds becomes unnatural and creepy. You have got to work through a range of emotion to be more natural on stage. If you want to have a stronger stage presence, stop smiling all the time and frown a little.

Brad Weston is a writer, juggler, and scowler from way back. For more information about him and his work check out his website at

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