The Introverted Performer

Everybody knows a performer when they see one: performers are loud and outgoing, friendly and confident. They reach right out to you and draw you into their world, promising a good time with someone who makes you feel totally at ease. I’ve never done a poll, but I’d suspect that the ideal performer to most of us is somebody that fits the rough definition Carl Jung laid out in the 1920s of an extrovert: a person who is sociable, takes charge, is outgoing, and is at their best in a crowd of people. Many of our greatest performers, including Ray Charles, Marilyn Monroe, and Will Smith, have exhibited the traits in spades: they seem to blossom in the spotlight and draw energy from the throngs of people that they seem to magnetically attract. But does that mean being an extrovert is a necessary characteristic for a performer or even a great performer? This is a question that really hits home for me because I don’t consider myself an extrovert and I’ve taken a headfirst dive into a career as a performer in the past year and a half. I’ve seen other performers who surely fit the bill and often wondered what it meant for my fortunes in the same line of work.

But first: a working definition. The words introvert and extrovert frequently get thrown around in a casual fashion and can often be deemed synonymous with traits they’re not intended to describe. Much like how the popular definition of schizophrenia frequently incorrectly references dissociative personality disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder), introversion is frequently used as a general label to define a lack of social engagement and extroversion to define gregariousness. To be fair, the terms lend themselves to this kind of fuzziness both for the imprecision of the qualities they are meant to describe as well as the expression of them in individual people. Everyone will occasionally need to be alone and occasionally need to be among other people for their mental well-being. That said, the best scientific definition I’ve come across for each term has to do with the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is deeply involved in the brain’s system for pleasure and rewards. Cocaine and methamphetamines both bond to dopamine sites in the brain, simulating the kind of pleasant stimulation that a natural dopamine release can grant. Recent studies have shown that people who self-identify as introverts tend to have a greater level of sensitivity to dopamine, just as many people have a greater level of sensitivity to alcohol and caffeine. To an introvert, dopamine is a pleasant enough experience, but their receptors will burn out on the dopamine they receive faster than an extrovert, who will find a dopamine release to be catnip for their pleasure centers. Not surprisingly, dopamine release is also tied to social situations and to risk-taking, two of the hallmarks of extroversion.

To go with the less scientific explanation, introverts derive their energy from within, recharging their batteries from time spent in solitude while extroverts derive theirs externally, from being around other people. All of us have friends that seem to wither and languish without at least a few friends to keep them engaged as well as a few friends that seem to gain their strength and fortitude from time spent alone reflecting. But to return us to the central question: do extroverts make better performers? Do they even make a majority of performers?

Depending on who you ask, the answer will be no for each question. While many of our more extroverted performers may stick in our heads, there’s no less talent to be found on the introverted side of the aisle. Among those entertainers who seem to less relish the public eye are Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Jackson, and Audrey Hepburn. By now a pattern should be becoming apparent: none of these are people who are shy--they just don’t court the limelight like their extroverted friends do.

This is important for a few reasons: introverts stereotypically are seen as being timid, cold, or aloof. Sometimes they are considered unfriendly or worse, haughty--their need for reflection time is interpreted as deeming themselves too good to hang out with a given crowd. While there may be many introverted misanthropes in the world, the two traits are not intrinsically linked any more than narcissism and extroversion are. An introvert may be friendly, fun, and welcoming. They’ll just also need some time alone to recharge at the end of the day.

I first encountered the concept in high school the first time I took the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator, a personality test that in part grades people along a scale of introversion vs extroversion. I came out as an INTP, and quite introverted according to the test. This came as no shock to my parents, who’d seen me become a quiet bookworm early in life, bonding more readily with ideas than I ever did with people. Even though I’d finally managed to make several friends in high school, I was still prone to spending much of my off time in solitude or with just one or two very close friends. Ironically, my parents found it impossible to punish me as a child or teenager because going to my room and spending hours in solitude was already my natural proclivity.

But then came college. I realized quickly that given that I was at a new school and really knew nobody there, I could remake myself in any way I saw fit, so for grins I became outgoing and chatty, quickly making friends of my professors and classmates. Eventually, it became impossible for me to go more than a few feet on campus without running into somebody I knew. The new friends I’d made in college seemed bewildered that I’d ever been considered shy. This was also when I was really bitten by the performance bug: I’d taken up guitar and had rounded up a few friends to start a band. I instantly wanted us to perform onstage and asserted myself as the frontman--my more reserved bandmates were horrified. I tried my hand at open mics and stand-up comedy, branching out and working out how to utilize the nervousness that came from being onstage and transform it into the energy necessary to turn in something engaging. All the while, my refuge was in the stacks of the university library. After a long day of classes, there was no way to unwind more heavenly than locking my door, turning on the Discovery Channel, and noodling with my guitar in blissful hours of solitude.

Eventually I became a community organizer and it became my job to interact with large numbers of people, to organize rallies and lobbying days and convince people through the energy I broadcast that we could accomplish our goals. I retook the MBTI during this period and found to my shock that I’d drifted toward the extroverted end of the spectrum, placing either as a very mild E or dead center between E and I depending on which test I took (this is sometimes referred to ambiversion--I cannot say this word without thinking it means something dirty). Despite my outgoing exterior, I found the demands of interacting with so many people incredibly taxing. I would frequently get myself into places where so many people needed to contact me that I’d shut down completely, unable to prioritize whom I should talk to first and what decisions most needed to be made.

As I’ve aged into my early 30s, I’ve found myself drifting back to the introverted side of the spectrum. I’m sure many of my friends would disagree with this assessment (or grudgingly grant me status as an ambivert) given that I’m still highly sociable, but I find it more easy than ever to get overwhelmed in social situations--especially those where I know few if any people there. The stranger part is that this hasn’t quenched my thirst for performance in the slightest. After taking several years off from music following the breakup of my last band in Colorado, I’m back to playing and performing with a band, and now frequently work as a fire performer in the DC area, not to mention I put loads of videos of myself spinning on YouTube in an effort to help grow the prop spinning community. And it’s here that the contradictions start to get more odd and I become ever more unable to explain them.

I relish the time spent onstage, but to me a performance comes from an internal place. I see so many other fellow performers, be they dancers or singers, engage an audience directly in a way that feels foreign to me. I feel as though my job onstage is to take some of the vast internal world I’ve created in my solitude and share it with my audience, as though a moving sculpture for the audience to appreciate rather than interact with directly. At a dance concert a couple years ago, I remember coming offstage for intermission and hearing one of the dancers buzz excitedly about performing to a sold-out house. “The house is full?” I asked. “How can you not know that?” the dancer replied, not realizing that I frequently focus so completely on the performance itself that I have no awareness of the audience at all.

Immediately after a performance, I frequently go into a kind of shock where I stop interacting with people completely for a day or two afterwards. There is a double-edged sword to having my friends come and see me perform because I feel gratitude for their patronage deep in my heart, but after a performance rarely have any energy left to speak to them intelligibly or interact for long durations. I love hanging out with the cast afterwards and getting to wind down with them, but the spectre of having to go out and talk to audience members I don’t know fills me with dread. When my band plays out, I try to avoid doing it entirely by starting to take down the equipment as soon as possible (much to my more outgoing drummer’s great chagrin ;). Above all else, I have the introvert’s distaste for small talk, finding the exchanges of small pleasantries at parties and large gatherings to be such a waste when a deeper and more meaningful conversation could be had. The moments I treasure are those with just one or two people, exploring a topic in such a depth that you walk away from it feeling as though you’ve come to understand this person on a very deep level.

Above all else, I can’t for the life of me come up with an explanation for how somebody who so treasures his solitude can at the same time so treasure time spent in the company of strangers. As odd as it may sound in lieu of my previous admonitions, I far prefer the one-off performances I get for crowds of people I will never see again to those done for close friends. The most confusing part of this is that I'm at a loss to explain which impulses come from my performer side and while come from my introverted side.

At night at the fire festivals, when the circle has started up, there’s always that one spot in front of the people there who are the capital-N Names where people go to impress and to show their stuff...and I avoid that spot like the plague. My happy place is lost among the nameless throng of spinners deep in the heart of the circle, my movements nearly indecipherable to the people watching on the sidelines. When I know there are eyes on me I get blocked and and forget to bring my energy from within. I start seeking their reactions and I know that’s not the kind of performance that I’m best at. I’m not unfriendly, I just find the attention completely overwhelming and exhausting.

Does all of this make me a poor performer? I’d like to think not...I’d really prefer to think that whatever my shortcomings as a performer are, they are things that I can train myself out of (posture, focus, etc) rather than a byproduct of the chemistry of my brain. I do feel the pang of seeing more outgoing friends rile an audience up and wondering if I’ve got any business sharing a stage when I see how much they love the crowd and the crowd loves them. I’d like to think there’s a place for the both of us, that there’s an audience for the both of us. I think only time and more work at it will tell. In the meantime, if you come to see me perform and find it odd that I’m not very talkative afterwards. Don’t take it personally...just give me a few minutes to collect myself and I’ll be right with you :)

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