Acting through Life

What can theater teach us about our everyday performances?

  • September 17, 2019
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, Monica Cortés Viharo would like to help you prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.

It may sound like a chore, but in truth, we’re always making choices about how to display ourselves for others’ approval —   the way we sit in a chair, pitch our voices, even laugh. Cortés-Viharo, a professional actor and public speaking consultant, says it’s just a matter of modulating between our own identities.

“I feel like we already do that, so why not just be good at it?” says Cortés-Viharo, a University of Washington graduate student in Drama. “I can’t say the person I am when I’m with my husband is the exact person I am when I talk to you, somebody I’ve never met.”

Cortés-Viharo’s presentation for the Speakers Bureau, “Always On: How to Turn Up the Volume on Everyday Communication,” focuses on engaging with individuals and with audiences — bringing the best parts of oneself to the fore to succeed in both personal and professional encounters.

Humanities Washington: What do we mean by “the authentic self?”

Monica Cortés Viharo: That’s an open question, and I think that’s one of the more theoretical aspects of the humanities. The humanities is about thinking about the experience of what is means to be human. Am I a self-contained self, or am I a mixture of all of these various experiences that I’ve had that make me who I am? Would I be the same me if I was born in a different country or a different social status, a different time in history, or would I be someone totally different? Because I am a collection of the experiences that have impacted my life. I know for me personally, I am a certain way when I’m with, say, my family — I’m the big sister — but I’m a different way when I’m with my cat, and I’m different when I’m a lecturer in front of 200 students at the university, and I’m a different person when I’m acting and auditioning. But none of those identities are false.

Humanities Washington: How does understanding that help us to present ourselves to people in social and professional situations?

Monica Cortés Viharo: I kind of want people to think about this: Are you a myriad of different selves, and when you’re performing, whether it’s spouse or big sister or whatever, isn’t that also an authentic part of you? It’s just a different channel, if you will. The more tactical question is, can I feel comfortable being all these various things that I am in my life? There’s this term called impostor syndrome, which runs rampant here in academia — “It must be a mistake that I’ve been hired to teach all these people.” By that line of thinking, then when you perform scholar or teacher, it might feel inauthentic: I’m putting my fake teacher drag on, if you will, and oh good, they didn’t feel it out this time. When I tap into that part of myself that is teacher or student or scholar, it is different from other parts of my life.

Humanities Washington: Why does public speaking inspire anxiety, even in outwardly confident people?

Monica Cortés Viharo: I think one thing that’s happening is you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position — you’re saying yes, I want all eyes to be on me. I think inherently we all know that people’s time and attention is probably the most precious thing they can give you, because you never get your time back. Fifteen minutes of your life listening to somebody — that’s gone forever. With that comes a big responsibility, and one thing I often do with students is purposely kind of do a little bit of a bad presentation, and ask them how they felt about that. We never want to put audience members in a situation where they felt bad for us, or where we’re wasting their time. One of the gifts of being a prepared and confident speaker is you’re like a tour guide in a strange land. You’re saying to your audience, trust me, I will not let you down, I will use the precious time and attention you’ve bestowed on me in a thoughtful way.

As humans, we all want recognition and appreciation, and to be put on the spot where everyone’s looking at you, you just want to know you’re doing okay. That’s a really vulnerable place to put yourself in. We communicate to people all the time, every day, whether it’s ordering a coffee or rolling your eyes when your roommate or spouse leaves wet towels on the floor. We’re always communicating something, but it’s when we put that “public” in front it that everybody freaks out. I’m hoping to help people channel things they already do well into situations where they need it.

Humanities Washington: Everyone says “just be yourself” in job interviews, performances and so on. Good advice?

Monica Cortés Viharo: I would say it’s “be your best self” — to be the self that can do the best job. Obviously, you applied for the job because you thought, hey, I can do this, I have skills that match this job. I think what we’re saying is be the you that said, “Hey, I can do that.” Don’t be the other you that says, “I can never do this, I’m a loser, I’m not good enough” — all the negatives we have in our own head. That’s one of the reasons my presentation is called “Always On.” Can we turn down the volume on the part of the brain that is telling us you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough? Because we all have that self-critique. At the same time, can we turn up the volume on the part that says, “You’ve done this before, you have this background of experience.”

Humanities Washington: What has auditioning for acting work taught you about interpersonal authenticity?

Monica Cortés Viharo: On an audition, it’s sort of my life stripped down to the bare bones. It’s very clear people are going to make a judgment about you in the first few minutes. And having auditioned people and interviewed people —  sometime within the first 30 seconds, you know this is the right person, or this is not the right person. I think auditioning has just reminded me that we have a short window to grab people’s attention. There’s that famous commercial, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression?” It just solidified for me how powerful a first impression can be, and the power of the intangible. You could tell me you have 20 years’ experience doing this job and list a litany of reasons why you are perfect, but if you’re doing it staring at the floor slumped over with a frown on your face, I’m not buying it. I’m reading your body instead. I think auditioning made me realize all those intangibles can either support your verbal message, or tear it down.

Monica Cortés Viharo is earning a PhD in drama and has twenty years of experience as an actor and public speaking consultant.

She is currently presenting her free Speakers Bureau talk, “Always On: How to Turn Up the Volume on Everyday Communication,” around the state. Find an event here.

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