Becoming a Better Presenter with Performance Art


An invitation arrived by email asking if I’d like to participate in a “Workshop in Live Art” given by the renowned performance and installation artist, James Luna, of Pooyoukitchum, Ipi, and Mexican-American descent.    One thing I’ve learned as a student at IAIA is to be fearless, not to back down even if a new class seems scary.  

A later email promised healthy snacks during the five-hour workshop so I circled Nov. 21 on my calendar, penciled in @ CLE Commons, and signed up. What a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon?

A pre-workshop email from Luna to all perspective participants said that the performance art medium is not for everyone. But he assured us, at the end of the five hours we’d be better presenters of information.

We were asked to find a subject that we could speak about in a five-minute presentation. An additional recommendation said attendees should wear something loose to move in. Goodness, I thought. What kind of activity have I gotten myself into?

But being fearless, I vowed to march bravely into the workshop without preconceived ideas.

On My Way

I live an hour away from the IAIA campus so I decided to use part of the drive time to warm up my vocal chords. I slipped Joni Mitchell’s “Hits” CD into the car’s player and proceeded to sing harmony to several songs. Thirty miles into the journey, Joni and I were singing, “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game.”

Those lyrics made me wonder if I could even recite the basic points of my subject. I had chosen to speak about whether coincidences exist in history or if, like James Burke’s TV series “Connections,” isolated incidents were part of a greater story.

I’d travelled 9 miles across the Galisteo basin barely able to stumble through the highlights of my presentation. Not to worry, I again tell myself. I am going to the workshop to learn. I needn’t be perfect. After all, workshop leader James Luna has been practicing his craft for 40 years.

Learning Begins

Shortly past the noon hour, ten participants sat in a circle of chairs in the Commons. Sunlight poured from the skylight into the center of the circle. Rapt attention was focused on Luna as he joined the circle. Quiet and calm as a Zen Buddhist priest, Luna revealed the challenge he recently faced at a conference – how to introduce himself in less than a minute.

Luna said he thought of writing down an introduction, cutting it into pieces, tossing it all into a hat and drawing out random words. Then he hit on the idea of using song lyrics, instead of words, as his introduction. He demonstrated this by calmly singing. Because his approach was different we listened carefully just as the conference audience had listened to him.

James Luna at IAIA (Photo by Jason Ordaz)
James Luna at IAIA (Photo by Jason Ordaz)

Great minds must think alike. I’d included a verse from the 1965 protest song “Eve of Destruction” in my piece to illustrate the mood of that era.

I scribbled notes in a steno pad as Luna told us to be ourselves as we segued into our first workshop exercise, introducing ourselves in 120-seconds. “There are no rules in performance art,” Luna said. “Find ways to use language in a creative way. Use gestures and movement. Draw on personal experience and emotions.”

We Make Introductions

I attempted not to panic, focusing on what interesting details from my life I could add to my usual introduction: “I’m retired. I moved from California and am now a transfer student majoring in creative writing at IAIA.”

My brain came up with a lengthy list of regional theatres where I’d worked as a costume technician for almost 20 years. After that part of my life ended, there came 23 years working in the Superior Court of California.

Many participants remained seated for their introductions. Performance poet Israel Haros Lopez began his introduction in Spanish, whirling like a Dervish, circling around the chairs, whispering in people’s ears. We are mesmerized by his actions and his energy fired us up.

Years of participating in poetry readings prompted me to stand for my introduction. My brain slipped into automatic. Oh, and make eye contact; we’re communicating information.

Luna said he wanted to hear more about my job working for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc., which is how we were required to refer to the organization. He also said that he picked up on how my years with the court system enabled me to organize my words and speak in a professional matter. I was surprised as I’ve tended to think of myself as a “stumbalina” when I speak.

A Break to Refresh

Next we took a trip to the auditorium where Luna used the available fade-to-black lighting to demonstrate various ways one can make a stage entrance. But first, we snacked on asparagus, trout, crostini with gruyere and rosemary, cashews, strawberries, mini-carrot cakes, plus orange juice and hot coffee.

While noshing on fruit and nuts, I’m asked if I brought a story. Yes, I said, I wrote one but I hadn’t committed it to memory. Luna said when putting together performance art, you first learn the piece, then you can be spontaneous.

I could tell from the distracted appearance of some attendees who stood apart during snack time that they were running through their presentations. I became eager to hear the topics of the stories they brought to share.

An Example of Interaction

Before the presentations began, however, we’re treated to a video of Luna’s performance and installation piece, “Take a Picture With a Real Indian.” “Performance art is not theatre,” Luna says. “It is interaction.”

In the video, filmed at the Salina Art Center in Kansas, Luna approached life-size, photo images of himself three separate times and then stood on a riser. In his first appearance, he wore moccasins and a piece of cloth draped from his waist. Luna then said to the gallery audience, “Take a picture with a real Indian.”

An assistant then took two Polaroids, one as a souvenir for the volunteers who had their pictures taken with a “real Indian.” The other photo was taped to a blank wall as part of the installation. For his second appearance, Luna wore street clothes, and again repeated his offer to take a picture with a real Indian. A few people came forward. The majority appeared too shy to participate.

In his third appearance, he wore buckskin, feathers, and what looked like bone necklaces. The people smiled at him and the gallery hummed with excitement. More people came forward, no longer shy, to have their pictures taken. The last group of Polaroids taped to the wall contained the most shots taken with a “real Indian.”

Click here to view Take a Picture with a Real Indian

That was the point of Luna’s performance art. On his third appearance, he looked more like the perceived romantic image of an Indian. Luna’s performance style is confrontational but not for shock value, he said.

The Final Stretch

Four full hours of workshop time flew by filled with discussions, and questions and answers. The time to begin our five-minute presentations had almost approached. I don’t recall who volunteered to be first, but it wasn’t me.

In classroom situations where I’m more secure in my creative writing I tend to be among the few eager ones who raise their hands to read aloud first. I sat on my hands this time, letting others go ahead of me.

The contents of the presentations ranged from a woman’s comedic perspective on pick-up lines, to an emotional depiction of a young pall bearer preparing to carry the casket of a friend.

Many of the stories were based on personal experience. A life of poverty in San Francisco’s Mission District. A woman who, as a child had been told she didn’t look Indian, but as an adult found solace with a group of Indian women singers. A dramatic reading of a fiction story.

Then there were two of us left.

Taking Command

Luna pointed to me and the other quiet workshop participant. My hand shot up and I volunteered to go next.

That’s when “she” took over, the theatrical person inside of me with the darker voice who’s spewed poetry about public laws that have been used to desecrate Indian lands for coal. The one who flung herself into a “lake” that was really a concrete floor during a staging of the Bloody Island massacre of Pomo Indians in Northern California.

She stomped to an opening in the circle carrying me along, turned and proceeded to rage about the Sand Creek massacre, the Hopi prophesy that points to six Apollo missions returning with their payload of moon rocks as the cause of today’s world destruction, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that gained strength when Chief Justice John Marshall ruled Indian nations were but wards of the federal government.

She didn’t stop until she ran out of words on page four. She curtsied and said, “Thank you,” and then sat down in my chair.

Luna suggested in doing such a performance piece, I should put my notes on a music stand. I was able to make good use of gestures even when I held my pages in one hand. The places where I spoke without reading my notes, he said, were heartfelt.

Winding Down

I jotted more notes as Luna spoke. “Artists should take risks,” he said . “We have a gift. We cannot help but see things differently than other people.  We take what we see and turn it into something that touches others.”

Performance art may not become my raison d’etre, but what I gained in experience from James Luna certainly won’t go to waste. Interaction, using the face, gestures, posture, even silence to capture an audience, has become a part of who I am. I’ll be able to use what I’ve learned to enhance any future performances, whether it be on stage or behind a podium.

As the workshop drew to a close, we were each invited to take home a box filled with leftover crostini, strawberries, and mini-carrot cake – the perfect ending to an afternoon well spent.

(Featured Photo:  Back Row L to R: Azizah Muhammad,  Liz Stahmer, Joseph Stahmer, James Luna, Valirie Serawop, Benishi Albert, Talon Stahmer;  Front Row L to R: Seth Picotte, Vivian Carroll. Photo courtesy of Daniel Banks)


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