Several years ago, I ran a theater program in a high school in Minneapolis. To subsize the program, I rented the auditorium to various groups such as bodybuilders and traveling theater companies. The old 100-year-old auditorium was huge, and seated almost 1,000 people. Acoustically, it was a nightmare. Voices were difficult to hear in the balcony, and the sound that could be heard bounced all over the room. Fortunately, we were able to amplify the stage, and the problem was minimized.
One afternoon, a traveling theater company was presenting a play, and that very same auditorium was packed with busloads of students from various schools. I stood at the back of the huge room, and was amazed at how crisp the actor’s voices were. Every word was clear, every sentence perfectly audible, and things were going well. Well, except for the fact that the actors weren’t holding for laughs, and they seemed to be rushing through the play without much regard for how the audience was responding to the performances. The show seemed perfect – too perfect.
So, I let myself out of a back door, walked down the hall to the stage door, and let myself into the backstage area. I quietly closed the door, and stood in the dark letting my eyes adjust to the dim light. Looking to my right, I saw the stage manager sitting next to a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He looked at me, frowned, and went back to following the play. The tape recorder was on, but I didn’t hear any music. Stepping close to the stage right curtain, with my eyes on the actors, I realized what was happening.
To my shock, I realized why the actors weren’t pausing for laughs or other audience responses. The actors weren’t actually speaking. All the voices were on tape. While the actors went through their paces, their recorded voices – or someone’s voices – were being projected through their own sound system onto the audience.
Once the play ended, and the actors took their bows, I questioned the stage manager about the sound. Standing next to the tape recorder, he denied it was lip synced. I pointed to the tape recorder. He changed the subject and told me to leave since they had to pack up for their next show.
To me, that ain’t live entertainment.
Flash forwards a few years.
I attended a traveling Broadway show in Portland, Oregon. It was a popular children’s show with music, great costumes, and energetic dancing. Sitting near the back of the main floor, I was amazed at how crisp the sound was. The modulation was perfect. The dialogue clear. The orchestra in the pit sounded balanced and full.
However, the oddity was this – although this was a comedy, the actors didn’t hold for laughs or sporadic applause. They just went on with their lines as if the audience wasn’t even in the room. It was more like watching a movie as opposed to a live theater experience.
At intermission, I took my grandson down to the front of the stage to look at the orchestra pit. To my surprise, the orchestra was small. The sound coming from them was huge compared to the small number of players in the pit.
I had a strong feeling of déjà vu.
During the second act I paid close attention to the actors’ lips as the dialogue continued, and I confirmed my suspicion. Like the traveling tour company from several years before, these professional actors were lip syncing the play. The whole thing was on tape. The songs, most of the orchestra, the dialogue, and so forth, were recorded.
Plus, it was incredibly loud. Too loud. So loud, I call it Patronizing Loud. When it is too loud, it doesn’t invite the audience into the experience. Indeed, the audience didn’t have to do anything but sit back and let the whole thing wash over them.
To me, that ain’t live entertainment.
One more story, then I’ll get to my point.
Earlier this month I attended a gospel Christmas concert featuring a huge choir, an entire orchestra, and individual singers. Gospel isn’t necessarily my go-to genre for great music, but so what? There is nothing more stirring, exciting, and leap-to-your-feet fun, than a good old blast of handclapping, foot stomping, jump in the air gospel music. This stuff can really get you going. Those singers up on the stage, swaying back and forth, clapping, shaking their heads, and smiling are a delight.
Can I have an amen?
This concert was amplified beyond comfort. I mean it was LOUD. Not good old mass-voices-singing-loud, which is great, but electronically over the top, LOUD. This stuff was rammed into our ears at such high volumes it was difficult to enjoy the show. They put microphones on everything, including instruments in the orchestra. Plus, they felt it was necessary to add a light show to the whole experience. Colors were flashing, the house lights kept going on and off, and so on. Rather than an enjoyable experience to be shared with everyone, they went to the Dark Side – they worked to ram the experience into our senses. It wasn’t a shared experience; but more like a cyclone of noise.
These are three examples of artistic experiences where the element of risk and immediacy are removed for the sake of safety in the context of not trusting the audience and how it responds to the experience.
Going to a concert, a dance performance, a play, an art exhibit, or any other personal artistic event is a risk. Things could go wrong.
I saw a starring member of the American Ballet Theater company fall on stage. I saw Bob Dylan forget an entire verse of “Like A Rolling Stone”. When members of the audience told him, he pulled his hair in embarrassment, I saw an actor playing Prospero in Shakespeare’s, “The Tempest” walk off stage, come back with a script, find his lines, read them, toss the book on the floor, and continue as if nothing happened. Two Set Violin have cringeworthy videos on YouTube of flubs, mental lapses, technical errors, and so forth.
On the other side of the live-performance-coin, I’ve experienced pure joy while sitting in an audience. At a concert in Montreal, Quebec, in 1974, I sat with 20,000 others in silence as Bob Dylan stood alone on stage singing with his guitar. We leaned into every word. I’ve seen Mikel Baryshnikov leap into the air for what seemed like a forever moment. On a Sunday afternoon, Vladimir Horowitz held an entire audience in awe as he sat alone on stage playing a piano. In London, I found myself standing and clapping for joy for at least ten minutes as the cast of a musical version of The Comedy of Errors took bow after bow after joyful bow. I could go on and on.
Did these performances use electronic equipment? Some did, and some didn’t, but when equipment was used – sound and lights in particular – they were unobtrusive. Their goal was to allow the performance to shine through the moment, and not to force the experience.
Again, electronic equipment can be helpful in difficult circumstances, but if it dominates a performance experience then it is doing a disservice to the audience, and to the performers who work to create the performance in the first place.
The bottom line? Trust the audience. Respect the audience. Take that risk. No two performances will be the same. Most will be fine. Perhaps one or two may be off kilter for a myriad of reasons, but now and then – without guarantees – something will happen that will grab the performer(s) and the audience, lift them together, and burn into their collective souls.
Go for that. Live entertainment has risk. Live entertainment is a dialogue. Live entertainment is special because it is in the moment. Don’t go for 11 on the amplifiers, thinking that will guarantee success. That’s the lazy way to do things. Let us lean in, pay attention, and contribute our own responses to the moment.
Happy New Year.
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