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Three performances–Sometimes it’s magic, and sometimes it isn’t

Over the past few days I’ve seen three live performances.  I want to use this post to ponder the complexities of how we react to live performance.  I want to say at the start that no one wants to give a bad, a boring, an inadequate performance.  I’ve done a bit of amateur theater, and even  more amateur music.  It’s always true that when I’m on stage, I’m trying my hardest to make it special for the audience.  Sometimes, I just don’t have the professional skills that it might take to “achieve lift-off”, in a friend’s phrase.

And sometimes, as an audience member, I’m just sitting there holding on to my lead balloon and not willing to be transported.  Maybe that’s what was going on at the recital by Bryn Terfel that I heard on Thursday night.  He has an amazing voice that he can control from the loudest roar to the softest whisper.   He also has an engaging manner on stage–not too chatty, but genuine.  He opened with a comment that if we noticed a certain jocularity of manner and bumptiousness of walk from him, that he had just been singing Falstaff.  It was some of the best singing that I’ve ever heard in a recital.  At one point, he stopped in the middle of a group of songs to complement the audience on being quiet and said “You can breathe, you know.”  But the magic didn’t happen for me.  It seems that it did for the reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle [here’s the review], and he’s not known for being easy to please.  What’s particularly puzzling to me is that our reactions to the details of the recital were quite similar.

Then yesterday, a friend and I went up to Sonoma State University for a  double bill.  There was a matinee of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and a performance of West Side Story in the evening.  Let’s just say that the Shakespeare was really beyond the current abilities of the cast.  In general, the delivery of the iambic pentameter was bound by the meter and the line breaks of the text [dadum-dadum-dadum-dadum-daDUM/ dadum-dadum-dadum-dadum-daDUM].  And the actors are, well, students.  I spent much of the afternoon somewhere between bored and cranky.  The real surprise for me is that I ended up the performance with tears running down my cheeks.  Now how did that happen?  Did I suddenly find the performance much better?  Did the language trigger memories of the other performances of the play that I’ve seen in the past?  Maybe the only way to “understand” it is to quote Henslowe’s line from Shakespeare in Love about what happens in the theatre: “It’s  a miracle.”

The evening production of West Side Story was full of energy, good singing and music, and an interesting use of the space.  Before the show, I hadn’t thought of the complications of casting a show whose primary plot element is the conflict between two gangs where membership is based on race/ethnicity, but the cast isn’t being chosen based on race.  The director addressed this directly in the program, saying that at heart, the conflict of the piece isn’t about race but about the more fundamental question: “Who is Us? and who is Them?”.  At some level, I think that’s one of the most important questions for the 21st century.  I did mist up a bit for “There’s a place for us”, but I wasn’t crying at the end.  My friend, sitting next to me, was.

Perhaps that’s the real reason that I continue to seek out live performance.  There is a special kind of energy that happens when the audience and the performers are both in the same room–with the energy between them creating today’s unique version.  It’s an energy that I often find missing from CDs and DVDs, where the production sometimes polishes out all the “errors” and, at the same time, removes all the personalities of the performers. 

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3 Responses to “Three performances–Sometimes it’s magic, and sometimes it isn’t”

  1. Bob Says:

    Well, I’ve been thinking some more about why “West Side Story” didn’t really move me. I finally realized that the almost-rape of Anita near the end completely interrupted my “willing suspension of disbelief”. My reaction was “that’s unacceptible!”. So the whole denouement no longer evoked the emotions of pity and sympathy that “Romeo and Juliet” did.

  2. Posted from United States United States
  3. Bob Says:

    Amazingly enough, I just heard from a friend that in an earlier draft of West Side Story, Maria is killed; so Anita is doing nothing more than reporting the truth. But some of the backers of the show persuaded the artists that they should let Maria survive–the backers didn’t think that the audience could stand that much tragedy. I have to say that I would be very interested in seeing that one.

  4. Posted from United States United States
  5. Victoria Says:

    This continues a conversation about ‘liveness’ in performance that I have had with Bob over the last few years, and I believe ‘willing suspension’ is a key factor. Either the suspension of one’s critical expectations, or one’s awareness of the surrounds, or all the other consciousnesses that can interfere with our engagement in the moment. When it all comes together- the self, the moment and the peformance, it is truly the most amazing experience- to me, bordering on the sublime. It is overall, a bit like life drawing; there is a humanness, a connection, that cannot be acheieved any other way so effectively.

  6. Posted from Australia Australia

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