That Ineffable Value

A post on ye olde Twitter feed led me to a piece on The Globe & Mail site structured as a conversation between J. Kelly Nestruck (theatre critic) and Kate Taylor (visual art critic). In it, they reveal some of the benefits and detriments of watching a livestream performance.

Reading it, I felt like there were some unrealized gems that may become regular features once they are fully developed as well as some points of friction that people will either get used to, fully resist, or accommodate in a way that leads to the development of a new practice.

Early on Nestruck observes that the Stratford Festival’s supposed archival materials look highly polished and he expresses “one of my concerns as a theatre critic is that I fear many of the Shakespeare productions at Stratford are now being created with filming in mind.”

A few sentences later, he says lauds the viewing party he attended as a great experience that probably echoes the environment of Shakespeare at The Globe Theatre:

My best experiences came tuning in to “live viewing parties” to restore the feeling of watching along with others. These are online appointment viewings where you can chat with other viewers in the comments.

The one for Stratford’s Macbeth, for instance, was fun because I could read what folks watching in Winnipeg, Montreal and Cleveland had to say in real time. A recent immigrant from Syria living in Toronto even chimed in to say it was the first time he’d seen the play.

Many actors who had been in the show watched as well, and shared backstage anecdotes. A chatting audience and meta-theatrical asides may sound ghastly to some Shakespeare purists, but I actually thought this was probably more like what the boisterous original outdoor audience was like in Shakespeare’s time.

Taylor says she can see the attraction of having that chatting environment as a frame for viewing the production, though she likens it to the distraction of texting while driving, but she doesn’t think it is a good substitute for live attendance.

Nestruck mentions sometimes the live communal experience is artificially manipulated. He describes how one of the last shows he saw before the Covid shutdown in March actually used canned cheering to get the audience going–though the sound design intentionally tapped into the live audience reactions as well.

“I later learned this chanting and cheering was actually part of the show’s sneaky sound design – though the recorded disembodied shouts then did lead to real cheering. (The sound designer Gareth Owen told me he sometimes also places microphones around a theatre so that an audience’s audible responses can be amplified at certain moments.)

All of which is to say that technology can help foster a feeling of belonging, at the theatre as much as at home.

As this conversation continued, Taylor admits that based on the examples Nestruck has cited, it is becoming difficult for her to definitively say a live experience is the best experience.

So, you’re really challenging me to explain why live performances, with the audience’s and the actors’ minds and bodies occupying the same space and time, are special and important.

It’s odd, but the pandemic has made me recognize the weight of theatrical rituals that I used to dismiss: booking the date, dressing up, applauding all performances. One artist told me that your ticket is a contract with the performer, both literally and figuratively. I will show up; you will show up. There will be a transaction. Somehow, I don’t think that happens when you watch something on a screen. I don’t feel I have entered into a transaction with Brad Pitt or even Greta Gerwig.

In the end, both say there is an ineffable value in the live performance/museum experience that can’t be replaced.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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