Friday, April 19, 2019

Why Come to a Live Performance?

I have great respect and admiration for my friends who specialize in children’s shows.  I can’t do it. I love kids, but I am not comfortable performing for them.  It could be that I am much to ADD to make it work. To me an audience full of kids is like performing for a can of worms... worms that occationally yell out nonsense. Doing my act and my one man show requires way too much concentration to be distracted by little Johnny who has yet to learn proper social filters.  It becomes so easy for me to become distracted that my entire concentration suffers.

Here is my theory about performing live.  A live performance is a very special moment in time when a group of people and a performer(s) come together and meet in the “now moment” of a specially rehearsed event.  My attention is obviously on the material being presented but it is filtered by an analytical consciousness of the audience.  The audience becomes an emotional mirror to what I am doing on stage.  If their emotion mimics the intended stage reaction then all is good. If something other than that is happening, a conscious shift is necessary to get everyone back on the path of the performance. Most audiences do not realize that performers are adjusting at almost every moment on stage to make the “story” clearer.  

There is a relevant story about Lena Horn when she was doing her one woman show on Broadway.  Being a consummate performer, her attention was always laser focused on the audience. On one evening after the intermission, she came out singing and immediately noticed that the attention of the audience, particularly down front, was different.  Her audience mirror was not reflecting the right emotion.  Her instinct, as an artist, was to move closer to the audience to see if she could wrangle them back to paying attention to her performance.  As she did  a  large lighting instrument fell and hit the stage where she would have normally been standing.  The audience was observing what was happening behind Lena Horn, something she could not see nor was she aware of it.  The opera curtain became intangled with the grid, dislodging the lighting instrument which fell to the stage.  The attention to her audience and her instinct to move toward them for more focus saved her from injury or worse.  

I recently got to perform “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only” at the North Coast Rep in Solana Beach.  It is a nice intimate theater,  perfect for my intimate show. Because I am a ventriloquist, my ears are always aware of the sound around me.  I listen to the ventriloquial voices to monitor their effect and clarity.  This awareness of sounds include, laughs or sighs or whatever noise comes from the audience as well as from the sound track and me.  It is the equivalent of a race car driver monitoring the RPM, Speed and vitals of the race car.  There is so much to monitor on stage that anything less than full concentration doesn’t work.  In the case of a live performance you only get one time to get it right, no retakes, no do overs, the only chance you get is the one happening now; so the stakes are high.

The focus for a theatrical presentation is much more intense than that of  a nightclub performance. When liquor is involved you need to have more of a guard up since the likely hood of a heckler yelling out is increased by the number of beverages ingested.  But a club performance does not require as many ideas to juggle at once so this “heckler guard” can occupy some idle brain space.  

While I was doing 8 shows a week on Broadway there were times that I could put the cruise control on and relax a little while doing the show.  However, it has been a while since I have done that and at the North Coast Rep I had to concentrate on so many things I could not even find the cruise control for the show.  It was going well and to a point in the Tuesday night show, we were on course. That’s when I heard a noice from the audience.  Stage time slows way down when your mind has to multi-task. First comes the evaluation phase. What is the sound?  Is is threatening? Is it directed toward me? Does it require a reaction from me, or do I need to completely ignore it?  While continuing with the show, I determined that the sound was someone talking loudly followed by several people “shushing”.  My decision was to continue as if the fourth wall was soundproof.  There was another outburst this time attached to an angry tone, followed by another loud voice, then a young girl pushed her way through one of the center rows to get to the exit.  I did not know what happened but it seemed that the cause of the noise left the audience.  Just as I was about to devote my entire attention back to the script of the show, there was more loud talking and two more women walked out.  At this point my instincts told me to briefly stop and make sure there was no issue or continuing distraction.  I stepped out of character and script and said to the Usher who was closing the door behind the last woman to leave, “Do we need to stop the show.... Is everything okay?”  The Usher said, “Everything is Okay now.” Indicating the cause of the commotion was gone. 

Even if this performance was recorded, rather than a live show, some sort of re-cue needs to occur to the get back to the  place where the show left off.  I tend to think in text blocks for my hour and fifty-minute show, and the block of text I was doing  suddenly left my brain.  There is a trick I learned years ago to get back on track when a distraction like this occurs in an audience.  I said, “Geez where were we I’m lost..... I guess we have to start over from the beginning.”  I moved to my starting position for the show and a quick laugh gave me time to re-rack, re-cue and begin where we left off.  

It wasn’t till the end of the show that I found out what happened and I am glad I didn’t know during the performance.  A young lady in the middle of the house was texting on her phone which was very bright in the darkened theater, blinding the lady behind her in the next row.  The lady behind asked, if she would please turn the phone off. The theater director was sitting close enough to hear the exchange.  He said the lady was polite when she asked the offender to go dark.  The texting 20 something said in response, “Are you reading my texts, you cunt?” It caused an immediate conflict which escalated to the young lady inviting the older lady outside saying , “I’ll Kick your ass”.  The two girls sitting with the “texter” tried to defend her but were told to leave by the usher.  All three left the show.  

Never mind that I have an announcement at the top of the show asking that all cell phones be turned off and silenced for the enjoyment of every one else, why come to a show to text?  Why spend the money to watch a show only to ingnore it and text on your phone? And when a person realizes they might be unintentionally ruining the show for someone else, expletives and attitude from the offender is the result? I am glad that young lady was not around after the show.  There is nothing civil that I could have said to her.

The light from a cell phone in the darkness of an audience is distracting enough to actors on the stage, but to ignore manners and disrupt the rest of the audience when asked to put it out... is unforgivable.   If we are going to live in a society that accepts social media and ubiquitous cell phones, we need to establish some manners to go along with that “society” of texting.  

So to the young lady who disrupted the only chance I had to tell my story to that particular audience that particular night at NCT, please don’t ever come back to any of my shows.  And on behalf of every performer who is trying to communicate art,  just stay at home and text with your friends till you go blind.  Instagram and twitter, Facebook and IM your life away, as is your right to do, just never, ever, ever do it within 400 yards of a theater.  
As you were,


Philip Grecian said...

Yep. It works okay if it's the kind of show you can stop and heckle back (our "Drunkard" is like that), but it's not so easy in a one man show like yours...or a structured play with characters and the illusion of the first time.
THESE are times when you need a really good house manager...and it appears that you did. But yeah, it does throw things off.
Especially troublesome if you're in the moment and moving through the story.
You refer to the audience as a mirror...I always thought of them as acoustics. The lines are the same each night, the staging is the same, but the facility changes when the audience touring and dealing with acoustics in different theatres. Staying in a single theatre with different audiences is the same thing...except the acoustics are sentient.
I love your observational blog entries...when you comment like this upon the performance experience. Live on stage is harder, because you can't cut and try it again. Interesting to me that the actors I use on live stage events are MORE nervous when they have to do taped television. Go figure.
Thanks for a new blog, Jay. These are always wonderful to read.

Don Bailey said...

Well done, Jay. As a performer, I can certainly relate, and as an audience member, I can also relate. I am the woman behind the texter. I have on several occasions, whether at a play, a show, a concert, or even a movie asked the texter to stop. Those screen lights are bright, and even if several rows away, they draw your attention. You'd think a texter would at LEAST dim the screen. They DO dim, although even with the screen dimmed, it still distracts. Thanks for the read.

C Lyons said...

Truer words were never said Jay. Being the professional you are you made it thru but I totally get your point. I apauld you in keeping your composure not sure many others could have done do,

Unknown said...

Texting during a performance should be a Capital offense!... period.

Turk Pipkin said...

Jay, great piece of reportage and personal insights, just as it was a fantastic show. I lauged, I cried, but mostly I laughed. You did well to acknowledge the disturbance and move on quickly. It could have been a show killer, but three minutes later, the your audience had forgotten her and slipped right back into your wonderful story, a story that deepens everything you do. Since Christy and I were seated by the exit where the woman departed, we saw what you could not, an usher older than me - and that ain’t young - who took a full Buster as he hurried to make sure she didn’t turn back with some final disturbance. He popped up quick and seemed unharmed because even the ushers know the show must go on and will take one for the team. As Darwin would say, “Show bizness!”

Gwyn Bertocki said...

The last time I went to a concert – and we had splurged and traveled to another state to attend -- there were several women in front of me who spent the entire concert (maybe they stopped for one song) texting, talking, and just generally getting up and down. A lot. I had to wonder why someone would spend the money to attend a concert to just completely ignore it – and then go on to ruin it for everyone around them. Is this a new hobby of which I am unaware? After having this happen at several concerts, this was the last straw. I no longer attend concerts unless they are in a smaller, more controlled environment. I am also beginning to rethink going to movies. They are just too expensive to spend just listening to others talking as if they are in their living rooms at home. What happened to theatre manners?

Cindy White said...

Hello Jay,
I'm veering off topic to inquire about an older post of yours (I think it was you?)

I was looking for research on the Promenade players at Epcot Center....did you write the blog called "Who's the Dummy" , detailing your time at USF with Bill Lorenzen learning puppetry?

I'm looking for research and images on that show,

Much thanks,