The Power of Small

April 17, 2013

One upside to the country’s downturn: I’m feeling that people, for the first time in a long while, are examining our assumptions about our current culture so characterized and driven by “the market”. This shift gives us a welcomed chance to refocus our attentions on the individuality of the artistic experience. During this previous period of hyper-market-driven expansion, we in the art world have spent a lot of effort and thought on groups: demographics, niches, market share –terms strikingly unindividual and impersonal. Ironically, the dialogues and practices resulting from this kind of thinking often are tinged with almost socialist-realist goals – mass appeal, understandable and predictable storylines, and so on.

Yet, once inside, say a black box theater, we inhabit together a very intimate space. For the performer, that proximity means that we have the chance – and therefore the obligation – to explore nuance, shifts, and purpose at every instant. A large 3,500 seat hall on the other hand sometimes ends up fittomg a different plan: a spectator, having purchased the commodity of a ticket, sits at a remove, a literal distance, with an evening and entertainment to be consumed, unfolding before him/her. Unspoken and hanging over the head of the spectator is the anxious thought, “It better be good, it’s an evening of my time and I paid a lot. I could stay home and have a customized experience on the web.” In other words, the physical remove can create an alienating distance and a passive posture. Performers on stage and administrators (being sensitive creatures) pick up on this stance and try to deliver sure, can’t-miss productions. Is it surprising that the most vibrant elements of an audience would then fall off, leaving those seeking predictability?  The performers on stage become jaded or complacent, and the whole construct can wither as seats and enthusiasm dwindle. In a panic, a board, a critic, or administration decides a whole new formula is needed to change the “energy” and a new market segment, a new mass demographic is targeted, and a new schema devised, often only to follow the same pattern. And what about the music? “Well, that’s a given – always good, right? That’ll take care of itself.” And so in this very process cultivating the art and making it transcendent has just been side-stepped, and that act is perhaps far more damaging than any kind of head-on assault.

I have often noted this curious scenario: in a large venue, many audience members stand up to leave immediately after the applause begins, even before the end of the first curtain all. In a smaller venue, this situation is far less likely. Of course, audience members in smaller venues are not fighting to be the first out of the swamped garage. But, it could be too that there is a closer contact, a deeper sense of connection between performers with whom you have really shared an evening. The applause is genuine. It is part of, and a cap to, the two-hour dialogue with the artists. The response is not perfunctory and polite, but comes from a visceral need. A 3,500 seat hall can feel more like a movie: the performers may sense some general collective audience out there, but I am often acutely aware that the audience feels out of the thread of communication, and the performers less receptive to the makeup of the audience. In small halls, we performers feel the audience collectively and I am convinced, the audience collectively feels attuned to itself, each other, and the performers more keenly.

To be sure, a titanic performance can conquer a large hall. Enormous moments can be grand and stirring. But with a less exalted venue, with less “production value,” when the space is intimate and the contact is palpable and immediate, artists are called upon to create – rather than deliver – a universe with only the tools of their craft, the strength of their imagination, the size of their effort and the depth of their soul. That creation requires the vulnerability to involve the audience in co-creating such a universe.

Whatever the size of our audiences and our halls, the intimate, the personal and the genuine are qualities that I most cherish in my working with fellow musicians, and in the performances I lead and attend. The largest artistic gestures – Mahler symphonies for instance – are imbued with these qualities; if they weren’t they would not be memorable. Real performance requires this same personal commitment, this depth of searching, and the openness to share with our audience members so that art doesn’t become a statistic, a demographic, or a niche, but can inhabit and offer a full human expression.