The Well Aging Fiddler: Trusting Your Audience

December 30, 2022, 9:26 AM · 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.

stage lights and sound

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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December 30, 2022 at 05:53 PM · Thanks Michael, I always enjoy your articles. One ensemble that definitely always trusted their audience was the Grateful Dead. Probably about 8,000 times before we lost Jerry (I was there only 29 of those times) and many hundred more in various lineups after him (I don't count my times there). Some nights they were astoundingly great, some nights not so much. Sometimes Jerry forgot some words. We in the audience never lost our affection, they put themselves out there live hundreds of times a year for decades. Obviously a very different scene from classical perfectionism, which I have also come to love, and which I admire all the more and always hear with a warm forgiveness.

December 30, 2022 at 11:56 PM · Two instances come to mind.

I saw Alvin Lee of Ten Years after stop the tune because Rick Lee (drummer) was WAY off time and outa sync. Everybody in stage laughed and they tried it again. That was at Madison Square Garden so the audience was huge.

I had a front row seat to see Marc Bolan of TRex try to toss his guitar around his neck and of course it flew off the strap and hot the floor.

He was laughing but I'm sure his Les Paul got dinged pretty good.

The show must go on!

December 31, 2022 at 06:56 AM · That's wild, Michael!

I went to a ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty, and I left at intermission, since the venue hadn't even thought to mention on the website that the dancers would be dancing to a prerecorded track.

I also watched a violinist somehow get her bow tip stuck in between strings, but she just started back again and gave a great performance.

There's too much emphasis on perfection in classical music, and the possibility of live performance is part of the point of going and not just listening to a recording.

December 31, 2022 at 03:26 PM · It seems that Opera remains the last bastion of live non-electronic performance.

I've watched a number of concerts where all the musicians have microphones attached to their instruments. All the actors and singers on Broadway are fitted with microphones and they are no longer hidden.

I acknowledge that not all concert venues have good acoustics. The few that do are expensive to book.

Of course, the whole idea of live performance is being replaced by electronic media. While the trend predated Covid, it seems to have accelerated the transition.

Perhaps we have seen the last of the totally live musical events - at least in the Classical/Orchestral model. Popular music is totally electronic and live. Also very-very loud.

December 31, 2022 at 06:35 PM · I’m not concerned about whether electronics should be used or not, because I think that would be unrealistic, especially in huge venues. My problem is when they dominate the performance in the context of volume, and as I witnessed, in masking a live performance with recorded dialogue and/or music.

The challenge is whether the sound can enhance the performer, but not make the performance dominant in the room, to the extent that the audience doesn’t have any voice in what is happening.

For example, when I was an actor, and we did a comedy, we always hoped for one or two good Laugh Leaders to be in the audience. Those are people who don’t hesitate to laugh right out loud. With their responses, the rest of the audience feels comfortable releasing their laughs. Without good Laugh Leaders, there can be a hesitation on the part of the audience to laugh. I’ve been in shows where nobody laughed out loud. Of course, as performers, we assumed were missing the beats, that our timing was off, and worse, that nobody was enjoying the play.

And yet, after the show, people would tell us how much fun they had. When we’d ask why they didn’t laugh, they’d say, “I was laughing. I just didn’t want to be the noisy one.” A good Laugh Leader can open up an audience.

Conversely, in a good tearjerking tragedy, when you’re on stage, and everyone is quiet, the sound of someone sniffling, moaning, and even crying is a sign that the show is going well. (I think. Perhaps it’s so awful, they are weeping in pain. . . I hope not!)

One night, one guy in the audience started snoring. . . there’s no way to fix that, but so it goes.

Performer and audience are parts of a mutual dialogue. This is the performer’s paying attention to the audience, and adjusting the performance to what is happening out in that big dark room.

Most performances are in small venues. Piano recitals, violin recitals, living room concerts, small venues, and so on rarely need more than a single microphone, if at all.

I’ve played in bars and restaurants, for open mic shows and music gigs, where one microphone fills the bill, and the audience is so close, the communication is direct – for both good and bad. That’s show biz.

No, my issue is with productions that force themselves on an audience to such an extent the audience isn’t included in the moment. That usually happens in large venues. I’d like to see that change. If I’m paying $50 - $80 or more for a single ticket, I’d like to enjoy the experience, rather than have it shoved in my face.

December 31, 2022 at 08:46 PM · I think this article is especially interesting if coupled with the one below, about a violinist who got disenchanted with the tedious obsessive perfectionistic nitpicking involved in her training (“I used to love playing the violin”). One of her articles, if you click through, recounts her experience in a gig where she was asked if she was just miming playing the violin. She said she wasn’t in that particular case but she felt like she might as well have been, and her feelings contributed to her disillusionment. In my comment on that article I said I thought the problem was the involvement of big money, but on further reflection, that’s not quite right. Instead I think it’s the involvement of big money when coupled with perfectionism. The ubiquity of perfect recordings has made some listeners expect that kind of perfection all the time if they’re going to pay “good money” for something. I don’t think all listeners (in any class, whether “big money” or not) are like this; rather, I think as listeners it behooves us to be alert for signs of that expectation in ourselves and challenge it. And to seek out and value live music for its unique and wonderful qualities.

January 4, 2023 at 10:59 PM · Live performances are off the table for me these days, mainly because of the demands of my schedule; but also most of them are evening shows, and I’m not a night person.

About excessive loudness: I found this extremely annoying. It’s one reason I don’t miss live performances - and just one reason, among many others, why I quit going to the movies long ago. With today’s digital technology, I get so much more out of a feature film at home that I could ever get at the cinema. And thanks to YouTube Premium, I can bring in concerts from all over the world - with no ads.

I had some acting experience in high school, but we didn’t use amplification. Fortunately, the school auditorium wasn’t nearly as big as the 100-year-old venue mentioned in your article; but our director nevertheless made it clear from the start that we had to project well enough to be heard - all the way to the back of the room.

Can’t imagine having to mime to a prerecorded track in live theater. And the connection with a live audience is something you just can’t match. You have to gauge audience response and pace yourself accordingly. Often, in comedy, you have to wait for audience response to subside before you deliver your next line; otherwise, your hearers can miss crucial dialogue. Audience response can - and should - also help you gauge how you deliver your next lines.

Lip-syncing in films, as opposed to stage productions, makes sense because, for some parts of the picture, that’s the only way to get a satisfactory finished product. In musical films, for instance, the singers and orchestra players record their musical tracks well ahead of filming, sometimes weeks before the cameras roll. Then, during shooting, they mime to their own tracks - or the tracks of professional playback singers if they, the actors themselves, didn’t do their own vocals.

Additionally, some scenes, notably those shot outdoors, require post-production over-dubbing for dialogue because unwanted aircraft, truck, or machinery noises can easily ruin the production dialogue tracks. The actors then have to go back into the studio and re-record their lines, synchronizing their delivery with the action they see on screen. No wonder some productions run over budget.

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