I’ve always loved the live performing arts – theatre, music, magic, dance, the circus, performance art, musical theatre and opera. But the performing arts – and its audiences – have suffered immensely with this pandemic.
Many months ago, if someone had predicted that the world would voluntarily end almost all live performances, in addition to shutting down most other aspects of our collective lives, they would have been accused of being a modern Chicken Little. And yet, here we are.
It’s hard to imagine anyone who is not moved in some way by the performing arts. Spanning six continents, devotees can bathe in the wonder of Kabuki theatre in Asia and celebrate the many incredible dance performances of Africa. Many will hum and tap their toes to the latest North American Broadway musicals and many more patrons will drink in heart-rending opera in Europe. Dance connoisseurs are moved to tears by poignant ballet and tango in South America and audiences can join in song at Australian Indigenous music festivals.
I have sat countless times in darkened theatres with a lump in my throat, silently asking how the playwright was able to know and challenge my innermost thoughts and feelings. I have belted out tunes at the top of my lungs in unison with tens of thousands of other rock fans in stadium concerts (remember those?) and been moved by the sense of connectedness. I’ve laughed along with audiences until my ribs ached during comedy performances and afterward, relished in the rush of happiness and calm. Watching cultural dance troupes helped me understand the world in a slightly broader and deeper way than I did before the performances.
These days, with so many shows cancelled, I’m fortunate to have a professional musician as a neighbour. During the summer months, he and his fellow musicians rehearsed several times in his front yard to my utter delight. Being serenaded by the melodic and uplifting strains of Django Reinhardt eased the withdrawal of living in a cultural desert.
It amazes me how the performing arts can give one deeper insight into the realities of what it means to be human. Evocative performance allows us to tap into a secret part of ourselves and fulfills that universal human need to connect with those who share our passions. When I attend any performance, the moment before it starts, I take a deep breath as if I’m about to dive off a cliff into an unknown void. It’s an edge-of-my-seat leap of faith, like Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone signpost up ahead, warning of potential intellectual and emotional hazards and adventure. Proceed at my own caution.
Live performances are drenched in a sense of danger. Artists walk a high wire providing audiences with a sense that anything can, and sometimes does, happen. No one wants anything to go wrong, but it’s that very possibility that makes the whole experience come to life. Will the aging actor be able to carry out that demanding stunt? Will that elephant or camel poop on stage? (If you were lucky enough to see a live performance of Verdi’s opera Aida.) Will that rock star survive the running jump off those 15-foot speakers? What happens if that dancer sprains her ankle? Will the magician be able to put the woman together again? Will that diva still be able to hit the high notes? What happens if that actor forgets lines in a one-person show? Will that joke land with a thud and envelop the club in that awful sound of silence?
I enjoy recorded film, TV and music, but they are not the same. Recorded performing arts are like a frozen entree – yummy, but wouldn’t you rather have the steaming, five-course meal straight out of the kitchen? That’s what live performing arts are like to me.
Performing artists can relieve us, if sometimes only fleetingly, of loneliness, emptiness, fear, anxiety and sadness. They help us complete ourselves, and embody the best of humankind’s potential. Artists and their audiences are two halves of a whole and can’t fully exist without each other. As a member of the audience, not much compares to the explosion of joy erupting from a standing ovation. And no one enjoys the awkward, trudging silence toward the exit signs of disappointed spectators.
For many, the performing arts acts as a life preserver. It empowers innumerable people with the strength to go on when all seems lost. And performing artists are hurting, too, not just financially because they are not able to perform, but they need their beloved audiences, they are the lifeblood of performance. We can also never forget the unsung cultural heroes working off-stage whose dedication and creativity allows the on-stage artists to bring the art to life, and into all our lives.
I did not truly understand how important the performing arts were to me until this COVID-19 cut-off. The silver lining to the pandemic is that, by being denied many artists' gifts for so long, audiences can now properly appreciate how much performing artists mean to our lives. Anyone who doubted the veracity of the proverb that absence makes the heart grow fonder, doubts no more.
To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Juliet, parting was such sweet sorrow. Reuniting will be sweet joy.
Jeffrey Morry lives in Winnipeg.
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