Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Listener's Power

I love the film Topsy Turvy, by Mike Leigh. It's about Gilbert & Sullivan and their creation of the Mikado. In the lead-up to Gilbert finding the subject matter for the Mikado, the cast of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company are struggling through a summer run of the ailing Princess Ida in the middle of a London heat wave. Two of the male leads chat in their dressing room after a particularly hot performance:

Mr. Temple: My voice, my voice. I've strained my voice. I've been trying too hard. The smaller the house, the greater the effort. I'm very cross with myself. I should know better. One is knocking one's pipes out in a vain attempt to elicit a response from three colonial bishops, two elderly ladies and an intoxicated costermonger! They're all roasting their own lard like the Christmas goose!

Mr. Lely: Yes, and the costermonger left at the interval.

Mr. Temple: Did he?

Mr. Lely: Mmm.

Mr. Temple: A man of infinite taste, clearly.

No matter how many times I see this film, I always get a kick out of this exchange between two artists commiserating over their failure to reach their audience.

What happens when no one listens?

I recently played a benefit gig where I was asked to sing a few songs between courses at a dinner. The room was small, the organizers assured me, and there would be no need for a sound system.

What they did not take into consideration was that there would not be a listening audience.

It's an awkward thing when one has been asked to sing, but the audience is not interested in listening. I had a number of friends in the audience who backed me up with shushing, clapping and cheers, and I have plenty of experience playing in bars and restaurants where no one wants to listen, but it was still all I could do to fight my way through a handful of songs - especially since I was unplugged and recovering from a cold.

The audience has the power to co-create each performance – or not

Do you ever think about that when you go out to hear live music, or a play, or a poetry reading? Or perhaps you have gone out to dinner, only to discover that it's open mic night at the local bistro. By listening intently and meaningfully, the audience expands their experience of the performer(s). If you try to tune into it, you'll start to feel the connection between the performer and yourself, yourself and the rest of the audience. There is a magic to it; a magic that blesses the best shows.

I've had this experience countless times, both as a performer and as an audience member. I love to listen as much as I love to sing and I go to performances of all kinds with my heart wide open. I love to feel that I am part of a shared experience with everyone in the room, performer and audience alike. I see it as an opportunity for communion.

A couple of examples leap to mind

Many years ago, in my early 20s, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Bernie Siegel, the oncologist and writer, speak at a conference. Years later, that talk is still seared into my mind. I felt as if he were speaking only to me, while at the same time knowing that almost everyone in the room must be feeling the same way.

More recently, I went to see Hawksley Workman perform at Massey Hall. Hawksley had a cold and was well dosed with cough drops and Sudafed. Half way through the show, the amplification cut out. Hawksely and his band continued playing, unplugged. Everyone in that sold-out audience was absolutely silent, to catch the sweetness of their fragility and courage. I was weeping and I bet a lot of other people were too. When the audience joined in on the chorus, there was an unforgettable sense of oneness. We were with Hawksley and with one another. Brave and defiant and gentle, undeterred by germs or mechanical failure.

This sense of communion is one of the reasons I love music shows at the West Dublin Hall. In addition to the ambiance and acoustics, the people who come to hear shows there really know how to be an audience. They come with their hearts and ears open. They know that there will be plenty of time to chat at the break and during the sets they listen, laugh, think, love and sometimes cry.

How to get the most out of every live performance experience

The next time you are out at a play, concert, poetry reading or talk, imagine that the performer is one of your best friends, about to tell you a treasured secret. Open your heart to receive and cherish what they have to say. Or, at the very least, imagine yourself in the performer's shoes and show respect for their courage in the same measure that you would like them to show it to you if your roles were reversed. I guarantee that you will hear interesting things that you would not otherwise hear.

It could change your life.

It has changed mine.

PS: The next times to participate in the magic at the West Dublin Hall are July 5, 2013, 8pm: Pennybrook's Tour and CD Launch and July 13, 2013, 8pm: Dana Beeler and Jordan Cameron.
E-mail me to reserve advanced tickets: mail[at]alexsings[dot]ca.

Alex Hickey is a Nova Scotian singer-songwriter and champion audience member. Her Web site is 

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