September 30, 2003

Casting Call for Respectful Audiences

Filed under: Art and About Theater — admin @ 10:38 pm

Today’s lesson is on the importance of being a good audience member and, in particular, cultivating the next generation of audience members.

I’m not sure if those who choose to be in the audience of live theater and concert experiences fully realize how important they are to the success of a show. Performers and creative talents want people to buy tickets to their shows, but the ultimate goal is not to sell tickets so that the artsy types can get a beach house in Malibu. In actuality, those on the stage are only half of the equation in a theatrical experience. The audience makes up the other 50 percent.

It’s a big responsibility to be an audience member. I’m sure we’ve all been to a performance of some kind where the chemistry between performers and audiences was sadly incompatible and the whole thing felt flat. And we’ve seen performers with whom we connect so closely that at the end of the night, we feel like we could just pick up a conversation with them as if they were old friends.

It was during a recent music class in which my son and I participated that I got truly worried about how our children are being brought up to be bad audience members. We were in quite a large class of caretakers and toddlers and our teacher decided to do an exercise where each child gets a turn accompanying a song on the drum.

Because the class was large, the teacher gave the kids who were not playing the drum some shakers to beat time along with the drummer. For the first three or four kids, everyone respectfully sang along with the soloist and clapped encouragingly at the end. But as the drum was passed along the circle, more and more of the adults checked-out of the exercise. Some stopped singing and stared into space. Most turned to the person next to them and started talking about something that I’m sure was so important, it couldn’t possibly wait until the class was over. My kid happened to be at the tail end of the circle that day, and he and those three or four directly before him mostly got support from only their mothers and the teacher.

To me, this type of behavior is a bigger offense than simply being impolite. I believe it is being disrespectful to the arts. What kind of a message are you sending to my son, as a performer, by talking through his song and failing to clap when it’s over? You are saying there are more important things than his pursuit of creative expression. What are you saying to your own child about their role as a supporter of the arts? You are saying that unless they are the star, then their participation in the artistic process isn’t important.

This artistic felony is perpetrated by adults throughout our community. Every week at the Orinda Library’s toddler lapsit storytime, adults chat away while the librarian reads books and leads songs for our children. When was the last time you went to a show at the Lesher Center and people actually sat silently through the overture? Even at the San Francisco Symphony, some people seem to think that because a piano concerto or sonata for strings doesn’t have lyrics, then they have the right to talk through it. I’ve been on earth 31 short years, and I actually remember a time when, in a theatrical or concert setting, people shut up once the performance began. So in my non-scientific estimation, the degeneration of the audience’s perception of their role has happened within the last 30 years.

I’m not saying this is only a local problem. I have seen theater elsewhere in the Western world, and the trend is happening just about everywhere. But this is not an area where we need to keep up with the Joneses. We can be better supporters of the arts than the Joneses by changing the world one audience member at a time.

September 11, 2003

The Plays of Eugene O’Neill Could Be Music to My Ears

Filed under: Art and About Music — admin @ 2:44 pm

One of my favorite magical moments in the theater happened 10 years ago in London during a production of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” It was a good production of a good play where both the comedy and the love triangle were working well until a scene where Cyrano and his pals surprisingly and effortlessly transitioned from their dialogue into an a cappella barroom song about friendship. The camaraderie underscored by that song was heartfelt and inspiring. The number stopped the show. It was the only music in the play, and suddenly, the production went from good to fabulous for me.

I’m an auditory person. I can read a sentence a dozen times and not be able to tell you what it says, but speak it to me once and I’ll remember it forever. Most artforms don’t touch me at an emotional level unless they incorporate sound or music in some way. When the Gold Coast Chamber Players put a piece of artwork on stage that “illustrates” their music, that works for me. Cal Shakes has made a conscientious effort the last few seasons to use music in the plays as Shakespeare originally intended. He was a playwright who knew the way to an audience’s heart is often through their ears, but far too many Shakespeare companies drop the music from their productions.

But music’s power over me is about to be tested by the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House. A musical revue written and directed by Moraga resident and Saint Mary’s College professor Dan Cawthon will feature the songs that influenced O’Neill’s plays. “O’Neill: The Rhythms of His Soul” is at the Village Theatre in Danville as part of the Eugene O’Neill Festival 2003.

I didn’t know that O’Neill was a devotee of pop songs from the early twentieth century and that he used musical phrases to underscore scenes, set the mood or establish a character. O’Neill didn’t write the music himself, but he obviously understood that we all have a soundtrack for our lives, even the characters in a play. Cawthon notes that almost all the music to which O’Neill alludes in his 50 plays was written before 1914, the year he wrote his first play. Cawthon says O’Neill wasn’t drawing from the culture around him for inspiration, but rather calling forth “the music that shaped his soul.”

Suddenly, I find myself interested in a playwright who, up until now, I associated with extremely depressing plays and mandatory term paper assignments. Sure, I appreciate the Nobel prize and four Pulitzers he won. I understand the historical impact he made by elevating the status of American dramas to a respected place on the world stage. In search of connecting with the lauded playwright, I’ve written two stories over the years about the high school artistic talents who spend time studying at Tao House, O’Neill’s Danville home. I thought by shadowing others walking in his footsteps, I too might come to feel his greatness. Nope. I can’t seem to connect with his material on an emotional level, and for me, that makes for an unsatisfying theatrical experience.

Now I learn that O’Neill loved the tunes of composer George M. Cohan, and one of his favorite songs was “Shenandoah.” Well, old Eugene and I finally have something to talk about over a beer.

Cawthon has based his revue on an O’Neill songbook compiled by UC Berkeley professor Travis Bogard. Four vocalists explore themes whose titles alone evoke the mood of O’Neill’s work — the American Dream, the Sea, the Barroom, Romance, Ireland, the South, Songs for the Misbegotten, and a collection of hymns entitled “Behind Life.”

An evening of music from O’Neill’s point of view may be just what I need to be re-introduced to an American treasure and begin our relationship anew on common ground. Or it could just be a great night of music.