On Performance

The difference between music played from record and music played live is, or should be, the human elements: spontaneity, invention, emotional immediacy. A good record can be wonderful company, its unchanging nature a great comfort - knowing you can return to it, an old friend, and avail yourself of its familiar charms. And it may seem to change, a little, as you change. The act or manner of your receiving it is altered as you are through time, but the recording is a static object.

A great majority of my relationships with art are of this nature. The books, films, paintings etc. that I love, like the records, don’t change. I change, my perception of them changes, and there’s value in that evolution; one can see oneself reflected in it. How you relate to a book differently to how you once did. What a painting used to mean to you. What you thought a movie was about.

Like performed music, the life of a piece of theatre exists in its human elements and is amplified by uniqueness. Where an academic career in literature nurtured in me the love of the word as written—of text—it has primarily been the decade-plus I have spent working in theatre that has convinced me, slowly but incontrovertibly, of the unique power of performed art.

There was a seed sown maybe at undergraduate level, when I first started reading Samuel Beckett. There is much in Beckett to love on the page: he is lyrical, supremely intelligent, wickedly funny, and can be hauntingly insightful. However, studying the plays alongside the novels and poetry, I began to discern the unique ability of performance to deliver something that even the most beautifully constructed paragraphs of text could not. At their core, perhaps necessarily, my most cherished experiences with texts are cerebral: the thrill of having a new point of view revealed to you, of being transported mentally to another set of circumstances, of becoming acquainted with persons entirely constructed by you, the reader, in collusion with a remote author—the atomic elements of which construction a mere 26 characters and attendant squiggles and dots of punctuation—all this remains something akin to magic in my mind. But there are things that the printed word cannot do.

The mere fact of having a living human being take the stage before you is enough to start firing up empathic impulses that even the most beautifully written first-person narratives can’t reach. Taking that as a starting point the stakes of live performance are exponentially higher, and the potential rewards more visceral, more immediate, less cognitively and more limbically driven. I have long loved film, which seems to fall here at some kind of half-way point: recorded media with a human face. As with recorded music there’s the luxury of replayability, of examining at one’s leisure the minutiae of a performance, and marvelling at the artistry by which it is heightened: camera angle and motion, editing, sound design…. All of which, again, is an exercise in appreciation at a remove that retains great value. But I have found some of the thrill of theatre also to be contained in the knowledge that what one is witnessing is happening in the manner in which one is witnessing it precisely once. No two performances will be the same, no two encounters between you as audience and the performer will be identical. Partly yes, as with the books and the paintings, you’ll carry something into the exchange on a subsequent occasion that wasn’t there the first time around, but also this in front of you is another full person, adding to the equation their own infinity of potential, broadening out the horizon of possibilities as to what might happen between you in the course of the thing to unknowable, dizzying dimensions unfathomable in the case of safe, unchanging works of static, non-performed art.