Long live the clowns. Long live the clowns and the jugglers and fire-eaters and dancers. Long live the trapeze artists and acrobats and magicians. Long live all the live performers who entertain us on the stage and street. It seems they are all going to die.
A eulogy is sad celebration, but who among us can say that we were surprised when Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D., author of 2011 Career Plan, 200 Best Jobs for Introverts, 250 Best-Paying Jobs, 150 Best Jobs for a Better World, Best Jobs for the 21st Century, et al., recently announced that “stage performer” is a dying profession in America. We were not surprised. We’ve been living in an increasingly automated world for more than a century now. We’ve grown to expect, without much resistance, that modernity will continue to turn professions we once held dear into anachronisms. Some of us, we know, will be replaced by machines altogether. Many of us already have. Truth be told, this relationship between man and machine has existed for thousands of years — the baker has long needed the oven, the sailor has needed the boat. As boats and ovens became less human- dependent, the roles of baker and sailor have slowly declined.
So none of us was particularly startled to learn that live stage performing has experienced a steep five-year decline of 61 percent because we are more amused by movies, television, and all manner of recorded diversion that we can watch on machines. The vast abundance of personal technologies has made it easier than we could have ever imagined to access entertainment. Movies and television, yes, but also YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, video games, etc., etc. All of these technologies offer entertainment that is more accessible, more streamlined, easier to share, to talk about, to interact with. At the same time, mainstream theatre, dance, and performance have gotten costlier, less abundant, and certainly less interactive.
It’s never been easy to argue for the value of live performance. How much do you pay for an experience, for something completely intangible: human interaction? A magic trick is not a can of peas. A pirouette is not a product. A performance is just a person, creating an experience for other people, making them laugh, making them gasp, annoying them, delighting them. If the performance no longer brings us pleasure, it will not have a paying audience. Without an audience, live performers cannot, do not, exist.
It might be hard for us to decide whether a video game is more valuable than a clown. But you will get a definitive answer if you ask a clown. For no one is more entertained by a performance than the performer. There is something that happens to a performer when they are right there, standing in front of you, exposed, giving, wanting. It’s an experience that’s not easy to describe — something akin to throwing up and singing at the same time. The unique quality of the performing experience may often be more visceral for the performer than it is for the audience, yet a good performer throws this energy right back to the audience. I can’t tell you whether a video game is funnier than a clown. But you can’t regard one as a true substitute for the other.
When you watch performers in a movie, for instance, you’re never watching a performance that is anything like a live one; you’re watching a carefully designed balance of performer, milieu, music, editing. A scene that takes you two minutes to watch can take months to make. A performer starts and stops, will act out the end of the movie today, and the beginning next week. For an audience, these little bits of recorded performance come together in a cohesive, perfected viewing experience. The audience need not suffer through forgotten lines or cracked high notes or stage fright. At home, audiences can even speed up or slow down a performance, or put off the punch line until the following day. The weird thing is, while an audience enjoys the complete and integral experience of a recorded performance, it is an experience the performer himself does not have. For the performer, the experience of acting in a movie or television show is fragmented. This is much different from a live performance, where time moves with the performer “in the moment.” Whereas, in a live performance, there’s a symbiotic relationship between audience and performer, in a recorded performance, audience and performer are divorced from each other, unreal to each other.
For the viewers, the relationship between them and the television or YouTube or DVD player might be stronger than the one between the viewer and the performer, because it feels as if they have more control. The lack of personal contact may be almost comforting. Heaven knows, it can be more comforting for the performer as well. Performers need not suffer through forgotten lines or cracked high notes or stage fright. Performers, too, enjoy the amazing and significant benefits of recorded entertainment. When director and editor weave together the broken pieces of a performance, they can create a complex effect that the performer could never accomplish live. It can be fun to get that perfect take, to feel that you are giving an audience your very best every time. Being at the mercy, night after night, of a revolving audience whose judgment you cannot escape can be emotionally and physically grueling. Perhaps this shifting trend away from live performance will even be an unintended boon to those artists and writers who are forced unwillingly into performance as a promotional tool. (Milton Babbitt once said composers would do themselves and their music a favor by “total, resolute and voluntary withdrawal” from the public world.)
Yet, from the perspective of the performer, with the ease comes an undeniable loss. The death of stage performing isn’t just the loss of a profession—it is the loss of an entire form of experience. Nothing else has the feeling of standing on that precipice between failure and success — the puddle of sweat at the small of the back, the fluttering heartbeat, the tingling knees; to experience that moment when everything just might fall apart and probably should and you know it will, but then it doesn’t. The magic enchants, the joke is funny, the song is transcendent. Nothing else feels like that embarrassing, thrilling freefall into disaster, the old roar of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd, a tragedy or comedy that could happen anywhere, at any moment, for anyone, because all a play really needs is a player. A performer is just a person, creating an experience, and embodying an experience.
There is no question that we value a job because of its overall worth to society. But jobs are also of value to the people who do them. Making jobs more efficient and easier doesn’t always make them more meaningful. So live performance may not delight us anymore, but it does matter. Performance matters to performers themselves. • 24 March 2011