The reward of all high performance must be sought within itself, or sought in vain.
There are moments of experience in a live performance which are transcendent. Though there is never anything ordinary about the performing arts, there are times when the scroll of the expected rolls back and reveals an unexpected and indescribable lifting up into a higher level, an inspiration beyond what is already there woven into the performance. The actor, singer, dancer is taken over by it and the performance appears to be happening on it's own, with the performer there to provide the voice and body. If you are in attendance at one of those moments, either on the stage or in the audience, you are invited into an experience the memory of which you will never forget. It may last for a few seconds or an hour, but for the time it lasts it is as if the world, with all its complications, has been left behind and you have been transported to the place where genius lives.
It can be experienced in a live performance. You may see strokes of excellence in a film or a recording but it is not the same. For one thing, you weren't there when it happened and for another you know what to expect. You know what to expect because the piece has been edited, shots have been taken over again and spliced together, music has been added and other elements have been involved in the final production. You are not facing the live, flesh and blood performer at the same moment in the same room. There is no substitute for that. Every actor I know has experienced those moments and yearns for them. That kind of inspiration is what all the hard work is for.
I made a series of appearances one month on the soap opera All My Children and on my last day of work, when my character was disappearing from the story, the three full time actors I had been working with wanted to take me out for a drink. I had to decline because I was in rehearsal for a workshop production elsewhere. It was a small, non paying, invited audience production. But when I told them they looked at me with envy and sadness, and one of them said "You're in a play??!!" Those actors had high paying steady jobs, but they never got to set foot on the stage.
I have had the great good fortune to have been in the audience during some of those magical moments: including: Paul Scofield in A Man For All Season on Broadway, The Newport Jazz Festival jamming in Carnegie Hall at about two o'clock in the morning, Rudolf Nueyev in the last act of Sleeping Beauty with the New York City Ballet, Mabel Mercer at the Cafe Carlisle when she sang "Both Sides Now,' Placido Domingo in Die Walkure at the Metroplitan Opera (about which Bernard Holland, the music critic of the New York Times, wrote that if you were at that performance you were in the presence of the stuff of legend), Percy Sledge at the band shell in Damrosch Park (which I have written about), The clown Otto Griebling, opening act of the Ringling Brothers Circus, Madison Square Garden, The Los Angeles Philharmonic performing the Symphony number 2 by Brahms at Carnegie Hall. These and others are all moments in my memory when I was taken by the heart and mind and lifted up into a spiritual place.
And I've had my own experiences over the years. The first one I remember was in a one character silent play by Samuel Beckett, the play and the role had taken over so completely I forgot there was an audience. I was startled when the applause came. When it was over I wondered what it was that had happened to me. Another time was the opening night of A View From The Bridge in New York when at the final moments the role took over. During one performance of Seymour, a play by Joe Pintauro, Off-Broadway in New York I gradually became aware of the audience because they were totally silent. I had been somewhere else and they came along. I could cite other examples.
But the point is this, enjoy your films, recordings and CDs, you may even witness inspiring performances, but it is not the same . You have to be in the same space. It may even be a live broadcast you see, but it is still not the same. You have to be where the performer is, either in the audience or on the stage, in order to really go on the journey.
I have asked some of my actor friends who have been on the journey to contribute their own thoughts, feelings, experiences and wisdom to this article. Please read on and enjoy what they have to say.
My dear DB -- you requested my experiences which transcended the ordinary performances which I have seen and been a part of in my career. Years ago in Cambridge I witnessed Robert Morse in "Tru" which as you know, is the fictionalized version of an evening in the life of Truman Capote. Watching Mr. Morse was an experience which has never been duplicated in my experience. It was truly a magical evening and gave meaning to the word artist as applicable to an actor.
I watched Rudolph Nureyev (sp?) in "Don Quixote" and was transported to another world and knew that humans were capable of transforming themselves into gods and goddesses.
I recall sitting on the stage because the house was packed listening to Bobby Short in Provincetown many years ago hearing him perform "Sand in my Shoes" and a medley of Cole Porter and knowing that this was a man I wanted to spend my life with or in lieu of that just listening to him sing. I soon learned that even spending one evening with Mr. Short was never an option.
As for my own experience in performance I can recall only one evening in the play "Adam and the Experts" which deals with Aids in which my character Ensemble Woman gives a speech which starts out rather comedic but then quickly turns into sorrow as she recalls the death of her only son. The audience was silent and then burst into applause at the end of my monologue. Apparently tears were streaming down my face of which I was unaware.
instances of inspiration and truth - and why
Father coming for a son without knowing his sonny boy's a man. *Old
Mahone's first entrance "Playboy of the Western 'World"
I was trying to find my way to get into Old Mahone, banging sticks
against trees, finally finding a good strong staff, and then
approaching the top of the amphitheater prior to descending, suddenly
realizing that the son I had come to find, and drag back home had
killed me with that last shovel blow to the head - I was a ghost, and
he was forever a man. My father always called me "Sonny Boy, stand
straight, you don't see me slouching. He was a hearty barrel chested
Swiss - met my mom on Mount Hood, where he was guide and carpenter.
Coming to an absolute certainty before entering the cell that I had
been proven by the death of a soldier that I was not able to do the
job I had sworn to do, protect, and only someone else or something
else could. *A Few Good Men"
After a terrible day teaching, feeling wholly inadequate to fulfill
the great need of students dependent on me, backstage my hands were
icy before our opening, and I was almost unable to be still at one
moment, or move for being frozen the next - five minutes, four
minutes, three minutes before needing to enter, I tried to breathe and
accept that I couldn't control what I was feeling, and as I stretched
out my body, I found myself becoming the dedicated, patriotic Captain
Matthew Andrew Markinson, acknowledging I could no longer do the job I
was hired to do, admitting my disillusion and despair, and made my
I agree with the transcendent moments of a live performance. I have always taught my acting students that there are four main components in training the actor's instrument. The head (intellect) the heart, (emotion) the body, (physical) and the soul,(spiritual). Most acting performances you see have plenty of the first three, but when you see a performance that includes the soaring away of the spiritual, something happens that takes you to another place.
Several years ago, I saw an actress perform Nora in 'A Doll's House' by Ibsen, on Broadway in NYC, ( the name of the actress escapes me) who so embodied that role that people were weeping in the audience. I will never forget that moment, that role, and of course why Ibsen was well, Ibsen. Of course, a great play can offer the opportunity for an actor to find this 'transcendence' but it is up to the actor to find the channeling nature of the role. Stanislavsky, the great Russian acting teacher believed that an actor could reach this transcendence by an actual 'possession' of the spirit of this character, which I always thought was a radical notion. After experiencing this a few times on stage, it was still radical, but oh so true. Of course he also taught that within the technique he was teaching, if King Lear was going to 'possess' you on stage, you also needed to know how to 'let him go' at the end of the performance. (or at least when you left the theatre). When I read this about his technique, I was stunned. Yes, I thought, that is it! I want to do this!
I have also seen it at The Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City. I've seen actors who I believed were channeling Hamlet, (I saw Hamlet three times that year) and most recently Brian Vaughan's channeling of Henry the Fifth, (which is as spiritual play as you will witness). The reason Shakespeare is Shakespeare is because he offers this opportunity. When you have witnessed an actor who completely embodies character, then you understand the reason, as DB points out, why live performance is so vital and why it can change a person's actual life.
The play I am currently doing offers me that same opportunity. Because the play is so personal, it enables me to do it a little easier, because I am playing a transcended version of myself. Still, on several occasions when I have done the play, I don't become aware of 'me' until the play is finished. Its almost as if I am taken to some alternative universe, and when I'm finished, I am not the same. Even though I've written the play, there are moments of discovery that lead me to believe that the material I have written was indeed guided by some fractured dimension of the universe. Yes, live performance is a vital part of our experience as humans, although we are becoming more and more disenfranchised from each other from all forms of communication that does not include the face to face encounter. It will be the undoing of our society and our culture if we continue to lose this personal connection.
Thanks to DB for bringing up this subject, it is important,
Raymond King Shurtz
Performer and Playwright
We will have to agree to disagree on this, my sweet and brilliant friend.
I believe that ALL of the arts are capable of taking both the artists and the patrons on a transcending ride. Whatever the medium may be, the ultimate goal is to suspend disbelief. One forgets what true reality they are existing in because they have been thoroughly transported to another.
I believe, for instance, that it is the ultimate goal in the recent breakthrough 3D technology of James Cameron's AVATAR. The objective is to put the audience right in the middle of the action like it's never been done before. Eventually we'll see holography succeed in doing this best of all.
Now, one would say, hasn't the "3D" of live theatre been doing just that since Ook, the caveman, told stories around the camp fire? Yes, of course. And if Ook's voice, his gestures, the content of his tale, all of the mediums available to him at the time, were used to the very best if his abilities, then he and his audience of fellow Neanderthals would have taken the same sort of ride that lots of Cameron's audiences are taking today.
Have I had transcendent experiences as an actor and audience member? You bet your "dollar bottom"! It is the very essence of why I continue to pursue my craft as well as patronize my local live venues, cineplexes, museums, jazz clubs, etc. Heaven knows, that despite the good year that I've had working in the theatre, it still is theatre, which, we know, for the most part, for the majority of us fortunates who are working, pays what it pays. A one day guest spot on a prime time one hour TV drama will pay you as much as you'd make in a month under some Equity contracts.
For me, some of my earliest memories of such transcending moments as an audience member were seeing Kirk Douglass slay the giant squid in Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA; seeing James Stewart being pushed out of the window by Raymond Burr in Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW; and seeing my first live theatre performance at my grade school when the 5th graders put on (are you ready for this.....) a minstrel show, when such things were still politically correct. I was all of 6, 7 years old during these examples. I was unjaded, unencrusted with some of the garbage that life forces you to face which can get in the way of one's ability to suspend disbelief.
On a musical note,THE BEATLES transported us. For many of us, it seems like we'll never have THAT kind of musical transcendence again in our lifetimes.
As an actor, playing "Fagin" in the last production of OLIVER! that I did at The Fulton Theatre in my hometown of Lancaster, PA, was a religious experience for me. I was in the original Broadway show as a 12 year old and now here I was playing a lead in a role that seems written for me....IN MY HOMETOWN!
The recent production of GUYS AND DOLLS that I did (my fourth) in which I played "Nathan", was another amazing example of a transcending experience. I've played that role three times and played "Benny Southstreet" once (which was the first time I did the show in 1995).
This most recent production was a reprise of the role of "Nathan" after 13 years of having done it at the very same venue, Cabrillo Musical Theatre For The Performing Arts.
I met and married my second wife at this theatre who was playing a "Hot Box Girl"
Since then, I'd done two other shows for them through the years, the last of which was in 2000 playing "Moonface Martin" in ANYTHING GOES. It was on the heals of my wife and I separating. We were BOTH cast in this show. She as an "Angel", one of "Reno Sweenys" back up girls, which was, basically, the same role she played as a "Hot Box Girl" from GUYS AND DOLLS, as was the role of "Moinface" being very much like "Nathan".
The experience was a disaster for me.
So, to finally work at this theatre again after 9 years and do a role that I feel I own, with a terrific cast; and to get reviews in which it's claimed that I was born to play this role, was a sort of redemption and made for a "perfect storm" of wonderfulness, if you will.
So, there are some of my thoughts. Hope you've been transcended.
What is the purpose of art? And does it have one? Is it l'art pour l'art? Art for art's sake? Schopenhauer thought it might be for redemption. Others have said it's a way of making order out of life's chaos, or harmonizing the errors of one's past. It may be all of those, or none. In the long run, I suppose it's up to the individual artist to determine why he does it. But the best explanation I've come across si that an artist is an artist because he has to be.
DB - Vagabond Journeys