On live performance
Last week, I attended a performance of the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Swan Lake. Alone. Of course, I didn’t intend on going alone. I was going to go with a friend for lack of something better to do, and standing room tickets were only twelve dollars. But a meeting went long, and by the time it was my turn to buy the last-minute tickets, there was only one left. There were also many others queued up behind me. Feeling that the tickets were worth more than twelve dollars, I bought them without considering that I’d really have to go.
Growing up, I attended many live performances, as it was my mother’s idea of Western culture. Musicals, concerts, operas, plays, and ballets. Mostly musicals though, because that’s what my mother liked. Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, Cats, The Sound of Music, Les Mis, or Grease; if you name a classical musical, chances are I’ve seen it. I had fun going downtown to watch these performances. In fairness, many things are fun to a kid. I would have likely had a similar amount of fun watching television or spending twenty bucks at the arcade. A certain part of the fun was also the ritual of it all: we’d get dressed, we’d have to drive into the city, we’d be led into our plush seats, and we’d clap for as long as we wanted when it was over.
However, I have a hard time seeing the value of live performance as an adult. Aren’t films more refined and stimulating than theatrical productions? Aren’t concert experiences subject to the whims of other attendees and the mood of the artist? Isn’t the view from the televised version of a sports event superior to that of nosebleed upper bowl seats? They became even more of a rarity when I started having to pay my own way, and realized that the value I derived from them was quite removed from the cost of attending. It was free to watch Les Mis at home, fifteen dollars to watch it in cinemas, and two hundred and fifty for passable seats to the Toronto production. Music is almost always free but paying to see the artist perform it is also prohibitively expensive. It’s funny that it’s free to listen to music, but one must pay to see it.
It is undeniable that a large part of the appeal of live performance is its exclusivity, that not everyone can see it, that it’s not as simple as replaying digital media in the comfort of one’s living room. Rather, a spectator must crowd into a packed venue with hundreds of others, some who have traveled long and far to arrive there. Tickets are often scarce, available only to those who’ve stayed up all night to beat the bots, lined up for hours to overcome the crowds, or coughed up even more money to scalpers. This sense of uniqueness appeals to us because not everyone can afford the time or money, and doing so sets us apart. It takes a special sort of fan, or someone with a particularly distinguished taste to want to do so.
From this point of view, that attending live performance is simply an exaggerated form of conspicuous consumption, perhaps I am right to view it disparagingly. Like luxury cars, fine dining, and leisure travel, it’s ridiculous to do simply to keep up with appearances. If someone has themselves convinced that they derive pleasure from this sort of consumption, a smooth ride, a refined meal, a different scenery, then it makes sense to participate. But if the sole reason was to be able to stir envy in passerby, to tell their friends that they’ve done so, and to post on social media, it certainly isn’t. Granted, most people lie somewhere between these two extremes, and it’s up to them to decide if their consumption is mostly an attempt to enjoy their short time on this planet or a need to spend it in the rat race.
I once had a friend describe a concert to me as a religious experience. As someone who has admitted to not valuing live performance and professes a strong sense of atheism, this statement carries the exact opposite message to someone who is a Belieber and a believer. The appeal of live performance is certainly religious in its irrationalism, its fanaticism, and its spiritualism. With advancements in technology, watching a recorded performance at home, or even one streamed live is much more economical, sustainable, and comfortable. The only people who are willing to spend the time, money, and energy to see a play, concert, or sporting event live have a certain bit of fanaticism to them.
For these people, there is more to the event then simply the story, music, or game, there’s a need to be there, a certain unquantifiable thirst that’s quenched. However, deeming it irrational doesn’t deny its validity or value. Enjoying the physical presence of their deities, breathing the same rarified air with hundreds of other adoring fans, these elevate the experience to something that could not be enjoyed from a couch. It’s certainly unfair to paint all live performance with the same brush, but the motivations behind them are similar. Just like religion demands active participation, the appeal of a live performance cannot be logically explained. You just had to be there.
When I walk into live performances these days, particularly musicals, I imagine I feel the same way as someone who was raised religious, but no longer practices. I managed to have a great time at Swan Lake, despite standing for two hours. Everything was extraordinarily choreographed and performed. The two-page summary contained in the programme reminded me of everything I needed to know about the plot. The dancers and orchestra were excellent, but I suppose much would have been to my uninitiated eye.
There were small things I learned to enjoy, like recognizing that a happy jig the prince performed was to convey his joy. It was thrilling to see twenty ballerinas moving to music in perfect lockstep, and the spectacle of the costume design. It was also undeniable that the exclusivity of a live performance contributed to my enjoyment, knowing that this exact performance, with its cast and slight variations would be only enjoyed once, on that night. That thousands of hours of cumulative work went into preparing this performance, and it was for my enjoyment. And for the enjoyment of the rest of the people who bought full price tickets of course.
For now, I’m content with standing tickets and rush tickets. I think a large part of my gratification still derives from the exclusivity of the experience, and not enough from the experience itself. To start enjoying full-priced seated tickets, I’d need to either make more money or enjoy the shows more. Ironically, it seems that the only way to do so is to continue watching live performances.