In contemplating Lessons From Live Performance, I had to think for a while about what I thought a “live performance” is. I’ve performed as a musician from marching bands to concert choirs to various incarnations of what we used to call “acoustic-country-rock-sci-fi”. I’ve also given talks and told stories ranging across topics from the highly technical to the flat out silly. So, what makes something a live performance? I just finished our Zoom meditation group. Since we can’t meet right now for safety reasons, we have been holding our weekly Buddhist practice online. It is a different dynamic but, I will argue, the talk I just gave on cultural traditions of solstice celebrations was quite “live”-it just wasn’t physically in-person. I’ve also done live radio and live television and there are two qualities of all of these forms that make them “live”. One is that they happen in real-time. They are a flow of events that play-out in a succession of “nows” and they show up as they are spontaneously created; no do-overs. The other is that they involve an audience. It is not live performance if it isn’t performed for other humans. We can debate what acting for the camera is “well, it’s live when I say the lines and look in the lens even if the audience won’t see it till later…” but for this blog, I’m going to assert the prerogative of the writer and make these two rules: 1. Real Time, 2. Living beings in a group experiencing it in that same real-time.
Once I got to this, what struck me was that the biggest lesson I’ve ever learned from live performance-my own and others’-is that effectiveness depends entirely on establishing, containing and maintaining a field of mutual consciousness between the performer(s) and the audience. Of interest to me was that when I tried to argue with the premise to include other kinds of “presented content”-i.e., recorded, I lost the argument. It takes energy to do that too but it is entirely different in quality. It comes from a different place, a different part of the mind and body.
My Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, coined the term “interbeing” to express the reality that nothing in the universe possesses a separate existence. If you want to run the thought experiment, remove the sunlight from the plants and animals that fed your Great-Great-Great Grandmother. You will immediately cease to exist. You, in fact, cannot exist separately from those photons. It turns out everything has this nature of interbeing-maybe a topic for another day-but one big lesson from great live performance is that the performer is hyper-aware of this nature between herself and her audience. So, I will point out three insights that smacked me upside the head and fit together like Matryoshka dolls.
Insight one is the present, top of mind, always there and never flagging realization: “we are in this together”. I once worked with a very famous singer who suffered almost crippling stage fright. The only way to get her past it was to literally shove her from the wings into the spot-when she immediately relaxed and always did great. She said of this weird dichotomy “When I think about THEM backstage, they scare me. Once I’m out there, it’s only US.”
The second insight is “we are in this together and it is my responsibility to keep us together”. I really don’t care for the new-age glibness of the term “holding a space”, but that’s truly what a great live performer does. It’s more than good mic technique, making eye contact and timing your pauses, it has a physical component. It feels like there is a muscle in your body that is exerting effort to broadcast an invisible field of “us-ness” that keeps everyone supported and engaged. It requires the performer to accept unconditional responsibility and be prepared and well-nourished enough in mind body and spirit to go the distance. In was backstage once at the Universal Amphitheater in California talking with another very well-known musician who, at one point in our conversation, began to jump straight up and down. I asked if he wanted me to leave. He said, “No, I’m just charging up.” It made sense.
The third is “we are in this together, it is my responsibility to keep us together, and right here/right now we are in love.” Yep. The L word. I simply don’t have a better one to define the quality of this dynamic relationship. When you are on stage and that magic happens-when the audience suspends disbelief and goes with the story, feels the tight vocal harmony, or emotionally resonates with the key point of a talk, it is a moment of profound mutual respect, understanding, compassion, joy and equanimity. Those qualities combined are love embodied in space-time and you are in it together. I call that Sacred Space. It can be conjured in a theater full of thousands or in a dialogue with a single person. It is the quality of the moment- the absolute connection and the dissolution of the boundaries between the performer and the audience that ignite the magic. You may not LIKE everyone in your audience, but if you are going to go onto that stage, you had better fall in love.
I am certain that teachers are masters of this. A lot of parents figure it out. All of my “good bosses” got it and the bad ones didn’t. Is my transaction with the cashier at the grocery store a moment of live performance? How about my greeting to someone down on their luck that accompanies the five dollar bill I am offering? I don’t know, but the lesson points toward the possibility that these moments of engagement and perhaps all of our interactions with each other could benefit by the care exacted from a performer who undertakes the responsibility of making a sacred space and then steps out into the spotlight.