The artiste scouting the opposition - note the crafty disguise
Several years ago, I did a show on a Sunday afternoon in late fall at some library in central New Jersey (nope, can’t remember where). There were a couple of hundred people there – a pretty good turnout for a library. The show went really well. I had a great time, and so did the audience.
Still, as I drove home in the late afternoon, headed up the New Jersey Turnpike, I lamented that there weren’t more people there. I was sure there were people in the area that would have really enjoyed it if they had bothered to come.
I thought these thoughts as I approached the Meadowlands stadium. From the highway, I could see the lights were on. The Giants or the Jets were playing. I could almost hear the roar of the crowd from several miles away. Seventy thousand people, some of them so far away from the field they would need good binoculars to have any idea of what was going on down there.
What’s that about? Stupid football, I thought.
“Surely,” I said out loud to no one, “there are five hundred people there who would have had a better time at my show. Somebody there is miserable and cold and hates football and detests the drunk person next to them. They should have come to see me. It would have meant more.”
I know it would have meant more to me than to whomever the tight end was for the New York Jets.
I’ve often thought that about the arts – why don’t we attract audiences like sporting events? How do we get people in the seats?
The issue of getting audiences into arts events is a very large question with many different aspects, but as far it relates to the question of why arts don’t get the crowds sports do, I got a little bit of an answer this week at Fenway Park.
My wife Debbie got me tickets for the Red Sox for my birthday. We go to, maybe, one game a year. It’s expensive, it’s a hassle. I can watch it on television. I’m annoyed at the hoopla and adulation and egos and expenditure of public funds. Sports fans can be real idiots, mistaking their team’s victory for some personal accomplishment, and thinking it actually has something to do with what God thinks about.
But they were great seats. The best seats I’ve ever had for a Red Sox game. (I don’t want to know how much they cost – it was my birthday). You might have even seen me on TV – I was wearing a clown wig and holding up “John 3:16”.
There were, as usual at Fenway, over 37,000 people there. As there were the night before, and the night after that. Eighty two times a summer – 37,000 people.
Crowd at a typical Bill Harley concert, er, I mean Red Sox game
It’s just a baseball game, for Pete’s sake!
But it was a great game. The crowd was a huge living thing and I was part of it. In spite of myself. What struck me about the crowd, too, was how expressive and emotional they were. More so than at any arts event I’ve been to lately. We talked with everyone around us. We laughed. And we sat at the edge of our seats. We all rose as one when Ortiz hit a HUGE home run, and stood as one when Papelbon, after almost blowing a save, struck out the last batter. It was, while not of great importance, a cathartic experience, and we left completely satisfied.
Of course, it helped that it was close and the Sox won. Some games are realllllly borrrrrring.
But I think this is one of the reasons that many people go: We don’t know what’s going to happen.
I am struck by the notion that athletes don’t know what’s going to happen either. They are acting out a drama to which there is no known outcome. They don’t know if they’re going to get a hit, or if the catcher will throw them out when they try to steal second, or if the game will go into extra innings and they won’t finish until two in the morning. They are trying to do things that are hard to do, and they might fail. In front of 37,000 people.
And, maybe even more interestingly, they are not trying to make the audience feel anything (and the arts is about the communication of feeling and ideas). All they’re trying to do is succeed. And we watch and feel ourselves. While the game (or agon in the Classical sense – from which we get the agony of defeat!) doesn’t matter – the striving is real. We sense their tension and anticipation and despair and joy. And we feel it, too. And all those other people feeling a similar thing encourage it in us. We are, after all, a group animal. Suddenly, we care.
I’m not saying this never happens in arts – it’s what performers are always working towards – when a group of musicians reach some kind of communion that raises their performance to another level, or an acting troupe presents something in a way they’ve never quite done before, the audience senses and is deeply moved. But it’s harder to reach it, and there’s a critical aspect of our minds that must be dealt with and overcome.
As a performer, I’m always aware, challenging myself to be so present, so much in the moment, that I bring the audience along. And I want them to experience something together –as a group.
Sports has an easier time of that.
Yeah, Springsteen can fill the Meadowlands with 70,000 people. He’s a great performer – maybe, to my mind, the best performer out there. But even the Boss couldn’t do it eight times in the space of three months.
There’s a lot of reasons why, but one of them is that the drama of sports is real.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my job.
But second base for the Red Sox would be good, too. Let me know if Pedroia gets hurt.
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