On the vagaries of performance perception

Last night we saw Feist play at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne. It was a seated show and we got tickets quite late, ended up high in the balcony.

Feist is an amazing performer and by all accounts the show was fantastic: great renditions of her songs, a very tight and accomplished band, fun audience interaction, great stage presence, excellent sound quality, wonderful music. I could tell, objectively, that the show was fantastic.

Subjectively it was a different story. K and I came out of the show feeling angry, disappointed, upset. Why? Because of the lighting setup. “Really?” you say, “you were that upset by the lighting at a gig?” This sounds churlish I know, but hear me out.

In any normal circumstance I wouldn’t pay any attention to the lighting at a gig. But for this gig, someone, somewhere, had made a decision: there would be lots and lots of silhouette effect, through the use of a little smoke from a smoke machine and some backlighting on stage. That’s fine — I like a good silhouette as much as the next guy: it can be exciting, dramatic — but this decision came with a pretty serious drawback for people sitting in our particular (numbered seat) position:

The lights, when on, shone directly in our eyes. The entire time. The lights flashed at regular intervals. They changed colour. I don’t know if you’ve spent much time on stage (I have a little), but stage lights are bright. Sun reflecting off snow bright. High-beam headlight bright.

It is a testament to the quality of Feist’s performance that we stayed at all. We managed to cope by sometimes wearing sunglasses, or turning away and closing our eyes at very regular intervals. Our experience of the show (which should have been about the experience of the performance), became the experience of trying to enjoy the show despite the unnerving nature of the lights in our eyes. Just when we were getting in to a great version of a song, we’d get a blast of bright light straight in the face, along with the resulting retinal after-image which affected our vision even when the lights were off. The best parts of the show were the songs where they didn’t use the backlight, but I spent a lot of that time preparing to shut my eyes again quickly or turn away when the next light came on.

It seems ridiculous. I feel like an old curmudgeon, complaining about lighting at a gig. In many ways, the fact that it was ‘only’ the lighting makes it worse: if it was a bad performance at least I could say “well, not every performance is good, maybe she had an off night” . I’ve been to bad shows, ones that I was particularly excited about (including the infamous Cat Power show at the Corner Hotel where she didn’t even finish a song). But this wasn’t a bad show, it was a ruined experience. As I said, by any objective metric the show was wonderful. We shouldhave walked out elated, enriched. But we didn’t.

* * *

This points to a peculiar issue when it comes to recording and archiving live performances: that the experiential memory of a spectator — “the spectator’s more or less distracted perception” 1 —  can be at odds with the authoritative, ‘documentary’ nature of the archive.  The Feist show would have made an excellent recording, video or otherwise. But our experience of the show — the ‘authentic’ live memory — was something completely different.

To address this problem, Matthew Reason [great name! – ed.] argues for a “mutable live performance archive”, that “accept[s] the positive valuation off memory’s transformative power.” 2 This is my current understanding of where the Living Archive Project is headed: an attempt to create a digital performance archive that somehow captures the complexities of memory involved in archiving an ephemeral, live performance.

 

  1. Pavice, Patrice. 1992. Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture, London: Routledge, p. 67 
  2. Reason, Matthew. 2003. “Archive or memory? The Detritus of live performance.” New Theatre Quarterly 19 (73): p.87 

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