You have to be there: why live performance is always perfect (even when it isn't)
My ultimate treat night out is a trip to the theatre. There are plenty of other types of live performance that I love nearly as much; jazz clubs, live stand-up, and Classical concerts (which remind me of another lifetime: when I started my career at The Strad), but if I had to pick one thing, the theatre would take the cake (and the interval wine, mini ice-cream tub, and hugely overpriced bag of sweets).
It doesn’t really matter what I see: there are always fantastic plays and musical theatre performances in London, we're spoilt for choice. Why does this make my list of experiences I need to have? There’s just something about it.
I could write an inexpert review of the plays I’ve seen lately, but that’s not really the point. The essence of the theatre as an experience that’s worth doing, for me, is that there’s something about the energy of it that’s fabulous every single time, even if you don’t enjoy that specific performance. And in my continued spirit of positive thinking that’s what I want to embrace; the gratitude of having been part of the audience of that play, on that day, in that place, with all the other people who came along at the same time and all the performers who lent their lived experience, skills, energy, humour and pain to the part they were performing. This cocktail of different elements is communicated in a way that is totally unique to that specific performance, even if it is only a tiny bit different from the way it was performed the night before, and the night before that…
In a world in which the convenience of ‘on demand’ viewing means that it’s rare to actually watch anything at the same time as anyone else (unless you live with them, I guess) there’s something so precious about the gift of being a tiny part of an experience that will only ever be created once. Those couple of hours will never play out in that way again, not exactly, which makes not only every perfectly delivered line special but every mistake too. When an actor fluffs a line, they probably curse themselves, but I secretly love it. Not because I’m wishing they’ll fail or enjoying some twisted sense of schadenfreude, but because I see it as a gift. I was there to witness it; and something memorable happened that I can hold on to forever as part of my personal experience of that play’s run.
When ‘the half’ is called backstage, the actors have 35 minutes to prepare before they have to face the audience. I actually like to be in the theatre by this time if possible, both to get a pre-theatre drink (I mean, why not?) and to experience this moment for myself, even though I’m going nowhere near backstage, and would usually be engrossed in conversation with whoever is accompanying me. Simon Annand’s The Half: Photographs of Actors Preparing for the Stage captures actors at this moment, and it’s a fascinating look at the backstage world I can only wonder about.
If a play is on for three months, actors perform their lines close to a hundred times, and sometimes I wonder whether doing so feels as humdrum as the average desk job after a while. I’ve no idea. But the audience refreshes itself every night, and surely so does the energy of the room. For me, that spark of excitement is there, every single time. And it will always keep me coming back.