Issue: Spring 2010
Concept: The Performing Arts Builds Communities
Written by Charles Leslie
Photos by Tom Bartels
The lights dim, the audience stops talking, and everyone in the room collectively looks in one direction, paying attention and anticipating what is going to happen in front of them all.
Light in one end of the room brightens and is focused toward a performer or group of performers. They look toward the darkened room. Is anyone out there?
For both artist and audience, there is this moment of anticipation. In the club, the theatre or the concert hall, the artist and audience have arrived to support each other. As an audience member, I have come to escape my daily routine, learn about a new culture, support a friend or family member’s work, or enjoy a night out with friends. I may also be in the audience because I love music, dance, theatre — all forms of live performance. At a show, I might like to sing along with a band, dance with my friends, or seek an emotional release. Regardless of the reason for my attendance, I have joined a group of people who have gathered for this moment of time to experience a live performance. Without the presence of an audience, the art is incomplete.
Performing artists are keenly aware of the necessity of the audience to complete their art. As artists peer into the darkened room, they yearn for support from the group of people who have arrived for the performance. What is the artist seeking? Polite applause, cheering, whistling, singing, dancing, laughter, tears, yells of support or anguish? For the artist whose medium is performance, the energy from the audience both energizes and completes the art.
So how does this relate to community building?
Somehow, an artist or group of artists has compelled a group of people to arrive at a specific time and place to share an experience. With that gathering, artist and audience are now participants in a communal experience during which they laugh, clap, dance, sing, cry, yell or express themselves in other ways. Where else but in a live performance do we have the opportunity to come together as a group to explore our emotions? Where else do we gather with strangers to share at the least an interest in, or at the other extreme, a passionate connection to an artistic expression for a specific moment?
When we attend a performance, we are members of a community who have gathered for a very specific purpose. Whether we intend it or not, as members of an audience, our physical presence creates a community. The gathering is not about competition, protest or politics. We gather to experience beauty, to connect with something we cannot explain, to support.
As a member of an organization that presents performing arts, I strongly believe that connecting artists and audiences to one another can transform both individuals and groups. The community created during a performance is joyful, healthy, accepting and supportive. By its nature, the community is short-lived, but the value of the moment reaches deeply into the culture and community we inhabit every day.
So how do presenters of performance respond in dire economic times?
We continue to look for opportunities to support performing artists, we work together when we might not have worked together in the past, and we press the point that the arts are not a commodity but a necessity for a healthy culture, nation and world.
Winston Churchill was reported to have said, when told funding for the arts should be cut in order to fund England’s World War II defense budget: “Then what are we fighting for?”
Charles Leslie is the director of the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College.
Photo by Tom Bartels, Roundhouse Productions