In Shakespeare’s day, there were only a handful of theater companies, so performances were still something of a rarity, though no one was purposefully rationing it. In much of the United States in the 1800s, small towns built opera houses and sought touring performers to fill the stages. Shows of any kind — theater, concerts or speakers — were rare enough to be occasions.
All that changed with the advent of the movies. Performances — at least those executed in pantomime before a camera — could be shown anywhere there was a white surface, a projector and a darkened room. These performances were no longer one-time occurrences, but could be repeated at will, as long as the film held out.
Technological advances of the last century now bring us performances big and small on our movie screens, our TV screens, our computer screens, and even our cell phones. We have a virtual theater in our pocket offering almost any kind of performance we might want at our command any time we want. No king has ever had such power.
Many entertainments available to us still rely on the basic premise of theater: characters in conflict. Whether it’s reality television (an oxymoron, by the way), scripted drama (as though reality television isn’t scripted) or even nature or news programming, conflict is what keeps our attention glued to our screens.
But characters in conflict is the very premise that the Greek elders were concerned with. Our hearts go out to people when we see them in trouble, even if the troubles are fiction. I suspect the Greek elders could not imagine a world where the varying performances of characters in conflict would be available constantly.
In Albuquerque, for example, a dozen screens, each on a different channel, bring performances of all kinds to patrons at Saggio’s. Customers at Satellite connect their laptops to YouTube and screen a constant stream of short performances. Movies (particularly The Italian Job) play continuously in a corner of the Sandia Mini showroom, so you even get a performance as a bonus when buying your car.
In this environment, it seems counterintuitive that people would opt for the limitations of live entertainment with set schedules, finite runs and irreproducible performances. But they do. We have a record number of subscribers signed up for shows coming to Popejoy Hall this season. Over 7,200 people have tickets for shows that begin October 28 of this year and continue through October 28 of next year.
Not all are theatrical performances, but even those that are not have some element of our highly familiar character in conflict. Music presents that idea of tension with chords and rhythms. Dance offers that most simply in the tension of the dancer’s body.
Perhaps it is the irreproducible nature of live performance that puts it into such high demand. While millions of people will watch Charlie bite his brother’s finger (and millions already have), fewer than 2,000 will watch the opening night performance of Blue Man Group in Popejoy. That experience will belong to them and no one else.
Long live ephemera.
Terry S. Davis