Ever since I decided to take this whole theatre thing seriously, I have found myself watching the audiences more than the actual performances that I attend. I find myself surveying the crowd for the snorers, the edge of their seaters, the standing-ovation-no-matter-what-ers and the critical hecklers. I find myself taking my own demographic tally as I try to figure out if there are any patterns of engagement and disengagement based on such categories as age, race, gender, shirt color, seating assignment, hair color, or type of shoe. This has led me to find those moments of theatricality that are, in my opinion, well done. These are the moments when every member of the audience is engaged in their own way. Whether they are laughing, crying, booing, or cheering… they are WATCHING and REACTING to what they are seeing. More importantly, they are doing this HONESTLY.

Last night, I found myself in this same experience as I watched Swan Lake at Northrop Auditorium. I watched children with their eyes glued to the jumping jester and the king. I watched the ballet purists watch every jump with a critical eye. I listened to the people applaud after every solo, whether it was amazing or mediocre. By act 4, the famous dying swan scene, however, I found myself gazing into space as I thought about what our Upstream Arts participants would pull from this performance. A piece of “high art” with nothing but movement and music to tell a story. No words. I began to wonder what moments were coming across clearly through body language and physical communication between characters. I found myself finding that fine line between technique of a certain craft and the basic communication of a story. I found myself at the conclusion that great art speaks to the widest crowd.

In our classes with Upstream Arts we do a multitude of exercises that are both performative and communicative in nature. Games like “Emotion Statues” where participants create impromptu statues based on emotions, shapes and colors and “Yes, No, I Don’t Know” where with only those 5 words of dialogue, a multitude of scenes are created. Through these activities, our participants demonstrate performance at it’s greatest. Everybody in the room is able to discern what is being communicated through tone of voice, body language, and spacial relationships.

Similarly, as I watched Swan Lake, I found the best moments to be where the technique was en pointe (pun intended) while the dancers used their faces to express the emotion of the moment, moderately engaged when there was expression but NO technique, and near sleeping when it was simply a demonstration of technique. I looked around and I witnessed the similar reactions by the majority of the crowd and, once again, was back at my question…. What would Upstream Arts participants think about this performance?

I came to this recognition… our participants may appreciate the technique, the spectacle of the jumps, the beauty of the form… or maybe some don’t care. However, the moments where the performers communicate to each other and the audience through non-verbal communication, the mood of the music, and the expression of the characters WHILE showing technique that is at it’s best is what makes a performance (or any human interaction) engaging, memorable, and worth the time.

Post by Anton Jones, Upstream Arts Teaching Artist