Saturday, May 16, 2009

Over to you

There's something enormously powerful about a performer turning "it" back to the audience. I remember being deeply impressed with Peter Gabriel's closing of the Amnesty tour in 1986, when he essentially turned the closing cries of "Biko" over to the audience, and then left the stage. Here's a video from that tour:

My brother saw the Philadelphia leg of the tour, and reports that the chanting went on for several minutes after everyone had left the stage. Somehow that image gives me chills.

I'm thinking of two other memorable theatrical instances of this. One was a performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest with Patrick Stewart. The play ends with Prospero alone on stage, addressing the audience:

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

What I remember is how Stewart's emphasis of "you" really did transfer the power of the magical play over to us, the audience.

The other theatrical event I'm thinking of is the finale of Nicholas Nickleby, the mammoth Royal Shakespeare Company production that came to the Broadway in 1982 (?). Smike has died, and the boys who escaped from Squeers' "school" are wandering the countryside in the cold. As the cast sings a gorgeous version of "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen," with soaring counterpont of "and it's tidings of comfort and joy," Nicholas (played by Roger Rees), who is rushing across the stage, sees a shivering boy huddled at the front of the stage, dressed in rags, perhaps already dead. Nicholas stops, walks over, tenderly picks up the boy, and holds it up to the audience, looking straight at them with a look that says, "And what are you going to do?"


I still get shivers from that one, 27 years later.

And this kind of theater is what I love about Pete Seeger. Regardless of his politics (and it doesn't hurt that his politics are pretty close to mine), what I like most about him is his insistence on "over to you" as part of his performance and all of his public work. It's like what we call "empowerment" nowadays, but it's not just about power. It's also about responsibility. And when we say "power," it's a specificaly democratic sense of power: the performance consciously gathers force and focus on the stage, and then finds a way to hand that force and focus back to the audience for them to carry it out into the world. I really like that. I wish more performers and makers of things knew how to do that.

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