Wednesday, January 21, 2009

This is fascinating, awesome, and terrible in a number of ways: it is a bootlegged recording of Patti LuPone tearing an audience member a new one during the final performance of GYPSY because the audience member was taking photographs:

I think this is a very interesting clip, for a number of reasons.

First, this really throws into stark relief the disconnect between theater and recording: this clip has been listened to 80,638 times as of this posting. The St. James Theatre has 1,690 seats. The equivalent of nearly 48 sold-out Broadway houses have heard this clip in the 4 days since it was posted.

I'm not using this as an opportunity to say that this means that these experiences are EQUIVALENT--and that's an important detail. Futurists who don't understand theater often claim it is "dead" and certainly marginal by pointing to how few can participate in an event, tally up the numbers and call it a day. (Even more often than that they don't think about theater at all, sadly.)

I am saying that one experience does not invalidate the other—the existence of this clip doesn't make the production less valued, as listening to a recording in my web browser in no way resembles the live experience of being in the St. James Theatre.

I'm also not using it in an argument about what ticket prices should be: $100+ for GYPSY tickets, or free at YouTube.

It is interesting to think about how this recording is not temporally bound, as theater is—now that GYPSY is over, the most enduring record of that experience exists at that YouTube link. It's the scarcity of the theatrical experience that makes it valuable over time, but in our modern age that scarcity of experience doesn't mean you can't find ways to communicate...

...but in fact, it does mean that. AEA regulations are complete straightjackets on recording live events, regardless or whether the recordings are used commercially or not, and it ends up killing the baby in the crib before we can see what the future might be.

It's also instructive how the tropes of the theater do and don't transfer to the net—in the YouTube comments a large number of people hold Ms. LuPone to task for her unprofessionalism. I'd argue that most of the talk in the theaterosphere considers other factors, like diva-hood and the rudeness of flash photography in performances—what interests me is how those tropes get flipped when folks from the outside world are suddenly inside the theater.

From my point of view as a performer I am sympathetic to Ms. LuPone's issues—I've had people take photographs at performances, and it is a pain in the ass. Since I'm not performing in a giant rock arena, photography really impacts—it's often painfully clear that it is happening, and it can be very disruptive.

For my money the biggest issue isn't flash photography, as most idiots know to turn their flash off. My bigger issue is AF-assist light, which is the orange light that comes on just before you take a picture—most people don't know how to disable it, and it shines right into my eyes when performing, and it sucks. I am hoping that cellphone cameras get better and better, WITHOUT AF-assist, so that when people take a picture it will be silent and inobtrusive.

I may be different than other performers, but I have no issues with people recording my shows, both audio, still image, and video, so long as that recording in no way affects the experience of the room for me or for my audiences. I would further expect that if folks posted those materials to the net they wouldn't charge for them (duh) and that if I asked them to take something down, they would. I see recordings of live events like theater as fossil records—invaluable perhaps in generating a history, but ultimately frozen and lifeless and incapable of communicating what it was like to actually be there.

The fact that they are not the event itself isn't a repudiation, however—it's fantastic. It means they can be leveraged and used to bring glimpses of what endures about the theater above the cultural waterline into the light. It's a glimpse of a possible future where the AEA can behave rationally and change the underlying rules about recording in theaters. By clinging to the past they jeopardize their place in the future, and we need to work toward change now.