Here's a simple truth I've learned about performing: everything is the show.
Everything about the performance space, everything about the performer, everything about the audience.
It all impacts the meaning of the work that's being performed in ways overt and subtle.
The Greeks of Homer's time and prior had no problem appreciating this because their bardic songs weren't just performances: they were in some sense truth itself.
Individual truth, cultural truth, historical truth.
This is baked into the oral tradition and its idea that each telling of each story exists only in the place and time in which it is told. I'm not sure we can appreciate even 10% what a pre-literate culture might look and feel like, what it would be to have to rely entirely on your memory and what you can tell people to preserve wisdom, truth, history, knowledge...
But I can see the ghosts of this tradition and how it functioned in my performances. I am aware that from the second an audience member enters the performance space, whatever that space is, the show has begun and everything that happens will influence the audience member's perception and therefore the meaning of my song: the lights, the stage (or lack thereof), my own demeanor and activities...
For instance: I rarely allow myself to be in a situation where I'm off stage, introduced, and then enter to an assembled crowd.
Because this immediately colors the audience's perception of who I am and what my role is. I was somewhere else and then I appear almost by magic and I'm instantaneously established as the authority/performer by virtue of this entrance as much as the introduction. Which is nice of course. But it also creates an immediate separation between me and the audience which makes it harder to connect with them in ways that are important for my performance and this changed dynamic often means a different sort of performance.
It also means I'm being introduced into the space after the audience is assembled as opposed to being a part of the space as they arrive.
I prefer to be sitting or standing in plain view as they file in, chatting with the professor who will introduce me, maybe even interacting with the early audience quietly in front. This makes me as much a part of the space as a chair or a light and establishes my authority in a slightly different manner than a grand entrance. Now it's as if I'm inviting the audience into my space, a space I'm already in, and I find audiences react differently to me in such situations. They can see me as a person first, and then a performer, as opposed to seeing me initially (and only) as a performer.
Another variable that impacts audience perception and meaning is sound. Am I singing un-amplified or with a microphone/PA system?
Performing un-amplified is one of the (many) truly incredible things about these Odyssey shows: it's a challenge for me to create the power needed to cover the room while still being dynamic. It's poignant knowing that the sound that reaches an audience member's ears consists entirely of waves created by my body: this is as authentic as one can get to the original bardic tellings of the Odyssey.
Of course I also sometimes enjoy (and can't avoid) having the assistance of a microphone and electricity to carry my voice and guitar but this system acting as an intermediary also creates a separation between the audience and me.
I often think about it in geographical terms. A listener's eyes and ears and brain and soul are drawn to the source of the sound to which he or she is listening. When the source is entirely my mouth and my guitar's body, that listener's energy will be focused entirely on my physical location. When the source is speakers on the wall behind me, 10 feet up and 15 feet to either side, some of the listener's attention will necessarily be drawn to those locations and away from my physical being. This diffuses some of the intensity of the show.
I bring this up because my final performance of a busy 2018, an evening show at Bowling Green State University on a cold Thursday near the end of their semester, was as intense as shows come.
The school did a fantastic job promoting the show: four departments (Foreign Language, History, English, and Theatre) co-sponsored the night and by about 5 minutes before I was scheduled to begin, every seat of the 190 capacity lecture hall was full and there were 60 or so students standing in the back.
To accommodate, we made a split-second decision to move the performance into a 290 capacity lecture hall right next door. This entailed not just getting several hundred students to stand up and walk to the new space, but I had to pack up my guitar and reset it and my powerpoint in this new, larger room as the audience reassembled.
As I proceeded through the mass of students and then hurried to set up my heart raced a little. This was now part of the show: the audience was seeing me come in and set up. We were actually doing it together, at the same time, so in a way we co-owned the space.
I was introduced and began my pre-show talk taking note of the fact that almost every seat was full. I would have to sing to 250 people with no amplification in a space I was not present in until minutes before the show.
As I've discovered, nothing builds audience connection like acknowledging vulnerability so I told the audience point blank beforehand I needed their help and asked them to allow me, to help me to sing un-amplifiied into this large unfamiliar space.
What followed was something magical. I'm not sure it was my best performance technically or artistically but it felt like one of my most vivid and authentic. The room was dead silent and connected. I worked my way through the songs and was very present to the energy and the responsibility, the privilege the audience was giving me. I often find myself near tears after a particularly affecting show and I think my voice quivered as I thanked the crowd for their partnership.
The audience discussion that followed was fantastic and the dinner after that was a wonderful combination of food, wine, and conversation.
The next day I headed back to Chicago and had a 4 hour drive to think about not only the performance in Bowling Green, but 2018 as a whole.
It was a good year for my Odyssey and 2019 and 2020 hold, I believe, even better things for this quirky little project I wrote some 17 years ago, a project that has taken me farther professionally, artistically, and intellectually than I could have ever imagined.
And I'm going to keep sailing the Odysseus-seas until I plant that oar in the sand, whenever and wherever that might be.