May 1, 2017 - Montgomery Bell Academy

One of the things implicit to the Greek oral tradition (and really any oral tradition) is that the audience matters.  

The meaning of any piece of art as transitory as a performance is created in the air between the performer and audience and thereafter exists solely in and subject to the memory of the audience.

The role of the Homeric bard is explicitly sublimated by his own words in the Invocation function of both The Iliad and The Odyssey.  The Goddess/Muse is the one doing singing (though, significantly, in The Odyssey there is a pronoun attached to the performer) and the bard exists just as a vessel for the divine to express story and song.

Intuitively every performer knows some version of this. 

But performing The Odyssey has given me deep insight into how profound a notion it is and the extent to which it governs creativity and meaning and I thought about this a lot during my performances at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.  

Montgomery Bell is a prestigious all-boys grades 7 through 12 private school where students have to take two years of Latin and everyone reads The Odyssey.  

So essentially a perfect audience for me.

And the first time I've performed for an all-boys audience.  

It was also as busy a day as I've ever had with my Odyssey.  Though I did only two full performances, I also did a speech and quick 5 minute preview performance for all 900 (!) students and then 5 small lecture presentations throughout the day. It was wall-to-wall Odyssey and wonderful at every turn.

What struck me most was the specific way in which 14 and 15 year old boys respond to the story of The Odyssey and how the discussions differed in the context of the gender make-up of the audience, both in substance and tone.

The beginning of The Odyssey is tailor-made for young men: the emotional interior of Telemachus and his coming-of-age yearnings translate directly to the high school-aged psyche, certainly more so than does the mature and more morally complex adult Odysseus. I know that 20 year old Telemachus was a character I understood a lot better at age 24 when I wrote my Odyssey than I did the 40-something Odysseus.

But our discussions at Montgomery Bell were not at all limited to Telemachus. These kids wanted to talk about all aspects of the story and its at-times dubious hero and throughout the day and in every audience there was profound discussion and insight.

Back to the function of the audience.  

Because I allow for discussion after each performance, I'm able to play a sort of sleight-of-hand game with meaning and who determines it.  I am both the performer and a participant in the discussion.  When I'm doing it right, I'm letting the audience guide the conversation while subtly and appropriately adding my own knowledge to their observations to expand the meaning of the performance, an enviable capability.  

I'd argue that whoever put together The Odyssey was playing a similar game from the "me" of the very first line to when Odysseus stringing his bow is compared to a poet stringing his lyre.

So while the audience matters, lurking somewhere in the wine-dark sea of poetry is the poet with his or her private smile gently steering the audience's boat close enough to hear the song of the Sirens but not so close that they become another set of sun-bleached bones.

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