Disturbance in the Force: a Natural Experiment with Audiences

With all the performers, musicians, artists social distancing at home, you might think that this is an opportunity, that they’d be busy singing, strumming, painting…. All that time to create, right?

Yet it’s not what I hear on social media. There’s something not quite right. Is it like a writer’s block? I don’t know if that’s the write metaphor…

(bad joke… pardon me).

Perhaps the best way to describe it is the way Obi Wan spoke when he felt something inside, not quite right.


Some people are struggling to survive. Many people are dying.  The artists are the most sensitive of us all.  Could artists, our canaries in the mine, be feeling something?

I am reminded of something that I read long ago in Keir Elam’s book The Semiotics of Theatre & Drama.  The theatrical transaction begins with the audience in this theory. The moment when they begin to show up –whether it’s 500 coming through the door or just 5—is when the process would be understood to begin, or so says the theory, and not in anything that the actors or musicians  might do.

As I recall Elam gathers together many different theories & the work of theorists, so he is more of a curator than author, as we walk through his museum of insights & observations.

He called it a “transaction” because it’s at least partly communication, perhaps also a speech act. It allows us to really ask a different version of the classic: if a tree falls in the forest, is there a sound? Let’s change it slightly. If an actor speaks on a stage but there is no audience, is there theatre? We might well say yes there is drama, but without an audience, can there be theatre? Without an audience there might be music but is there a concert?

And I suspect this is the root of the malaise in the artistic community. When one performs, one feels a connection to the listener / viewer. I don’t think it’s about applause per se. It might be connected to fees & a kind of recognition. If you make music or speak in a church, the silent connections can be the most powerful affirmations of community.

I’m remembering something from PSY100, the introductory Psychology course at University of Toronto that’s always enormously crowded (speaking of audiences). We were told of something called a “natural experiment.”  A soldier in WW I might have a bullet sever his corpus callosom, separating the usual pathway of nerve fibers connecting the left & right cerebral hemisphere. This would never happen as a deliberate act of surgery, of course.  But the accident on the battlefield allowed research on the functions of the brain by virtue of a de facto event rather than something done to test an experimental hypothesis.

Right now COVID19 is making our society change in so many ways. People are behaving differently and in the process we’re having all sorts of new views into human behaviour that might be understood as comparable to the natural experiments I spoke of, a kind of de facto accident of our society right now.

“what happens when you separate the hemispheres?”
 “what happens when you separate the artist from the audience?”

You think the pandemic is difficult? It’s especially daunting if you’re one of the involuntary specimens in this ongoing experiment.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Essays, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception, University life and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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