It’s a Saturday, and I’m sat in a multi-storey carpark in Peckham.
Sounds bleak doesn’t it? There isn’t a car in sight and, instead, around 50 or 60 plastic chairs are arranged in ones and twos, circling two Steinway grand pianos. We arrived also in one and twos, down from the rooftop entrance through the torrential rain, and, after navigating the one-way system, took our seats. The setting was minimal, even the Steinways were bare with their lids removed, but that didn’t matter. That was almost the point.
All venues have been closed since last March and the arts industry is getting desperate. In a bid to satisfy the ache for it, companies are getting creative, finding areas that can provide open-air spaces to allow for social distancing. This would be one of the first live, in real life, not-over-the-internet performances since lockdown, 5 months on. I was quite literally on the edge of my plastic seat
The two musicians arrive, colourfully dressed and, as they sit at their respective Steinways, we all hold our breath. I’m sure the pianists could feel it, the anticipation, the weight of expectation and charge in the air. They open their scores, lock eyes, raise their hands and, as one, bring their fingers to meet the keys. In that moment a car park full of strangers is set ablaze. In that moment a car park full of strangers connect.
That is why we go to the theatre, concerts, stand-up, sports stadiums: for connection. Why we spend time and money to attend events live and in person instead of just watching from the comfort of our homes. Connection. It has been a rationed commodity these last months and any culture we have experienced we have done so remotely. Perhaps you watched NT Live or archive footage released by worldwide venues. Maybe you joined performers as they live streamed gigs. But everything we watched we did so at arm’s length and with highly sanitised hands. It just hasn’t been quite the same. Has it? Something has been missing.
Live performance allows us to live vicariously through other humans as they experience the really big, painful, joyful, life changing emotions that we don’t or can’t face in the day to day. That experience is heightened by its immediacy, intimacy and shared nature. Theatre shows us love that can raze cities to the ground; comedy’s sharp humour holds a mirror up to the world as we see ourselves reflected; we are even prepared to stand in a stadium and watch our favourite teams lose for that unique collective experience. No two events are ever the same. The performers come with new inspiration, a new audience brings in a new energy and, when the two meet: electricity.
I love that electricity; it’s why I became a professional artist. That two-way connection between performer and audience builds a symbiotic relationship and each party feeds off the other. A collective connection also exists in the crowd. Research by the UCL Division of Psychological and Language Sciences discovered a unique synchronicity that develops between the audience members. This link sees a group of strangers united as their heartbeat responds in unison to what they are seeing, and their pulse rises and falls at the same rate. As the performers connect to the audience, they connect to each other and, as Dr Brené Brown discusses in “The Power of Vulnerability” TED talk, human beings are hardwired for connectivity. Shakespeare’s fruit throwing groundlings knew it, the Ancient Romans in their amphitheatres knew it, even the Caveman who painted on walls knew it. And with the closure of the theatres, concert halls, stadiums, all venues where people can meet as a community, now we all know it.
Art can take you out of or hold a mirror up to yourself. Its beauty is in its potential to be uncompromising and dangerous. It is a privilege and a responsibility to take an audience on this journey because, and it’s a bold claim but I’ll make it, no one ever comes out of the theatre the same as when they went in. As a performer the connection with the audience is always key because it demands the best from you. They can smell inauthenticity so every time you step out in front of a crowd the stakes are high as you are pushed to be the best version of ‘you’ that you can be.
So, it is with that, that I return to my plastic chair in a multiplex, with the sound of trains pulling out of Peckham Rye station and cars driving through the downpour. As the chords vibrate through the concrete floor up the legs of my probably-borrowed-from-a-school-plastic chair, I take my first deep and relaxed breath in months. For 45 minutes the incredible Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy, hold us suspended above the strings of their Steinways as we were reminded what it felt like to be connected. When, at last, the final dying notes echo away around the breeze block pillars, I know we have tasted how life was before the pandemic and could be again.