It's Not About Us; It's About Them?
October 16, 2009
Had an unusual performance experience yesterday which threw up some thoughts about the nature of the exchange that happens between performers and audiences. I was part of a small group of singers drafted under the auspices of a current member of the University of California at San Francisco medical faculty to perform songs for patients on the wards of the university cancer center. I jumped at the chance to sing with this group because I have been interested for a while in the efficacy of arts programs in hospitals and heard great things about the uplifting effect that singing can have on the spirits of people in poor health.
We spent a couple of hours in the afternoon wedged first in the corner of a waiting room and second in a small lounge area where we performed a selection of a cappella songs -- madrigals, show tunes and standards mostly.
What was strange about the experience from a performer's perspective was how seemingly disinterested or even absent our target audience was. In the waiting room, the listeners were all lined up against a wall wearing protective face masks. Hardly any of them looked our way and no one applauded. When we were done, we just shuffled out without a word. Everyone in the room stared blankly ahead of them. We did get an appreciative nod from one or two nearby staffers though. I was happy to sing, but I couldn't help wondering if the patients would much rather we hadn't been there interrupting their peace. After all, we were intruders; they couldn't leave the room. The situation in the coffee lounge was possibly even weirder. The nurse seemed happy to see us and said she'd send word around. But for the first 15 minutes of our set no one came so we sang for ourselves. Eventually three people turned up but none of them were patients. I think one was a nurse and the other two, visiting relatives of a patient. They seemed to enjoy the music. But, again, these were not the people we had been drafted in to perform for.
Now, I don't mean to sound like all I care about is audience attention. But it does seem a little odd to rehearse for weeks within the framework of an organized hospital arts program only to fail to connect in any way with the target audience. Perhaps patients who heard our singing down the hallway did get something (hopefully positive) out of the music. Maybe the fact that we showed up is all that matters. It's not about us, after all; it's about them. On the other hand, might our efforts be more useful to the hospital if we actually got to sing in front of patients, preferably ones who knew we were coming and wanted to hear us?
I'm going back to UCSF next Tuesday. I hear from our industrious and dedicated music director, Debbie, that every performance that the group has undertaken so far at the hospital is different. (I was in Los Angeles for the first few outings, so yesterday was my debut as part of the ensemble.) So maybe next time we'll have a genuine audience. But here's a question: Is it enough simply to show up and sing on a cancer ward? Or is the exercise pointless if your target audience is seemingly disinterested or completely absent?