(Quarantine Diary #8) Virtual Can’t Replace Live Performance

Matt Berninger of The National at MASS MoCA

by Seth Rogovoy


Back when I worked relatively full time as a rock critic, I used to joke that I wished I could just set up a live video feed from the nightclubs and concert halls that I frequently attended to review concerts so that I wouldn’t actually have to leave my house. So I wouldn’t actually have to be there.

All the fuss around going out got in the way of sheer enjoyment, once the novelty of going out to concerts nearly every night wore off after the first few years: the late-night drives home; the battles with rowdy, sometimes unpleasant concertgoers; the poor sightlines when I was unable to score good seats–if there even were seats.

The same wish applied to other live performances I wrote about – plays, dance, classical music concerts. While the venues might provide a bit more comfort (although not always) and the audiences might be nominally better behaved – more mellow, perhaps, but no less obnoxious, what with the din of ringing cellphones and mid-show conversations disrupting even serious dramas among those seated in the pricey seats in the orchestra section on Broadway — there was still the unpleasantries of traveling to the venue and traveling home and being treated like cattle in a factory farm while at the theater or concert hall – a feeling to which I could never grow accustomed and never will.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic, all we have are digital feeds if we want to enjoy live performance. Has my wish for the live digital feed from the concert hall to my living room finally come to pass? Can I finally come out of semi-retirement as a live performance critic, sharpen my pencil, grab my reporter’s notebook, and set about once again to report on and critique cultural events that are solely intended for online consumption, all from the comfort of my living room sofa? Is this something to celebrate? Is this a good thing?

The answer is plainly “no.” While there are clearly advantages to staying home and watching or listening to performance, there is no substituting the experience of live performance shared with a crowd in real time. No matter how technically perfect the video and audio feed of a digital broadcast is, it cannot convey the sheer physicality of the dancer (that thump on the floor), the energy of the musician (the sweat on the brow), or the ineffable electricity that flows through actors assembled onstage. It cannot convey the immediacy of what is happening, including the ever-present possibility of surprise or failure.

Any performer will tell you – musician, dancer, actor alike – that they feed off the crowd, that part of their performance is their interaction with the audience. If you’ve never been onstage in front of an audience, you might not know that there is a palpable wave of energy that performers feel emanating from a crowd. The performer-audience interaction is a dynamic that is built into these live art forms. Just think of the feeling you might get simply from sitting around in a circle of friends with a few of them singing and playing instruments. There is a joy and a sense of shared belonging you feel nowhere else. Now multiply that exponentially, and that’s what takes place between performing artist and audience. Think of the feeling of being at a Bruce Springsteen concert. You can’t feel that intense energy anywhere else – certainly not watching it on TV.

The private digital feed that I always fantasized about is not a long-term, viable solution for the performing arts. It’s a temporary measure to get us through the period of time between now and when there is a vaccine that will conquer the scourge of COVID-19, thus rendering it safe once again to gather in temples of art and culture for the ritual of live performance. That’s something that even I can and do look forward to.

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