Breaking The Magic Moment

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MAGIC MOMENT: DOES SOMETHING STRANGE HAPPEN TO TIME AT THE END OF A GREAT SHOW? for Scotsman Magazine, 30.11.13.
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A COUPLE OF weeks ago, it happened again.  The scene was the downstairs space at Oran Mor, home of the hugely successful Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime theatre; the show was Peter Arnott’s Janis Joplin: Full Tilt, a powerful play about the last days of the great Janis, featuring a thrilling central performance from Angela Darcy.  At the end of the show, the singer and her band had left the stage; Angie Darcy’s voice had faded, to be replaced with the original recording of Janis, finishing the song.  Then it went dark; and the audience were left for a moment to relish what was possibly the finest single show of the 14 in this year’s autumn season at Oran Mor.

Or they would have been left to relish it; if some bright spark in the audience hadn’t decided to signal his or her superior knowledge of the Joplin oeuvre by starting to clap before the last note had faded.  To me, the effect was shattering.  I knew I had seen a great show, and I could remember all the aspects of it that made it great.  Yet the idiot premature clapper had robbed me of the rich, full, golden moment of silence and recognition, before the roar of applause, that would have sealed the emotional experience of it; and I fell to wondering, as I drained my pint of juice, what it is that makes that split-second pause at the end of a great show so important, and why those who fail to respect it seem, at some level, to be wrecking the whole experience.

This is not, I should make clear, the same argument about premature applause that rages in the world of classical music, where the term is mainly used to berate people who applaud at a  time – the end of a movement in a symphony, for example – when audiences traditionally remains silent; although I have noted that audiences at classical concerts also often include a show-off element, who like to applaud as soon as the last note is sounded.  And it’s not quite the same as the argument about bad curtain calls, which abound in 21st century theatre; curtain calls that are too brief and perfunctory to let the audience fully respond to the show, or too heavily orchestrated to let the audience have its moment, and take control of  its own reaction to the work.

The question of what happens when that vital final moment of silence is broken, though, seems to me more mysterious, and less well understood.  It’s related to the way in which a mediocre show can sometimes completely save itself, in the final scenes, by gathering itself to a conclusion that suddenly makes complete emotional sense.  And it suggests that in live performance, time is not exactly linear, but somehow cumulative; so that all the preceding moments of a successful show are somehow contained in its final moment, which bulges like a giant raindrop with all the meaning built up during the performance.

I’ve heard actors say that when a show is going well, time seems to both fly and stretch, so that every moment seems huge and full of potential, even though the whole show seems to be over in a flash; I’ve seen great plays – Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off is one – flash brilliantly into focus in their final seconds.  And I have often sat with tears in my eyes, feeling cheated of a whole precious experience, because of  the fool who clapped in that precious moment just after the last breath of performance; time, perhaps, for some clever scientist to begin to investigate what is going on here, and whether some of the strange truths about  the nature of time suggested by advanced quantum physics aren’t being revealed and explored in theatres across the land, every night of the week.

ENDS ENDS              

  

       

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One response to “Breaking The Magic Moment

  1. It’s a curious one . . . Joannah Tincey and I just finished a two hander of Pride and Prejudice. Throughout the tour, our Stage Manager had us timed regularly at either 1hour 10mins or 1hour 11mins for the first half and 1hour or 1hour 1min for the second half. At one venue – where the auditorium was small, the audience close up and possibly the novel was well known to a majority – just about every witty Jane Austen line (however beautifully complex), was met with great laughter in a particularly raucous first half. Jo and I found ourselves pausing regularly to allow for this. . . . news came back that the first half came in at 1hr7mins.
    I guess you can partly account for this by the fact that we felt confident in getting a move on with lines because we felt the audience were right with us . . .but that’s quite a big margin and even if it can be explained, it’s absolutely true that time feels as though it has two faces on stage, particularly when a show’s going well: one face that says ‘a thousand things are happening here’ which convinces you one short life (never mind just that moment in the show) will give you time enough to think and feel any and every thing you could ever hope for, and a second face that it wears at the end of the show which gives you something like that feeling you get if you wake up after what you are sure was a ten minute nap and turns out to have been 2 hours. You get the first face of time in real life, too, I think – if some years of tension or complexity are quickly resolved in a short exchange with someone you’re close to. And the second, too, in other walks of life, where immersion and concentration are paramount. I think it happens in sport when a match is played at a high level. What’s great is that time will feel either expansive or accelerated in these opposite ways when something is going right. I think moments of real tragedy probably also take on that expansiveness too – where your mind is so affected and filled by a single moment that it feels like it took forever.
    Some basic ‘old skool’ physics seems still to be revered at the new Hull Truck theatre space, where we were told by the theatre’s producer, Kate Denby, that the rear-most row of seats in the auditorium was at the limit of ‘the laughter line’ – the suggestion being that if the auditorium was any deeper, those further back would hear the lines significantly later and the audience would not feel (either to themselves or to the actors on stage) like they were all in the same space at the same time, thus potentially obstructing the shared experience of a live show. Playing in a bigger space later in the tour, when no-one seemed to laugh where on other nights people had, it occurred to me there might be people snickering inaudibly at the rear of the stalls, even if I felt a joke had fallen flat. Well. . . . it’s always nice to find ways to convince yourself it hasn’t been your fault.

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