Monday, 14 March 2011

The power and magic of the real thing

A science centre is an interactive museum with exhibitions composed by exhibits especially fabricated so that visitors can explore various scientific phenomena and concepts, as well as different technological applications. I worked for five years at the Pavilion of Knowledge. A number of times I had the opportunity to observe the curiosity, the bewilderment, the joy of discovery, the enthusiasm, the enjoyment that results from the interaction of visitors with the exhibits. But I especially recall one time when I witnessed the fascination; caused not by a fabricated exhibit, but by a real, historical, object: Neil Armstrong´s suit. The Pavilion was going to receive the last astronaut to have stepped on the moon, Eugene Cernan and on the occasion of that visit we were going to exhibit Neil Armstrong´s suit. An interminable queue of people os all ages was formed in order to take a photo next to the suit. I had never seen such a thing before. This is the power of the real object.

I have been thinking a lot about this, the real object, the live experience. At the time I was doing my master´s degree, in the early 90s, museums all over the world were testing the possibilities offered by a new medium, the Internet. The first sites were created, collections were made available online, the first virtual tours were produced. At the same time, questions were raised regarding the dangers presented by this new medium, in the sense that it could keep people, potential visitors, away from museums, since it would allow for a remote, and free, access to them.

Pavilion of Knowledge, October 2001. Photo: Maria Vlachou
Their fears were not confirmed. Personally, I have always shared the conviction of those who believe that nothing can substitute the fascination for the real thing; the emotion it provokes, the connection it creates. My conviction was not based on scientific research, but on my personal experience. It was never the same thing seeing a favourite painting in a book and standing in front of it in a museum, realizing its dimension, its depth, the intensity of its colours; seeing the painter´s signature in the lower corner. The recently presented Google Art Project creates a level of access never experienced before to thousands of works of art in a number of museums, it gives us the opportunity to discover details that had never been observed before with a naked eye. But, even though, the kind of emotion it creates is very different from the one we experience when standing in front of the painting. I believe that Google Art Project will also contribute in creating a bigger desire to see one day the real thing.

In what concerns the performing arts, there´s no doubt that between not seeing at all and watching on TV, even recorded, or nowadays on a DVD, it was always good to be able to see. But also, it was always much more exciting watching a live transmission instead of a recording. And, of course, nothing compares to being able to really attend, seated in a performance hall, experiencing a very special connection to the interpreters on stage and the rest of the audience with whom we´re sharing the experience. The expectation that seems to rise as the lights go down, the silence, the unforgettable and unrepeatable moments of a live performance, hanging around after the performance outside the theatre to talk about what we have just seen. Almost twenty years later, I can still remember the eagerness to get up at 7 in the morning on the 12th of July 1992 to watch the last act of Tosca, transmitted live from Castel Sant´Angelo in Rome, the precise location where the story was taking place. The day before, I had watched the first act at noon, transmitted from the church of Sant´ Andrea della Valle, and the second in the evening, from Palazzo Farnese (read here). But going even further back, I can almost still feel the emotion, mixed with fear, of watching one of the ‘sacred monsters’ of greek theatre, Alexis Minotis, interpreting Prometheus Bound at a 4th century BC open air amphitheatre. He was 81 years old; I was 9. Years later, I watched that performance on TV. There was no magic. I was not in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by darkness, feeling cold, listening to the crickets and sharing poor Prometheus´s suffering.

Prometheus Bound, 1979. Photo: The Greek National Theatre Archive.
A few days ago I read in the Guardian an article entitled Can a filmed stage show be as good as the real thing?. Theatre critic Mark Shenton said no; Hermione Hoby, the Observer´s art writer, believed that yes. I became very curious, and even a bit distrustful, when Hoby referred that according to a study carried out by the National Endowement for Science, Technology and the Arts regarding the live transmission in cinemas of National Theatre patrons in the cinemas were more emotionally involved than those attending the performance at the National Theatre. I looked for the report, entitled Beyond live: digital innovation in the performing arts, and found the answer. In order to assess people´s involvement, it is necessary to first identify the reasons for opting to attend the theatre performance or watching from a cinema and people´s expectations as well. The main reason why people that were surveyed had attended Phèdre was to see actress Helen Mirren and their main expectation was to have an emotional or uplifting performance; whereas cinema patrons had mainly wanted to see a theatrical performance broadcast in the cinema, their main expectation being to experience a new way of presenting theatre. These differences may perhaps explain the impact on each type of spectator and one´s consequent involvement.

Anyway, what is important to highlight is that, since 2009, thanks to the National Theatre´s live transmissions, thousands of people in various countries have had access to those productions, people who otherwise, due to geographical distance, the price of the tickets or even the fact that tickets were sold out, would have not had the opportunity to see the show. It is equally significant the fact that these transmissions have created the desire in 34% of cinema patrons to visit the National Theatre, in particular among people with lower incomes. A third of cinema patrons would be willing to pay a maximum of 21 to 30 pounds to attend a live performance, whereas the maximum amount they would pay for a cinema ticket to watch a performance would be 11 to 15 pounds.

The impact of a live performance in people´s lives is frequently discussed when trying to assess the value of culture and the arts. Can it really be evaluated? It seems difficult. But it also seems that it is not impossible. More news (and proofs…) soon.

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