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We’re All Performers Now

By Nicholas S. Racheotes

Don’t just sit there; perform! The age of passively “soaking it up” is over. Passivity is passé, from talk radio to gaming, the visual novel, the classroom, and the concert stage. Wherever you go, the audience is the show.

Whole libraries full of books, or should I say terabytes of literature, have discussed the aesthetic experience. Philosophers have told us what beauty is. Critics have let us know what it isn’t. Neuroscientists are probably going to Google Map our brains, if they haven’t already, to let us know precisely where our sense of beauty resides. Authors, not yours truly, invite us to willingly suspend our disbelief and get immersed in the novel, the short story, or the play. Musicians muse over the rapture of melody, harmony, and dissonance. Talk to a gamer, and she or he will tell you about the joystick of participating in alternative universes, some of which might trick you into thinking that you, not their digital architects, have created them.

Let’s take a look (if not a listen) to the captains of the kilohertz as they try desperately to save AM and FM radio from the assault of the internet. You and I get something like the unapologetic “This morning it’s all about the home team on your sports talk WSPT, the station that allows you to throw spitballs at the local nine, the local twenty-two, and the local five. Today’s subject is that seven-figure waste of a center fielder. Dial 877-GET-LOST—that’s (877) 438-5678—and tell the world what you think.”

What elevates talk to a conversation? If you’ve ever spent time with a four-year-old little motormouth, you might disagree that speech is the outward expression of joy. If you’ve listened for more than ten minutes to any talk radio, when the blithering master of blather is trying to encourage anger, despair, and participation using the “hot take,” you might conclude that the airwaves have become the land of the joy of misery. The gift of provoking imagined outrage over stuff that never touches the listener’s life can earn a host a more-than-indecent living.

In civil discourse, the sort one might hope to find in legislative halls, in classrooms at all levels, and even at the dinner table, the dialogue is supposed to convey the difference between argument and argumentation, to promote mutual understanding between speaker and listener, and, in the best cases, to arrive at the truth. This art of conversation has always been an endangered species of performance and audience participation.

Passivity is passé, from talk radio to gaming, the visual novel, the classroom, and the concert stage. Wherever you go, the audience is the show.

Do you remember Adam Cadre’s Photopia, Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web, and Emily Short’s Counterfeit Monkey? Have you chosen among choices as to how to shape the story? I guess this means that you can elect to choose your own suspension of disbelief, but that’s a few too many suspenders for me.

By the way, if the years haven’t obliterated my memory of college English, I think that this business of plot choices went beyond the confidants of insecure authors who used their pen pals as focus groups. Charles Dickens, for example, wrote two endings, one happy and one sad, for Great Expectations. In the happy version, the boy gets the girl. Now, I ask you, if Dickens were writing today, would that be the happy ending?

Have you played Fortnite Battle Royale (while ignoring the spelling of it) or Grand Theft Auto or Overwatch until you were suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome and nearly overcome by hunger? I dare to think that the facial expression on a person deep into reading, gaming, or listening is the same. The philosophers and neuroscientists may not concur, but I suggest that the look is the outward sign of the performer, performing for an audience of the self. That’s about as far as I’m taking you into my alternative aesthetics.

In dramas from Euripides through Shakespeare to even The Rocky Horror Picture Show, folks have been hissing, booing, and whipping projectiles at stage and screen. Audience participation, or performance, has been evident from classical times to the present. From the original Olympics to the Roman arena, the Byzantine Hippodrome, the medieval lists, and now the brand-named stadia of our day, fans have voiced their displeasure or approval without hesitation. However, if fans get creative, let’s say by dancing on the field while the game is on or using adult language regarding a player, the result can be more than annoying. These efforts are rewarded with fines and even jail time. Part of the problem with baseball and the concert stage is that we not only want action but want to be part of the action. Since, as baseball is performed, three minutes or more elapses before anything noteworthy happens, you might want to bring knitting or your visual novel to a game and look up only when you hear the crack of the bat. I’m imagining a time when this tedium will be relieved by permitting fans to text players while the game is going on. I have no idea what to do about opera and the concert hall, although I’ve heard that rock acts take requests and even go outside their set to play them.

At this point, I’ve gone on for too long without asking you, the reader, to get involved, so choose from among the following conclusions:

  1. Passivity is its own reward.
  2. Until fans can vote on managerial decisions and baseball games are limited to the length of a movie, that sport is in real trouble.
  3. There will never be an interactive opera or symphony.
  4. There is no WSPT, but the not so “hot take” does exist.
  5. “Don’t just sit there; perform!” Wait, did I write that already?

— V —

Nick Racheotes is a product of Boston public schools, Brandeis University, and Boston College, from which he holds a PhD in history. Since he retired from teaching at Framingham State University, Nick and his wife, Pat, divide their time between Boston, Cape Cod, and the Western world.

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