Tom Sutcliffe on live and living

I am giving a talk at Dulwich Picture Gallery on “Why we need performing arts live”, which has implications that matter to the Church as well. Is the future of religion – as something to which you belong – going to be on television or on the web? Or is it fundamentally social: a meal, a ritual, a wisdom to be shared with practical consequences? For me, live experience of church and theatre and concerts and dance – and of course, above all, opera – is what these art forms are all about. (I do not suggest church is only an artform; but it is closely related to what artforms are about.) Live matters because, by being there, one is part of what is going on – which, if one is watching television or films or listening to radio, one in fact isn’t.

When I was a child there was radio, but we did not have a television set until 1960. I went very young to the cinema – sometimes by myself. I saw Olivier’s Hamlet in 1951. My top favourite film as a young child (apart from Snow White) was The Glass Mountain (1950), displacing even The Red Shoes, which fed my craze to become a ballet dancer (I went to ballet class weekly for two years from the age of 5). I used to cycle to my kindergarten past the King’s Theatre, and I got the stage door keeper to have Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin, and John Gilpin sign my programme. Living so close to a touring theatre with a weekly change in programme was great.

What I learned, as all veterans of live performance must, was to give myself without reservation to the performance and the performers. Live means the audience alive and awake, and able to be completely absorbed in the performers and material – as if one were on a string being twitched. Live describes a process of engagement, and is no tribute to the subject matter. The French say, if they go to a performance, that they are “assisting at a representation”. Not a passive witness; but actively involved. How it all adds up, what it really means, is not defined as in a recorded edited artform like film. With live one forms one’s impression oneself. There is an ambivalence about performance in how audiences react and performers propose. In the subtle interstices of the apparent reality, truth may emerge in its full potency.

Christopher Caldwell, in the Financial Times, wondered about Donald Trump’s culture, calling him as much an artist as President. “We need not be happy”, he wrote, “about the way theatre begat movies, which begat television dramas, which begat reality TV – but they did, and Trump’s The Apprentice, which scored high ratings for 14 seasons, is a pioneering example of the genre.” I find Caldwell’s biblical genealogy of reality TV problematical. How written and performance artforms develop requires fertilisation, and Caldwell leaves out the mixed parenthood: novels and story-telling have found a form in theatre and film. How real is realism? Reality TV comes from documentary and docudrama, which manipulate live recordings of people in real situations. How scripted is reality TV? Dragons’ Den is a format copied around the world, and originated in Japan. Evan Davis just became the BBC’s presenter. Lord Sugar has no political ambitions; while Donald Trump probably made it all up on simple lines enjoying the cruel bossy game of seeking apprentices. The true origin of reality TV is the old party-game of charades. Trump’s style of instant, brief, obvious reaction never required expensive copywriters.

So what makes the live performing arts so special that they are a great deal more than mere entertainment? Live, of course, means inevitably limited in popularity – not as rewarding financially for performers, promoters, and backers as what can be mechanically reproduced. Live is more rarely experienced by the broad mass. Live is particular, different, unique, challenging for audiences. Live resists ideas like “the best in the world”. People who go to opera only wanting the best will not develop the ability to use opera as a prompt for imagination, rather than occasion for worship. Live means oneself amending the experience so that it makes sense and rings true in one’s heart and in one’s head. The great performing arts are not about the surface experience, but about the subtle interplay of meanings and beauty and truth to which that surface experience gives access – if an audience responds by using imagination to make something great of it all. In the UK we need performing arts the way Germany has them – subsidy distributed by means of subsidiarity, the money from taxpayers earmarked to do the job. The Church is the right model.