Yesterday evening I saw Reid Farrington’s The Passion Project at P.S. 122 in the East Village. On his website, Farrington describes it as “an archival film experiment,” and it comes across like an installation with a live component: The audience stands and is free to move around performer Shelley Kay, who herself moves within a small space delineated by ropes, hanging up then taking down screens/scrims onto which scenes from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic 1928 silent, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, are projected. The technical feat is nothing to sniff at, as Kay must follow myriad cues. Weirdly enough, however, a little improvised scene among the spectators abruptly emulated the confrontation of 2008 technology with 80-years-old images. Within a few minutes, I noticed a young man busily texting a few feet away from me. I stared at him, dumbfounded. We’re watching someone painstakingly performing along to scenes from one of the most striking movies ever made, and he’s texting?Almost immediately, Kay (still in character) stepped out of her usual space in one of her several out-of-bounds excursions. She was inches from the texting dude and he did not budge, barely glancing at her before going back to typing on his brighly lit screen. As soon as she moved away, I pounced. “Please stop doing this,” I said. “I’m taking notes for a class,” he replied, holding up his PDA. (Other students were indeed taking notes—unobtrusively, on pads.) “You are being disruptive,” I hissed, sotto voce. “She was really close to you. Do this in the back.” He moved away.
First, note to student: This isn’t about you. This performance wasn’t happening just so you could write your paper. Second: If, as is likely, you are enrolled in a performance class rather than a journalism one, just think of the lack of respect you showed this woman—and would you want people to do the same thing to you while you were on stage?
Third, and on a less personal level, it was hard not to think of Alex Ross’s recent article “Why So Serious? How the Classical Concert Took Shape.” Ross reminds us that the current etiquette de rigueur at classical concerts is a fairly recent one, coinciding with the discovery of such events by the middle classes. Before that, they were the province of the aristocracy, for whom “silent listening in the modern sense was deemed déclassé.” But audience reaction isn’t the only thing that changed: Ross explains about how the new emphasis on respectful silence was linked with a shift in programming itself: “Composers were empowered by the worshipfulness of the proceedings, but, generally, only if they were dead.”
It’s that leap from audience behavior to programming policies, as it were, that trips me a bit—I’m just not 100% sure the link is as inevitable as the article makes it sound. I’ll admit readily that I like being able to enjoy a show without being distracted by a chatty neighbor or a cell phone’s ring, and I’d venture to say that the artists themselves prefer that as well. (What could have gone through Shelley Kay’s mind when she stood near that texting kid last night?)
At the same time, I love progressive programming, unusual seating arrangements, extraordinarily loud amplification, gore and violence on stage, shows that don’t make sense but look great—the weirder, the better. We can have a new classical format mixing old and new, or a theatrical event redefining the relationship between artist and audience, technology and performance. All I’m sayin’ is, Just take a break from your PDA for a couple of hours. You’d be surprised how little you’ll miss it.