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Lifestreaming, Performance and Respect for the Clown Nose

Clown Nose

In remembrance of Larry Hamon’s passing, I thought I’d dig out my clown story. After all, we’re all bozos on this bus.

Back when I studied acting and directing at University, there was something we did called the clown nose exercise. Andrew Doe, the professor, introduced the exercise with great seriousness. Those of us in the Acting Studio didn’t know quite how to take this. Serious or kidding? The exercise is primarily used when rehearsing dramatic scenes. You play the scene straight, but you wear a clown nose.

Acting is, in some respects, a cry for attention. There’s the famous story about Olivier telling Dustin Hoffman the secret of great acting: “look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me…” That’s what the clown nose does, it focuses the “look at me.” It’s a direct raw exposure of the personal reason you’re standing on that stage. To play a scene straight, to really get the character, and let it shine through, your personal need for attention needs to be understood, controlled and you need to make peace with it. There’s no fooling yourself.

I decided to try an experiment, and I wore the clown nose for a full day, outside of the studio, in the real world. I tried to stay true to the spirit of the exercise and didn’t clown around. It was one of the most emotionally exhausting things I’ve ever done. It was like being on stage for hours and hours. The nose cried out for attention, even when I didn’t want it.

Stage and curtain

There are some who believe that we’ll be living our lives online– lifestreaming everything across multiple media types, including live video. I remember hearing Jason Calacanis talk about running a live web cam 24 hours a day in his office, and how eventually he had to turn it off. It made him feel anxious, self-conscious and short tempered. That’s the same effect evoked by the clown nose exercise, you’re always on stage.

The clown nose teaches you a respect for live performance as a deep and powerfully human art form. In this age of the Network, anyone can find or create a stage to stand on. As Clay Shirky notes, we publish everything and filter later. The cost of assembling a stage and an audience is as low as it’s ever been. The price of a true and good performance is exactly the same as it’s always been. 

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Lucia di Lammermoor: Simulcasting Performance

Lucia di lammermoor at AT&T Park

It was an usually hot day, but as the sun began to set, thousands gathered at AT&T park for a live simulcast of San Francisco Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor. The opera’s melodramatic story line of competing clans, forbidden love, passion and grand tragedy was perfect for this gigantic venue. The story is filled with big emotions, grand gestures and high drama. I haven’t seen any crowd counts, but they easily could have doubled last year’s attendance of 15,000. 

The crowd at the ballpark was fully engaged in the story, and after particularly thrilling arias heartily applauded and shouted along with the audience at the War Memorial Opera House. Director Graham Vick and Natalie Dessay have created a Lucia that is memorable and sure to become a classic. In the midst of the intense and furious emotions of Edgardo and Enrico, Lucia’s descent into insanity is played in a lower key– the effect is shattering. The sound-image of Dessay, as Lucia, amidst the blood-red heather of the moor, gripped by visions, singing a duet to the haunting sounds of a glass harmonica is unforgettable.

David Gockley’s vision of bringing opera back to the people is a good one, both for SF Opera and our city’s culture. Live opera has become a rare experience, but it’s an art form that has so much to offer to people across the spectrum. Touring Opera companies came to San Francisco along with the gold rush, and San Francisco Opera was founded in 1923 by Gaetano Merola. Our city has a long and celebrated history with Opera.

In the end, it’s about the music, the performances, the drama, the singing. Does the passion and electricity generated up on the stage make the leap across the fourth wall to connect with the audience? Even in that large venue, the knowledge that you’re watching a live performance makes all the difference. On one balmy night in June at the old ballpark, the audience connected via simulcast, and walked away smiling.

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