On Leonard Cohen, Traveling Theatre, and the Mutual Hospitality of Performance

May 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

Leonard Cohen’s Live in London is a big, expansive album, especially for a live show: it’s a three-hour, two-disk marathon listen, full of Cohen’s cavernous bass booming out his love-and-death songs with the accompaniment of a six-piece band and three backup singers. As the concert draws to a close, Cohen—whose statements between songs are generally short, studied, and slightly cryptic—makes the usual little gesture of a touring artist outside his hometown, and thanks the crowd for their hospitality. It’s not a remark that would catch you off guard most of the time, but listening to this album it did me: until that point Cohen had seemed to be the host, fully in control of the proceedings, welcoming the audience into a world he had created. And certainly in a sense Leonard Cohen was the one offering hospitality in that concert hall that night. But of course, in another sense the people of London were “hosting” him—he was the guest from out of town, staying the night and moving on the next day. In thanking the crowd for their hospitality after he had hosted them in the concert hall for three hours, Cohen acknowledged that neither group had a monopoly on hospitality that night.

I was reminded by this of a time in my own history as a performer. My alma mater in Nebraska has a children’s theatre program which travels to schools and libraries throughout the state every year, putting on a play in a gym or multipurpose room. I got to be part of this program for two years, experiencing the pleasures and pains of touring, and although I loved most of it, one moment of each show always annoyed me. At the end of a show, we would do the usual bows, and would then remain onstage and take questions. Once the questions were done, we thanked the children for being a good audience, and applauded them—inevitably spurring them to applaud for us as well, leaving everyone clapping for everyone else. Cynical and over-analytical as I was and am, this irritated me: who are we all clapping for? what is the point of everyone clapping for everyone else? My classmates explained it to me as a way to cover an awkward moment as we turned away to clean up and strike the set—which was pretty much right—but I didn’t find that satisfactory on a symbolic level. I still wanted to know who we were all clapping for. (You may be getting the sense that I was kind of a punk as a college freshman, but I encourage you to ignore that feeling.)

It only sank in for me five years later while listening to the Leonard Cohen album that our mutual clapping was an expression of the mutual hospitality inherent in performance. We were in a space that belonged to the children and their teachers, invited there and hosted by them—and yet for the hour-and-a-half of our performance we created a world of our own, in which we controlled meaning and they were the guests. So it is in any performance, even if a musician holds a concert in her own living room: the concert can’t exist without the audience, and so they too have a share in its hosting.

In a sense, of course, no hospitality goes just one way. People have recognized from ancient times that hosting another brings a gift: see the story of Abraham’s hospitality toward the angels in Genesis, or the Greek story of the old couple—whose names I shamefully have forgotten—who hosted the gods and thus received the gift of a shared death. So we seldom if ever host someone without expecting to get something out of it.

But the situation is intensified in touring performance, which may may be why the experience can be so rewarding. You may get a gift out of having me over for dinner—I’ll supply conversation, maybe chocolate or flowers—but seldom will I come into your house in order to invite you into another world of meaning inside your own home. I may come into your home to practice gift-giving, but seldom hospitality. And yet this is how touring performance works, when it works well: the performer comes into a space possessed by the audience, in order to invite them into his own space. It’s a level of mutuality we seldom experience elsewhere. Perhaps this is what concert reviewers mean when they refer to a show as “intimate”: there’s a sense in which audience and performer enter one other’s private space. There’s a grace in such intimacy, as Leonard Cohen realizes, and as I didn’t as a smart-alecky nineteen-year-old. It’s why live performance remains powerful, even in the age of 3D movies. And it’s why touring can so often feel like coming home.

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§ 2 Responses to On Leonard Cohen, Traveling Theatre, and the Mutual Hospitality of Performance

  • Amy says:

    Matthew, I love live theater and I’ve always known that there was something really magical about it, though I’ve never put my finger on what, exactly, that was. It’s just that watching a tape of a performance doesn’t even come close to watching it live. I have puzzled over this fact. I like to think that it is this mutual gift-giving, in part, that contributes to the magic. I think the audience members also give gifts to each other–the appreciative glance, the laughter, the clapping, the gasp of surprise or delight–all these responses seem to encourage the audience members to enjoy the experience more than if they were sitting there alone. Anyway, I enjoyed your article. Where’d you learn to write like that?

  • Excellent point on the gift-giving that happens amongst the audience as well. It’s nothing formal, but it’s crucial.

    Thanks for your kind words. I’m pretty sure whatever’s good in this piece mainly derives from the subject matter–I find these ideas of gifts so beautiful and moving they elevate even some pretty run-of-the-mill prose.

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