I recently retired from a very gratifying 50-year career of presenting performing arts shows all over the country, featuring iconic artists from all over the world. The talents that I have been blessed to work with include Mikhail Baryshnikov, The Temptations and Four Tops, Elvis Presley, YoYo Ma, Wynton Marsalis and Leonard Bernstein, among hundreds of others.
Few would doubt that we are living through one of the most difficult eras in modern history, with the pandemic forcing major changes in our normal lives. Perhaps it’s no surprise that this also happens to be the most divided political time of our lives.
While I’m not a public official, statesman or political pundit, my lifetime experience of presenting the performing arts comes from a heartfelt perspective that we all share more common values than vastly different ones. As audiences, we enjoy common experiences that serve to unite us, even if only for that brief period in which we are being entertained — seated together regardless of our other differences — to experience a wonderful time.
All of us have fundamental beliefs and values that extend beyond our own neighborhoods to those of people in the next town and far beyond, exponentially. We need to expand our horizons to find and embrace these similarities because within them exists a key catalyst to bridge the vast divide among us.
Most theaters have a proscenium arch which is the front of the staging area to the view of the artists from the audience’s gallery. It’s the point of entry for most performances — whether they be in theater, classical music, jazz artistry, rock ‘n’ roll, comedy / spoken word, recitals, dance, family attractions or similar programmatic genres.
The entrance arch is apolitical. It welcomes and presents artists and attractions of many political persuasions. It doesn’t have regard for race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, age, religion or political beliefs. It doesn’t prefer one group over another. It’s for all in the audience to accept the presentation on its own terms.
All of this happens in the beginning, not the end. The performance provides a platform for dialogue, intellectual exchange and emotional growth. It’s without preconceived expectations or notions of “right versus wrong.” Each member of the audience draws their own conclusions about the performances and the talents involved.
Post-performance conversations in a social gathering extend the reach of the experience and allow for any gathering of audience peers to hear from and speak to others in a meaningful way. In an audience, it doesn’t matter if the person seated next to you is Democrat or Republican, North or South Korean, gay or straight, male or female, and on and on. What matters is the shared experience of something special that we all get to have, regardless of what may be lots of differences among us in other areas.
Our applause of appreciation joins us together even more — and any brief dialogue and interaction can lead to growth, even when the result sometimes may be that we “agree to disagree.” But it can and usually is all done with civility.
The performing arts are a healing natural medicine for our hearts and minds. When a rock fan enjoys a country music performance, or a classical music fan finds appreciation in a unique ukulele act, or the poetry of a rapper, and so on, we have demonstrated crossover appeal can work.
More than two years of COVID and our deep national divide surely make live performances more important than ever by creating a common ground to set aside our differences in a very civil way. They allow for a bright young blind emerging Black jazz pianist — Matthew Whittaker — to be profiled in a breakout feature story on nationally telecast “60 Minutes.” His already strong upward trajectory was majorly morphed to an even more timely destiny of global success because his life-affirming phenomenal talent was exposed to a gigantic audience.
DakhaBrakha, the Ukrainian contemporary folk quartet who are in their fourth year of touring the United States, can enlighten American audiences to the humanistic folk music from a culture that is “from a distance.” And with the worldwide concern over Russia’s war against Ukraine, these cultural ambassadors help us to understand even more. Similarly, it allows for a musical group that was created during apartheid in Soweto South Africa, combining African gospel traditional Western spirituals and American pop music to be part of our musical landscape. (Their first performance was for Nelson Mandela followed by over 46,400 concerts internationally.)
The performing arts are a gift to and for the most human and humane part of us all. Let us embrace any good opportunity to share cultural experiences of the performing arts — to help us inhale the joy of being entertained and to exhale any of the negativity being passed around in this difficult era. Let’s positively seek and use our opportunities to be in audiences together to stimulate our own lives, to grow culturally, intellectually, and socially.
In any audience of friends, family, neighbors, and strangers, we are expanding our choices to “cross the political aisle” or any other divide. Great shared audience experiences provided by the diverse disciplines of the performing arts remain one of our best tickets to ride for calming the anger of this time and finding a more civil and serene path that we all need to thrive, not just survive.
Michael Blachly’s 50-year career covered every aspect of live performing arts, from presenter, producer, technical adviser, and artist manager to his most recent stint as Director of FSU’s Opening Nights program. His belief that the arts play in a vital role in our society was also reflected in his service in leadership positions with Association of Performing Arts Professionals, National Association of Performing Arts Managers and Agents, Western Arts Alliance, South Arts, Chamber Music America, and International Society of Performing Arts.