Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tag-Team Audiencing

We tend to think of audiencing as a rather prescribed set of activities: purchasing a ticket, entering a theater of some kind, and watching/hearing a performance. But there are all kinds of alternative audience practices that challenge this model, either out of necessity or defiance. In Listening and Longing, for instance, I wrote about the practice of lingering outside concert halls to catch the muted strains of performed music inside, or drawing out the experience of a performance through various kinds of reproduction: writing and re-reading detailed descriptions in diaries, or purchasing sheet music or scripts of works and trying to re-create them.

I just realized the significance of another alternative practice. Harry Belafonte, in his new autobiography, My Song, writes about how he and Sidney Poitier, as young struggling actors in post-War 1940s Harlem, would go to the theater: "We started going to the theater once or twice a week, splitting the cost of a single ticket. One of us would go in for the first half, come out at intermission and pass the stub, along with a plot summary to the other. We saw some theater that way, and agreed that seeing half of each play taught us more than not seeing a play at all." (60)

Remarkably, I had just read Patti Smith's account of the same practice when she was living with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York City in the 1970s. This is a fascinating way to encounter a performance. All audiences set up a performance and then collectively interpret it afterward through conversation and criticism--but in this scenario, the performance itself is a dialogic construction, made from individually-experienced fragments, imagined together. If you believe that audiences are secondary, only receiving the primary event of performance, then this sort of tag-teaming is simply a clever way to report "what happened" among those who can't afford more than a ticket. However, if you believe that audiences in some way constitute the performances they encounter, then tag-teaming presents some very interesting questions about how texts might be understood, crafted, and made meaningful in their re-telling. 

Of course, we do this all the time. When a group of people is watching television and one person leaves for a moment to get a snack or use the bathroom and then asks, upon returning, "What did I miss?," he will piece together the narrative from experience, memory, and whatever irritated descriptions he receives. What I like about tag-team audiencing is the positive investment in the process; both Belafonte and Poitier planned to relate half the play to the other and knew that their collective understanding depended on it.

Jonathan Sterne has described the phonograph as "a machine to hear for us." In many ways, tag-team audiencing functions similarly; both Belafonte and Poitier provided playback for each other. Belafonte doesn't talk about how he, or Poitier, grew to enjoy the descriptions they gave each other as much as seeing plays, but that wouldn't be impossible to imagine. 

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