Aretha Franklin Reminded Me Why We Still Need Live Theatre in the 21st Century (#2)

So, over the past couple of weeks I’ve been researching grant possibilities for our production of Stormbound (Crystal Ice Reflections): Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council. I’ve also met with a representative at Canadian Actors’ Equity Association to discuss contracts and fees. And I’ve corresponded, by email, with an Associated Designers of Canada rep. – in case we decide to go with union designers. I want to make sure that I have accurate numbers when it comes to our budget, and that I know the parameters of any contracts we ask our artists to sign.

All of this activity has naturally led me to ask myself, why make theatre anyway? I mean, in the age of the Gram and screens and texts and streams, does anyone really want to sit in a room and watch real live humans tell stories anymore?

Well, one day, a couple of years ago, I came across a YouTube video of the, now late, great Aretha Franklin performing (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman at the 2015 Kennedy Centre Honours, in front of President Obama and the first lady, the outstanding songwriter, Carole King, and an audience filled with luminaries. I had not seen the show when it aired on TV – as I don’t have cable. And I had not heard about it at that time. So this performance came as a revelation to me. I’ve always been a fan. Who hasn’t, right? Always had her on my faves playlist: Until You Come Back to Me, Think, Call Me, Respect, A Natural Woman (one of my mom’s favourites), Day Dreaming, Rock Steady, Who’s Zooming Who? A Rose is Still a Rose. On and on…

“I paid my dues; I certainly did.”

– Aretha Franklin

But I was not prepared for what I witnessed that day. Not only was this elderly lady’s voice more exquisite than ever, and her piano playing grand and eloquent. She had the power of a master, and the energy of someone decades younger. As the performance progressed, it seemed to transcend time and space, lay bare the totality of a soul, and the audience – witnessing it live – clearly enraptured, en masse rose to its feet, already applauding as Miss Aretha raised an arm to the heavens and let rip a series of ascending top notes, culminating in an exhilarating and divine aria-like crescendo, and tears sprang like projectiles from my eyes, and my heart resonated simultaneously with joy and sadness and hope and wonder…I’ve since watched this video several times – and revisited it after hearing the recent sad news of her death – and always thought the same thing: I wish I had been in the room to experience that. Because as great as it was to watch it on my computer screen, I know that experiencing it live would have been so much…more.

“You’re only as good as the chances you take.”

– Al Pacino


Now, obviously, most performances are not going to be that. Nor should they have to be. The word special exists for a reason. But still, seeing performers (actors, singers, dancers, musicians), live and in the flesh, having some sort of human experience right in front of you, breathing the same air at the same time as you, in all of their vulnerability and humanness and unpredictability, must always and forever exist as an alternative to the world of ubiquitous screens. And so, I soldier on. Making theatre. Trusting (hoping) that there will always be an audience for the exchange of molecules in a room between themselves, and the artists brave enough to stand before them and bare whatever parts of their souls that they can.

Thus, theatre in the 21st century is still necessary because, so far as I can tell, no technology has come close to replacing it. I love reading books. I enjoy a lot of films. I’m extremely grateful that recorded music exists. There’s a ton of great TV being made right now. And I enjoy the variety and depth (and at times the frivolity too), of the Web. But theatre, live performance, links us inextricably to our ancestors: to the stories told, to the beat of a drum, under the moonlight, around a flame, live and in the flesh.

Thanks for reading…


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