To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering. —Friedrich Nietzsche
[Ed. note: Yep, this is a rerun. Family demands just don’t give us enough time on Saturdays to write two new pieces without children going nuts. Besides, there are enough new readers who didn’t get to see this the first time around. Thank you for understanding.]
A lot was made last year of a major league baseball game played at Baltimore’s Camden Yards at which every seat was empty. Due to recent violence in that neighborhood, officials feared it would be too dangerous to allow fans, who tend to get a bit rowdy anyway, into the ballpark. So the game, between Baltimore’s Orioles and Chicago’s White Sox, took place in an eerily silent stadium. There was no one singing the national anthem. No fans clamoring for autographs (though catcher Caleb Joseph pretended to sign them anyway). No cheering when a run scored. For the first time in the history of major league baseball, no one was there.
Performing artists around the world understand. They’ve been facing some of those same conditions for years. Even when the climate for the performing arts was at its best, there were still many venues where actors and musicians and dancers performed in halls designed to seat a couple thousand people, but in which fewer than 100 were actually watching. It is a situation repeated most often in smaller cities, but not completely unknown even in the most famous of places, such as Carnegie Hall. Even Broadway has seen a nine percent drop in attendance at musicals and twelve percent decline at plays.
The National Endowment for the Arts is who keeps track of such numbers, and because attendance and involvement in the performing arts can vary so dramatically across the states and can be influenced by local situations such as labor strikes and local economies, they are careful about making short-term comparisons. However, when they conducted their latest study in 2013, what they discovered was a rather disturbing trend compared to figures from the previous study in 2008. Attendance at more traditional art forms, ballet, classical music, and musical theatre, all dropped. Opera attendance held steady, but I’m not sure that’s saying all that much since it only garnered the attention of 2.1% adults in either survey.
All artists understand suffering and sacrifice. I’ve seen both painters and photographers pass out because of lengthy sessions in unventilated rooms. I’ve seen guitarists and violinists practice until the blood was dripping from the necks of their instruments. I’ve seen pianists and actors fall from the sheer exhaustion of rehearsal. I’m not sure anyone pays as much of a physical price, though, as do ballet dancers. The picture on today’s billboard is a relatively nice one compared to some I’ve seen; toes with no nails, knobbed from repeated breaking, calloused, scarred, and misshapened. By the time a ballerina retires, she often cannot walk without assistance.
While performing artists will tell you that they do what they do out of love and passion for the art, it is still disheartening to put in all the practice, the years of training, the hours upon hours of suffering only to look out into an audience and find no more than a smattering of season ticket holders present. Why attendance is low doesn’t really matter at that point. When one completes a performance one has rehearsed tirelessly for months and the meager applause echoes off empty seats, the heart sinks. At these moments, even the most experienced and stalwart of performers has to wonder why they’ve bothered.
I doubt one will ever actually see a billboard such as this one because it is a bit too unrefined for most performing arts organizations. Symphonies and ballets and theatres prefer a more positive approach because the arts, in their opinion, should be a place that makes one happy, not one where attendance is mandatory out of some form of social obligation. Yet, as that happy approach is not working, perhaps it’s time to take a more realistic look at the matter.
Don’t let their suffering be in vain. Support all the arts.