Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Dreaded Nightmare Gig

Last week was nice and busy for me.  I had an all-day school residence, an evening performance at the same school, a gig at a ballet studio (dance stories), and another performance close to home.

Usually things go right!  You get to a venue and as you unpack the car you realize that you have everything you need.  This is not always the case with a busy week!  You have plenty of time to set everything up and the venue offers you helpers too, even your musical instrument has time to acclimatize to the space.  You test the space to see if you will need a PA.  You look yourself over and there are no food or drink stains on your clothes.  Your socks match your shoes and there is no cabbage in your teeth.  Things are good.

So there I was.  Matching socks, clean clothes, bottle of water, all set up and plenty of time.  I clapped my hands and said a few words in the space in which I was to perform. There was a fair amount of echo, but it was a small space.  Smaller than the other the previous nights which were also acoustically challenged.  I wondered if I might need a PA; I had one in the car.  No, it was a small space and a PA, I decided, would be more than over-kill.  Besides, when the audience shows up and the stories start, those bodies will absorb some of the sound and everything will be all right.  Except, except I did not look at the ceiling over my head and notice it is at a very acoustically dangerous angle.  The pre-arranged start time is pushed back a little.  There is, however, a deadline which doesn't get pushed back and I wonder if I can do all I want to in the shrinking time frame. I again wonder about the PA.  No, it will be fine.  It's a small enough space, and there should be about 100 people coming.  My socks still match my shoes, I have not eaten any cabbage, and my water won't leave ugly stains on my shirt.  And there is still 15 minutes before 'show time'.  I play my bodhran and watch as people come through the area I am set up in.  I then notice, a little late, that there is a dance class going on down the hall, and in a room right next to me, other activities are going on, but that's okay, the door is closed.  I chat with a few folks and sit with a couple of the kids already congregating for the tales. And then it happens.

People appear from all over to hear stories, or so I think.  They swap stories with each other, visit the activity rooms which begin to get hot with all the bodies and so the door is left open and the sound of happy voices filter out.  And because sounds travels up, those happy voices hit the angled ceiling and bounce back down amplified.  There is no one there to introduce me, so I begin.  I get out my brass Tibetan bowl and make it ring, starting off slowly until it is singing beautifully.  This usually has the effect of those nearest me hearing the bowl sing and so become quiet, which then has a ripple effect as more people hear it.  But those closest to me, by a matter of a few feet, cannot hear it or the two that can, turn and ask the others what it is and why I am doing it.

I laugh to myself and stop, putting the bowl away, and then in my big booming "pub voice" do not announce closing time, but starting time.  I do the usual 'turn your phones off', 'if you kids lose it, take them out and come back when they are calm', and 'please, please, please be quiet, the acoustics here are not conducive to more than one person talking at a time - and that person should be me - I was paid to come here and tell all of you stories after all! Respect your neighbour' and all that.  Mostly people settle down, but one man keeps talking.  He is on the other side of the hall and it sounds to me like he is sitting on my lap, shouting in my ear.  So I politely walk over, so as not to make too big a deal of it, and restate my cause and the room's acoustic issues, allowing that there is a very long corridor and that he or anyone else could carry on their conversation down there where others won't be disturbed, and I can do the best job I can.  He is very gracious and smiles.  But by the time I am back on my side of the room he is talking again, albeit much quieter.  Yet it still sounds like he is sitting on my lap.

Who designs ceilings like this anyway?  You know, apart from Christopher Wren who MEANT to do it.  And he did it so you could be heard if you WHISPERED and it would only travel around the wall, not into The Space!  I worked at a library whose architect designed a room for teens with no doors - a very open space - and then in the upper floor above put quiet study rooms.  Teens cannot be quiet.  It is a scientific fact.  That without killing their spirit, or threatening them their lives, teens cannot be quiet.  With the open design the noise from the teen room went out of the space, up the walls, hit an angled ceiling and projected the now what seemed amplified sound into the quiet study space.

Anyway, I told my first of three stories without too much trouble after this, but when I finished the kids began to get up to go.  Some moved into the activity room, some came out.  This had been going on during the story but somewhat quietly.  Now there was no need to be quiet.  I had finished, hadn't I? Wait, wait!  I asked if they wanted another story and many said 'yes', and sat back down or came to listen.  But about a third of the way through my second story I could not hear myself speak.  The adults had taken over.  I tried raising my voice, but so did everyone else.  I spoke softly so it might cause some who wanted to be respectful of those who wanted to listen to become quiet, but they did not notice.  One woman, in the picture above, walked up next to me and began talking to a friend of hers, who tried politely to make her stop - to no avail.  The kids took a cue from her and began to talk about what to do after the stories, where did they get the cool hats from, etc..  I tried every trick in the book, from trying to physically engage the kids in participation, to walking into the audience, but people then began to move around and out of the room.  My normally ten-minute story was reduced to five and before I could get into another tale, people were leaving to get to another event which was to begin in another five minutes or so.

Someone came by and asked me to stay in case people came back.  In what seemed like 30 seconds, the place was empty.  As I was left alone, I packed up most of my stuff and waited.  But no one came back.  But I waited.  Not even the person who asked me to stay and wait, "just in case".  I smiled and laughed to myself and wondered what it would have been like with the PA.  Over-kill?  It was a great drive home as I listened to some of my favourite storytellers - my kids captured on my iPod, and thought this was one event I would not forget!


Priscilla Howe said...

Excellent tribute, Simon. You really introduced us to your Gran, and in that way, she lives on with all your readers.

Simon Brooks said...

Priscilla's comment was meant for another post - not sure what happened!