Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 27, 2010

Silenced

It’s no secret: those who know me don’t use the words “shy” or “reticent” to describe me. They may wish I had some trace of those qualities, but I lack them. As a result, along with sometimes opening my mouth when I should remain taciturn, or stepping into situations from which I would be better served to absent myself, I don’t miss an opportunity to perform, whether it’s in music or on stage, even though I’m a mere amateur in both categories.

Most humans have a natural aversion to being put on the spot. Whether it’s being called upon to speak in public, or to have one’s photograph on Page One (or, for you New Yorkers, Page Six), it’s customary to avoid the spotlight and all the attendant hoo-hah. But, for a few, only the spotlight will serve, and the only thing better than being the center of attraction is being literally onstage. Here I have to offer an aside about my days in community theater with my long-lost friend, Jed. Jed was a masterful performer. He commanded every room he ever occupied, every gathering he ever attended, and every stage he ever stood upon. If there were two people in a room, and he walked in, Jed WOULD command that space. Well, I can tell you that I have been on stage in front of six hundred people, and I had the action AND the line, AND the strongest position, and, friends, I disappeared. I ceased to exist. Jed not only ate the scenery, he consumed me, took over the scene and had us all for breakfast. Without a line, without any action, he commanded the attention of six hundred people WHILE I was speaking. How did he do that? I witnessed it first-hand, but I still don’t understand it.

For those of us who fit the description of “performer” or who wish to, there is nothing more compelling than being on an open stage in an empty theater. There’s no greater temptation to excess than a house of vacant seats stretching out at one’s feet to inspire one to call out a couple of favorite lines from Shakespeare or whatever else comes to mind. The critical issue is: can you make your voice ring out loudly and clearly enough to hear it returning to you from the back wall of the house? It sounds offensive to most of you, but to the egotist, there is nothing more rewarding than a big theater resounding with the sound of one’s own voice.

I blame my parents, of course. Starting out in life as the oldest child — the solo performer of my generation — I quickly found my dominant position challenged by a series of new siblings: each one just as smart, funny and gifted as the other. Some of them, god help me, actually practiced their art, becoming skilled performers. What was I to do? Sheer bluster would have to serve, since I couldn’t imagine devoting the 10,000 hours of practice that are the generally agreed-upon requirement to achieve mastery in a performance field. Piano Nan and the Army Bandmaster have gone on to achieve professional status, while the remaining two brothers are just smart and funny and entertaining. It has been a hard duty, I can tell you.

However, I have had my opportunities, and I had two chances to step onstage recently in San Francisco, where we were inspecting venues for some future productions.

Out first stop was the Herbst Theater, built in the 1930s, housed in the San Francisco War Memorial building, across the street from City Hall.

It was on this stage that the charter for the United Nations was signed in 1945, so it’s a historic place, as well as a still-functioning theater. It seats about 900 or so, and is a gem. (click on the photos to see an enlarged view)

Beautifully proportioned, with all the stylistic elements of its era, the Herbst has seen every kind of production, and there I was. I’ve never actually performed in such a grand place, but I have played to a crowd big enough to fill the joint (along with my Global Jam colleagues). I couldn’t think of any lines appropriate to the signing of the U.N. charter, but, apropos of nothing, Marlowe came to mind. I summoned my inner Richard Burton and gave the joint a few lines from Dr. Faustus, who, facing endless damnation, cries out “Lente, lente currite, noctis equi!” (slowly, slowly run, oh horses of the night). I leave it to you to imagine the reaction of my colleagues, standing around me, being used to this sort of thing and just ignoring it ’til I’m done. If they were embarrassed, they kept it to themselves. Ah, that was invigorating. Time to investigate the next venue.

The next stop was two doors down: the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony. A very different place from the Herbst: larger, more open, overall an extremely demanding venue  with acoustics that only a fully trained virtuoso can overcome with voice or instrument. Built in 1980,  it seats more than 2400. We entered via the performers’ entrance and stepped out onto the stage into a vast, soaring space.

Yeow! The Big Time! I was absolutely flabbergasted. Friends, I have to tell you that I had met my match. I knew immediately that I could no more project my voice into that big expanse of air than I could consider giving Christopher Parkening a few pointers on his guitar technique. Empty, the place was utterly intimidating.

I could not even envision what it would be like to step out in front of the house if it were full of people. How can Joshua Bell (who was to perform there that night) walk out holding a little wooden box, confident that he was going to scratch a tune out of his miserable little fiddle in some way that would do anything but anger a crowd that big and distant? Shocking, it was. I was crushed. Crushed, I tell you. I got off that stage immediately and walked up into the house a few dozen rows and looked back.

Yep, that’s where I belonged. Mr. Eastwood said it: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Amen, Clint.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017

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