The player and the audience

Tuesday 27 April 2010

In the street in Córdoba, we saw an extraordinary looking man, a big man, a Black man, wearing cap, t-shirt, jeans, and a big billowing dusty flamenco dress. He was working the cars at the traffic lights, selling air fresheners I think. I saw a smartly dressed woman on a scooter give him a big smile and a greeting. But scooters don’t need air fresheners. As the bus moved on towards the railway station we saw another man doing the same routine at the next junction, also in a flamenco dress.

The night before in Córdoba we’d taken the kids to a flamenco show, past their bedtime, in a funny colourful place, first drink included in the price, a small audience of tourists already there, some of them also with children. The group on stage would do a wordless number, then a pause, come back with a singer and do a song, a pause, come back with a different singer, pause, come back with a dancer, and so on. One singer particularly gave it the whole arm, breaking heart, breaking voice, blood, sweat and tears. Then in the next pause he started working the tables. The patter about the flamenco group, no — the flamenco family. The price of the CD, the tape, the DVD. Signed by the whole group. Dedicated to the children. Of course we bought a CD. Resent it? I loved it. That's how it’s done. Tear your heart out for them and then get the money before they can look away.

Earlier in Ronda, we’d visited the bullring. The children played in the dust of the arena. The bullring museum included photos of one their most famous 20th Century bullfighters posing with various unnamed characters, recognisable amongst them Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles. Outside the bullring stood a man and horse, both in full costume, posing for photos with tourists for a fee.
From Ronda to Córdoba, from Córdoba to Madrid.

Coming out of the Madrid metro into Puerto del Sol on a sunny afternoon, we were disoriented and overwhelmed, and in the noisy crowded square a toreador, a woman dressed as Hello Kitty, and other costumed photo opportunities for sale. Also a mariachi band. Street sellers hawking sunglasses and twinkling knick-nacks. Everything here and now all pressing into the hot square between the tall, tatty, city buildings. Exhausted as we were, we fled, but it’s that part of the city I most want to revisit.

We were booked into a hostel on a street off the square, booked on the internet, in a hurry, last minute. There was a small doorway. A bell gave access to the dark narrow hallway lined with postboxes, leading to a small old lift. I can’t remember what floor reception was on. The fourth? Everything was brown. The one sign of the 21st Century was the coin-operated internet terminal. Our hearts sank. But now I can at least say there weren’t fleas in the beds, unlike the earlier hotel in Ronda which put on a much flashier front.

In our room, the noise rising from the street was as loud as if we were still down there. We could hear an incessant squeaking noise, lots of shouting and laughter. I did my best to ignore it, dizzy from lack of lunch. The children ran round the room, bouncing on beds, antic kittens, leaning over the balcony rail — a clown! It was a clown in the street, speaking in squeaks and mime. Our son got the phone to take a picture, over the railing, visions of it being dashed on the pavement several stories down. The clown was playing tricks on passers by, swapping his bag for theirs, hopping onto one for a piggyback ride, jumping into the street in front of a bus and refusing to let it pass. And finally throwing down his cap and gesturing for applause, then gesturing for money.

Though it didn’t end as simply as that — the business of harvesting payment was as big a performance as the rest. Once the crowd had put money in the hat he did a whole bit of business sitting on the pavement to count it, then looking up to count the crowd, then pursuing someone he suspected of not paying. And when the clown got a coin from this fellow he bit it of course, pulled a disgusted face and mimed shoving it up his bum. Then a woman came to give him more money. He smiled, she didn’t have to, he had so much already, but when she then walked off without giving it to him he pursued her, desperately making clear he really did want her money.

Below is a clip of Orson Welles, via Cartoon Brew, from some years after he was photographed at the bullring in Ronda, talking about performers and audiences, and why a television studio audience is not a real audience: because they haven’t payed. He maintains that the real audience is becoming extinct - an exaggeration, though it’s true that many performers now work without direct contact with their ultimate audience, and have a much less tangible relationship with them than the clown in Madrid or the Córdoba street seller. This has economic as well as cultural importance, as Mark Mayerson describes in a post from 2008, The Final Customer,  on the distant relationship between most commercial animators and their audience.