On June 21st I had the pleasure of adding Stevie Wonder to my short list of moving concert experiences. My list is short because I am a proud hater, but I was in good company and ready for something special. Soon the cheesy Trump Taj Mahal lights and watered down Budweiser would fade away and I would find myself in a parallel universe based on feeling not sight. Speaking of sight, my only criticism of the concert was the placement of the side screens that killed the sight lines for those in the cheap seats.
The show sort of started on time and Wonder made a modest entry, escorted by his daughter Aisha. “Isn’t she lovely?” I thought. Other than that corny pun, this will not be a rundown on all the great Stevie Wonder hits. What really stands out from an event designer’s perspective is the environment, the intimacy, and participation Mr. Wonder engendered with his performance. Strategic effort was put into the sequence of songs to pull the audience out of a spectator role and into an active one. Stevie would play keys while directing the audience to sing then he would jump in. This was all done with ease and a sense of humor. “Some of ya’ll are messing up my lyrics, man.” “The ladies sound weak tonight.”
Of course this style of participation is not new, but it felt different. Dig the next example. The music for Part-Time Lover came on and the crowd went nuts, but before there was any singing, Stevie rehearsed the crowd on singing the bridge, the “doop dooooo doop doop do dooby doo” part. After he was satisfied with our sub-par doobying, he sang the first part of the song. He then yelled for Q-tip to come out [of nowhere] to rock what appeared to be a freestyle while we chirped the bridge. It was fun and it left me with a greater appreciation for what I already believe and incorporate into my events – an emphasis on participation. Audiences are not only fans who want to fill a room and be counted. An audience is a body of discerning tastes that want to engage the space, have choices, and be the experience. It’s really cool when legends like Stevie Wonder are willing and eager to make this the fabric of their live art. Surely everyone who bought a ticket would have been content to sing along in our own un-orchestrated ways, but we happily accepted the invitation to do more.
Participation was fresh on my mind on the way home back to Brooklyn. After a short bus ride and a long train ride, we were blocks from our place. My other half reminded me that we should check out this performance by the Blind Cotton Theater Company (That literally is the name of the troupe) that was being held in their backyard. Shakespeare in the backyard, right… Blind Cotton all live together in this house in our neighborhood and decided to have a free performance of impromptu Shakespeare to introduce themselves to the community. A full spread of hot dogs, burgers, Kool Aid, and other things I don’t eat were available for me to look at. They also started sort of on time, and more importantly, they kept the theme going. Their performance was very intimate and built on participation. Before the set began, “insult cards” were passed to the audience – Shakespearean disses like “You’re as fat as a bean-fed horse”. The crowd was small but diverse, lively like the Stevie Wonder concert, and eager to be the experience they came to see. We knew the show was about to jump off when the stage was drawn – with chalk. Very low tech but very effective and the performance was quite enjoyable I might add. Blind Cotton did their thing and so did the audience – yelling Shakespearean disses at the actors and actresses with perfect timing. With each jeer, a louder laugh from the company and the audience.