Thursday, June 4, 2009

So You Think You Can . . .

I confess to an aversion to "reality" shows of all kinds. I find them exploitive and cruel. I deplore the invitation to wallow in the humiliation of others. And as a union man's daughter, I strenuously object to networks filling air time with these relatively cheap formats without hiring equity actors or script writers.

That said, I find myself fascinated by SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE. First of all, I'm blown away by the talent, the innovation, the sheer physical beauty of these young dancers. They push the envelope of what the human body is able to do, short of having wings.

And the format of the show pushes them . . . with a relentless sadism designed to create maximum emotional outbursts. This is the part of the show I despise. I lost count of how many dancers, male and female, were reduced unnecessarily to blubbering tears.

I understand what's going on with them. I used to sing professional opera. Performance is like a drug. The shot of adrenaline you need to carry you to center stage throws off your chemical balance and as my psychologist friend always reminds me, emotions are chemically-based.

That doesn't make them less real. I remember what it's like to answer a cattle call audition and have the judges talking among themselves while I sang. I've stood in a line across the footlights, hoping against hope to hear my name called--crestfallen when it wasn't, shocked to my toes when it was.

I've sung for a "master class"--an opportunity for a young singer to be coached by an acknowledged master. It's a valuable, yet excruciating, experience--rather like taking your bath in public. I'd sing my aria in its entirety, then the master would deconstruct it, taking me back to the weakest sections and flogging me through ways to improve. People actually paid to watch this form of voluntary torture. It was a popular money maker for the opera company.

And once you start being paid to perform, the pressure only escalates. I remember one maestro who lost no opportunity to castigate me publicly at every rehearsal. I'd made no errors, hit no sour notes, and followed his erratic tempi without complaint. My fellow soloist were as perplexed as I when he continued to single me out for downright nasty comments. I was too loud, too soft, not enough restraint, too impassioned, too boring, there was no pleasing the man. He had me so sure I couldn't sing, I started missing my entrances in a dismal dress rehearsal. (I pulled it together for the performance--out of spite for him at that point!--and he apologized afterward, privately of course, confessing that he'd wanted a different soprano for this oratorio, but had been overruled by someone else in the organization with more clout who wanted me in the soloist's chair. He admitted my performance proved him wrong. I was merely the embodiment of his musical impotence and he couldn't resist taking his frustration out on me.)

The artistic temperment is legendary--alternately needy and demanding. I think it's because creative people lay so much of their hearts out there. It's deeply personal. And rejection also feels deeply personal, whether it is or not. The maestro was really upset with something other than me, but how could I have known that?

A performer is knocked down so often, those who keep getting up have to develop the hide of a rhinocerus and the bone-deep conviction that no matter what anyone else says, "I can so dance! (Sing, write, paint, fill in the blank with whatever subjective creative endeavor you want)"

Of course, you listen to those whose opinion you trust, those who are brutally honest, yet have your best interests at heart. If you are trying to break into a subjective business (like writing or any other creative medium) you must throw your heart out there or it won't resonate with anyone.

But for your own sanity, you must develop a protective armor over that little core of your soul. Otherwise you might end up hurling "F bombs" like the very talented Susan Boyles or blowing snot bubbles on national TV like some of the SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE contestants.

Scientists long ago realized that observing something changes it. Which means reality TV by definition is not valid. What do you think?


Nynke said...

That's an interesting look into the mind of contestants... How terrible, that someone would take his frustration out on someone who depends on him, and not once but time and time again! Good thing he apologised in the end.
I think you're right, reality shows aren't about reality - the only 'real' thing about them is that they involve real people with real hopes, dreams and fears. They do affect the contestants' realities...

EmilyBryan said...

At a huge cost.

Once these dancer reach this level, every one of them is incredibly talented. And the way the show is structured, their confidence is shaken at every turn.

Nynke said...

How sad... surely, constructive instead of destructive criticism would go a long way, too? We recently had a reality show / singing contest in Holland, X-factor, where the jury was very good at delivering constructive criticism. And the ratings were still really high!

Carrie Lofty said...

SYTYCD is the only reality show I watch--and nearly the only TV I watch at all! I used to perform ballroom in college, so I can relate to the pressure on a small scale. I did it for recreation; these kids are doing it for their livelihood. But as authors, we do the same thing. Bad reviews, the wrong editor, a poor agent, jealous colleagues...all of this can shake our confidence too. I think the best of these dancers are self-aware enough to realize what's being done to them, and to thrive anyway. My recaps of this seasons' shows are on my website.

Jane L said...

Hi Emily! I have been feeling under the weather, but bouncing back now! I so agree with you on this reality tv thing, it is such a waste of time! Why can't we get good quality tv anymore, I mean shows that actually may HELP people and entertain them? It is a shame, therefore I just don't watch anymore, I hate to say it but my tv is probably limited to five hrs a week and most of that is news, unless I watch a sport event with my husband. It is sad that we can be entertained by others pain, it makes me sad and I agree humiliating someone no matter what they are trying to do is not useful in any manner! OK I am done now!

LuAnn said...

I think what frustrated me the most is the phoniness of some of the shows. I do, however, like to watch some of the dancing shows. They, at least, had to do an initial audition to even make it on the show to begin with. What I really miss, though, is some of the old comedy sitcoms and variety shows. No one seems to be making them anymore because all the time slots are filled with the reality shows.

mrsshukra said...

Thanks for this post! SYTYCD is the hands down the best TV reality show with the hardest working contestants and judges! I've observed that the judges on this show really try to be helpful. Hubby and I are huge SYTYCD and Nigel fans and my goodness, no kidding, I was seriously thinking of "Lythgoe" as the last name for your #2 character but decided against it last night. For real!

Patricia Barraclough said...

First let me say, that your background as a professional performer must have given you great insight into the character when writing STROKE OF GENIUs.
There is very little real about reality TV. The only one I watch is The Amazing Race. I love to travel, and would love to compete. But as far as any of it being real, I don't think so. It is fun to act as a contestant and decide what and how we would do.

EmilyBryan said...

Thanks for your insights, ladies. I realize I'm so in the minority with my "anti-reality TV" stance.

But even the traditionally written and casted shows can fall short of expectations. I watched Royal Pains last night, full of hope that it would be a guilty peek into the lives of the uber-wealthy. But I was disappointed in how the hero was written.

After an abysmal career-ending series of events--in which he was largely not cupable, he has a huge opportunity dropped into his lap. But instead of jumping in, he spends most of the pilot running from the chance to be a "concierge" doctor for super models and Wall Street moguls. What? Don't wealthy people deserve emergency care, too? And given his personal situation, I found his "reluctant hero" stance totally unbelievable. Bad writing.

Guess I need to join Jane in abstaining from the idiot box till something better comes along.

EmilyBryan said...

PS. Jane, I'm glad you're feeling better!