I attended an extraordinary concert given by three violinists at the Conservatoire (where, during the intermission, I jotted unrelated notes all over their program, which I recycled days later after having typed up the notes, and so now I don’t remember who they were, but they were fantastic, really).
When they raised their instruments, the crowd hushed and the stage lights brightened. The house lights did not. I peeked around me. I’m not sure anybody else was disturbed by this but me. I felt confused: I’m not in the performance! What would anyone have to gain by looking at me during the concert? How am I supposed to focus on the musicians when the lights are shining equally brightly on the people around me?
I thought it was a mistake, but nobody ever dimmed the lights, so I guess it wasn’t.
Possibly as a result of the audience remaining perfectly visible, both to ourselves and to the performers, during the entire concert:
It felt like we were implicated in their performance. If we had collectively looked bored or fallen asleep, they would have known. Because the concert was really wonderful and it was my lucky night, I did not happen to fall asleep as I have at some other concerts. There’s nothing like classical music in a dark room after a long day to soothe me right to sleep.
Thinking about it this way, the bright room did more than make me feel guilty about the prospect of falling asleep, it made me feel like we, the audience, were part of the performance, and we were meant to be engaged in it. I like that idea better than the guilt motive for keeping the lights on.
The final result was that the audience was absolutely silent during the concert. I loved this. I think we would have felt extra guilty for making any noise if we knew everyone would instantly be able to identify its source. No cellphones rang (as they have in more than half the performances I’ve attended here so far), and nobody had a sneezing or coughing attack (as is bound to happen when the 98% of the audience is over the age of 70). I even attended a beautiful concert during which many people were inexplicably whispering last week. Nobody dared whisper with the house lights on. I approve.
I don’t think it’s necessarily always better to be able to see one’s audience. If I know for sure my grandma’s not reading something, I might write something that could hurt her if she hears about it later. If I don’t know who’s reading my writing, I might try to reconsider my ideas from more diverse perspectives and end up with more well-thought-out writing.
As long as we’re only talking about classical music concerts just before my bedtime, though, I’m totally in favor of leaving those house lights on.