A lesson about reciprocity in performance arts

By Limor Shiponi

We arrived to the venue an hour and a half early. My partner had two lutes to tune, together with a Hurdy-gurdy and a Vihuela. I had about a dozen wind-instruments to tend to and then tune to her. Costumes to wear, headpieces to fix – we were busy for over an hour, as usual. Sitting in a room on the second floor of a fabulous house, the only connection to the outside world was a window – just above the catering people. They were working like busy ants.

Time went by; we could hear the lady of the house greeting the first guests. Being a descendant of THE Russian Tsar – a detail she mentioned occasionally during our preparatory visit – she most probably felt obliged to use a ‘cultured’ voice.

Our opening act was to be a surprise for the guests – walking down the stairs in full Renaissance attire (made especially for us in ‘Teatro alla Scala de Milano’ – mind you) playing a medieval dance tune on Hurdy-gurdy and drum, walking through the crowd and then sitting down for a full concert of music and stories. The guests were surprised alright, letting out ‘wow’s and ‘ho’s, trying to ask questions about the garments and the Hurdy-gurdy as we moved through.

While walking, playing and making sure my partner can walk through with her instrument, my eyes were searching for the stage – the piece of floor we requested to keep clear for the concert. It was gone; the space was occupied with an electrical piano and a young guy, dressed like one would dress for a ‘piano bar’ occasion.

After our round was over I approached the lady of the house, “I understand you’ve decided to move the stage somewhere else?” “Oh,” she replied with a smile, “your part is over; it was fabulous, thank you. Your pay is in the room on the second floor, thank you again, it was exactly what I wanted for my guests to experience.” She walked away chatting and smiling with yet another guest that came to tell her how lovely an opening she has prepared for the occasion.

I saw my partner going up the stairs, ready to bring down her other instruments for the full concert. I followed and walked into the room. “Our part is over,” I said to her. “What?” she couldn’t understand. “We were a surprise and now our part is over. That was her plan. She doesn’t want the full concert.” We stood in silence for several seconds. I phoned our driver and asked him to come and collect us. We folded our instruments, our costumes, packed our bags. We both saw the envelope with the money; none of us picked it up. Finally, we took it and left the house.

Climbing into the car, the driver said, “Isn’t it too early to leave?” we told him what happened. “Great! You got the same pay for 10 minutes!” but we didn’t feel great at all. We felt manipulated, offended, down.

The positive flip-side

I perform since I was ten. As an adult and a professional, I get paid. Performing artists know – we don’t perform only for the ‘market exchange’ – pay is only one reason, definitely not a deep motivation. One deeper motivation is the need to give to others, to share. Through this incident, I found out how deep this need goes.

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