Working in the business of live theatre is a brutal education on the inflexibility of human-scaled “time”. During performance, any act is totally unreversable. While one can redo something in rehearsal, this ‘redo’ is always a new redo in that a mistake at 12:13pm becomes fixed at 12:15pm—most definitely not at 12:13pm. I can not travel back in time. As theatre is a collaborative venture, redoing a moment requires the cooperation of all the parts of the whole: technicians, performers, staff. (Of course everybody is cognizant of the redo.) But in performance, there are no retakes. There can never be a moment redone without all participants noticing. Mistakes or improvements may pass by unnoticed: if Hamlet were to stumble on “undiscovered country” and say “unrecovered country” maybe some people wouldn’t notice, but they certainly would if Hamlet were to say “…unrecovered country….., undiscovered country”. The moment is irrecoverable. If in an ensemble performance like dance or a symphony there is no question of redoing the moment in performance, and dissonances are never recoverable once they occur.
It has been my great misfortune to be rather fallible, and my mistakes in live performance have certainly honed my perception of the irrecoverable motion of time. If as a lighting operator I plunge the stage into darkness at a crucial moment, I can always re-brighten the stage, but the dissonance of the moment is not ever repairable, and so the memory of the mistake lives on in the brains of the whole cast, staff, and audience. Not even 0.0001 seconds after a mistake can I somehow undo it. I can only hope that either the mistake was small enough to go unnoticed (this happens often to performers and technicians) or that everyone will forgive me. (Some mistakes significantly degrade a performance and are less forgivable.)
Recently I blacked out the stage a full 8 count early for no good reason other than an inattentiveness to my own time tracking. If I were alone in a room and made the same mistake, I could not tell and no one would be the wiser. As it was, I ‘mistook’ in front of 125 people, at least 25 of which were heavily discombobulated by my act.
At the moment of the mistake, my body flushed with hot shame; the capillaries in my hands and arms vacillated open and closed like butterfly wings. For a moment my being and existence resounded with a sharp ringing vibration like that which would be produced by slamming an iron bar into a thick brass vase. In the next few seconds, like a slow vise, my intellect began to imagine the longer term consequences, the public recriminations and ritual shaming, the inescapable open humiliation and the recognition that yes, yes, it was my fault and I would be the last to deny culpability. The only tyranny I can blame is that of cause and effect: the logic of space-time. That the mere press of a button too early should have such consequences! But of course, the press of a “mere button” has historically have had far worse outcomes than a ruined reputation and a mishap in a live performance.
So I ask my whole intellect and intuitive ability to find a way to un-mistake the mistake. First is the sheer quantity of minds that remember what happened. Instead of erasing the mistake from 125 people, I should focus on the 25 or so minds whose judgement affects my being-in-the-world most of all. One problem is that the mistake was documented in mass emails and at least two video recordings saved and shared among these 25 people. If I had the computer skills to somehow hack the emails and filesharing, not much would change as shared memory of an event makes it exist even stronger. (For example, the hedonism of summer of ‘69: I didn’t even exist then but even I remember how it was.)
Among only two humans, words spoken in anger cannot be unsaid; even two minds is two too many to undo a memory. And that is to leave out the documentation in the world of things (the recording, the drunk email, etc.) that serve as external memories. The problem is too massive. As a human, any ‘redo’ can only occur within the progress of time and so the present moment is really the only one I have to work with. Of course, now I must take the train home, now I must floss, now I must compose a report, now it is time for the next performance. Hopefully I won’t fuckup.
I have over my life witnessed many people ruin a moment or a performance by some trivial act. I have also seen many moments enlightened, make beautiful or extremely good in just the same way. This manner of speaking of moments is actually very telling about what a ‘moment’ is. The ‘width’ of a moment may vary between a few milliseconds to a few minutes. ‘The moment when she,” “the present moment,” etc. If a moment is capable of being ruined or beautiful, then the moment held in thought has necessarily an expectation. When what actually occurs differs from expectation, the moment is beautified or ruined. Such is the nature of this expectation that it is usually invisible. We expect very little from standing in line at 7/11 but then when the elderly cashier smiles widely at the frail youth, the moment becomes more visible by this outpouring of grace. So while we can certainly divide life into an infinity of moments, it is those that have affective properties that exist more firmly.
Not that the affect of a moment is always diminished by the presence of expectation: I know to expect the “swan song” in Sibelius’ 5th, but the moment always takes my breath away. In a real sense, my expectation of the beauty of the moment gave it that beauty. Nor does the expectation of a slap from a parent diminish its startling sting to a naughty child. But it is certainly the beyond expectation of any moment that can really catch one’s breath in vivid ways.