Last week, children in tow, I headed downtown with a certain sense of skepticism. I had tickets to see Cirque du Soleil at James Brown Arena. Although Cirque had staged, with considerable success, one of its surrealist circuses at the arena before, I still found it hard to believe that its transformative magic would be able to turn the JB’s fairly generic environs into something special and spectacular.
Understand that Cirque shows are originally designed for very specific venues. Quidam, the show that came to the James Brown, was originally designed as a big-top show. Making what works in that far more intimate performance space succeed seems, on paper, to be a fool’s errand.
But the Cirque performance succeeded, in fact exceeding expectations, by approaching the idea of performance space much in the same way it does traditional circus acts. What Cirque’s designers see and understand when presented with the four-sided sameness that is a mid-sized arena is that empty space can be filled and what is important is not how that venue has been used, but rather how it can be adapted.
By blocking a significant number of seats, dropping an artificial proscenium over much of the arena and building out the remainder of the floor as a styled thrust stage, the Cirque folk re-imagined the interior of an arena and transformed it into something akin to a large theater or, perhaps, a big top.
It’s an important lesson. Because venues usually function with one or two specific seating formulas, it’s easy to remember that they all are, essentially, a large room, sometimes with a stage at one end. Beyond that, there’s a lot of space, both literally and figuratively, to adapt as performances dictate.
Take, as an example, Bell Auditorium. During the second night of Cirque’s two-day stand, the Bell played host to the hard-rock act Alice In Chains. In the past, the Bell has put tiered seating on its floor all the way up to its stage. For Alice, a significant space was left vacant in front of the stage, allowing fans a general admission-style experience with standing fans closest to the band.
It’s something that has not been tried and represents that same willingness to experiment with performance space.
There have, of course, been other occasions when venues have been adapted in unexpected ways. Several years ago, Lake Olmstead Stadium was adapted to become a rather reasonable concert venue for a Bob Dylan show; and Sky City, at times, has been a comedy club and a high-fashion catwalk. Every autumn, the Westobou Festival takes over the old Academy of Richmond County building on Telfair Street and turns it into an outdoor concert venue and indoor gallery space. Once upon a time, we had music festivals on a driving range.
The truth is that there are a lot of venues in Augusta, both popular and untapped. And there are acts that Augusta audiences would pay to see.
The challenge is to find ways to make our spaces work in our favor, perhaps in ways we haven’t thought of previously. A brick wall – perhaps at Augusta Common, can be an outdoor stadium. One of our many amphitheaters can break away from the expected live-music events for some Shakespeare al fresco.
We are limited only by our own imaginations.