Friday 26 April 2013

The Stage-Time / Space-Time Discontinuum

As a semi-professional academic of various performing arts, I have had much time to muse on one phenomenon that all performers have experienced no matter what their discipline:
Time on stage is different to time in the audience.
Two minutes as experienced by the performer can be ten minutes to the audience. Likewise ten minutes as felt on stage can sometimes be two minutes to the audience. Typically the audience time is closer to time as experienced by the clock. It’s very confusing to most new performers and a real skill to be able to accurately estimate how long you’ve been on stage.

It is the clearest example I have encountered of how relativity can be experienced by us.

The performer can be seen as being a moving object and the audience at rest. And performing is somehow equitable to travelling near the speed of light. Obviously, not exactly in physical spaces, but most performances are a journey along a story line, or through a fixed set of games, routines, sketches, songs, poems, ideas or points.

This analogy makes it clear that it is only natural, given Einstein’s assertions, that time experienced on stage is different to time experience off stage.

But it doesn’t fully explain how this experienced time can vary so wildly from performer to performer, from performance to performance and from different points within the whole performance. Obviously it depends a lot on the adrenaline in the performers body and the focus he or she has on it. Adrenaline speeds up the heart rate which has the tendency to make the outside world slow down. It’s the reason when you’re in a car crash or something similar, you often see it happen in slow motion. Focus on something has the opposite effect. Many of us have experienced the same effect off stage, where we’ve been so engrossed in something we haven’t noticed that it’s now the middle of the night hadn’t there been plans for dinner.

So the balance of these two opposing forces cause radical shifts in time-perception as we travel from the start to the end of a show. Had I time and a grant I’d love to measure both throughout a performance and also somehow record the performer’s idea of time. But I have neither. One day I will find the time enough to do some google searching to see if someone has already done it. But not until I get a grant.

I would also love to derive from this a comedy equation, an E=mc² for comedy relativity. Some of you might have noticed that even this equation shows that the energy of the room is that of the MC, squared. [1] Or that it is dependant on the mass of the comedian and the comedy constant c. C, in the old days of BBC radio, used to be known as the “speed of light entertainment.”

Enough silliness. Certainly, I do believe there is an equation that could be found using values for focus and adrenaline to calculate perceived time, but it probably wouldn’t actually help anyone to know it. Experience is definitely the best thing to be able to circumvent this problem. Experience not only allows you to control your focus and adrenaline levels but also allows you to be able to perceive or estimate audience time more accurately.

[1] MC = Master of Ceremonies = the host or compeer.


  1. Thanks for this. Very useful.

  2. Yes, and... why wait for a grant? You'll only risk waiting forever!!
    A friend of mine recently spoke about "The spectator's time experience" at an academic conference. Here's a link to the programme - start your research there!