The Art of Interruption
By STEVE MARTIN
Published: December 4, 2010This article appeared in the New York Times following Mr. Martin's appearance at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Mr. Martin does a great job of explaining his view of the events.
LAST Monday, at the 92nd Street Y in New York, I took part in a conversation about a novel I had written. The book is set in the art world, and my conversation partner was Deborah Solomon, an art scholar and a writer for this newspaper, as well as a friend. Some years ago, she and I had conducted a similar conversation in Washington to discuss my art collection. It was lively and entertaining, and I couldn’t think of a reason that this evening would not go as well. Because it’s an honor to speak at the Y, we agreed to do the event for free.
When I arrived for Monday’s talk, I was informed that it would be telecast on closed-circuit TV across the country. What I wasn’t told was that the viewers were going to be encouraged to send in e-mails during the discussion; what I didn’t expect was that the Y would take the temperature of those e-mailed reactions, and then respond to them by sending a staff member onstage, mid-conversation, with a note that said, “Discuss Steve’s career.”
This was as jarring and disheartening as a cellphone jangle during an Act V soliloquy. I did not know who had sent this note nor that it was in response to those e-mails. Regardless, it was hard to get on track, any track, after the note’s arrival, and finally, when I answered submitted questions that had been selected by the people in charge, I knew I would have rather died onstage with art talk than with the predictable questions that had been chosen for me. Since that night, the Y has graciously apologized for its hastiness — and I am pleased to say that I look forward to returning there soon, especially to play basketball.
Now let me try to answer the question you might be asking yourself at this point: was I boring? Yes, I might have been. In hindsight, I probably should have read a few pages from my book to give the audience a feel for it, and I did struggle with a few explanations. But I was not lazy and neither was Deborah. We were both working very hard at our task.
I have no doubt that, in time, and with some cooperation from the audience, we would have achieved ignition. I have been performing a long time, and I can tell when the audience’s attention is straying. I do not need a note. My mind was already churning like a weather front; at that moment, if I could have sung my novel to a Broadway beat I would have.
But I can’t help wondering what we might have said if we hadn’t been stopped. Maybe we were just around the corner from something thrilling. Isn’t that the nature of a live conversation? It halts, it stutters, it doubles back, it soars. We might have found a small nugget, something off topic or unexpected, that wouldn’t have warranted the refund that was offered.
If the e-mailers could have lived with “I am unamused” for just a little longer, or had given us some understanding based on past performance, or even a little old-fashioned respect, something worthwhile, unusual or calamitous might have emerged. Who knows, maybe I would have ended up singing my novel.