Okay, so some of you may not know the Apollo theater in New York. The theater began its life in 1914, as a burlesque hall. It closed in 1933, when then Mayor La Guardia began shutting down burlesque shows in the city. But in 1934, the theatre re-opened as the Apollo, catering to Harlem’s growing African-American community.
The tradition of Amateur Night began at the Apollo that same year – with 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald becoming one of the competition’s first winners. The Apollo stage became famous for launching performers like Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson Five.
Every Wednesday night, the Amateur Night tradition continues at the Apollo, with performers rubbing the lucky tree trunk on stage, then performing live before a tough crowd. And tough is an apt way to describe Apollo theatre-goers.
If the audience likes a performer, he or she is showered with applause, but if they don’t, the boos are deafening. Once the first boos begin, the performer bravely continues his performance. But when the force of the boos overtakes the applause, it’s all over. “The Executioner”, another Apollo tradition, comes onstage and whisks the unfortunate performer away.
This Harlem landmark is just three blocks from my New York apartment. On my last trip back, I enjoyed taking my kids to see an Amateur Night performance and I highly recommend it on your next trip to New York.
Full disclosure: I’m not a booer. But I was fascinated as I watched the performers bravely attempting to carry on when the boos began. Those singers and dancers and comedians had made it all the way to that stage, and they were determined to keep going until the booing became so resounding that they would be dragged from the stage.
It takes tremendous courage to go out on stage and perform your heart out to an audience, only to be met by a sea of jeers. And, as I watched it, I couldn’t help thinking that’s what aspiring writers do as well, although, luckily, minus the live audience.
As a writer, you finish your work and then you send it out to your critiquers. Some love it and are encouraging with their suggestions. Some hate it and are less kind with their comments. Like the performers on stage, writers have to develop a thick skin and take the criticism offered to improve their work. Think of this as the audition. Next, you get up on stage, sending your work out to agents or journals and prepare yourself to receive the applause (the interest) or the boos (the rejections).
And, like those performers under the spotlights on the Apollo stage, you just have to pick yourself up after each defeat and try again. After all, you can always improve your performance. And next time, it may just be that the audience gives you a standing ovation.
So, to all you performers and writers out there: Break a leg – or maybe a pencil.