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I remember around this date four years ago, college touring seemed like one big contest over which school had the most a cappella groups. As my parents wondered what the word meant — "Aca-what?" — each tour guide would boast the number like a preschool teacher showing children the toys in the classroom.

Brown has the most a cappella groups per capita in the country, according to the University's Intergalactic Community of A Cappella website, and hosted the northeast quarterfinals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in 2010. The Brown Derbies, one of Brown's 14 groups, competed on the Gospel Music Channel's "America Sings" series this summer, while the Higher Keys were featured in the national compilation album "Voices Only." Not to mention that the first two floors of Salomon Center were jam-packed for this fall's family weekend performances.

More Brown students regularly watch the popular television show "Glee" than they would care to admit. Most of us have also probably watched "High School Musical," movie adaptations of musicals, musical adaptations of movies and reality shows like "American Idol" and "America's Got Talent."

Though the Theatre — in all its pretentiously spelled glory — is reserved for an audience consisting of tourists and the elderly, we're still getting our fix of theatrical musical performances.   

And here's my hypothesis as to why: Musicals can be amazing if they pull you into the story completely — but if not, they can be hard to watch. The whole experience is awkward. The way the actors emote is by nature larger than life, so when they address the audience, it is intimidating. Though you know they can probably only see the lights glaring back at them, they give the impression of intensely staring back at you, pleading you to engage. You get nervous for them, nervous for yourself — the relationship is reciprocal. They will respond to your response. It is impossible to watch unselfconsciously unless you become the characters in the musical for those few hours of spectatorship.

But when you watch a cheesy spectacle from behind a screen, you don't have this discomfort. Take "Glee," for example. You are triply removed from the performers. You are watching from the view of the camera, which is usually watching an audience of peers or Mr. Schuester, who is in turn watching the glee club. You can rest assured that the glee club can't see you. Paradoxically, this distance provides a safe space — your room — to establish a closeness with the characters that may have been more anxiety-provoking if you were in the same room.

Back to a cappella. Yes, the audience is invested in the performers more so than on film or television, but the singers know this and make a joke out of it. They have their own way of minimizing viewers' discomfort: silliness. Rather than telling some intense, dramatic story, a cappella performances are meant to be lighthearted and fun. Often, they take place under a campus arch rather than in a large theater, and viewers are free to sing along or shout comments alluding to the sexiness of one or more members.

Because of the particularly collegiate nature of a cappella, there is also the sense of being an insider. Everyone at least knows someone who knows someone in one of the campus groups. And everyone knows at least a song or two sung at every show. Because college students listen to such a great variety of music, music selections are unpredictable and exciting to discover. The most successful choices are on the fringes of the mainstream: songs a lot of people will know but still feel cool for knowing. There's an exhilarating imaginary bonding moment when you realize you like the same songs as the group.

By directing occasional jokes toward the audience, a cappella members humbly invite but do not require spectators to engage, offering them the tremendous power to notice without being noticed. The Bear Necessities' suspenders, ARRR!!!'s — never mind, just the fact that ARRR!!! exists — and the Derbies' recent decision to include a dancing dog in a performance contribute to this comfort. How can an audience member be embarrassed for people who present themselves as incapable of embarrassment, or feel obliged to affirm those who aren't requesting their affirmation?

I contrast this type of presentation to conventional musical theater, but the comparison only works for the most dramatic and serious of musicals. Campus theater is usually more understated, and the supportive atmosphere of students watching their friends makes the experience more casual. But even on-campus musicals like the Brownbrokers' comical mini-musical festivals seem to be catching on to the effectiveness of breaking the ice through self-mockery.

I commend these groups for providing pure entertainment that puts audiences at ease, but I'm also uncomfortable with too much comfort. Experiencing any kind of performance — theater, television, music, etc. — is an exercise in empathy. But when performers do all the work, viewers get away with staying in their seats or on their couches, still wearing their own shoes. There is a time to be lazy and a time to push your boundaries and take a leap of faith into the shoes of someone harder to relate to.


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