In most live performance, there’s an energetic flow between performers and audience. The performer gives energy to the crowd, where it’s amplified, and the crowd gives energy back, ratcheting up the excitement.
But what happens when a pandemic caps that crowd at 12% or 25%?
In normal times, the Red Sox play to a full house of fans at Fenway Park. More than 37,000 people in it together — pulling, pushing, chanting — reflect the game’s intensity as it progresses.
But under Massachusetts' COVID-19 restrictions, the Fenway crowd had maxed out at a mere 4,600 until recently — masked, spread out and seated in pods of two and four.
Stadium-rocking sound? Not so much. It was … quieter.
“You don’t feel part of a crowd,” said Michael Howell, a season ticket holder for 40 years. “It’s more like a movie theatre where you’re all watching the same event. But you don’t feel a common purpose like you do when a sports crowd is really excited.”
Josh Kantor, the Fenway Park organist, thinks music can help compensate for the loss of people.
“We’re still trying to see what works with the smaller crowd,” Kantor said. “Are there things we can do to make it a more enjoyable experience for the fans and energize them to cheer the team on to victory?”
In normal times, Kantor might have chosen music that’s mild or whimsical. This year, he’s making an effort, as he put it, to “keep his foot on the gas pedal.”
“I’m feeling like perhaps that if I just kind of put the pedal to the metal a little more, that’ll help people want to get up and dance and shout and shake,” Kantor joked.
But even without that boost from the organ, Kantor said, the fans have figured out how to generate electricity — both traditional and new ways to get riled up. The laws of acoustics help: With relatively few people in the stands, individual voices can be heard.
“Let’s go, Red Sox. C’mon baby!” urged an inebriated fan at the top of his lungs. When the action on the field didn’t exactly go the Red Sox’ way, he continued, “That’s all right. It’s my fault. It was my fault.”
The voices of people seated high and far from the field can also project so that other fans and people on the field can hear them.
“They might be heckling the pitcher from the other team,” Kantor explained, “and they can do it in a way that simply could not be done in a full ballpark. In a full ballpark, even if you’re sitting down low, it’s extremely difficult to project in such a way that the players can be distracted by you.”
Late last season, Kantor played for the reduced season of 30 home games. The television and radio producers wanted organ in the background for broadcasts, but the stands were empty. That was a strange experience for Kantor; he called the stadium lifeless.
The limit on fans has been increased to 9,200 — but it's not just any 9,200 fan in the stands these days. Most are season ticket holders. Kantor said they’re not leaving until the game is over.
“And they’re not leaving happy unless the Red Sox win," he said. "They want to be there to see every pitch, to savor Fenway Park, to cheer boisterously for the team."
Even the casual fans in the mix may feel a sense of urgency.
They may subconsciously have a compulsion to cheer harder and pay attention to the plays because they’re not taking for granted how wonderful it is to leave the house and go to Fenway Park, Kantor said.
Like the rest of us, they’re coming out of the pandemic with a heightened sense of appreciation.
And that can translate into electricity.