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Holy History: Venues As Sacred Space

Musician Erin McKeown reflects on how physical spaces transcend the sports and music that they house.

Thursday, June 27, 2013 - 09:00 AM

Boston's Fenway Park, as seen from the base of the famed Green Monster. Boston's Fenway Park, as seen from the base of the famed Green Monster. (Erin McKeown)

A couple weeks ago, I had the unique pleasure of taking a private tour around Fenway Park after a game thanks to my friend Josh Kantor, the ballpark's organist. For a diehard Red Sox fan it was a dream come true. But for a seasoned musician, it offered a familiar treat: getting to go backstage at a historic venue.

As I've explored in the last three months of this blog series, sports and music have many natural connections, but perhaps none more so than the literal spaces they occupy. Sure there is the obvious crossover in modern, multi-purpose arenas that host both concerts and games, yet the experience of music or sports in those spaces can often you leave you cold. But what is it about sitting in the stands at Wrigley Field or stepping out on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium? I have done both, and they both made me vibrate in the same way with the years of hope, loss, transport, and emotion contained in their structures.

For many people, the feeling of being in a theater or sitting in the stands at a ballpark has the feeling of being someplace sacred. It is a particular pleasure of mine to be in an empty stadium or theater, letting the silence weigh on me. There is a quiet dignity to places that fill with performance, drama, and action, and then empty. They are containers that can hold our largest emotions, with room to spare, and not be toppled by them.

Like places of worship, fields and stages house community, ritual, and tradition. Standing for decades, they offer consistency and stability while our lives change around them. They allow us the comfort and ease to tap into something we don't have to organize ourselves. However, different from expressly religious spaces, music and sports venues offer a type of diversity of camaraderie you don’t find anywhere else. Take god out of the building, and we organize ourselves into wider, richer tribes.

Musician Erin McKeown makes the call to the Red Sox bullpen at Fenway Park.

Erin McKeown makes the call to the bullpen from the Red Sox dugout at Fenway Park.

Though my first Orioles games were at old Memorial Stadium, I became a real fan while going to Camden Yards. When I go to games there now -- as I have done many times post-Baltimore-gigs -- I sit in the same stands I have sat in for 20-something years. I don't go back to my old high school. And I hardly ever make it back to my summer camp. Yet I still continue to go to the ballpark.

For all the grandeur of a theater or a stadium, for those who perform there, they remain first and foremost places of utility. Backstage at the Beacon Theater isn't glamorous (though that elevator is pretty amazing). The Red Sox dugout is worn and stained by years of players clambering up and down its steps. Playing Dublin's Olympia Theater (formerly called the Star of Erin, by the way), I felt part of a long line of performers who came and worked the hall. I hope to someday perform at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, where the classic movie All About Eve was filmed.

I've never been a professional athlete, yet nonetheless, I can guess that sports venues offer the same kind of magic transitional spaces as theaters do for performers. Though it's a visual cliche by now in countless movies, there really is something extraordinary about that transition from the quiet of a darkened tunnel or stage wings to the bright lights and crowd roar of the stage or on the field. Theaters and stadiums hold these boundaries for us, pushing us over them, and then receiving us as we return.

Year after year, we hear stories of this arena or that club falling victim to changing real estate values or cultural tastes. Campaigns rise up to save some of them; others can't muster the support and disappear behind the wrecking ball. A recent proposal to save Houston's Astrodome is finally finding some traction. Jack White spent $142,000 dollars of his own money to save Detroit's Cathedral Theater at the Masonic Temple. After some close calls in the 90's the Apollo is on solid financial footing.

Calls to demolish the Superdome after it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina went unheeded, and I am thankful for that. I don't just appreciate that it is the home of my beloved Saints, or that it reminds us of years of competitive play, but it is also there to remind us of the needless suffering of residents abandoned by their government.

Whether in music or sports, through games or with songs, buildings can do that for us, as long as they stand.

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