What It’s Like To Perform At The Apollo Theater
The Apollo Theater in Harlem is one of the most storied and intimidating venues in the entire live entertainment universe, most notably because the crowd has a history of booing performers off the stage. We talked to dancer Rasa Vitalia, who’s performing at the Apollo Theater Amateur Night tonight, to get a fascinating inside glimpse at what it’s like to audition and perform on that legendary Apollo stage.
The Apollo Theater Amateur Night is anything but amateur hour. Legends like James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and the Jackson Five were all discovered on the Apollo’s Amateur Night stage.
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“Amateur night’s been around since before 1934,” Ms. Vitalia told us. “They had it at a different theater down a few blocks away. They had variety show and amateur show nights. Which doesn’t mean that the person is amateur. It’s just a popular night because the audience is able to vote who they like and who they didn’t like. And it was always a new show.”
But its infamy is the ruthlessness with which the audience will boo a performer off the stage. Even Lauryn Hill got booed at The Apollo’s Amateur Night. She was 13 years old at the time.
“When you walk onstage, the audience can judge you for anything. If they don’t like the performer, they’ll get up, stand up and boo,” Rasa said. Once you’re getting booed, sirens will go off and an ‘executioner’ removes you from the stage with a broom, a hook cane, a cap pistol or some other undignified (for you) method.
“I don’t think there’s any audience I ever really had in San Francisco that’s like that,” she said. “They’re with you, they’re very present. I guess you could say they’re judgmental, but they’re just doing it out of excitement. They’re very excited.”
Ms. Vitalia recalled her audition for Amateur Night, and the overall awesomeness of the venue. “The theater is beautiful, decked out in red velvet and gold,” she said. “When you walk up to The Apollo, it’s impressive with the big marquee outside. As you walk in, it feels like a very historic monument. Which it is, its a national monument. Inside there are murals of all of the artists that have performed there and write-ups and photographs of the artists that have performed there.”
“It’s a professional venue, they’ve been doing this for more than a hundred years,” she noted. “I didn’t have to worry about sound problems, tech problems. I usually have to worry about that. I’m used to flakes.”
When you audition for Apollo Amateur Night, you only get one minute. “It’s really hard to do a dance performance in a minute, if you want to do a lot of different things,” she said. “It’ll take you a minute to do a cartwheel. I was able to cut down and manipulate the music to the point where it was about a minute.”
“But then it went a little bit over a minute, and that was the booty-shaking part. And I thought, well, what are they going to do, stop me in the middle of the booty-shake? I don’t think so.”
Rasa Vitalia did go over one minute. But she still made the cut to perform at the Apollo’s Amateur Night.
“When I got the official phone call, I was like, why am I getting a 212 phone call? And it was The Apollo. And then I got an email,” she remembered. “I was in Green Apple bookstore at the time. You’re supposed to be quiet in a bookstore. But I was like, ‘Oh my god! I’m going to the Apollo!’ And I had to keep replaying the voicemail. I still have it on my phone.”
“I’m really honored to be on that stage”, Rasa said. “I’m not worried if I’m going to get booed or applauded. I’m just there to go give my gift to the world.”
Rasa Vatalia performs tonight at Amateur Night at The Apollo, 253 West 125th Street, at 7:30 p.m.