I’ll be honest with you. I just abandoned another post when I realized, 500+ words in, that it just wasn’t working. If nothing else, I was in danger of saying some things that could easily be misunderstood and give too many wrong impressions.
So I decided to deal with something less controversial: namely, what the hell is wrong with audiences these days?
As an actor, I’m used to working with audiences that are up close and personal. My high school’s theatre was in the round, and the seats were thisclose to the stage, so I had early training in being aware of the audience while ignoring them. I mean, I’m always aware of them and their reactions, but I’m not concentrating on them. This has especially helpful in the last few shows I’ve done, that have either been on thrust stages or in interactive spaces. Believe me, we see everything, but learn to ignore it.
The musical I’ve been doing has been extremely (and rightfully) popular, and we’ve had only a few empty seats the entire run. One of my favorite parts of this show is my big number in the second act. I get to sing right to the audience and get in their faces in a positive way. And every night, I’m able to take inventory of who’s still with us, who’s checked out, and who’s asleep. (Literally.) One of the good things about the show is that we’ve gotten a wide variety of types of people. Having a number of different types in the audience pretty much guarantees that there’ll be plenty of varying reactions. Everyone is going to react to the show differently. I’ve found that I don’t like playing before large groups that have come to the show together (benefits are particularly bad in this regard). They’re all of the same mind, so if one of them finds something entertaining or funny, they all will, and will all react in the same way. That’s fine when they like a show, but when they don’t, it’s deadly. You can be doing everything right and well, and they just sit there like an oil painting. Take our last performance. We had a group of college students who couldn’t have been less interested in watching the show. They were dutiful, they applauded, took notes, and stayed until the end, but they were there only because they were supposed to be. Now, please note: I don’t fault them for being uninterested. Not everyone likes every show. (Goodness knows I’ve seen plenty I didn’t like.)
Not quite this bad - but almost
What I can’t understand is why someone would either go to a show they really had no interest in seeing or why they’d stay. Well, I know in one sense; it’s something that my wife and I have dubbed “Obligation Theatre.” In most cases, I want to see something or I won’t make the effort to buy a ticket and leave the house. But, every so often, someone I know is doing a show, and despite my worst fears and expectations (“They’re/he/she doing that? <Rolls eyes>), I go and endure a couple hours of pain because I want to support a friend, even in the most perfunctory sense.
But, that aside, every actor has stories about audience members who misbehaved. Just tonight, in addition to the dullards at my own show, I heard reports from another show about audience members who used the set as a place to set their bags, who went into the lobby during the show to complain to the cast about the temperature in the theatre, then stood in their way when they were trying to make their entrances and a couple that argued in the parking lot at intermission because the husband had fallen asleep during the first act. (They left.) During our production, we’ve had a number of sleepers, and at least one woman who thought the emotional 11 o’clock number was the perfect time to check her phone, and another who was in such a rush to leave, she ran smack into one of the actors trying to make her curtain call. (And don’t even get me started on the audience members who use the curtain call as the perfect opportunity to rush out of the theatre as though the joint was on fire. Are they really going to save that much time?)
We’ve probably all dealt with cell phones going off or talkers or singers-along or eaters or texters or latecomers or the deathly ill, but I can’t imagine how these people have been so sheltered that they don’t comprehend that they can be heard or seen or smelled or detected; that they’ve developed some kind of force field of invisibility that prevents anyone else in the audience or cast from detecting them.
An actor I once worked with had worked with another actor in the West End who had a unique way of dealing with latecomers, especially those who were down front. He’d stop the show, welcome them, make sure that they had programs and knew who everyone on stage was and what had happened thus far. Once he was sure they were well-informed, he’d ask for permission to start again. One can be pretty sure that these folks were never late for the theatre again. Similarly, in the days when people had to use cameras, rather than phones, to take photos at shows, when Katharine Hepburn would spot one of them, she’d stop the show, walk downstage, demand that the photographer stand and take all the photos he or she wanted because their needs were more important than those of anyone else in the theatre. When she was satisfied that the person had had their fill, she resumed the show. Laurence Fishburne once stopped a performance of The Lion in Winter when a phone went off. He stopped, looked at the audience with a lethal stare, and intoned “Tell them we’re busy.” I once saw Christopher Walken halt a cross from stage left to right when another phone went off. He stared at the audience in a Walkenesque way, with a look on his face that indicated his character couldn’t tell if he was hearing things or something was actually happening. When the phone stopped, he kind of shrugged and resumed the cross. Dennis O’Hare, in Take Me Out, was in the middle of a monologue when someone in the audience sneezed. Without missing a beat, he said “Bless you” and continued the speech. And we all know how Patti LuPone reacted to a photographer.
Don't screw with Patti
While all of those responses are admirable (to me, anyway), in almost every case when I’ve had to deal with a moment like these, I’ve made the choice to just ignore the interruption or sleeper or noise or smell, and I have to wonder why. We all know it’s happening, it’s disruptive and annoying, but we all suspend our disbelief and pretend it’s not happening or it’ll stop eventually.
I guess it’s just the easy way out or that we want to avoid confrontation or that it’s not worth the effort to break the illusion.
As I said at the beginning, this was a substitute for another post, so I’m not sure what my ultimate point is other than to complain and urge all of us – myself included – to stay awake, alert, and involved when we go see a show. Even the worst of shows has some value, even if only as an example of how bad something can be. If I could make it through The Lily’s Revenge without throttling someone, there’s nothing that can’t be endured.