Crinkly candy wrappers. Cellphones and iPads. Audience members coming and going with apparently severe bladder control problems. We’ve all experienced rude or annoying behavior from our fellow theatre patrons, usually (of course!) during the most intense and quiet moments of a performance.
And for those of us onstage, performing, it’s even worse. Talkers. Lines repeated for the hard of hearing. Picture takers. People coughing from colds or flus or major tubercular issues we hope will prove fatal. Sometimes the behavior that’s least intrusive to the audience can be most distracting to the actors, like: Sleepers. People with their chins in their hands, bored out of their minds, or (even worse) in the front row reading their program during a scene right where we can see them! O, the distractions we actors have to endure in the modern theatre!
Well, as Elizabethan actors would say, borrowing a 21st-century idiom: Hold my beer.
Elizabethan audiences clapped and booed whenever they felt like it. Sometimes they threw fruit. Groundlings paid a penny to stand and watch performances, and to gawk at their betters, the fine rich people who paid the most expensive ticket price to actually sit on the stage. The place was full of pickpockets and prostitutes, and people came and went to relieve themselves of the massive quantities of beer they’ve consumed. Theatre was not only a major social occasion; it could often feel like a competition for attention. Audiences came from every class, and their only other entertainment options were bear-baiting and public executions — and William Shakespeare wrote for them all.
Samuel Taylor, in his slim volume My Life with the Shakespeare Cult, writes passionately and entertainingly about how our modern theatre experience differs from Shakespeare’s:
I mean, look: every convention of your average modern theatre serves to make people passive, docile, distanced from the play and from one another, almost entirely erased. We’ve taught American audiences…where to sit. We give them a potty break. We tell them to shut up and turn off anything at all that might make any kind of noise. We provide them no reason to ever have to interact with the person seated next to them. The pacification is profound: we don’t even trust them to unwrap a sucker in the theatre. We imply in a thousand ways that everything has been worked out in advance, encouraging total passivity of body, mind, and spirit. And then we turn the lights off and expect them to listen hard to complex, antiquated verse poetry that relies on an active, social, participatory relationship. Can we really blame them for taking fifty-dollar naps?
And because we as performers have an expectation that the audience will sit there quietly, we don’t train our actors how they might handle an ‘unruly’ audience member. There are complicating reasons why: Directors establish a realistic style that doesn’t allow breaking of the fourth wall; playwrights don’t want their lines changed or added to; management doesn’t want to alienate ticket buyers. When I acted in the Lookingglass Theatre world premiere of Sara Gmitter’s In The Garden: A Darwinian Love Story, at more than one performance there were men sitting near the front glancing at their phones, trying to simultaneously watch the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I told stage management I was willing to escort the gentlemen out of the theatre (I played the butler, so I could have done it in character), but was informed, perhaps wisely, that my services would not be required. (Indeed, the house manager was able to convince the hockey fan he could focus more fully on the game while sitting in the lobby.)
But I would have done it happily. Not because I’m confrontational by nature or wanted to start a fight, but because it would’ve acknowledged the truth of the moment. There’s nothing more awkward in the theatre than trying to pretend something isn’t happening when it clearly is. Whether it’s a dropped prop that sits awkwardly on the floor and pulls everybody’s focus until some actor dares to adjust his blocking and pick it up, or Tom Hanks ad-libbing for five minutes, in character, as Falstaff in both parts of Henry IV while EMTs treated someone having a medical emergency in the aisles during a performance earlier this summer: These unscripted moments can often feel like the most vital moment in an evening because the audience can tell it wasn’t rehearsed, it’s not being acted — this is actually happening.
Actors typically aren’t given the training or agency to serve as crowd control. Tom Hanks can get away with it because…well, because he’s Tom Hanks (and thankfully, the audience member survived and the show went on). But there are videos of Hugh Jackman stopping the show because of an annoying phone ringing and Patti Lupone actually taking a phone away from a texting audience member (the videos themselves further evidence of the annoying presence of phone cameras). Actors taking matters into their own hands like this gets us into a more sensitive area described by Dr. Kirsty Sedgman in her new book The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience. Dr. Sedgman argues that theatre etiquette is bound up in sexist, racist, and ableist social norms, designed specifically to produce separations between elite and ‘mass’ audiences.
Up until the 19th century, opera, symphonies, and Shakespeare — art events that might now be considered highbrow — were popular entertainment for all levels of society. But along the way, rules began to be enforced and there was a Great Sorting, separating the upper classes of society from “the rabble,” creating a homogeneous and exclusive community of theatergoers who knew and obeyed the rules. As Dr. Sedgman explains, when we talk about theatre etiquette now (she prefers the term “behavior policing”), we need to acknowledge both its notable and suspect aspects: That it’s a way to reinforce a shared vision of socially-acceptable behavior that makes public space better for all, and also a morally suspect act that is disproportionately wielded against people of color, the working class, etc.
As Sam Taylor points out, theatergoing today can be a largely passive and observational experience: You arrive, you sit down, you applaud, you leave. But the art of theatre requires an audience, preferably an engaged, responsive, demonstrative audience. From my actor’s perspective, it does no one any good to perform for an audience that’s too cowed by society to laugh; at the same time, I don’t want to perform for people engaged in other conversations, on their phones, or (if it’s an indoor space) opening up a bucket of chicken in the third row. We need to honor the fact that we all have our roles to play in the theatrical experience, whether it’s onstage, backstage, or sitting in the seats…even though, occasionally, I have said to an audience member, “Hey! Who gave you a speaking part?”