How Do You Solve a Problem Like Audience Audacity?
- OnStage United Kingdom Columnist
There's a great danger of snobbery when discussing audience conduct at the theatre these days. Theatre should be, and is, for everyone and that is a beautiful thing; many theatres have deals and schemes which allow for cheaper tickets to all kinds of shows and this is nothing but fantastic. That said, theatre can also be expensive, particularly for West End shows and touring musicals- therefore, people are obviously entitled to enjoy their evening/ afternoon out. However, somewhere along the way, the distinction between theatre and the local pub has become blurred for some audience members, particularly at musicals and to some extent, concerts. Once upon a time, audiences would arrive armed with soft fruit, freedom to dominate the show with their opinions and freedom to urinate during the show...right there and then. I for one am glad that those days are gone; it's so much more enjoyable to visit the theatre now- I can envision the past and I wholeheartedly rejoice in the happy changes. In comparison, I guess the following gripes are dwarfed but nonetheless, it's a topic worth some attention. Here are just a few gems from my own experience; some rather amusing, but most are just inappropriate and/or rude. My question is this: what's to be done?
1: Obnoxious wannabe.
A man at 'The Bodyguard' at Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House took it upon himself to 'compliment' the production with his own accompaniment, for the enjoyment of all. It's unclear whether said man was drunk or just wanted some of the attention on the stage transferred to his own glorious pipes. What isn't unclear is his utter lack of respect for the performers. More than once, he shouted 'Go on, Alexandra' to Alexandra Burke as she prepared herself for a poignant ballad- it seems that he lost the ability to make the distinction between the actress- pop star and the character during his internal rehearsal for this impromptu audition to join the cast. He then proceeded to sing over her in his best drunken, tuneless karaoke voice. I must say that I was more livid on behalf of the hard-working actress on stage than I was for my own diminished viewing pleasure, which was admittedly simmering on a low boil. Well done fella, you really added something special and we all thank you.
2: Snoring in the second row.
At a performance of 'The Tempest' at Nottingham Theatre Royal, a man fell fast asleep; head lolling backwards, right there in plain view. There might have been alarm regarding his pulse and the like if it weren't for the steadily increasing volume of his snores. My hope is that he was attending solo, because if his theatre buddy let him go on like that, they're both to blame. I'd never blame someone for nodding off, there's no telling what medical or insomniac challenges he was facing, but I might well have been tempted, as a kindly stranger, to give him a little nudge to still that snoring, at least. The mildly amusing part is that when the show ended and the applause woke him from his presumably very rested sleep, he jumped to his feet and applauded with astounding enthusiasm; well masked dear sir- we never noticed the prior snoring at all.
3: Blinding booze.
While at a Beverley Knight gig at The Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, two very drunk ladies left their seats, walked right up to the stage and started reaching out to the bemused performer, swaying, twirling and shouting things to her as she attempted to carry on regardless. After they were returned to their seats by ushers, they proceeded to sing loudly over Ms. knight with the rest of their 10+ party before returning to the aisles. I'm not a soulless killjoy, at concerts we all sing along, but to sing so loudly that you are drowning out the voice of the performer that everyone else paid to see, is incredibly frustrating. If there's clapping along to be done, I'm on it; if there's a sing-along finale, count me in; and if there's a 'classic' hit, I'll belt it out and have a bop along with everyone else- but it is, quite clear for most of us, a case of judging when such things are appropriate. Worst of all, they were shrieking their declarations of love while Ms. Knight was paying tribute to The 96 who died in the Hillsborough Disaster. In Liverpool. The home of the families of those tragically killed. For me, there is no excuse for getting so drunk that you can't see the blatantly obvious boundaries of behaviour at such events. As Latrice Royale would say- it's a case of the 5 g's: 'good God girl, get a grip'.
4: Yelling at Dolly Parton.
Much like the above, when I saw Dolly Parton in Nottingham, people were repeatedly shrieking at Dolly throughout the concert. Now, I'm a super fan of Dolly, and I'd love to exchange a few words, but to be so irritating as to do it repeatedly over the course of a near two- hour concert is beyond grating. Surely if you love this artist so much, surely you'd get your shrieking done at the appropriate times and then enjoy their performance? Surely? At this concert, people were whooping and shrieking even as Dolly narrated touching little introductions to sad, meaningful songs and yes, drowned out the singing we paid to hear as she softly sang the ballads.Those who sing along loudly to the soft ballads are the main focus of my irritation and those who shriek 'woooo (insert name of artist here)' or 'I love you' while the performer is crooning a poignant, beautiful song, are the absolute worst. You call yourself a fan, do you? Really? Then let them treat you and those around you to an uninterrupted performance!
5: The commentator.
During a performance of 'Sister Act' at The London Palladium, for the first ten minutes, the lady next to us kept whispering redundant explanations of the jokes to her husband- 'Isn't that funny? She started the list with A) and then said 2) instead of B)!' There were pointed looks from those around her but subtlety was clearly not her forte. It wasn't until someone spelled out to her that we'd like to hear the actors, not her, that she quietened down. Again, I reiterate that people have paid their money and deserve to have a great time- and part of that is sharing the experience and the moment. I don't begrudge you leaning over to your theatre buddy and sharing a moment, just please, don't do it after every joke or so loudly that it gains you 'the look'!
6: The bladder disaster.
While seeing 'National Treasures' at The Palace Theatre in Manchester, after twenty minutes of the show, there began a constant stream of people coming and going to either get more drinks or to use the toilets. During the show. Blatantly shimmying past each other noisily while the performers were trying to ignore such glaring distraction. I realise that this was a show featuring drag queens, residents of lucky pubs and clubs the world over but this was quite clearly a show taken out of that environment and transferred into a theatre to enable more of a solid performance. Apparently not everyone got the switcheroony memo and they proceeded to act like they were indeed still in the club. If the hugely talented but acid- witted/ tongued Jackie Beat calls you out on not being able to hold your bladder for another fifteen minutes up to the interval and you ignore her...you're just rude, folks.
7: The flashlight/ phone light feud.
Another from 'The Bodyguard' at The Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House. A woman at the end of the row had her phone out, taking pictures and/ or recording during the performance. In the stalls, this is obviously glaringly distracting. Cue usher, doing his job, shining his flashlight at her to get her attention. She ignores him and carries on. He then flashes his light on and off, while pointing it at her, hissing down the row to get her to put her phone away. The entire row were forced to watch the showdown rather than the stage, what with all the flashing lights in the darkness. She then stood up, stumbled past half of the row to get to him, angrily exchanged words and then had half the row stand up to let her get back to her seat. She seemed very annoyed to have been unfairly distracted like that; poor her.
8: The School party nightmare.
While completing my teacher training at a...erm...challenging school, I was asked to accompany a school trip to Stratford Upon Avon to see the RSC's production of 'Hamlet'. As I recall, around 90 13-14 year olds were taken on the trip, filling three rows in the upper circle. Evidently no direction had been given to students prior to the outing and so the 90 13-14 year olds could be heard loudly cackling to each other and making profanity-laden comments in very loud voices. Loudly enough for those in the stalls to be looking up- I kid ye not. Apparently, they believed that the cloak of darkness surrounding them in the theatre made their exchanges sound-proof. Despite lots of hissing teachers and the glares of other audience members, the students made the first half genuinely embarrassing. During the interval, staff with Walkie talkies tracked us down as a result of numerous complaints (no surprise there). Staff in charge were given a talking to and the school mini bus was sent for to escort around twenty students back to school. I vowed never to be involved in another school theatre trip unless I was either involved in the 'expectations talk' or it was perfectly clear that the students were well prepared. Thankfully, students on all theatre trips which I have attended since have been absolutely wonderful- it just takes a little solid preparation folks.
9: The meal-before-theatre-burpers.
Dinner and theatre; a classic evening combination. What's not a perfect combination is finding yourself sitting next to the just-arrived-from-a-garlic-and-onion-heavy-meal-theatre-goer who proceeds to burp hideous fumes for the duration of the performance. I'm sure you've been there; you take a sharp breath, affected by what's going on on stage, only to taste the gassy remnants of their meal. Some say bad timing, I say bad dining choice. The dinner and theatre combination will never be anything but a winner; just, y'know, consider the stranger sardined next to you for two hours as you order. #Please.
10: The filmers.
I too am guilty of snapping a few pictures and even filming favourite songs at concerts in the past. I soon learned however, that while I looked at the few quick snaps, I never watched the videos. I rarely do either now, perhaps due to age but more likely because I've realised just how annoying and distracting it is as an audience member. I can only imagine the irritation of the actors, seeing those lights. My specific tale in this category involves an iPad; not an iPad mini, but the larger one. While basking in the glory of The Giant Spectacular in Liverpool, walking along the streets with the giants, I found my view blocked repeatedly by some guy filming with his iPad. He was holding it up, directly in the eye line of those around him without a care in the world. That's not even the worst of it though; the worst thing is that he wasn't even looking at the spectacle. Nor was he looking at the screen in fact; he was striding along, looking straight ahead, stealing the view from others while not even enjoying the moment, in the moment, for himself. Is it just me or is that simply ridiculous? I realise that this tale is an anomaly amongst the rest as it was a street performance and therefore not within a theatre. However, I have experienced multiple 'filmers' in theatres...as, I'm sure, you have- I hope for your sake that it wasn't an iPad filmer!
These are just a few of the many examples. I read recently with amused horror about an audience member clamouring on stage to plug his phone into the set. No doubt he thought why not? It's nearly dead and there's a socket right there? Oh dear. I also read about Richard Jordan's recent experience ('Is This The Worst West End Audience Ever?') which included a couple smuggling in McDonalds meals during the interval and the mind-boggling sale of crisps at the theatre kiosk. Crunch crunch crunch- such great accompaniment.
So what's to be done? Well, let's start by saying what mustn't be done: we mustn't alienate people from the theatre; we mustn't go back in time and make theatre the domain of the select few. We mustn't make theatre seem stuffy and regimented by laying down the law military- style. Welcoming newbies to the theatre and having them fall in love and keep coming back is hugely important, so improving audience awareness of appropriate behaviour is as much about teaching newcomers as it is about keeping them; let's not forget that someone seeing a West End show for the first time, at great cost, and witnessing some of the worst behaviour listed above might be completely put off. Watching the DVD version at home might be far cheaper and far, far less irritating. I am of course not suggesting that newbies are entirely the source of such behaviours, that would be unwarranted and completely unjust, it can just as likely be an arrogant regular, convinced that their long-standing position as audience member gives them a free pass on inconsiderate behaviour.
...and back to the key question: what's to be done? Perhaps some charismatic, quirky announcement- maybe with sound effects and re-enactments? Not the monotone, formal announcement were used to hearing re mobile phones, but something less stern which still gets the message across. Perhaps a witty, quirky info card with your tickets when posted or collected? Tickets, the receipt card and the 'Remember folks...' card? Perhaps a few signs around the lobby in the same disarming style? We conquered mobile phones (for the most part), when will we conquer the rest?