What Would You Do with a Rude Audience Member?

We come to theatre to be thrown into a world for a couple hours, but sometimes, audience members want to disrupt this world, either wittingly or unwittingly. Its painful enough to be near these disruptive member as an audience member, but while you’re on stage? That’s the ultimate test of wits. How should an actor handle it? Different Broadway actors handle it in different ways. How should they handle it? Its too big a question for one person handle, so we at OnStage Blog threw it up to our staff, and we got some fun responses. 

The situation specifically posed to the staff was as follows: “You’re performing on Broadway, and you’re in the middle of a serious, tense scene. You can hear a group of 3 people laughing throughout this scene, loud enough to reach the stage and cause some audience to grumble and try to shush them. How do you, the actor, respond to this?”

Here were some of our responses:

Brittany Strelluf , OnStage Blog Columnist:

Funny, I wrote an article some time ago attempting to educate the general public about how to be  a good audience member.  Based on the fact we are still getting stories about problematic audiences, it hasn’t seemed to have much effect.

Of all the recent incidents, I have been most impressed by the reaction of actor Reed Birney.

During a production of 1984. He stayed in character and glared at the guilty party.  Reed Birney handled the incident with great professionalism. He “stared them down.”  It even added to the atmosphere of the show!

Think about this, remember when you were a kid, maybe you mouthed off to your mother, maybe you told a lie. Think of the look on her face when she stared you down.

It is really easy to say. “If that had been me, I would have screamed at them!”  the truth is, we don’t know exactly how we would react, if we would handle an interruption as well as Reed Birney. But I like to believe that this would be my response. If nothing else, it is a great use of resting bitch face.

Whatever your response, try to take comfort in the knowledge that those who talk in the theatre are bound for the special hell.

Tara Kennedy, Chief Connecticut Critic

Having performed for many years NOT on Broadway, I can tell you that breaking the Fourth Wall a la Patti LuPone would definitely be my mode of dealing with it because:

1) I only do Direct, so it's my only choice really,

2) Everything Patti LuPone does is right, just, and good, and

3) Disruptive audience members infuriate me, whether I'm acting OR an audience member.

I would probably walk to the edge of the stage, and watch them in complete silence. When one of them notices that I am staring at them, I'd probably say something like, "No, no, no, really. What you're doing there in the audience is far more interesting and fascinating than what we're doing up here. Tell me, do people normally pay a hundred bucks a pop to sit and listen to your banal tales from the bar, or are we just the lucky ones this evening?" 

Respect your actors, kids. Live theater ain't the movies. 

Greg Ehrhardt, OnStage Blog Columnist

This is the sort of situation that literally gives me nightmares.

If I was ever in a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, Freddy would throw me in a dream giving a presidential inauguration speech, and there would be 5 people with bloody eyes pointing and laughing at me in the front row while I was making my version of the greatest presidential speech ever. 

So when I tell you I sweated over my response to this, believe me, ok.

There are many possible responses, but basically two schools of thought: either completely ignore them, because maintaining the 4th wall is most important for the 99% of the audience that spent good money for the experience, or come up with, in the moment, a way to silence the audience members trying, purposely or not, to ruin the experience for everybody

The risk in the latter is the same risk television broadcasters face by showing the fans running onto the field during baseball games. By acknowledging them, you give them fame, and dignify them. 

I hate dignifying buffoons, so my initial response would be to maintain the fourth wall; however, you can get the best of both worlds by staying in character and somehow addressing the audience to pipe them down. You give the 99% of the audience some extra unexpected entertainment, all while making your point and still (albeit tenuously) maintaining the 4th wall.

But more importantly, isn’t this nightmare actually the ultimate dream of the actor? You get a chance to show off how well you know and studied the character to add-lib and address the situation in a manner that isn’t totally breaking the 4th wall while still keeping true to your character that you are embodying for 2 hours? This is the stuff that die hard actors should salivate over ultimately. So I would say, accept the challenge, address the audience, but stay in character. Show the audience, even the buffoons, the power that acting can wield even beyond the gilded stage. 

Chris Peterson, OnStage Blog Editor-in-Chief

I'm a bit more passive aggressive that I think I am, so I would probably just tell the SM when I got offstage about the offending audience members. 

However if it was bad enough, I would definitely stop the show and call them out. 

Damon Jang, OnStage Blog Contributer


Okay, so Im no Patti, and while as a person on the outside of the situation can say , "yasss patti, you LaPONE'D that guy!" I cant say the same if I was on the creative or cast for the production. It's completely unprofessional especially to your fellow actor to stop the action to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly, because then, all the audience is thinking about is that moment and the rest of the show is ruined. 

Per the situation, if I was in a show and people started laughing at a dramatic moment, I would simply block it out and focus on my scene partner(s). We have created an environment which we have to uphold. And I trust that there are audience vigilanties that will police the situation or that the house usher is aware enough to go and see whats up. Sometimes though Ive experianced when laughter is an response of a patron who cannot help it and is differently abled. It's a delicate situation which was handeled poorly in the case that happened in the Broadway production of "The King and I", where an usher escorted a mother and son out of the theatre. So that's my two cents. I am a professionally trained actor and theatre creator and my job is to tell the story, be present and engaged regardless of extraneous audience circumstances.