This post has been a long time coming. It’s one I really wanted to write a few weeks ago, but I was so mad, so red-faced incensed at the time that I couldn’t dare sit down at the computer and spit out the vitriol I was gargling with. So I waited to cool down. Which I have, but not much.
My thanks to Ottawa actor/teacher/blogger Kris Joseph for writing the post that the above title is lifted from. I’m very tempted to reprint the post in its entirety here, I believe it’s that important. Instead I will urge you to head over to Kris’ place and check it out, and satisfy myself with pull quotes here.
So this is what I’m asking, Vancouver theatre: please stop mistreating your audiences. This is not by any means directed at all of you, nor even most of you. Most of you are dedicated and lovely allies in the revolution, and I’m proud to fight in the same ranks with you. I’m talking to the few theatre practitioners out there that are possessed by the kind of entitlement that makes you think you can dictate the rules of the theatre-going experience to the people that you feel should be honoured to be assembled in your presence. We’re all in the same boat here, we need to be doing everything in our power to manifest a rabid audience for our product where one does not exist right now. As hosts we need to be impeccable, nurturing, patient and above reproach. If you are working in theatre and you do not share this point of view, please stop hurting the chances of the rest of us.
In the space of that one week, I personally witnessed or heard reported a ridiculous amount of incidents involving artists vs. audience members here that just knocked the wind out of me. Offhand and flippant derogatory comments on social media sites. Actors onstage yelling insults at audience members who were talking back to them in a play constructed to have planted actors in the audience talk back to them. One actor called an audience member who was struggling to turn off an errant cell phone ringer a ‘bitch’ from the stage. And no, he didn’t do it ‘in character’. I’ve read the play, and that line isn’t in it, for his or anybody else’s character.
The cell phone complaint drives me crazy. Yes, it’s annoying. Yes, if a member of your audience pulls out a phone in the middle of the play and calls someone, they should be removed, as discreetly as possible, and made to write lines on the chalkboard. But here in 2009, small personal electronic communication devices are ubiquitous. And sometimes, they’re going to make a bit of noise. And people are going to have to sneeze and cough. And sometimes they just might be compelled into an emotional outburst. Why has this molehill turned into our biggest mountain to get over? Where did this pervasive prissy attitude about the audience being neither seen nor heard so as not to disturb the delicate geniuses on the stage originate? Isn’t the live audience integral to the very definition of the form? And should that not be glorified in? Are you sure you don’t really rather want to be acting in a movie right now? To quote Kris:
I get incensed at actors who scoff or rail against that behaviour as being unconscionable. Are you annoyed that the audience isn’t paying attention to you? Work harder. Your job is to make them pay attention. It is hard for me, sometimes, to keep from getting annoyed at audience distractions, but I am training myself to think that such occurrences represent the behaviour of someone I want to see again in the audience. For the umpteenth time on this blog, I reiterate: our job is to serve the audience… NOT the other way around.
It never seems to bother anyone when a member of the audience is laughing so hard they can’t continue for a beat.
Most of our audience, if we’re doing our job as marketers, don’t know the pre-set rules of behaviour for good little audiences. They just know that they’re at a hip live event, in a room with some electricity running through it, and they’re excited. So when you call an audience member a bitch for making the crucifiable mistake of forgetting to push a small button, it’s not just her that you’ve embarrassed. It’s everyone else in the theatre that had to squirm through not only her shame at this – let’s just face it – inevitable faux pas, but also at her being subjected to a misogynistic sniper attack. And as for all the other people in attendance that thought that was funny, and that she got hers, karma is going to guarantee that the same thing happens to them one day. And believe me, it will.
When a production is doing well, and has good word-of-mouth (which is forever and always the best form of publicity), it attracts patrons of immense, incalculable value: those who do not normally attend the theatre. These are the only people, by definition, that can grow the theatrical audience. And these patrons, in large part, are unaware of theatrical etiquette. How dare we expect them to know all the rules? If these patrons behave ‘badly’ in the theatre, they do it out of naivete, not malice. To respond to this innocence with punishment is to drive them away again, in the same way that one bad experience in a retail store is enough to make a customer vow to never return.
We wonder endlessly why theatre is struggling and why people aren’t flocking to our fabulously intense and uniquely visceral smorgasbord of cultural insight. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this that do not go to the theatre. Constantly, actually, as it’s my job to convince them otherwise. And most of them are united by one glaring commonality: they don’t look for us because they think we’re stuffy and no fun.
My entire mission statement is based around proving them utterly wrong. And if they take a chance on your production, please, I’m begging you, be nice to them. Because I want them to love the experience that you offer so much that the next show that they pay money to see is mine.