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.
I am with you on this Simon. It takes a small and frightened, under-developed ego to be hurt by a cell phone. This “actor” must have a horrible time on the bus or on the street, where the only acceptable activities are to sit quietly and enjoy the ride or to walk in quiet gratitude along the sidewalks. I feel sorry or them.
Cheers, Steve Park
As in any other operation that wants to succeed “the customer is ALWAYS right” : ) It’s easy to suck it up if, like me, you came of age on the Fringe circuit with patrons barfing in the aisles and whatnot… ah the good old days! Then there’s theatre for young audiences, heh bless the wee ones.
Before theatre I worked in retail ladies wear which honed my nerves of steel. Maybe the worst war story from the racks was the day a pretty young girl pooped in our dressing room.
Anyone that can’t turn a badly behaved audience member into a funny story for the after party needs to get themselves a nice desk job and a private office, uh with no email or co-workers.
That said it’s always lovely when you can address something in the audience as your character – particularly if it’s stealing focus.
Barfing in the aisles! Now there’s sharp criticism.
Hrmmm…. I can’t say I completely agree with you all on this one.
Certainly calling an audience member a bitch from the stage is horrendous, uncalled for and has no place on any stage. That’s a given. But this particular case is also the extreme.
I would hope that actors who grow frustrated by disruptive audience members are not just concerned about themselves, but their entire audience. Hundreds of people who didn’t pay good money to hear cellphones, conversations, or audience interaction in productions where it is not acceptable.
Respect is the name of the game for everyone in the theatre, and one hardly needs to have spent years as a patron of the arts to know you should take into account the experience of everyone in the theatre.
The customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer can be downright mean… to the staff and the other customers. That should not be tolerated in a Wal-Mart, a bus stop or in a theatre. It’s simply common sense.
Thanks for this Jeremy. You know, I couldn’t agree with you more. I am not in any way advocating a increase in disruption from the audience. I can get into a seething rage by someone near me taking me out of the play by being selfish and noisy, and have been known to on many occasions. What I’m saying is what we as business people – as representatives of the industry of independent stage – have to be better at is resisting stooping to their level.
It is the job of the actors to live in the world of the story and to take care of each other on stage, it is the job of the audience to police their section of the play if someone is being obnoxious. If someone is being an idiot in the stalls near me, I’ll let them know that that’s not ok. And if the offending audience member gets ridiculously out of hand, or dangerous, well, that’s probably a job for the Stage Manager. But there’s a huge leap from someone inadvertently neglecting to adjust their phone settings and someone disrespecting the art. And that scenario, as with your opinion on the aforementioned audience-cop actor, is the extreme.
Customers can be unbelievably mean. That’s the inevitable downside to entering a business that relies on dealing directly with the public. I should know, I’ve been a bartender for 20 years, and I’ve been in the middle of some of the hairiest customer service issues you could possibly imagine. But never once, ever, did I respond to them by being mean in return. That’s exactly how they win.
I think we nailed the key here – it’s how it affects the other audience members participating in the experience. In my other job, I usher and we gage when we step in based on whether it’s being disruptive to other audiences members, all of who paid good money to see the show. You don’t want to dampen down honest reactions and a desire to share what’s going on with the people you came with, but you want to make sure that other people can still get to follow what’s going on.
The thing that drives me crazy is when a disruption happens and we get glares from the resident director sitting in the house, or from the stage. Hey folks, lots of time these people are sitting in the middle of a row and we’re trying to figure out the least disruptive way to deal with the situation. You don’t know what we’ve done, whether we’ve already talked to them, what decisions we’ve made, whether or not we’re waiting for management to arrive to deal with the situation, whatever. It’s our job to deal with the audience. Do your job on the stage and let us do ours.
(Thanks for letting me vent.)
Vancouver audiencers are stupid. That is why I left for Toronto, thirty-five years ago. Toronto is alsmost as stupid, but not quite. The smarter actors leave Vancouver; the dumber flock there. It is a pretty, but brainless, and boring city.
If you don’t think Vancouver is stupid, look at the average season of The Arts Club Theatre, and the reviews it gets. Anywhere else, it would be laughed off the map.
You’re an idiot David.
To be called an idiot by a Canadian is a compliment.
You are useless David.
I know you are, but what am I, nya nya nya?
Took you two years to think up THAT ingenious retort? I may be equally as challenged, but at least I have the guts to use my real name, you puddle-hopping Lulu Island lummox.
If you’re comments are any indication, you have a real poetic flare. Will you be releasing a compilation, or novelization of your comments anytime soon? If so, I’ve got a great title for your book. “Vancouver “audiencers” “Alsmost” give a shit about what Big Idiot has to say”
Will you be preforming anytime soon? Im dying to see your work!
I think your command of English tries to speak for itself, but thank you for the almost semi-literate compliment, and good luck with your habits.
Why don’t you just ___, and save me the trouble?
Again, you take eons to concoct a reply. Who needs a novel, with real -life millennials like you, prancing about in pink pants outside my window?
BTW, what is “preforming”. Is that something they tried on you in the testube?
What shows have you done recently David? I would really like to see you on stage.
Come on, now! Tell us your name, Big Balls.
Sorry what was that? I cant hear you over your whiny pathetic tone, David you are the worst thing to happen to Canadian Theatre. You little comment troll.
Ah! your annual concoction. “Schooled” in Bee Cee?
You write in the style of WASP, limp-wristed, untalented Bee Cee twats.