Are Rude Audiences Ruining Theatre?
The theatre is a bastion of ideological discourse. It is a force for change and for good, asking more of its patrons than other more frivolous pastimes. We have lofty expectations that the theatre exists, in some way, to instruct audiences in the hardest lesson of all - empathy. After all, Arthur Miller once described the mission of the theatre as “rais[ing] the consciousness of people to their human possibilities.”
One woman from Manchester has managed to place herself in the consciousness of people the world over after singing over a performance of I Will Always Love You during a production of The Bodyguard- The Musical . Her performance was so stunningly inappropriate that the show was stopped and the footage went viral.
In case you missed the latest public decorum scandal, police were called to the Palace Theatre in Manchester on Good Friday to eject two rowdy patrons, one of whom was filmed loudly and badly singing during the show's closing number. Despite signage in the foyer explicitly instructing patrons to refrain from singing along, the patrons refused and became violent when they were asked to leave. Footage of the incident shows the houselights coming up as staff drag the two women from their seats, to the raucous jeers of the audience. So rattled was singer and former Pussycat Doll Melody Thornton by the whole ordeal that, after the ushers intervened, she did not return to the stage to finish the show. Later that evening, Thornton posted a video to Instagram saying -
I fought really hard. It feels awful. I just hope that we see you again... I thank everyone who was respectful of the performers and very, very sorry for those who weren't. I hope that we see you soon.
Several unhappy patrons also took to social media after the show to decry the terrible behaviour of the two amateur singers. One patron lamented that they were -
Sad and disappointed tonight at the state of some peoples arrogance and disrespect while at a show. Completely ruined #TheBodyguard...
I'll admit, when I first heard this story, I was mostly amused by what I thought was the outcry of the British Theatre Elites. I am of the firm belief that theatre inspires the response it receives, and that an audience is not to be blamed when creatives don’t get the response they are after. For example, if you wrote a horror movie, and this film caused audiences to roll out of their seats with laughter, then that is on you. Your audiences react based on the stimuli you give them- if you give them bad or incorrect stimuli, then their reactions are your responsibility. It may be a harsh position, but as someone who has made art that was not always well received, I can tell you that audience reactions are usually a symptom of a creative problem, not evidence of an audience problem.
However, this incident is only the most high-profile in a slew of rowdy outbursts at playhouses and comedy clubs across Britain. One cause of this bad behaviour could be alcohol, which has been a popular theory amongst some commentators on this issue. The two patrons of the Palace Theatre this Easter allegedly found some of their courage in the bottom of their rosé glasses. There is certainly evidence to suggest that some recent incidents of audience rowdiness have been caused by alcohol abuse. One FOH worker claimed in an article for The Guardian that "...people tend to be very intoxicated before they arrive and treat the show like a gig... with large amounts of alcohol, things can escalate quickly.” However, it seems strange that alcohol alone would cause this new trend of bad behaviour. Alcohol has long been involved with the presentation of live theatre without so many incidents of violence.
My assumption, then, was that something was dramaturgically going wrong for the creative team at The Bodyguard- The Musical. I haven’t seen the original film, but I am of the understanding that it is a tragic story of love and loss. It has a kind of retroactive glaze of camp to it these days, but the narrative is not a comedy that would warrant raucous laughter or singing. The only thing I know about the film is that it features that iconic song. I know that song, mostly, from the times I have accidently gone to a bar during a karaoke night and been confronted by the majestic sight of several older white ladies loudly singing along to it. It is a song that seems to demand to be screamed off key.
What I am getting at is that if someone made a musical that features this song, then you must expect that audiences will try to sing along. It might be impossible to stop them. Just think about it - it’s already in your head, isn’t it? You can feel the words taking shape in your mouth right now, can’t you? It builds like fire in the back of your throat. And surely, that’s a beautiful thing for a theatremaker, especially someone who makes musical theatre. Audiences desperate to sing along to your songs could be a blessing, not a curse. So yes, I was skeptical at first that this situation really was indicative of the demise of polite society. Especially because I had not seen any evidence of this pervasive rudeness ruining nights at the theatre.
Until it happened to me.
A few weeks ago, I took my partner to see The Music of The Lord Of The Rings Concert at the ICC in Sydney. We’ve never seen a live orchestra concert together, and given the nature of this particular show, it seemed like a pleasant way for two geeks to spend an evening out. When we arrived, the crowd was typical of that which gathers when something family friendly but nerdy occurs – young couples, families with children, young adults in hobbit costumes. It's not necessarily a crowd that I would see at a typical dramatic theatre show – which usually skews older, or other young emerging theatre people like me – but I wasn’t worried.
While the concert itself was enjoyable, the audience behaviour was the worse I have ever seen at any show.
The group of young women sitting directly behind us were very enthusiastic, and while I’m glad they were having such a good time, their loud gasps of happiness when certain songs were played and giggling chatter between each tune was not pleasant to listen to. A group of young men sitting about four seats away from us were similarly talkative, but they didn’t even have the decency to talk about the show. They were socially chatting away, raising their voices over the instruments so that their companions could hear them. Halfway through, the host of our evening told us that we’d be given one more song to enjoy before intermission. Less than 10 seconds in, at least 20 people were out of their seats and moving loudly towards the exits. The house lights were down, the orchestra was playing, yet people were ambling out of the theatre. This was repeated at the end of the show too. And then there were the phones – people recording the performers during the show, and the sea of phones flashing and blaring at intermission. We even got to enjoy the young ladies behind us watching episodes of The Rings of Power at full volume.
I have been working in the theatre for a few years now, and I’ve been a performer in some capacity since I was a small child. I have been to dance recitals with hoards of 6-year-olds with better manners than these adult patrons. I felt unbridled fury as I was expected to move out of the way so that people could wander out of the theatre before the end of the show. I was very close to admonishing the girls behind us the 5th time I heard them breathlessly exclaim that they would “actually die if they played that song.” All I could muster were a few well-timed glares, but even that did little to silence them.
I feel geriatric complaining about this. I feel like some old fuddy duddy who demands respect from audiences. But I don’t- all I demand is, if I pay over $100 for tickets to an orchestra concert, I only want to hear the orchestra. It wasn't Harry Styles – there shouldn’t be any loud whooping or OMGing for Howard Shore compositions, right? Even stranger is the fact that alcohol abuse didn't seem to play any role in our suffering. It was 7pm on a Sunday night. There was a bar, yes, but I didn't spot roving bands of drunk rabblerousers.
When I investigate my reaction to this chatter, I spot something that looks like entitlement inside me. I felt entitled to silence when the performers were working, but clearly everyone else felt entitled to treat the theatre like a loungeroom. The unfortunate reality is that 'being rude' is a nebulous concept, and one that requires social definition. Sometimes being chatty and laughing is the appropriate behaviour- at a dinner party, meeting friends for coffee, talking to coworkers. The theatre is a place for silence and thought, and it has always been this way.
Well, that's not strictly true.
The way audiences behave, according to some schools of thought, is a matter of psychology and social manipulation. The classic example of this would be the audiences attending the Globe Theatre during Shakespeare's lifetime. Back then, audiences could shout out and laugh as loud as they liked without being ejected by ushers. Patrons would regularly chat, eat, dance, throw things, and generally carry on. There are a few reasons why audiences behaved like this. Firstly, in a theatre with no electrical lighting, there are no houselights to dim to silence chatter. Watching theatre would be closer to watching a sporting match- full sunlight, with everyone's faces visible to you, and the action happening just far enough away that you might not be able to fully hear what's going on. I'm led to believe that it's normal to talk at a sports game (not that I know from firsthand experience). Secondly, Shakespeare's audiences were from almost all walks of life. The fine art crowd mixed in with the public execution groupies. Silence and politeness tend to be the mode of the upper class, who can usually afford the training required to know how to behave. Those of the lower classes have less expectations of silence put on them, at least in a setting like a well-lit theatre. These groups loudly came together for Shakespeare's shows - I don't know if there was any social tension in this mixing, but if there was, it didn't make for placid patrons.
So, what happened? Why do we now demand silence?
My mind immediately goes to August Strindberg, the 19th century dramatist and purveyor of cultural opinion. In his preface to his 1893 play Miss Julie, Strindberg outlines a vision for the future of theatre decorum -
...if we could get rid of the boxes with their tittering parties of diners; if we could also have the auditorium completely darkened during the performance; and if, first and last, we could have a small stage and a small house: then a new dramatic art might rise, and the theatre might at least become an institution for the entertainment of people with culture.
You might already be noticing the notions of class that have permeated the way we think about 'rudeness' in the theatre. The idea that those with good manners and better breeding are what the theatre needs to thrive. But, you may also notice that this comment entirely describes the shift in audience behaviour that happened during the 20th century. We did find ways to darken auditoriums, which is still the most obvious sign that a show is beginning. Smaller performances spaces are indeed a standard model for dramatic presentation. And, with the development of sound projecting technology, audiences can be hushed into silence by a single microphoned voice.
Or, at least, all of this used to work.
While the causes of this new spate of audience rudeness are varied, complex, and hard to prove, the outcome is all the same - I, personally, feel furious when someone speaks during a performance. Can we train audiences to behave appropriately, like we did in the past? Is this going to become to new normal for live entertainment? Whatever the future holds, it is important to remember where the expectation of politeness comes from, and what it is trying to enforce. If you want everyone to go to the theatre, then you might end up with patrons who aren't used to the expectations set on them.
Perhaps there is some room for singing along to famous musical numbers. But for now, please - if you don't care about the comfort of the performers or other patrons who have to endure your TV show watching and loud conversations, then at least don't be violent if you are ejected from the venue.
After all, those are the rules. For now.