Bad Behavior by American Theatre Audiences is Nothing New

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Hand to God recently had an incident with an audience member.

So many reviewers, columnists, and performers are bemoaning the recent bad behavior of Broadway audiences. It’s as if having people in the audience who distract other audience members, upstage the show, and act in ways that detract from the live stage performance are something new. These actions are not. Such behavior is actually normal in the American theatre. If, somehow, you manage to not have anyone act inappropriately, then you truly have had a special live theatre experience.

Often Isolated

Ideal audience?

Ideal audience?

At any given performance of any play, there are small, isolated displays of rudeness by audience members. Most are fairly innocuous and go unnoticed by the majority of those in attendance, monitoring the house, and performing on stage.

Incidents such as unwrapping and consuming food, using chewing tobacco, commenting on the action or a line in a play, or discussing the day’s events with a friend are done habitually and have been a part of the theatre for centuries. Note, none of these types of poor behavior involve technology. Incidents with technology have been occurring for less than a half-century.

Audience Control

Park Theatre was known for rudeness.

Park Theatre was known for rudeness.

Controlling audience behavior and encouraging proper decorum has been an issue in the US since the late 18th century. Many critics and commentators, including Washington Irving, Walt Whitman, and Frances Trollope, wrote about the audacity, poor manners, and outrageous actions of audiences in New York, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and other parts of the country.

In 1802 that when he went to see a show at the Park Theatre in New York City, Irving wrote, “Although constables were stationed in the gallery to keep order, they did not do so. The gallery gods whistled, shouted, hissed, and groaned. They showered spectators in the pit with apples, nuts, and gingerbread. The spectators in the boxes were not so noisy but for them too playgoing was a social occasion. The belles simpered and coquetted. The beaux studiously wielded their glasses and ostentatiously ignored the play. The men in the pit suffered drip from the chandelier and barrages from the gallery, but their own behavior was not the best; they stood on the benches before the curtain went up like spectators at a football game before the kick-off.”

Frances Trollope

Frances Trollope

Trollope, who went to theatre throughout the U.S. in the early to mid-nineteenth century, was in the nation’s capital during a performance when she observed, “One man in the pit was seized with a violent fit of vomiting, which appeared to not in the least to surprise of annoy his neighbors; and the happy coincidence of a physician being at that moment personated on stage, was hailed by many in the audience as an excellent joke, of which the actor took advantage and elicited shouts of applause by saying ‘I expect my services are wanted elsewhere.’”

Man sitting on coat, placed on rail of audience box, with his back to the stage.

Man sitting on coat, placed o rail of audience box, with his back to the stage.

She went on to comment on the many politicians in the audience, saying, “The spitting was incessant, and not one in ten of the male part of male part of the illustrious legislative audience sat according to the usual custom of human beings; the legs were thrown sometimes over the front of the box, sometimes over the side of it, here and there a senator stretched his entire length over the bench, and in many instances the front rail was preferred as a seat.”

Such activities would not be tolerated today. However, humankind being what it is, there is, due to the very different natures of each person and the fact that the U.S. is not a police state, bound to be behaviors amongst theatre patrons that annoy other theatregoers as well as, at times, the actors on stage.

Ian McKellen and Acting Shakespeare

McKellen in Acting Shakespeare.

McKellen in Acting Shakespeare.

It was in the 1980s that I went to see Ian McKellen in his one-man show Acting Shakespeare at the Charles Playhouse in Boston. The show was being performed in the theatre’s 500-seat house and the performance was sold out. I had seats in the second row and was but 10-feet away from the actor.

When McKellen took the stage to applause he launched into one of Shakespeare’s famous soliloquys. I can’t remember which one because as the great actor began the speech, he was joined by an elderly gentleman sitting in the audience left section. That man recited the piece word for word with McKellen.

You could feel the entire energy of the house change, as we listened to this odd duo that featured the rich voice and amazing interpretive skills of one of the greatest actors of the English speaking stage and the shaky but enthusiastic tones of an aging lover of the Bard.

Perhaps he felt a bit murderous that night. Who could blame McKellen if he did?

Perhaps he felt a bit murderous that night. Who could blame McKellen if he did?

After the first speech was over, McKellen greeted the audience and introduced the show. He then launched into his second piece, which was a reading of what is written on the great playwright’s tombstone. The actor focused stage left on the imaged tombstone, his back to the man who had recited the initial passage with him, and began, reciting, and the elderly gentleman, once again, join him-

“Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare to
Digg the dust encloased heare…”

Then McKellen thrust out his right hand towards his unwanted fellow performer, stopped reciting, and without turning towards the interrupter said, “I say, old chap, I believe the people came hear tonight to hear just one man recite Shakespeare.”

With that pronouncement, the audience applauded, the old man laughed, and the rest of the evening was McKellen performing in the manner he had intended, alone.

Richard Wagner and Thomas Edison

Wagner's theatre.

Wagner’s theatre.

It was the great opera composer and producer Richard Wagner who was instrumental in devising a few simple but fairly effective methods of controlling audience behavior. He did so by utlizing specific design elements in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which was built in the 1870s.

First, he created a seating arrangement that made audiences focus on the stage by eliminating the side boxes, which were often the source of interruptive behavior. He also lengthened the distance between the stage and audience and placed the orchestra in a sunken pit so that they could not be seen.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he dimmed the lights in the house, which meant the only part of the theatre that was illuminated was the stage. By blacking out the audience, he greatly diminished the opportunities for theatregoers to interact and misbehave, while his other innovations demanded that audiences focus on what was happening on stage.

Lighting controls.

Lighting controls.

In 1879, Thomas Edison created the first successful electric light. By the 1880s, cities were being wired for electricity and by the 1890s theatres had begun to make the transition from gaslight to electric.

Electric light gave us much more control over audiences by giving stage practitioners a means to focus audience attention on specific parts of the stage, including upstage and stage right and left areas that gaslight could not effectively illuminate. The new lighting used in productions, as well as in the complete extinguishing of house lights during a performance, demanded that audiences focus their attention on the show and not on one another.

Technology Controls and Out of Control

Madonna guilty!

Madonna guilty!

Ironically, much of the same technology that gave theatre producers more control over audiences is also responsible for now distracting audiences. Powered by an electrical charge, our mini-computers, which we still often refer to as “phones,” have become the primary distractive elements in today’s theatres.

Whether it’s someone illegally recording a performance, taking pictures of a show, surfing the Internet, or texting a friend, lover, or babysitter, these devices, which now light up previously darkened auditoriums, have become a major nuisance. Along with all of the distractive activity they inspire, they also, occasionally ring in some manner when someone forgets to shut them off or mute them.

It’s very perplexing to those who work in the theatre. These devices have clearly accelerated loutish behavior.

Hand of God

The Hand to God offender apologized.

The Hand to God offender apologized.

Recently, a bad behavior incident, which was widely written about and discussed, involved a young man who was attending a performance of Hand of God on Broadway. Prior to the start of the show, the man went on stage and plugged his cell phone charger into an electrical outlet on the fairly realistic set. Of course, the outlet was not practical, but the theatergoer saw a representation of reality on stage and went with it.

This type of behavior, which is the kind of thing that simply mystifies many of us and totally bewilders anyone working in the theatre, is not uncommon. Patti LuPone recently snatched a phone from someone texting during an Off-Broadway show in which she was performing, Madonna drew criticism for texting during Hamilton, and many other incidents have been chronicled with increasing frequency.

The offender during Hand to God was a 19-year-old named Nick Silvestri who said in a press conference held by the producers, “I don’t go to plays very much, and I didn’t realize that the stage is considered off limits.” He also noted, “I’ve learned a lot about the theater in the past few days — theater people are really passionate and have been very willing to educate me. I would like to sincerely apologize to the Broadway community.”

Typical Yankee Character

The Yankee character.

The Yankee character.

What many do not understand, especially those in the theatre, is that this behavior is typically American, and we should expect it and take positive steps to change the culture that engages in it. In the first successful American play, The Contrast (1787), playwright Royall Tyler created a character who mirrored the uneducated, well-meaning, sincere, and simple American. This was the Yankee character; a type that would be popular on the American stage for close to a century.

In The Contrast, Jonathan, who is the Yankee character, talks about going to see the play School for Scandal. As he accounts what he witnessed on stage, it becomes evident that he thinks he’s viewed real life playing out in front of him. It’s a very funny monologue, partly due to the innocence and ignorance of the character.

Although not all of those who offend are like the Yankee character, Mr. Silvestri and others who are connected to him by their lack of knowledge regarding the theatre and what’s expected of them, are. Remember, cellphone technology is new to everyone and constantly developing, and those who have grown up with it see it as essential and natural to their lives as eating, breathing, and speaking.

Please Check Your Devices?

th-27Finally, and this is a radical idea for curbing the problem, perhaps it’s as simple as having a place for people to check their devices when they are going to a show. It sounds cumbersome for sure and 99% of those who have cells, which is about 100% of the public, would resist it.

In lieu of such an invasive and time-consuming practice as checking cellphones, perhaps a campaign to really educate people about theatre decorum and phones would be in order? Whose job would it be to educate theses people?

It would be the job of those of us in the theatre. After all, they are coming into our house and we set the rules. That being the case it’s our responsibility to make sure that those rules are clearly understood and enforced.

Broadway Musical Hamilton – Not about the Future, about the Now in America

hamilton543The new Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) musical Hamilton has garnered a lot of attention and praise. It almost immediately sold out its Off-Broadway run at the Public Theatre, was designated for transfer to Broadway just after it opened to five-star reviews, and now that it’s in previews on Broadway every celeb wants to be seen at what is considered to be a groundbreaking show.

Getting the obvious out of the way, this is a piece of musical theatre that is expertly crafted, directed, and performed. Miranda is a genius, and with director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and musical director Alex Lacamoire, he’s created a theatrical piece that works on many different levels.

Past and Future Brought Together?

hamilton6576Some pundits are saying that this musical is about the future of America. This is for a few reasons with one being that most of the leads, in stark contrast to our white founding fathers, are being played by men of color. In other words, this is a colorblind production and making it thus reveals the future of what our country can be.

However, more so and more importantly, the casting, which features superlative performances, is not just about what our country might be one day, but what it is now. This musical is a living paradigm of society today, where color lines in the eyes of many of those who are just being born and those who are in their late-twenties to early-thirties mean little to nothing when it comes to working together, falling in love, or creating lasting friendships.

Race, Violence, and Injustice

South Carolina retires Confederate flag.

South Carolina retires Confederate flag.

Of course our country is in no way perfect, much like any performance of a live theatrical event where mistakes are made, performances morph and shift, and each audience brings its own energy. We are not all colorblind in the U.S., but we are living in a time when less than a decade ago most of us could not have imagined the President of the United States being black, police officers and departments across the country having to answer for their unconstitutional and illegal practices, and South Carolina permanently and officially removing the Confederate flag from its state house.

The musical Hamilton is a complex mix of history, character, and motivations set to a hamilton0989nonstop contemporary music score, accented by hip hop and R&B rhythms, and told through lyrics that are brimming with insight, cleverness, and irony. In its Gestalt it is the epitome of not the America of the future but of the America of today.

There’s a great historical irony to having so many people of color play white Americans. The obvious one has to do with the fact that some of those on stage may be playing those who may have actually enslaved their forebears.

The famous Bert Williams, performer.

The famous Bert Williams, performer.

The other, less-obvious irony has to do with the fact that white stage actors first defined black characters in the U.S. From the time that Thomas D. Rice first did his Jump Jim Crow act to minstrelsy to the hundreds of Uncle Tom productions that played in the U.S. for more than 60 years to Al Jolson through to so many more performers and productions, blacks were told how to speak, act, and talk by whites.

This white definition of what it was to be black was so pervasive that for decades black performers would use pitch-black makeup to darken their skin and white to exaggerate their lips and the palms of their hands so they would fit the image that white actors had created. They spoke in the black dialect whites spoke on stage and mimicked the shuffling body movements of their white interpreters. With Hamilton all of that is reversed.

Williams as a black character.

Williams as a black character.

What makes Hamilton so powerful is it is a work of art that in many ways reveals what may be the final pitched battle between those who feel the need, for whatever reason, to create divisions by race, and those who see race as a social construct that has been foisted upon them by long-dead theorists, social scientists, and political leaders.

Naive to Say

Eric Garner's death.

Eric Garner’s death.

Of course, to say that the U.S. is colorblind, or that racial tensions and divides don’t exist, or that there are not still major injustices in what should be a system of equal justice would be not only naïve, but wrong, to say. The facts are our prison system is filled with a disproportionate percentage of men and women of color, men and women of color are still marginalized in many ways, and the low standard of living combined with high crime rates and levels of drug use in minority communities are beyond alarming.

At the same time, there are many people trying to make a difference in a variety of ways. These earnest folks are living in a time when change is eminently possible, however, it is still difficult to engender.

Imperfect World

A father and his daughter.

A father and his daughter.

There will never be a perfect world as far as race and how it defines us is concerned. But what Hamilton and its popularity says, what this piece of art emulates, is that because we are now willing to begin to address day-to-day racial injustices in this country and think of humankind as an entity of equals and not as disparate colors, that in the here and now while we watch this musical in the theatre we are not seeing the future but experiencing the present.

In an imperfect world, it is comforting and inspiring to know that such an experience exists. Hopefully, Hamilton will help us take the next steps necessary towards creating a country where the definition of race has become obsolete. In doing so, we should remember all that was unimaginable less than a decade ago that is now reality, and boldly address the challenges that lie before us. The musical Hamilton is past, present, and future in one.

Where Is Broadway Headed and Do We Need To Do Something About It?

BROADWAY 15Broadway is this amazing amalgam of shows, ticket prices, theatres, artists, producers, marketing and branding agents, and more. For the past 50 years or so there’s been a lot of concern as to where Broadway is going and what will happen to it. The fact is since the 1960s Broadway has fluctuated from periods of financial stability and growth to decline.

Whatever the case may be in the future, the fiscal, moral, artistic, and spiritual wellbeing of Broadway are all a part of the lives of every theatre professional, whether they are working on The Great White Way or involved in an independent, professional theatre in one of the 50 states. Here are some questions that everyone who is involved in the monetary aspect of the theatre needs to ask themselves and answer honestly.

Short or Long Term?

The Phantom of the Opera15Are they looking just at the short term, the next four to 11 months or the long term? By “long term” not “long run,” but the overall health of the business as it relates to all aspects, including audience, industry, art form, etc. This is one of the toughest things to do, calling for a strong alliance of those in the business and the various organizations and unions that serve Broadway and the American theatre.

Artistic vs. Fiscal Balance

6.207210This is yet another difficult undertaking. In balancing the artistic and the fiscal elements of a production, producers are trying to give audiences stellar shows at affordable prices while attempting to make a profit. Many years ago, Off-Broadway was seen as a solution to this dilemma, and to a degree it is still one. Broadway’s dilemma is in maintaining high artistic standards while still being able to provide tickets that are affordable to the general public.

The Next Generation

kids theatre36The future of Broadway, and the entire American theatre, is dependent upon its ability to attract young audiences who will want to keep coming back as they get older and have their own families. The more that can be done now and in the next decade to attract student groups and families the more fiscally sound Broadway and the American theatre will be.

Giving access to student groups in the form of affordable ticket prices, backstage tours, talkbacks, intellegent and reflective study guides, and workshops will go a long way to cultivating tomorrow’s theatregoers. Theatre audiences are aging and those potential theatregoers who are now in school and college communicate, socialize, and make money-spending decisions in an entirely different way than their parents and grandparents.

What Are Fair Ticket Prices?

The Lion King15The hundred million dollar question is “what are fair ticket prices?” How can a show make its nut, pay its investors, and still be affordable for audiences? Popular shows that become award-winners will raise their ticket prices to take advantage of the fact that people want to see the show, whereas those plays or musicals that are having a hard time attracting audiences will lower them considerably.

This “what the market will bear” pricing is understandable; and, yet, if ticket prices were set at a rate that reflects fair value in terms of the show, budget, and a reasonable profit, that type of pricing might actually create a ripple effect for attendance, as seats become affordable to a wider demographic.

Is There Something You Can Do?

empty theatre37Everyone involved in the professional theatre needs to ask themselves what they are doing right and what they can do to improve the current situation on Broadway to provide access. Ticket prices for shows continue to rise and the demographic that can afford such continues to narrow. What can be done?

If the answer is “nothing can be done,” then we think again and become creative. This is not an indictment but a request that everyone honestly evaluate themselves in terms of what they bring to the professional theatre in a positive way, and what they contribute in a negative manner in terms of inhibiting its growth.

th-36A sure sign of the times is that those in their late teens to mid-twenties are uninterested in subscribing to cable-TV. There are now some streaming services available, and more being developed, that can give that demographic what they want and at a much cheaper price. Is there such a solution that Broadway can provide? Does it have to do so?

The basic idea is to ask yourself is there something else that I can do to in some way improve the American theatre by increasing ticket sales while making shows more affordable to all levels of society and preserving high artistic standards? Producing shows is not an easy business, and, yet, at the same time nobody said that it would or should be.

But at this point in time it’s pretty clear that everyone involved has to be totally committed to the ultimate goal, which is hopefully not just extraordinary ticket sales, but, rather, a commitment to a strong artistic product, affordable ticket prices, and the betterment of the American stage. If that can happen on a consistent basis, then the American theatre may see growth on all levels.