Snobbery about audience behavior suffocates theatre: it’s a collective experience

The recent debate over unruly audience behavior began, quite rightly, with warnings against drunkenness in auditoriums after horror stories of boisterous musical theatergoers who took the idea of ​​”aisle dancing” a little too much. literally.

But fast forward to the last social media outcry I’ve noticed, after munching on popcorn at ENO’s Rhinegold, and the conversation starts to take on the same overtones of class snobbery and cultural elitism that the industry is trying so hard to shrug off. off.

Civility towards performers, staff and other audience members must surely be a requirement in any live show. We shouldn’t need a ‘respect campaign’ as has been proposed by the Society of London Theater and UK Theater to remind us to be considerate, let alone a cap on alcohol sales hitting cinemas where it hurts: they are in times financially restricted enough as it is.

But the debate reaches its climax with the discussion of eating in the auditorium, in my view. Nibbling or chewing can be a distraction, especially in the confines of the narrow old West End venues, but theater is a group activity and there will always be the noise of other people in any collective space.

“The attention of a large group of people creates a unique intensity,” wrote Peter Brook of the audience, and in the theater intensity arises from a collective vivacity. The group experience is what we come for – and that includes lobby jostling, coughing, rustling and, yes, eating or drinking.

So I wonder if the consternation over the snacks is about the noise itself or the kind of people eating popcorn while watching the Ring cycle? I’ve heard some slyly mention cheaper ticket systems that bring what is insinuated as hoi polloi into these hallowed halls and stalls.

“A teenager sometimes read from his telephone and watched the show in others” … Tracy-Ann Oberman in The Merchant of Venice 1936 at Watford Palace. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Connected to the complaints about audience behavior are wails about young people and their cell phones, standing ovations and even applause between scenes. What does this critique say? That there are some who don’t follow the right protocols, presumably learned at the end of school?

Some spoke of the effects of the pandemic on young audiences: that they cannot sit still or go two hours without scrolling through their screens. Phones don’t necessarily have to be the devil, if they are switched to silent mode and dimmed to power saving mode. For some, they are a necessity: I went to the theater a few years ago with a friend who had been told that day that a parent was diagnosed with cancer. Things could change by the hour, they told her, but she had come to the theater for a break. A man nearby barked at her when her phone’s light came on checking for updates, which seemed like a particularly aggressive gesture given the context.

More recently, a teenager sitting next to me at The Merchant of Venice 1936 sometimes read from his phone in dim light and intently watched the show at others. Perhaps this is how some young people consume culture. But his little phone light didn’t interfere with my enjoyment, so who am I to complain?

And if the behavior of the public AND changing, do we recognize it and make certain arrangements? After all, we’re talking about wanting plurality in audiences – of age, class, culture. Industry, it could be argued, has driven this shift in part with the rise of relaxed entertainment, which retrains us to some degree in audience norms.

Any audience, in my view, should be aware of the flow and concentration of the actors as well as each other, but we should also remember that theater is essentially a dialogue and that audiences – from the ancient Greeks to those in a Christmas pantomime – remain active . Have we forgotten the apple pitchers at The Rivals in the days of RB Sheridan? And what about the 16th-century Globe Earthlings who were sold pippins, oranges, nuts, gingerbread, and beer during a show? These ancestors make us look positively valuable in our today’s outrage.

Phones don't have to be the devil if they are switched to silent mode and dimmed to power saving mode

Dim the lights… mobile phones don’t have to be the devil if they’re set to silent and dimmed to power save mode. Photograph: Sasa Huzjak/Alamy

As for the popcorn at The Rhinegold, perhaps those who eat it could do so more safely and we could grant them the right to enjoy it? My most treasured memory of opera is watching La Bohème, a few years ago, at the Puccini festival in Tuscany, where Italian families opened boxes of food. They also came and went as they pleased and spoke softly. It is true that it was a large open-air auditorium with natural acoustics, but sound probably brings even more to such an atmosphere. The point is, nobody cared, and it didn’t spoil Angela Gheorghiu’s brilliant performance as Mimì. Group behavior is culturally defined, and sitting in the midst of a certain audience, I find myself acknowledging that total silence is not the only response to a stage performance. Where I found a Japanese audience in a contemporary theater in Tokyo remarkably quiet – there was no applause even at intermission – the more talkative audience in Torre del Lago seemed equally respectful.

Being a person of South Asian descent, I know that encouraging interjections from the audience are welcomed by artists at poetry readings in Pakistan. Cheers of approval in productions like Inua Ellams’ Three Sisters or Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night at the National Theater also show that audience response can be culturally coded. My sister-in-law’s father, from Tennessee, recently came to London and accompanied me to the Moulin Rouge!, where she exclaimed his answers and, in the process, had made friends and found fellow Americans at a show of southern conviviality . The crowd as a whole was relaxed, some exclaiming, others silently checking their phones. He was, in fact, one of the friendliest audiences I’ve sat among in a long time. If live performance is about connection and shared experience, this kind of informality can definitely be a part of it.

Related: “I hear them three floors away!” The theaters where you don’t have to behave yourself

Those who have raised concerns about the rowdy behavior said even the worst crashes are very rare. If so, we don’t need an ice cream stand review or a lengthy inquiry into who or what is to blame. But maybe there AND need to remember that there is more than one way to be a “good” audience.

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