If recent news reports are to be believed, we are hurtling towards the end of civilisation faster than that blue-black/gold-white dress broke the internet. And by 'civilisation' I don't mean 'humanity' in the sense of mankind's existence on the planet. I mean it in the sense of 'that which sets us apart from the animals' - a sense of community, consideration for others, knowing to put lime rather than lemon in a gin and tonic.
It seems like a fairly basic part of the social contract that if an actor is going to give up hours and weeks of their life to prepare for a live performance for us, then the least we can give in return is our undivided attention for the hour or two that performance lasts. Whether we ultimately like or enjoy that performance, we can't realistically form an opinion on it unless we've paid proper attention.
And so it beggars belief that in the last few weeks alone, the following instances of common courtesy going out the window have made the headlines:-
OUT OF JUICE
We've all been caught short - finding ourselves in a Mexican standoff with the smartphone battery, willing it not to run down to the redzone until we've finished reading that Buzzfeed article of '27 things #stagey kids do', and worked out whether we should be insulted or not. When (as inevitably happens) we lose the battle of wills with the small piece of Lithium that powers our lives, the sensible approach would be to take it on the chin and embrace the analogue world around us momentarily: read a newspaper, chat to a loved one, or settle down to watch the Broadway show in front of us that we've no doubt shelled out the GDP of Greece to get a ticket for.
Apparently, this was a step too far for Long Island resident Nick Silvestri, who found himself on the losing end of this battle last week whilst sitting in the auditorium of the Booth Theatre, New York waiting for curtain up on Hand to God - a Broadway comedy described as the bastard love child of Book of Mormon and Avenue Q. You'd think that with a tagline like that, Silvestri would be breathless with anticipation and eagerly devouring his Playbill.
But no, when Siri refused to engage him in conversation any longer, he took the only course of action he could think of. He jumped up on stage, and plugged his iPhone charger into an electrical socket on the set.
He was swiftly huckled away, but the saving schadenfreude of course is that there were no functioning sockets on the set, it was simply realistic set-dressing. So, next year's Tony-award should be in the bag for Beowulf Borritt for most convincing set design. (Also, best name backstage - we bet Joe Burns hated having to come after Bewoulf when they called the register in class)
DON'T ASK, DON'T WILLIAM TELL
If the West End of London is a theatre village, with homes of all shapes and sizes, and a community that welcomes all newcomers so long as they pay their way, then the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden is its stately home; the manor house presiding over them all. Whilst top hat and tails may no longer be de rigeur for a trip to the opera, we take it for granted that certain social pleasantries will be observed - we expect that a veneer of respectability will cover any awkwardness. Given the ticket prices for a seat at ROH, you'd expect any outright confrontation to be avoided and any displeasure to be voiced discreetly through some pithy bon mots over a glass of bubbly in the Paul Hamlyn Champagne Bar. Architecturally speaking, they don't come more refined than the opera house at Covent Garden.
So for ROH's director of opera, Kasper Holten, it came as a surprise that the third act of Rossini's Guillame Tell was met with loud, and prolonged, booing. The audience disapproval related to a five-minute sequence in which a woman is stripped naked and gang-raped.
The setting of the opera had been transported to war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s, and whilst the score for opera doesn't give directions for the scene, it contains little else instead, given that this is a 'ballet' sequence with no singing at all. And production director Damiano Michieletto notes the incident is in fact referred to by another character in the first act. The production team were keen to deliver opera as a piece of theatre, not just a walking CD, and to do that the production must speak to the audience, and must have something to say about its subject. In this case, this subject was war and the fact that sexual violence against women is still a prolific, yet under-reported and seldom discussed, fact. Yes, it is horrible. That, I believe, is the point the production team were trying to make.
It is a sensitive subject and, of course, if it has been used gratuitously as a headline-grabber and has not been sensibly handled then the production team should be held to account and forced to treat it with the gravitas it deserves. However, the creative team make a strong case for the scene's inclusion. That the ROH audience were forced to think about such unpleasantries may to their minds have left a bitter taste in their Dom Perignon. But did the inclusion of the scene totally negate the work of the singers and the orchestra who carried on with the utmost professionalism? Does a difference of opinion on an artistic interpretation allow you to disrespect the performers who are engaged in delivering a high quality performance for your benefit? Of course it doesn't.
If theatre makes us think at all, then that's no bad thing.
A CASE OF THE POT CALLING THE KETTLE PINK
In California last month, an actor was fired for tackling (literally) a heckler during a production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Now, you don't have to have a PhD in the life and works of Tennessee Williams to know that his works regularly feature (i) the deep South; and (ii) references to repressed homosexuality that wouldn't be tolerated in such God-fearing communities. Anyone who's ever seen the iconic The Simpsons parody-musical 'Streetcar!' knows this to be true.
It's especially true of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where one of the main characters, Brick, must confront not only his burgeoning alcoholism but the nature of a relationship that drove his best friend to take his own life. So it must have been a surprise to all concerned when in the midst of a heated second-act confrontation between Brick and his patriarchal father-in-law Big Daddy, one audience member yelled 'Fag!' at the stage. We're pretty sure most of the audience had worked the subtext out for themselves by this point, and less offensively too.
John Lacy, the actor playing Big Daddy, leapt off the stage and into the auditorium in search of the culprit. According to the Huffington Post, Lacy claims to have given the audience member a shove 'to let him know I was there' but given that the heckler arrived the worse for wear and continued drinking during the interval he 'went down pretty easy'.
The heckler was removed from the auditorium by a fellow audience member, and at the curtain calls, the cast received a standing ovation. However, after that night's post-show party, the producers fired Lacy for his actions. The following day, his co-star resigned in solidarity. The production was forced to close before its run had finished.
Lacy's reaction may have been too extreme and too agressive, and we shouldn't permit violent reponses, but nor should we permit such outright offensive behaviour and language from the audience. The heckler clearly didn't want to see homosexual behaviour discussed on stage (note - not depicted, discussed). As a result of his actions, the show was ultimately cancelled and so it appears that in this instance, the bigots won.
Just three weeks later, the US Supreme Court ruled to legalise same-sex marriage in every state of the US.
Broadway legend Patti LuPone is currently appearing at the Mitzi E Newhouse Theatre, New York in a production of Shows for Days in which she plays, appropriately enough, a small-town theatre diva.
At the end of one scene in the second act, the cast exit all together and LuPone told the New York Times that she normally shakes hands with some of the audience in the front row on her way. However, on Wednesday night she bypassed the first row, went straight to second, and swiped the mobile phone from a woman who had been conspicuously texting on her phone in full view of the actors on stage since the first act began. (It was returned to the audience member after the show).
The other audience members applauded.
And it's not the first time, either. Back in 2009, on the penultimate night of a Broadway run of Gypsy, LuPone stopped the performance to give a piece of her mind to someone who was photographing the show on their mobile phone:
And although these are all recent examples, they are not unprecedented. In a 2014 Old Vic production of Clarence Darrow, Kevin Spacey was lauded for telling an audience member with an unruly phone 'If you don't answer that, I will' without so much as breaking character. And later that year part-time actor, full-time eccentric Shia LaBeouf was arrested for his conduct at a Broadway production of Cabaret (which essentially amounted to drunk and disorderly conduct, culminating in grabbing Alan Cumming's bottom as he passed through the audience...)
The theatre, they say, is in decline. Should we tolerate these unruly audience members, whose behaviour impacts negatively not only on the performers, but on the experience of their fellow attendees? Of course not. But nor should we shun them.
We learn from experience. The actions listed above are, by and large borne out of inexperience. Veteran theater-goers have probably experienced enough of these behaviours to have their nights ruined, and would never dream of inflicting them on anyone else. Theatre should be an egalitarian experience. It should hold a mirror up to the human condition and challenge everyone, young and old, rich and poor, to think. Let's not turn these people away, or shame them in to never returning. These are exactly the people we need to draw into the theatres - what better medium to teach a little respect for our fellow man?
And is unexpected audience involvement always a bad thing?
Here at GMT, our 2012 production of Fame is fondly remembered for the matinee performance. In a scene in the drama class, Joe Vegas is invited to take the floor and bare his soul to his classmates but elects to embark on a standup comedy routine instead. For five out of six performances, his monologue continued as scripted:
Joe: Yo! Can I get some light up here? No? Man, this is going to be painful.
But at a matinee performance, an audience member with special needs had become engrossed in the show, not long into the first act:
Joe: Yo! Can I get some light up here?
Voice from the back row: No!
Voice from the back row: No!
Joe: No? Erm...Okay then...This is going to be painful.
There might have been an audience intrusion, but it is this version of this scene which is mostly fondly remembered. A theatre performance should engage with its audience, and there's no better engagement than when the audience dialogue with the performers.
Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let's turn the other cheek with a theatrical flourish, apply a bit more pan-cake to it, and see if we can't keep these people engaged. They won't even miss their mobile phones...