Are theatre audiences worse than ever? Worse than Elizabethan groundlings? Worse than the legendary vaudevillian food throwers? Worse than the Astor Place riots? Washington Irving memorably described New York audiences in his 1802 Letters from Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent., as “stamping, hissing, roaring, whistling,” occasionally “groaning in cadence,” and throwing “apple, nuts, and ginger-bread” at the stage.
The hand-wringing and pearl-clutching now in evidence over recent phone-related incidents in New York theatres—the idiot who tried to plug his iPhone into the stage set of Hand to God, the unfortunate patron who dared text in front of Patti LuPone during a recent performance of Shows for Days—lit up our American Theatre Facebook page last week, and reached their apotheosis in a Facebook comment (not on our page) by the estimable Alfred Molina, whose stage work has encompassed much of the English-speaking world, from London to Broadway to L.A. 99-seat theatres. He railed recently that “Theatre is dying, if it’s not dead already,” and gave his litany of reasons why he thinks so:
Ticket prices; the discomfort; our slavish devotion to social media and all the technology that goes with it; all these factors amount to an experience that is fast becoming unpleasant and unhealthy.
We have reached a point where actors are actually engaging physically with the audience; throwing punches, grabbing cellphones, stepping out of the play and out of character to berate and chastize the audience’s behaviour. And the audiences are asking for it by answering calls, eating through the performance, talking to each other and disrupting the delicate balance that has to exist between the players and the audience. We call them the “audience” because that is their end of the bargain, to listen.
It was once the stuff of theatre gossip, when actors and theatre workers would regale one another with stories of onstage and offstage disasters, and the antics of audience members…those stories were fun because they were rare, and the incidents were often delicious to relate because they hardly ever happened. Now, ‘the actor, interrupted’ has become commonplace. Theatre is losing that very thing that makes it unique among the performing arts, the intimacy and tension created by the moments that are happening for the first and last time.
I haven’t been attending theatre for quite as long as Molina has been doing it, and I’ve only been on the other side of the footlights a handful of times (as a musician). And I don’t mean to dismiss the concerns of actors and theatre house managers who sincerely feel like they’re on the front lines of a new battle with a new kind of enemy. But I’m in the theatre audience more nights than most civilians, and while I’ve collected my share of horror stories about inappropriate ringtones, rude patrons, and other disruptions, I can’t honestly say I share Molina’s diagnosis that we’ve reached a place that’s “unhealthy and unpleasant”—or at least not any more uncomfortable than live theatre, with its attendant crowd management headaches, has ever been. His last point, about losing the “intimacy and tension” of live theatre, seems to have it all backwards: It’s precisely the “intimacy and tension” of sharing a space with a room full of unpredictable human beings that is what theatre has always been about, and which this new phone problem only dramatizes more acutely than ever.
Audiences breach theatre etiquette for any number of reasons; sometimes it’s part of the script. My highest-profile theatre-musician gig was a bit of stunt casting in which I played myself and interrupted the show, and I was hardly alone: When Cornerstone Theater did a holiday show at the Mark Taper Forum in 2000, Alison Carey loosely adapted The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a remarkable Elizabethan play in which audience “plants” interrupt and try to redirect the story themselves. Carey’s For Here or To Go had the harried “director” wrestle with staged interventions by all classes of patrons, even some fast-food workers who barged in the back of the theatre; my role was to stand up late in the show and announce that I was reviewing it, which prompted the stage band’s disgusted exit, leaving me to be dragged onstage to pick up a guitar and lead the closing number amid an onstage pizza party.
The whole thing was a fascinating through-the-looking-glass experience for me, and while most audience members weren’t especially fooled by the conceit, I remember one young patron who walked onstage to ask for a piece of pizza near the end of the show. When I mentioned that incident to the Taper’s Gordon Davidson, he recalled a performance of Zoot Suit in which a theatregoer jumped onstage to defend a Pachuco during a fight scene. And when I interviewed Lynn Nottage recently about her new play at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Sweat, she recounted an unsettling moment during OSF’s production of Ruined in which an audience member got so caught up in the action that she jumped onstage and tried to tackle an actor playing an African soldier during a scene in which he and his colleagues were assaulting the play’s women.
Of course, these examples suggest an opposite malady to the phone-screen-distraction problem deplored my Molina et al.: The patrons who breached the fourth wall in these cases were arguably over-invested in the reality of the worlds onstage rather than half-watching, half-tweeting them. But I’d argue that this behavior is on a broad continuum with the entitled jerks who text during shows, the elderly patrons who ask for an ongoing plot summary from anyone in earshot, the snorers and farters and coughers of all stripes. That continuum is called humanity, with all its deplorable and laudable manifestations; these are people we’re sharing the theatre experience with, not robots or monks. And if our cell phones add a new wrinkle to the ways we’ve found to irritate and annoy each other, that’s a problem of human behavior that’s broader, and possibly more troubling, than the form it takes in the theatre.
Another bit of social media caught my eye:
— MsLibertyBelle (@PeaceLibLady) July 10, 2015
I don’t know about you, but while I certainly don’t go to the theatre to be distracted by a-holes on their iPhones, I do go to the theatre expecting to be more engaged than at a funeral.