Are theatre goers guilty of treating performances like a trip to the local Odeon? Rustling sweet wrappers, slurping on fizzy drinks, taking pictures and even answering calls – is our attitude to live performance changing, for the worse?
Last week, I (Filskit lady Vic) paid a visit to the Phoenix Theatre to see the musical Blood Brothers – I managed to secure two excellent tickets for the Friday night show, five rows from the front! Buzzing with excitement and already welling up as the orchestra began to play, my eyes were glued to the stage.
But as the performance started, the rustling began – a family in the row behind me began to get well and truly stuck into their noisy feast of crisps and chocolates. I bristled, feeling the irritation start to set in. Was I being overly sensitive I wondered? Then the goodies were passed back and forth between them as they proceeded to continuously munch away. My partner and I inadvertently turned round in synchronicity to give a typically British look of ‘now see here old chap’ as the polite signal for ‘put a sock in it’. The noise continued. Eventually the boyfriend, sufficiently perturbed, turned round to sternly whisper ‘do you mind keeping it down?’
Silence – we felt we had triumphed. But oh no, our relief was short lived. The rustling returned – at TWICE THE VOLUME. The audacity! Not only were they making noise, they were now pointedly doing it to prove some sort of point. At the end of the show we heard several other audience members muttering how annoying the family had been with their noises. But no one had done anything. What were we meant to do? No ushers had intervened.
This reminds me of a similarly disruptive experience reported by Mark Shenton in his blog for The Stage. He had the courage to complain about an audience member who was using flash photography during a performance of Einstein on the Beach at The Barbican. Amusingly, the offender in question was actually social and human rights activist Bianca Jagger. Not that it should matter who you are – there are often announcements about photography being prohibited and asking for phones to be switched off. Do people (including Jagger) believe they are above the laws of the theatre, as well as common courtesy?
As many will agree, a night at the theatre can certainly cost a pretty penny or two, which makes it even more galling when audience members insist on carelessly creating a disruptive environment for the other spectators. This is sadly a familiar scenario for the average cinema-goer. We’ve all found our eyes automatically drawn to the indiscreet areas of light as people thoughtlessly text or tweet throughout films – and that again isn’t exactly a cheap night out any more!
For many, theatres can be realms of escapism where, for a short period of time, you can suspend your disbelief, be moved, excited, shocked or simply entertained. But all the external interruptions (doctors on call aside) can somewhat cheapen the moment. Aside from the effect on the audience, what impact does this have on the performer? For some, it can be a challenge, a live moment to deal with and shatter the fourth wall – Hugh Jackman in A Steady Rain on Broadway provided a priceless moment when he directly addressed an audience member whose phone was continuously sounding. The immediacy of this address must’ve been quite exciting to witness and definitely something to talk about after the show. Should it be ignored? Does it provide an opportunity to improvise and play with the tension felt both by the spectators and the performers?
Funnily enough, whilst performing children’s theatre, the one thing we immediately noticed was how vocal young audiences can be during shows. You know if they’re hooked as there is often a running commentary of reactions, whether it is through sheer delight or wide eyed concern. However, it is evidence that they are in the moment. Their attention may wander or a character may make them nervous but they are receptive. If they were playing on a Nintendo DS it might be another matter!
I was acutely aware that as soon as the lights signified an interval in Blood Brothers, the majority of people in sight instantly reached to turn on their phones. People seem to feel compelled to take photos, while others text or live tweet throughout shows. It may sound old fashioned, but wouldn’t it be nice if, for just a few hours, we could stop trying to be elsewhere and just appreciate a performance, in the moment (preferably without the loud munching too)?