A new performance in the making 'read-a-long'

Sitting in the circle of a theatre is often, despite its height, looked down upon. The further one gets away from the stage, the further one has to try to understand the characters more – possibly straining to hear what is being said, and the cheaper those seats become. Little do we remember that through time and history the stalls have gone from a rotten rabble to the civilised privileged folk. However much the times have changed, the circle and beyond doesn’t always make for the best viewing of theatre, unless of course you’re not there for the performance, but rather the audience.

It is common knowledge to those who choose to pick up on it (generally in my twitter feed) that when I am not sitting as an audience member, sitting as a member of press or sitting at a desk doing marketing, that I actually am a wonderful Front of House Usher. It’s a position I have done in numerous theatres over numerous years, and whilst it is not my ideal choice of career it pays, and is flexible enough to keep me going back.

As an usher, I have sat through many a performance including three months of We Will Rock You (if I ever hear another Queen song again…), and have over my time witnessed all forms of the general public. They are a fascinating breed of mammals. Constantly evolving from race, sexuality, rich to poor – whatever form of life they may be – to come to the theatre and be whisked away to another world.

Sitting in the circle of the theatre tonight, half watching, observing the performance, and half an eye scanning those I am responsible in the audience – an unsightly thing took me off guard. Dotted around the audience in the stalls (this performance is in-the-round, and thus I can see half the audience comfortably), are 4 people not paying attention to the action being played out within meters of them, but instead their eyes fixed to their programmes.

Perhaps it is a momentarily glance to figure out where they have seen that actor before, or maybe to check the running time. This doesn’t appear to be quite so true when several minutes later, I spot the same audience members still with their head firmly in their books. Ah, the penny drops. Accompanied with the programme notes is the play text, and these audience members are following the actors in the script. Yes, they turn the page at the same time, and indeed are reading what is being said.

What a strange occurrence – that so many people feel obliged to read along, as if by buying a programme/play text they are actually being given a chance to ‘read-a-long’ – a more internal version of a ‘sing-a-long’ production. What I really don’t understand is why someone would feel the need to do such a thing, especially when sitting in the stalls and being within spitting distance of the actors. Surely it is just rude?

I gave it careful thought when observing these people from the circle as to their reasoning behind such actions. They are as follows:

1. When giving a play text and a live performance they can’t help but to read the dialogue at the same time.
2. They are struggling to understand what is being said, and thus creating ‘subtitles’.
3. It is a game. Spot where the actor makes a mistake.
4. Unofficial prompter should a bout of memory loss strike the cast.
5. Not enjoying themselves, and thus attempting to work out how long until the interval to cut their losses and go home.

I doubt any of the above are actually true, but to be honest, I’m struck stupid as to why someone would do this. Maybe ushers such as myself need to encourage people to put away their play texts at the beginning of each act, and to focus on the main action instead. Afterall, despite paying for the programme, you’ve mostly paid for the performance in front of your eyes – so get bloody watching it. Stupid.

The circle of a theatre isn’t just about a poorer view – it is sometimes about what you’re not meant to be looking at, notably those other audience members. What other habits can you spot other than the dreaded ‘read-a-long’ productions being formed down in the stalls?

Photo by Matthew Newton/NH Film Office. See their Flickr account here for more photos.