The first act of Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth had gone well and the audience was riveted as usual. The curtain fell to enthusiastic applause and the crowd ebbed from the auditorium into the theatre’s café and bar. Fifteen minutes later, the curtain rose and silence fell except for the voices of the actors.
And then it all went to hell.
In row Q a man jumped to his feet and shouted, ‘I fell asleep. Start it over!’
Star T.P. McKenna said, ‘Well, I’ve never seen such rudeness in the theatre!’ and walked off the stage. Donal Donnelly, playing Milo, followed. The ‘gentleman’ (I use the term loosely) was escorted from the theatre, and the second act was eventually restarted – after the cast had been persuaded to resume.
It’s not the only time I’ve seen appalling behaviour at the theatre but it was the first and so sticks in my memory. I was seventeen and it was my first job. I thought of theatres as cathedrals and I was appalled that anyone would dare to sully their holiness.
It was a romantic view of course and I have, for the most part, outgrown it. Several years working in the theatre and seeing the rudest behaviour some of its patrons can offer will do that to you, the way Allen Ginsberg’s poetry can cure you of Wordsworth.
I had already completed the first draft of this blog when a report in last night’s Evening Standard caught my attention. Since the events discussed fit exactly into my theme, I’m going to address it here.
The newspaper report concerns an autistic boy who was allegedly ejected from Wicked at the Apollo Victoria due to making too much noise.
When you state it baldly like that it seems outrageous: what gives any theatre the gall to behave so cruelly to a child with a disability? But hold on, maybe the story as reported only offers one view point.
The Evening Standard article opens by saying the Apollo Victoria staff ‘ejected’ the boy for making too much noise. Then you get to the next paragraph and it emerges that the
staff first offered alternative seating behind a glass screen at the back of the stalls. Now, okay; I’ve been to the Apollo Victoria on a number of occasions, and I’ll grant you my focus has tended to be on the show or on the line to the loo, but I’ve never seen such a screen as this. Perhaps it’s not a permanent structure but is brought out for moments such as these: you don’t want to deprive a disabled person of their entertainment, nor do you want the
In any event, according to the family’s facebook account (they have set up a group called ‘wicked discrimination’) the glass partition wasn’t a solution. ‘I struggled to see over it’ the father reports. This puzzles me: if it’s glass wouldn’t you see through it? What am I missing? In any event, this solution was rejected and according to the paper, the family were then asked to sit on the steps away from other patrons. Was this the theatre’s
choice or the family’s? We aren’t told.
I should add that I have spent several years working amongst the intellectually disabled and I find them to be just as good, bad, happy, sad, kind, arrogant, thoughtful and annoying as the rest of us. They are, in short, individuals and they should be treated as such. But let’s not kid ourselves, some of the intellectually disabled can be fractious and disruptive. Though this boy’s father claims his son was not behaving inappropriately there must have been some reason the front of house staff approached the family fifteen
minutes into the show. The chief complainant, according to the family, was the Apollo Victoria’s ‘precious sound engineer.’ This may be the case, but until someone asks his side of the story, I’m going to withhold judgement.
All of which brings me to my point: where does the individual’s right to an evening’s entertainment end, and the responsibility the theatre has to the rest of the audience (and the cast) begin? I suspect most regular theatre goers feel in general theatres are far too lax in how they handle disruptions.
As an example, last year I went to see Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime in Blackpool. The play is
a piece of Oscar Wilde froth and the matinee crowd was of the blue-hair-rinse variety. I
suspect if they’d have shown up en masse at a recording of the Good Old Days and you wouldn’t have spotted a difference. The only exception to this group was the obnoxious granny in the dress circle.
About five minutes after the curtain opened, granny’s phone went off. It was loud. Very. It rang and it rang and it rang until whoever was calling gave up. Obnoxious Granny didn’t notice. She was too busy swilling something from a bottle.
Peace, of sorts, resumed then about five minutes later it began again. The young man with her – I can only assume it was her son – tried to urge her to turn it off.
‘WHAT?’ she roared.
He tried to hush her.
A loud conversation ensued. He hissed at her to be quiet; she screamed abuse back. Eventually he moved to another seat but she began to shout at him.
Then the phone went off again.
This continued for around twenty minutes. Finally, an usher arrived and tried through gritted teeth to point out that she was disturbing the entire show. She swore at him (loudly) and he left.
Through all of this the show went on. The cast, more power to them, seemed unfazed and didn’t miss a line or a beat. How much of their steadfast performance the audience actually got to hear is doubtful, though.
At the interval I spoke with the theatre manager. They had called the police and obnoxious granny had been removed. It’s a difficult call, the manager told me. You want to keep the show going – especially when you’ve got a matinee to finish in time so the cast can rest up before the evening performance. And most patrons will respond to a reminder that their behaviour is unacceptable. Though not always, obviously.
It’s a tough balancing act. Theatre staff approach a disruptive individual and hope that they will cooperate, but if they don’t it’s likely the disruption will escalate. At this stage, you run the risk of having to stop the show while the matter is being dealt with. On the other hand, if you just ignore the picture-taking, mobile-talking, loud conversationalists,
you’re forcing at least some of your audience to sit through a spoiled evening.
In a situation such as the one in Blackpool, the theatre staff probably felt they were risking the obnoxious granny taking legal action against them if they forcibly removed her. Personally, I feel the show should have stopped while the matter was dealt with and if that meant waiting till the police came and ejected her, then so be it.
It’s sad that a boy and his father had to leave Wicked, a show that is, after all, about
acceptance and overcoming bigotry. If the other patrons were, indeed, undisturbed by the boy’s behaviour; if the only complainant was in fact a ‘precious’ sound engineer; if leaving was indeed the only choice offered, then yes, the matter was badly mishandled.
A lot of people, used to modern televisions that allow you to pause and rewind so you never miss a thing, don’t seem to realise that a theatre isn’t like that. There are no ‘do-overs’. They also seem to forget that they’re not on their own, in their living rooms.
Which brings me to the following plebeians’ guide for proper theatre etiquette:
DON’T remove items of clothing. These include shoes, socks, shirts or items of underwear. Don’t laugh; I’ve seen it happen. Take off your coat or jacket if you must but don’t drape it over the back of the seat in front unless no one is sitting there. If it’s wet, check it into the cloakroom. If you put it onto the seat beside you ‘to air’ until the next patron arrives,
they won’t thank you for having to sit on a wet seat. Same thing applies to wet bags and umbrellas.
DON’T continue your conversation after the curtain rises. The theatre is not your living room. People – including the cast as well as your fellow patrons – can hear you. And guess what, they don’t care what you think!
DON’T treat the theatre as a restaurant / café / pub. No one wants your curry and chips in their noses while Hamlet’s pouring his heart out. Likewise, your cans of lager, bottles of brandy or oversized tubs of soda are just asking to spill over and drench the poor sod sat next to you. If you absolutely must eat sweets, make them of the non-noisy-wrapper-non-crunchy variety. Phantom of the Opera doesn’t need your chopping or crackling as tympani.
DON’T go to the show if you are ill. I know you’ve waited three months to see Much Ado About Nothing and the tickets are as rare as subtlety in an Arnold Schwarzenegger
performance, but your endless coughing, sneezing or, worse, vomiting, will make
for a memorable theatre experience in an opposite to good way.
DON’T go to the theatre if you’re drunk, stoned or knackered. Snoring is frowned upon in most theatrical establishments. Projectile vomiting even more so. Really.
DON’T heckle. Unless you’re at one of those comedy clubs where it’s expected, heckling is not considered the done thing in the theatre. Of course you’re disappointed if your favourite actor is sick or on holiday on the day you were planning on seeing him, but give his understudy a chance. He may surprise you. Likewise, don’t take your personal animus against a particular cast member into the theatre. One sweet young thing recently tweeted
that she planned to shout, ‘I hope you die!’ when a certain cast member made his entrance. I hope decorum prevailed and she kept her mouth shut.
DON’T use electronic gizmos. If the world really cannot survive without your continued monitoring via e-mail, twitter, or mobile, then perhaps it’s not worth the risk of your being momentarily distracted by the show. Stay at home, will you, please? OR TURN THE RUDDY THINGS OFF!
DO bathe before you go to the theatre – well, out in public at all, really. And please change your clothes. And don’t assume three bottles of birthday cologne will disguise the aroma. It won’t, you know.
DO make an attempt to go to the toilet before the show starts or during the intermission, especially if you’re sat in the middle of the row. If you have a persistent bladder problem and need to go to the loo fairly frequently cut down on your fluids before the show, and try to sit on, or close to the aisle.
DO go to the theatre even if you have a handicap of some sort. Most theatres will welcome you with open arms.
Just don’t annoy the sound engineer.