Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A Few Thoughts on Theatre Etiquette

Four very successful performances of The Taming of the Shrew were punctuated by a few not-so-successful audience members last weekend. A couple of specific instances prompted this writing.

On Thursday night, a father and mother brought their two-year-old son to see the show. They sat on an aisle only a few rows from the stage. The boy chattered and wiggled incessantly throughout the first act, barely contained by his father. The mother was not much of an example, answering her phone no fewer than six times during the show. To her credit(?), she had the decency to mutter "I'm at a show" and walk out of the theatre to continue her conversations, but one wonders why she couldn't have turned her phone off when the house manager instructed everyone to do so before we started.

Please don't mistake this for an anti-kids-at-serious-theatre rant. I love children in the audience, and often play my asides directly to them. And there's enough slapstick and silliness in this production of Shrew that children are often laughing the loudest midway through the second act.

But wiggly-boy was so disruptive to both players and audience that one actor felt compelled to direct his every line about someone being silent at the offending child and father. The father, first oblivious then mortally offended, was heard complaining on his way out after the show that "it isn't a crime to bring a two-year-old to the theatre."

Well, maybe it isn't a crime in this place and era. But it is without doubt an appalling lack of any kind of judgment, indescribably thoughtless and inexcusably selfish. Perhaps a refresher course is in order. I have arranged my thoughts in bullet points to facilitate efficacious learning! The "We" referred to is the cast of any stage performance.

  • We are not TV. We can hear your two-year-old; the acoustics in theatre spaces are very good. We can hear your phone ring, we can hear your candy wrapper, and we can hear your conversation. We are trying very hard to put on a great show for you, and your two-year-old is making it much more difficult. Why not take him out to run around in the gardens for a while until he calms down?
  • The theatre is not your living room. The other audience members are even closer to your child than we are, and they are almost certainly even more disrupted. It could be argued that the fact that they paid money to see the show is even more compelling reason than actor-disruption for you to leave your child at home. Or at least to take him out to run around in the gardens for a while until he calms down.
  • We are in the middle of our job. You know that big presentation you had last month? We have that too, but it's presented four to six nights a week. What would your presentation have been like with a two-year-old babbling and shrieking in the corner of the board room? What would your everyday work be like with said child running up and down the halls of your office?
  • Shakespeare is not really the best entertainment for two-year-olds. Yes, I know that Shakespeare is universally acknowledged as the greatest dramatist of all time, I know that his plays endure because they appeal to all kinds of people, and I know that he is credited with "the invention of the modern human being." But I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that no two-year-old ever born on this Earth is going to appreciate that. Perhaps you should consider other entertainments for the next two or three years. Like a babysitter.
  • Turn off your phone. Not vibrate, not "mosquito"-ring. Off. OFF. This is not negotiable.

Look, I am glad to see every single face in the audience, I truly am. I am incredibly grateful to God and country that I get to do this for a living, and the audience is what makes that possible. But theatre etiquette is not some antiquated idea, it's a set of behaviors existing to make the experience more meaningful for you, the audience. Just please, please remember that there are real people up on that stage and in the seats around you, and that what you and your children do affects them.



  • At 7/10/2006 12:07 AM , Blogger Larry Belew said...

    Hear! Hear! Or should I say, Shhhhh? Karen may remember the night we were in "A Man Called Peter" at The Lamb's Theatre in New York and Mac, our director, had to crawl to a very nice lady in the front row--two feet from the stage--to tell her that she wasn't at the movies and couldn't eat the popcorn she had brought from home. We, on the stage, could hear the crinkle and the crunch as well as smell the popcorn. Live theatre is entertaining for the cast as well as the audience, and we could spend weeks swapping funny stories, but a blatant intrusion is just rude. You might post a minimum age at the box office. Music Theatre of Wichita won't admit anyone younger than five, except at special matinees targeting children. Then they only go down to three.

  • At 7/10/2006 8:29 AM , Blogger Wayne Conners said...

    I was in the audience that night, and I watched in astonishment as Mom and Dad brought in not only the two-year-old, but several other children as well who I thought were too young to handle Shakespeare. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised...the other kids were fine. However, several times I found myself watching Dad handle squirming Junior and whispering to myself, "Take him out of here...take him OUT of here!" I wanted to applaud when Foster Solomon spoke to them. I'm all for taking children to the theatre, but *very* young kids should be started off with something a little more age-appropriate.

    I thought "Shrew" was wonderfully done. My fifteen year-old daughter almost came out of her chair during Kate's speech about how a woman should relate to her husband (I could actually hear her growling!), but she understands the background and culture of the time, so she calmed down quickly. We all enjoyed it very much.

  • At 7/15/2006 10:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    It's outdoor theatre. It's also supposed to be Elizabethan theatre. I think it's something to be expected and used. The Elizabethans actors certainly did.

  • At 7/16/2006 5:54 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Ture. However, very few modern actors have the training to cope with such disruption in the manner of Elizabethan players; furthermore, next to no modern audience members can shrug off an unruly and uncontrolled child with the thought, "Ah, this is just like Elizabethan theatre!"

  • At 8/26/2006 2:46 PM , Anonymous Brad said...

    Imagine that. Someone (the father) who has lines of a play directed at them in a purposefully rude manner and he walks out offended. Well, you got your wish: that father will NEVER come to a piece of theatre again. And neither will the children because they will not have had the spark moment as a kid that made them fall in love with theatre. Because YOU have kicked them out.

    Actors are like a zookeeper that hates his job. Every day he arrives to work and says, "Aw man! The animals POOPED again!" You know what: animals will always poop and zookeepers will always have to clean it up. IT'S A PART OF THE JOB. People are always going to have cell phones, babies will always cry, candy will always be unwrapped. Go out every night knowing this, expecting this, and LOVING this or you will ALWAYS be disappointed.

    You say actors don't have the training. That's because the training sucks. It trains actors to need quiet to concentrate. It trains actors to fear disruption to truly "feel." Those do make for good performances in quiet theatres...but guess how often that is NOT the case.

    Richmond Shakespeare advertises itself as renewed Shakespeare: quick and fast and enjoyable. Your true test is if you can keep a kid still. I guess you didn't. So Shakespeare still ain't back to pleasing the groundlings.

    But if you keep discouraging children, parents, coughing people, people that own cell phones, and anyone else capable of--Allah forbid--having a functioning body during a show it won't be long before theatre will be something for the elite to enjoy. (It's already well on its way.) Not because the elite like it, but because they feel educated to say they enjoy it. And the company feels like they are providing some sort of service when they create Shakespeare for all when they only want the same boring crowd to attend.

    Theatre is improvisation. Every night. Deal with it.

    You wanna be "respected"? People ATTENDING is the first sign of that. Insulting them while they are there is what is appalling.

    And you know what? You did nothing to make the situation more comfortable for the other audience members. I'm sure they walked out with the same complaints as the actors...because your improvisation turned into insults of the family rather than laughing with the situation to make EVERYONE enjoy themselves. That audience should have walked out talking about how amazing it was how the actors dealt with the situation.

    The actor’s objective is to keep the audience entertained. You lost sight of this. You should go out every night thinking, "Bring em on. I'm THAT good."

    I bet no one enjoyed themselves that evening. And you can blame yourselves for that.

    The only reason I am so belligerently upset about this is because I ONCE FELT THIS WAY. I once made these same fascist remarks only I demanded more strictness than even Andrew. I now see that this train of thinking is what's killing theatre.

    Richmond Shakespeare has low ticket prices. Raise them if you want to have your "well-behaved audience. And don't admit kids. And have a strip search to hold cell phones at the front of house. Ask audiences members to leave who are disruptive and cheer when they leave.

    And those of you who still agree with Andrew's manifesto, I'll see you at the book burning.

  • At 9/05/2006 5:12 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Thank you, Brad. I couldn't have said it better myself...


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